- Anneliese Maier and the Study of Medieval Philosophy Today
in 1936, at a time of rapid decline in German academia, the Prussian Academy of Science sent Anneliese Maier to Rome, mandating her with a research project on Leibniz letters in Italian libraries. The young historian of philosophy, who had written her dissertation on Kant’s theory of the categories, dutifully established a list with extant letters.1 But she did not become a Leibniz scholar. Nor did she continue her studies on Kant. She delved into the unexplored world of Italian manuscripts dealing with medieval philosophy and decided to spend her entire intellectual life in this world. Leaving Germany for good, she settled in Rome and worked in the Vatican Libraries, reading and writing there until she died in 1971.2 She published a monumental five-volume study of late scholastic natural philosophy (Studien zur Naturphilosophie der Spätscholastik, 1949–58), an equally monumental three-volume collection of essays (Ausgehendes Mittelalter, 1964–67), and other articles, text editions, and manuscript catalogues.3 Despite her extraordinary achievements, she never obtained a regular professorial position in a German or Italian university.4 Using Virginia Woolf’s famous words, one could say that she had no room of her own, at least no institutional room.
What makes her work so remarkable? First of all, the choice of topics. At a time when Neo-Thomism was thriving and many scholars were concerned with problems in Thomistic metaphysics, such as the relationship between essence [End Page 173] and existence or the proofs for God’s existence, she showed no interest in these issues. She rather focused on problems in philosophy of nature: motion, change, time, causation, and the structure of material things. In fact, in one of her first publications she made clear that “in every period and every tradition it was the conception of the essence of a material substance that established the basis upon which ideas about inorganic nature and its processes were built.”5 Hence it was her aim to understand how medieval authors dealt with seemingly simple things such as sticks and stones. What was their account of the inner constitution of these things? How did they analyze their perceivable features? And how did they explain simple phenomena we observe in daily life, for instance, the fact that stones fall when we drop them? These questions may seem less exciting than those about such lofty things as God and the immaterial soul, but they are of crucial importance, as Maier unfailingly noticed, and must not be ignored. For it is precisely the explanation of simple material things that reveals a general metaphysical view of the world—a view that relies upon concepts that need to be spelled out. Maier not only provided a detailed analysis of these concepts but also pointed out that there are conflicts in the medieval view of the world. For instance, she showed that scholastic authors were struggling with two hardly compatible doctrines when explaining the inner structure of material things.6 On the one hand, they referred to four basic elements and claimed that all things, including their qualities, can be explained in terms of a mixture of elements. On the other hand, they appealed to form and matter and held, following Aristotle, that all things can be explained as hylomorphic compounds. But how are elements related to form and matter? Are elements also to be analyzed as compounds of form and matter? Why then are they basic if they consist of more basic items? In discussing these questions, scholastic authors realized that there is a tension between the materialist doctrine of elements and hylomorphism and that one cannot dissolve this tension without modifying one of the two theories or both. It was precisely their struggle with this tension that led to a transformation of traditional theories.
What makes Maier’s analysis so original and still fascinating is her detailed argument that it was an internal transformation of existing theories, above all of hylomorphism, that gave rise to new ideas about the inner constitution of material things. Medieval commentators did not simply spell out the Aristotelian theory but radically changed it by...