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  • On the Causes of the Properties of the Elements (Liber de causis proprietatem elementorum)
  • Michael W. Tkacz
Albert the Great . On the Causes of the Properties of the Elements (Liber de causis proprietatem elementorum) . Translated by Irven M. Resnick . Medieval Philosophical Texts in Translation, 46. Milwaukee: Marquette University Press, 2010. Pp. 132. Paper, $15.00.

Despite his seminal role in the history of philosophy, the thirteenth century thinker Albert the Great remains little known. Prior to World War II, his massive literary output was not fully analyzed by historians largely because, as Etienne Gilson put it, of the amazing "amount of philosophical and scientific information heaped up in his writings." After the war, Albert's work began to receive more attention. By 1955, the Louvain medievalist Fernand Van Steenberghen could confidently declare that Albert was the first thinker to establish "the rightful place of learning in Christianity." A decade later, James A. Weisheipl uncovered evidence of Albert's distinctively naturalistic interpretation of Aristotle in contrast to the generally Platonic interpretations of his contemporaries. More recently, several studies have disclosed Albert's significance in the revival of Aristotle's scientific research programs and as the first to fully articulate the distinctively Aristotelian conception of form.

Crucial in the development of the scholarly appreciation of Albert's importance has been the focus of recent scholars on his Aristotelian commentaries. It was precisely these works that Gilson found so daunting in their bulk as to "defy analysis." Fortunately, access to these works has improved significantly since Gilson's day. Produced under the direction of Bernhard Geyer, the editio Coloniensis of Albert's works began to appear in 1951. To date, critical Latin editions of a substantial portion of Albert's corpus have been published in this series, including many of the Aristotelian books. In 1980, Paul Hossfeld published the critical Latin edition of Albert's commentary on the pseudo-Aristotelian text on the elements, the text translated in this volume. Working with Kenneth F. Kitchell, Irven Resnick had previously published annotated English versions of Albert's De animalibus and Quaestiones de animalibus, substantially increasing access to the Aristotelian commentaries. [End Page 373]

Albert commented extensively on all of the Aristotelian and pseudo-Aristotelian books. Among the latter is this treatise on elements, which was probably translated into Latin by Gerard of Cremona at Toledo about 1180 from an Arabic source produced in the ninth century. The editor of this Latin version speculates that it was Gerard who attributed the work to Aristotle. Albert's commentary was written sometime between 1251 and 1254 while he was teaching at the Dominican studium at Cologne. Like many of Albert's other Aristotelian commentaries, this is a postilla—that is, a continuous presentation of the source text integrated with interpretative remarks and additions—rather than a typical medieval series of questions or line-by-line explanations. Albert knew that the text translated by Gerard was incomplete and he, therefore, supplied from his own ingenuity what he thought was lacking in an attempt to present a complete account of the subject.

The work concerns the effect of the planets on the elements, and Albert sometimes refers to it in his other commentaries as the De effectibus planetarum in elementis. While the opening tract of the work discusses the elements themselves and their properties in compound bodies, much of the commentary devoted to terrestrial mechanics and geomorphology. Thus, the work is, to a large extent, a treatise on earth science, and Albert seems to have considered the work as extending the accounts given in his De caelo et mundo and De natura loci. The second tract is part of the text that is incomplete in the Arabic exemplar, and, therefore, Albert's commentary is mostly a series of digressions in which he attempts to reconstruct what he takes to be missing. Most of these digressions concern the causes of the rise and fall of the sea. The third tract is devoted to the elements composing the heavens and the finitude of the world. The final tract discusses various terrestrial phenomena including thermal springs and volcanic activity. It also includes a geomorphological account of the causes of mountains...


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