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Instantaneous Change and the Physics of Sanctification: "Quasi-Aristotelianism" in Henry of Ghent's Quodlibet XV q. 13
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Journal of the History of Philosophy 40.1 (2002) 19-46

IN QUESTION 13 of his fifteenth Quodlibet, Henry of Ghent (d. 1293) offered what became, in his day, a highly controversial answer to the question of whether the Virgin Mary was born immaculate. He argued that she was not, but that original sin existed in her soul only at the first instant of her existence. This rather inventive position was almost unanimously rejected by Henry's contemporaries and successors. Interestingly, however, they discounted his position not because they thought it was theologically unorthodox, but because they found it philosophically untenable. His readers commonly thought that his solution entailed the absurd consequence that Mary was in sin and in grace at the same instant.

Question 13 has not received any kind of detailed analysis by contemporary scholars. This is surprising since Henry of Ghent's answer to this question not only gained notoriety among medieval theologians, but has been identified by modern scholars such as Simo Knuuttila, Norman Kretzmann, and Stephen Dumont as the possible origin of an unusual theory of change commonly referred to as "quasi-Aristotelianism." This label was coined by Kretzmann to describe a fourteenth-century account of change that makes use of an un-Aristotelian notion of instantaneous transition between contradictory conditions. One of the most notable features of the quasi-Aristotelian account of instantaneous transition is that it entails that contradictory conditions obtain in one object at the same temporal instant. Henry of Ghent's Quodlibet XV, q. 13 has been associated with quasi-Aristotelianism because his account of Mary's instantaneous sanctification was understood by his contemporaries to involve an account of instantaneous transition that entailed the simultaneity of sin and grace in Mary.

In this paper I have two aims. First, to show why Henry's position is not quasi-Aristotelian -- at least not in Kretzmann's sense of the term. Henry's argument in q. 13 does not involve the claim that sin and grace were simultaneously present in Mary. This is not to say, however, that Henry's position is in any sense conventional. In fact, my second and primary aim is to show how Henry's attempt to argue for the possibility of Mary's being in sin only at an instant forces him to defend claims which were equally controversial and out of keeping with standard medieval interpretations of Aristotle's Physics. In q. 13 Henry argues for the possibility of continuous reverse motion, and, as a corollary, he defends the claim that a permanent form may exist at a single instant. Now insofar as these claims are themselves un-Aristotelian there is a sense, albeit a different sense, in which we may still apply the term "quasi-Aristotelian" to Henry's solution to q. 13. Thus while Henry's discussion turns out not to involve the affirmation of contradictories obtaining at the same time in the same subject, what it does involve is equally extreme: the modification of Aristotelian physics to allow for continuous reverse motion and the extension of scholastic Aristotelian ontology to include transitory permanent forms.

Much of what is innovative and controversial about Henry's q. 13 has to do with what it contributes to discussions in medieval physics. Nonetheless, the context for this discussion is a strictly theological issue, namely: Whether the Virgin Mary was conceived immaculately. In Henry's day this question was a matter of utmost importance and controversy. Indeed, by the thirteenth century, many of Paris's finest philosophers and theologians had become involved in the debate over this issue. Before turning to the specifically philosophical issues raised by q. 13, therefore, we need to begin by briefly examining the nature and origin of this controversy over Mary's Immaculate Conception.

1. Historical Setting: The Marian Debate

The medieval debate over Mary's conception appears to have been kindled by a controversy over the popular practice of celebrating a feast in honor of St. Anne's conception of Mary. Initially, the feast was celebrated merely in honor of the event of Mary's conception and did not specifically represent that conception as immaculate. Only when a Benedictine monk, Eadmer of Canterbury...



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