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Logic, Theology, and Poetry in Boethius, Abelard, and Alan of Lille: Words in the Absence of Things (review)

From: Journal of the History of Philosophy
Volume 45, Number 2, April 2007
pp. 327-328 | 10.1353/hph.2007.0042

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Boethius, Abelard, and Alan of Lille all crystallized their thoughts in poetry as much as in prose. In seeking to condense their achievement into a slim monograph, Sweeney synthesizes much thought into relatively few pages. Her ambition pays off.

Her opening chapter on Boethius provides an excellent foundation for the monograph as a whole. She presents a philosopher capable moving from dense logical analysis to poetic reflection on the distance between fortune and providence. Her method of focusing on the multiple perspectives through which Boethius reflects on reality—whether by examining Porphyry and Aristotle on predicables, categories, and their interpretation, or by reflecting on orthodox Christian doctrine—enables her to move across his literary output with remarkable ease. Whether in relation to ordinary language, or theological discourse, she considers how Boethius draws attention to the distinction between words and things, so as to better understand how one leads to the other. Sweeney's compact style demands that she does not waste words on the nature of Boethius's rewriting of Augustinian semantics. She nonetheless makes eminently clear how Aristotle enables Boethius not just to connect words, thoughts, and things, but to steer a balanced path between a vision of the world as governed either by determinism or by chance. She then shows how Boethius steers a similarly balanced path between competing positions in the sphere of theology. Her reading of the Consolation picks up on Boethius's images of classical heroes, often passed over in purely philosophical summaries. Rather than claiming that Boethius reverts to philosophical paganism in this work, she sees him as struggling to portray the limits of human reason, in its search for a transcendent understanding.

Sweeney presents Abelard in very different terms, as someone whose literary output is characterized by a continuous move away from the Boethian ideal of integration. She considers the unifying theme in Abelard's diverse output to be a continuous suspicion towards outward forms, whether verbal or institutional, so as to move more closely towards an inner authenticity. Her willingness to move across a wide range of issues and literary genres—whether commenting on Abelard's understanding of universal terms, or on his poetic Laments for Heloise and the Paraclete—lifts her reading above much analytic discussion of specific issues (like that of universals) that dominates contemporary philosophical discussion of Abelard, inevitably focusing on just a few texts. Her reading exposes the continuous effort of Abelard to highlight the disjunction between words and what we might initially think they might mean. Perhaps the figure with whom Abelard engages even more than Boethius is Augustine, whose presence never quite gets the attention from Sweeney for which one might wish. Augustine's voice is the unidentified shadow over many of the themes in this book. Yet Sweeney's compact style is intended to offer ideas rather than full historical background. A short review can only commend her willingness to move from analytic to literary reflection on some of Abelard's most intense writing, the Laments, in which he focuses on the tragic experience of a range of Biblical heroes and heroines. While still living in expectation of a heavenly Jerusalem, Abelard dwells on its distance, rather than its proximity.

Of the three figures in her study, Alan of Lille is perhaps the most difficult to access, by virtue of the density and formalism of his writing. While Sweeney comments only briefly on Alan's debt to Gilbert of Poitiers, her central insight is that Alan is reformulating the Boethian project in reflecting on fundamental axioms of theology, but with the tools of poetry. Sweeney considers Alan's focus on grammatical figures as a means of accessing both moral and divine truths to be part of a broader vision of how theological discourse shifts words from their normal meaning. While acknowledging Alan's commitment to poetry, she reads his linguistic pyrotechnics as a deliberate attempt to jolt the reader out of familiarity with normal language. By focusing so much on problems of predication, Sweeney perhaps does less than full justice to the role of nature in Alan's thought. Alan seeks to reconcile Platonic reflection on nature and a Ciceronian sense of the virtues with...

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