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Boundaries of Science: Medieval Condemnations of Philosophy as Heresy

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - BoundSci (Boundaries of Science: Medieval Condemnations of Philosophy as Heresy)

Reporting period: 2016-09-15 to 2018-09-14

BoundSci is a multi-disciplinary project examining the Aristotelian scientific revolution in 13th-century Europe, and controversies it provoked over conflicts between philosophy and religious faith. It has investigated why some theologians and philosophers at medieval universities, particularly those of Paris and Oxford, labelled controversial philosophical theories ‘heretical’. Medieval European society was largely Christian; and these theories of Aristotelian natural philosophy (which we today classify as ‘science’) contradicted fundamental beliefs. The project has looked at the two most controversial theories in the context of the ‘heresy’ label: Aristotle’s theory of the Eternity of the World, which conflicted with Creation; and a theory of his Arab interpreter Averroes (d. 1198), the Unicity of the Intellect, which denied the afterlife of individual souls and their destination in heaven or hell. Strictly speaking, the theories were not heretical, as they had not been condemned by a pope or general Church council, who alone had the relevant authority. Because medieval scholastics (academics) were precise in their terminology, their use of the term ‘heresy’ in this context is significant. Surprisingly, not all of those using the term opposed the theories they gave this label: in some cases, they even supported these opinions, or aspects of them. BoundSci has combined the fields of history, medieval philosophy and theology to discover what lay behind this phenomenon. It has found that complex strategies, both philosophical and political, were behind this term use. Looked at together, the views and motivations of these diverse scholastics have produced a conclusion for the project: that they constitute a negotiation over which philosophical ideas were to be accepted and which were to be excluded from medieval (Christian) society – or, to put it simply, over where the boundary of this new science was to be drawn.

The project’s overarching research objective was to answer the question: Did scholastic thinkers at the heart of the Aristotelian controversy of the 13th/early 14th centuries consider dangerous Aristotelian theories heretical?

Research Objective 1 was to implement a new approach to the problem by addressing the overarching research question through a concentrated phase of data collection to identify cases of scholastics labelling controversial theories ‘heretical’ in scholastic texts.

Research Objective 2 was to contextualise cases of scholastics calling theories heretical to understand the thinking/motivation behind the term use.

Research Objective 3 was to evaluate whether, and how, the range of philosophical views and intentions behind the ‘heresy’ term use constitute a negotiation of the boundaries of late medieval science.

BoundSci’s results contextualise this scientific revolution within late medieval society in terms of what, or how, new ideas could/could not be absorbed. Its findings are important for our understanding of this phase in Europe’s scientific history, and how it shaped scientific discourse and the avenues it could pursue.
Work on the project was in three phases corresponding to the three research objectives.

Work toward Research Objective 1 was data collection, and involved collecting and examining a high volume of late medieval treatments in Latin of the theories of the Eternity of the World and the Unicity of the Intellect. These treatments were quaestiones (essays) in philosophical and theological works, as well as several treatises. Texts were scrutinised for application of the term ‘heresy’ to these two controversial theories.

Work toward Research Objective 2 was preliminary analysis, and involved in-depth scrutiny of the material gathered through the data collection process, in order to identify the writers’ philosophical opinions. Analysis also involved establishing the personal/career circumstances of the authors at the time of writing (e.g. whether he had received criticism).

Work toward Research Objective 3 was advanced analysis, drawing together the contextualised examples, and examining them in order to gauge where they stood in relation to one another, and what we can conclude about them taken together.

Each research phase produced results which the work in the next phase relied on. The data collection in Research Objective 1 and analysis in Research Objective 2 produced findings of scholastics representing all positions on the spectrum of philosophical opinion on the two theories studied. Most of those who used the label were major protagonists on diverse sides of the controversies. Some, whom we could call ‘conservative’ with respect to accepting Aristotelian natural philosophy, either thought that the theories were heretical or, more probably, ought to be condemned as heretical. Other thinkers, who embraced the new science, used the term to distance themselves from views colleagues might criticise or university/Church authorities might censure, while nevertheless promoting versions of these very ideas which were equally provocative. Several scholastics used the term to label theories they had once supported, and for which they had come under criticism or censure. It is the nature and diversity of these motivations behind the term use that produce the conclusions that use of the term ‘heresy’ in these discussions was deliberate and strategic (fulfilling Research Objective 2); and that, as they aim in opposing directions, taken together they constitute a negotiation over the boundaries of medieval science (fulfilling Research Objective 3).

Findings from each of the three work phases during the two-year fellowship were disseminated through: 4 international conference presentations, 2 seminar/conference presentations at the home institution, a website, and public engagement activities (2 magazine articles, 2 public presentations, 2 high school outreach activities). They are being published in 3 articles for peer review journals, and are the basis for a book being prepared on the subject of this project.
BoundSci has gone beyond the state of the art in the fields of history, philosophy and theology by: offering new understanding of medieval perspectives of the relationship between philosophy/science and religion; advancing the reception history of Aristotelian natural philosophy; deepening the study of medieval heresy by focusing on what made ideas heretical in the Middle Ages; and resolving ambiguity in modern scholarship regarding the role of heresy in the late medieval Aristotelian scientific revolution.

The analysis conducted toward Research Objectives 2 and 3 has gone beyond these objectives by producing new thinking on the controversial theories themselves, an outcome made possible by the innovative approaches of using a high volume of scholastic texts to conduct the study, and of analysing strategies in the ‘heresy’ term use in them.

Through the immediate impacts in the dissemination and public engagement activities, and through the book being prepared based on the project’s findings, BoundSci will impact on what scholars and European society perceive about the origins and development of our scientific heritage, and how it was conditioned by its cultural context.