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  • Chaucer, Kant, and Continental Materialism
  • Manish Sharma (bio)

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Although Geoffrey Chaucer is often still accorded the status of "father of English poetry," even his earliest readers detected in his writing a sensitive attunement to philosophical problems.1 Nevertheless, it would be surprising today to see his name grouped with medieval philosophers, such as Thomas Aquinas, Duns Scotus, and William of Ockham, rather than associated with medieval poets, such as his fourteenth-century contemporaries, John Gower, William Langland, and the Pearl Poet. In fact, Chaucer discourages us from considering him as a philosopher, insisting on a number of occasions that the subtle questions of philosophy are the province only of the university-trained "clerk" (scholar), not the layperson or dilettante.2 He represents himself instead as a theoretical expert on love, though one comically unsuited to the practicalities of the erotic game because of his socially maladjusted, bumbling, bookish manner and portly figure.3 What I will argue in this essay is that the Chaucerian conception of love is in fact an important, if so far unremarked, intervention into late fourteenth-century thought, and one that has significant implications for post-medieval philosophy. In order to prosecute this argument, I will first interpret anew what is widely acclaimed as Chaucer's chef d'oeuvre, the Nun's Priest's Tale from the Canterbury Tales. I will then turn to the Franklin's Tale and read it in light of the Nun's Priest's Tale. Finally, I will rely on both of these readings to stage encounters between Chaucer and a series of Continental thinkers, from Immanuel Kant to François Laruelle, with whom he has unexpected affinities.

Chaucer was born around the mid-point of the fourteenth century in England, a time of great intellectual ferment, characterized particularly by the debate between the realists, whose chief medieval proponent was Thomas Aquinas, and the nominalists, whose chief medieval proponent was William of Ockham. Though scholars have attempted to assimilate Chaucer's poetry to one or both of these camps, I believe these attempts are misguided.4 In the Canterbury Tales there is evidence that Chaucer has generated an alternative position that has so far, and perhaps unavoidably, eluded notice. In what follows, I will make the case that the Nun's Priest's Tale serves as Chaucer's Logic and the Franklin's Tale as his Ethics.

I can only elucidate Chaucer's intervention into his intellectual milieu by means of a strategic reductionism that largely passes over the vast complexity of the Canterbury Tales: the dazzling profusion of voices, genres, themes, echoes, and intertexts with which they have confronted and delighted readers since their first circulation. I propose instead to reduce the Canterbury Tales to only two elements, form and matter, and only two relations, formalist and materialist. This strategy entails one complication: some relations can serve recursively as elements of other, higher-order relations.

Though they go by many names, form and matter are the atomic constituents of philosophy. Form is the principle of order, universality, spirituality, intelligibility, actuality, identity, and necessity. In the Western intellectual tradition, form is almost always gendered masculine.5 Matter—almost always gendered feminine—is the principle of chaos, particularity, corporeality, incomprehensibility, potentiality, multiplicity, and contingency. Form is clean, but restrictive; matter is dirty, but intoxicating. Philosophy begins, [End Page 55] perhaps, when a thinker isolates what is clean, with all its attendant ramifications, from what is dirty, with all its attendant ramifications.

There are two basic ways that form and matter interact both in Chaucer's writing and in philosophy. When the formalist relation holds, form is related to matter, imposing upon chaos the vector of a final cause. When the materialist relation, or more precisely non-relation, holds, form is not related to matter, and chaos evades the constraint of order. Plato in book 10 of the Republic makes an instructive distinction between two kinds of poetry. Acceptable poetry, strictly limited to hymns to the gods and eulogies for virtuous men, has been formalized and therefore orients its audience toward the idea of the good. Bad poetry, by contrast, is aimless, not related to any form, and can...