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  • The Plurality of Substantial Forms in John Pecham
  • Caleb Glenn Colley (bio)

John Pecham was a Franciscan theologian who took both a strongly anti-Thomist position and a strongly anti-Averroist position in late-13th-century debates in philosophy of mind. Following a successful career as a theologian, Pecham was Archbishop of Canterbury from 1279 until his death in 1292. Pecham is one of a number of Franciscan philosophers who advocated for what has become known as the “Binarium Famosissimum,” or the two famous and related doctrines of the plurality of forms and universal hylomorphism.1 These two doctrines were vigorously opposed by Thomas Aquinas. They had a history prior to the 13th century, with an embryonic presence in the work of Augustine and then fuller expression in Avicebron and his translator/interpreter Dominicus Gundissalinus. The traditional view of the scholarship has been that Avicebron and Gundissalinus were the primary inspiration for the 13th-century emphasis on these doctrines, although a recent doctoral dissertation by Michael B. Sullivan has claimed that Augustine is the inspiration for 13th-century teaching in support of spiritual matter.2 Yet in Sullivan’s discussion of Pecham in particular, we find the Binarium Famosissimum have been artificially separated. Furthermore, Sullivan leaves out the direct relevance of the doctrines to the theological controversies that were pressing in the 13th century and which provided motivation for the doctrines.

Here, I will argue based on Pecham’s texts3 that one cannot properly understand Pecham’s doctrine of spiritual matter (and why he would vigorously [End Page 59] oppose Aquinas’ doctrine of matter) without taking into account the larger philosophical and theological context, which includes the plurality of forms debate. It will become clear that (1) Sullivan’s emphasis on Augustine’s influence must be significantly qualified; (2) It is possible to develop a more complete understanding of Pecham according to which his views are more fully motivated and relevant to his historical context.

Sullivan’s Discussion

Sullivan’s discussion of spiritual matter includes a summarization of some of Pecham’s passages on spiritual matter. Sullivan rightly emphasizes some aspects of Pecham’s writing on the subject, particularly Pecham’s connection to Bonaventure. These aspects include the following:

Pecham argues for spiritual matter based on the soul as a moving principle. Pecham cites what he takes to be Plato’s doctrine: “the soul moves itself and that movement is continuous.”4

Pecham argues that the corporeal body cannot be the principle that individuates the soul, since the soul retains its individuality even when [End Page 60] separated from the body. That is, matter must have already played a role in individuating the spiritual substance, independent of the body.5

Pecham argues that matter could possibly exist without form.6

Pecham argues that the genus of substance is divided into spiritual and corporeal substances, and that all substances must be composed of matter and form.7

Pecham assumes the Boethian authenticity of the Gundissalinus text De Unitate et Uno.8

In this report of what Sullivan includes in his brief discussion of Pecham, I have provided citations from a number of Pecham texts. Sullivan, however, actually cites only three Pecham passages—one from the Commentary on the Sentences, one from the fourth Quodlibet [Romanum], and one from the Tractatus De Anima. This limited reading gives very little attention to the Tractatus and no attention to Pecham’s Summa De Ente et Essentia or Quaestiones De Anima. The rationale behind the limited nature of Sullivan’s reading would seem to be the fact that Sullivan’s project is oriented toward presenting Augustine as the leading inspiration for the doctrine of spiritual matter in the 13th century. In fact, despite what Sullivan says, Avicebron (through his translator and interpreter Gundissalinus) must be considered the primary source for the Binarium Famosissimum.9 But one cannot understand Pecham’s doctrine [End Page 61] of spiritual matter without taking into account the larger philosophical and theological context of his writing, which is highlighted by the plurality of forms debate.

Pecham’s Doctrines of Spiritual Matter and the Plurality of Forms

Pecham believes in universal hylomorphism. One cannot believe in universal hylomorphism without believing...


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