Category Archives: Mediaeval Philosophy

The Difference In A Nutshell Between Medieval and Modern Philosophy

From a commenter on Ta-Nehisi Coates’ blog in the ATLANTIC:

Aristotle, like Hobbes, did think that knowledge came from the senses, but he had a very different view of how senses worked. Aristotle believed that every physical object has a form or essence, and a substance. So a clay model of a tree and real tree share commonalities of form, although their substances are totally different. Aristotle also thought that the psyche is an instrument whereby we can receive the form of objects without the substance. He compares sensation to a signet ring making an impression of wax.
Hobbes, however, does not really believe that the concept of “essence” is useful in explaining the world. He is basically a materialist. He believes that the only things worth talking about are matter and its interactions. Therefore, his account of how we obtain knowledge through the senses has to rely on interaction between matter.
This might sound like an obscure difference, but it has a lot of consequences for how one studies the world. If you agree with Aristotle, the implication is that by observing the world, you can get an idea of the real essence of things. Acquiring theoretical knowledge is then a matter of thinking rationally about the implications of this knowledge. Thus physical science is a matter of everyday observation followed by rigorous thinking.
However, if the information you get from the senses is just a bunch of particles bouncing off of your sensory organs, as Hobbes believes, then there’s good reason to be worried that the senses are unreliable, and you need to spend time carefully tweaking the information you get from the senses to make sure you have it right. This gives rise to an experimental model (which Hobbes’ contemporary, Francis Bacon, focused on far more than Hobbes did).
As for how commonplace it was – Aristotelianism was basically the dominant philosophy from the time of Thomas Aquinas (1200s) up until the 1600s. Hobbes is writing around the time of transition away from Aristotle’s position as the preeminent thinker on matters such as this. I actually am not sure how dominant the view still was among academics by the time of the Leviathan.
As an aside, the reason Hobbes talks about mediate and immediate interaction is that, at the time, people who subscribed to this materialst view did not believe that matter could interact with other matter at a distance. The only interactions allowed into the theory were direct ones. The view of no interaction at a distance was thrown out after Newton’s theory of gravity became the consensus view – since gravity is interaction at a distance.
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Paul Vincent Spade On Motivating The Mediaeval Problem Of Universals

“It is well known that the problem of universals was widely discussed in mediaeval philosophy — indeed, some would say it was discussed then with a level of insight and rigor it has never enjoyed since.” What follows is an extremely good motivation of the medieval problem of universals, offered by Paul Vincent Spade in the introduction to FIVE TEXTS ON THE MEDIAEVAL PROBLEM OF UNIVERSALS.

“It is easy to motivate the problem of universals. Consider these two capital letters: A A. Ignore everything else about them and for now observe only that they are of the same color: they are both black.

As you look at the two letters, how many colors do you see?  Two different answers are plausible.  You may want to say  you see only one color here, blackness.  You see it twice, once in each of the two capitals, but it is the same color in both cases.  After all, did I not just say the two letters were “of the same color“?  Isn’t that obvious by just looking at them?  This single blackness is the kind of entity that is repeatable, found intact in both letters at the same time; it is what philosophers call a “universal.”  If this is your answer, then you believe in the reality of at least one universal, and are in that sense a “realist” on the question.

But now reset your mental apparatus and look at the two letters again.  On second glance, isn’t it obvious that you see two colors here, two blacknesses:  the blackness of the first A, this blackness, and then the blackness of the second A, that blackness?  The two colors look exactly alike, yes, but aren’t they visually as distinct as the two letters themselves?  If this is your answer, then you do not believe in the reality of universals (at least not in this case) and are a “nominalist” on the question.  The problem of universals is in effect the problem of deciding between these answers. ”

Of course, my eros for the mediaeval problem of universals is just a stepping stone on the path to eros for the platonic form BEAUTY.  And the stepping stone previous to eros for the mediaeval problem of universals is, in the grand tradition of platonic philosophy, eros for gorgeous young men such as this one, who is today’s homage to Plato’s SYMPOSIUM.

most_beautiful_men_04

If Plato can include a bad boy like Alkibiades in his SYMPOSIUM, I can include a bad boy like Josh in my post.