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Journal of the History of Philosophy 39.4 (2001) 585-587

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Chumaru Koyama, editor. Nature in Medieval Thought: Some Approaches East & West. Studien und Texte zur Geistesgeschichte des Mittelalters. Leiden: Brill, 2000. Pp. xiv + 183. Cloth, $65.00.

The subtitle of this volume is misleading. The Japanese scholars represented (Koyama, Y. Iwata, and B. R. Inagaki) were all trained in Western medieval philosophy and are highly respected medievalists. None of the Western contributors is an expert on Eastern philosophy. Even readers familiar with Japan will be hard pressed to find anything characteristically Eastern in any of the contributions.

In the forward provided by the editor and in a preface written by W. Kluxen, we are informed that the volume was the product of two international conferences. Western [End Page 585] and Eastern experts on medieval philosophy were assembled to discuss the problem of "how each human being and humanity as a whole will handle nature in the future" (viii). Both Koyama and Kluxen assume that medieval Europeans conceived essential features of the understanding of "nature" now common to the whole world.

Judging from the essays in the book, we conclude that the volume represents a beginning. There are connections between some of the essays, but the question remains: can the medieval view of nature offer us guidance on how to deal with our environmental crises? In general, one might expect a congenial relationship between ancient Western organic views and Japanese intuitions about nature. Nevertheless, compromise characterizes technological decision-making in both cultures. The challenge posed by radical environmentalists is the adequacy altogether of anthropocentric environmental ethics to save the planet.

The essay by Iwata offers an interpretation of natural teleology that is compatible with mechanism and hypothetical necessity. Iwata suggests that art that pursues its own ends and not as an imitation of nature can be the source of environmental crises. Two papers by Kluxen on ethics, nature, and natural law acknowledge major transformations in the Middle Ages, and the challenge he poses is how to reintegrate reason and nature. K. Riesenhuber challenges recent accounts that claim to find in some twelfth-century authors an autonomous interest in nature. While nature as a discipline did not achieve autonomy in the twelfth century, Riesenhuber detects the stirrings of independence, but knowledge of nature remained subordinate to knowledge of God. L. Honnefelder suggests that guidance for our treatment of nature may lie in developing new models for the combination of the Platonic technomorphic with the Aristotelian biomorphic paradigm. Inagaki's paper on original sin and human nature adopts a stance that conforms to the Judeo-Christian tradition of the human break with nature. Whatever the source of that disintegration, the problem described in this way requires first a healing of human nature. The paper by M. M. Adams considers John Duns Scotus's revision of final causality. Scotus distinguished between the perfection of the being that a thing constitutes and the explanatory function of that achievement. On this account, Scotus revised the analysis to secure one sense in which Goodness explains being. The paper provides an example of the sorts of transformations in the medieval view suggested by several of the other contributors.

C. Steel's paper questions the assumptions about the connection between medieval and modern conceptions of nature. Steel adopts a more comprehensive historical perspective. Flawed by its selective reliance on secondary literature, the paper nonetheless represents an important effort to understand our current dilemma from a historical perspective. Steel challenges L. White, Jr.'s now famous claim about the Christian roots of our ecological crisis. Steel overlooks White's appeals to Christian traditions at variance with Christian dualism and to the use of the Bible in the seventeenth century to sanction the study of science as a means to master nature. Steel takes up the vexed question of continuity or discontinuity between medieval philosophy of nature and seventeenth-century science. In the end Steel falls on the side of continuity, yet in a way that can be expressed only dialectically! That is to say, medieval commentaries on...


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