Sunday, October 22, 2006

Wolfson Notes I

A new continuing feature: my late uncle Richard Wisan's notes from Harry Austryn Wolfson's class on Medieval Philosophy, from Harvard in the fall of 1950. Wolfson was one of the primary scholars on medieval philosophy, particularly in the Arab world.

The course focuses on comparing and contrasting Moses Maimonides and St. Thomas Aquinas, who, according to Uncle Dick, really said a lot of similar things, even if one was in the Judeo-Arabic milieu and the other in the Church.

* * *

Definition & delimitation of Medieval Philosophy:

Equation of Medieval Philosophy with Scholasticism leaves a gap of 200 years between the closing of the Greek schools and the opening of the Medieval ones, & thus between Ancient and Medieval Philosophy.

The close parallel between Philosophy and Politics is artificial.
Boethius (480-525 – near the Fall of Rome); Augustine (354-430 – near the dissolution of the Empire) are sometimes taken as the first medieval philosopher, but these men were in the middle of a transition, not the founders of M. P.

The equation of Christian thought with Medieval Philsophy also fails, because

1) Christian philosophy begins with St. John (of the Church Fathers);

2) Muslim & Jewish philosophy were clearly in the same tradition-pattern as contemporary Christian philosophy.

Hegel and others, equating Christian and Medieval Philosophy, saw Jewish and Muslim philosophy as peripheral, or even as by-products.

From Plato to the 17th century, Western philosophy was written in



15th C.



17th C.



13th C.



12th C.



16th C.

1st-century BCE – there was a split in the kind of Religious literature referred to by Philosophers in Greek and Latin.

1) originally “religion” meant Paganism.

2) The “Hellenizing Jews” of Alexandria begain to write Greek philosophy in Hebrew. They also wrote down Jewish, and later, New Testament traditions.

Syriac: mainly used for Christian philosophy

Arabic: mainly used for Muslim philosophy, which was a tradition very close to both Jewish and Christian. Some Jewish and a little Christian philosophy were also written in Arabic.

All this new tradition is interrelated. All included Greek and Pagan philosophy; they addressed the same problems with the same methods and “tone” or Weltanschauung.

Thus, the departure begins in the 1st century BCE, in Alexandria, and continues, universally unchallenged down to about the 17th century. The first great break with this tradition was Spinoza.

The differences among Christian, Muslim and Jew were religious, not philosophical.

Medieval Philosophy

Pure (technical) analysis of Greek problems:

1) Logic (e.g. Universals, not the problem of medieval philosophy)

2) Physics (matter, forms, prime mover, etc.)

3) Psychology (soul, faculties, immortality …)

4) Ethics (good, virtue, …)

Applied philosophy – analysis of scriptural traditions.

1) Relations between Faith and Reason

2) Existence of God

3) Nature of God

4) Relation between God and the World (creation & government)

5) Man (soul – body)

6) Communication between God & Man (revelation)

7) Ethics (free-will, evil)

No difference here among the three monotheisms


1) Trinity – Christian only

2) Attributes – Muslim only

3) Eternity of the Law – Jews only

4) Resurrection – all three.

We must make a selection, so we’ll concentrate on Applied Philosophy, since medieval pure philosophy is really a part of ancient philosophy.


Basic Writings of Thomas Aquinas (Random House)

Guide to the Perplexed – Maimonides

No comments: