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John of Salisbury on Aristotelian Science by David Bloch (review)

From: Parergon
Volume 30, Number 2, 2013
pp. 166-168 | 10.1353/pgn.2013.0113

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A warning: this book is concerned neither with science in the modern sense nor with Aristotle's scientific works. Its subject is rather: 'Was John acquainted with Aristotle's Posterior Analytics?' This is an important question because John's Metalogicon has been taken as the first reference to Aristotle's text in Western Europe and hence as one of the earliest responses to the flood of Aristotelian translations which revolutionised scholarly life during the Twelfth-Century Renaissance.

The first three chapters are introductory. Until economic necessity forced him into paid employment as the clerical equivalent of a public servant and diplomat, John enjoyed the privilege of studying for an extended period under the most eminent scholars of his time. His account of his studies in Paris and Chartres is a key text for our knowledge of education at the cutting edge of the Twelfth-Century Renaissance. David Bloch concludes that John became well versed in the trivium and, to a limited extent, theology, but paid little attention to the more scientific disciplines of the quadrivium.

In the Metalogicon, John argues that the Aristotelian Organon (the logical works) should be the basis of the educational curriculum. The early twelfth-century revival of Aristotelian logic relied on the Boethian translations but the Posterior Analytics had to wait for James of Venice's translation, to which Bloch ascribes a relatively early date of c. 1130. By 1159, John was also acquainted with a second translation, by an anonymous John, since he cites variations between the two. He shows no knowledge of Aristotle's other works, though he was obviously well schooled in the Latin tradition of his day. Plato, Cicero, and Macrobius figure along with others in the Policraticus but are largely irrelevant to the concerns of the Metalogicon. A few relevant Arabic works were probably available but there is no evidence that John was familiar with them.

The early twelfth-century view of knowledge, including logic and science, remained a largely Augustinian Neoplatonic one in which man needed the gift of grace in order to approach God, which is truth. Aristotle held truth to arise through logical processes from reliable sense experience. The logical process in question is that of demonstration, which produces certain knowledge, as opposed to the probable knowledge produced by dialectic. The Posterior Analytics sets forth the method of demonstration. Traces of the Aristotelian view were already available, particularly in Boethius, Cicero, Euclid, and the Alexandrian material.

The main chapter, entitled 'John of Salisbury on Science', takes up half the book. Bloch subjects the Metalogicon to a detailed analysis in terms of John's understanding of Aristotelian theories of knowledge in general and the Posterior Analytics in particular. He concludes that John had probably never read the entire work and if he had, he had failed to understand it properly. Bloch suggests rather that John was drawing on his Paris studies of the 1140s, at which point the logica nova had barely commenced, and on the compendia of which he has been shown elsewhere to be so fond. John himself bitterly lamented that his busy life left him little time for philosophical studies. Thus the Metalogicon should be seen more as a reflection of the learning of the early twelfth century than as a precursor to that of the thirteenth.

The Metalogicon begins by attacking the Cornificians whom John claims maintain that study is useless since winning arguments is all that matters. The treatise itself is a defence of logic as the basis for the pursuit of knowledge. John declares himself a Ciceronian Academic Sceptic, by which he means that while some things must be accepted as true, most knowledge is probabilistic and hence open to question. The identity, and indeed existence, of the Cornificians has been a subject of much speculation. In an appendix, Bloch supports the thesis that it is a distortion of the teachings of Adam of Balsham, the English Paris master more commonly referred to as Adamus Parvipontus (Adam du Petit Pont or Adam of the Little Bridge).

A useful little second appendix lists the texts referred to in Thierry of Chartres's Heptateuchon, a key twelfth-century text sadly lost during the Second World...

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