On the Very Idea of Medieval Physics

Posted by Edward Willatt on Sunday, February 28, 2016 Under: Medieval Philosophy


Having just attended a conference on medieval physics I am struck by the difficulty in defining the activities of these thinkers.  On the one hand universities in this era insisted on a training in physics, informed by classical texts and Aristotle in particular, before students could study theology.  The medieval physics that developed sought a rational understanding of nature and thus distinguished itself from inward looking  Augustinian and Platonic notions of study.  A drive to mathematicise physics, contrary to Aristotle, also seems to have marked the emergence of a discipline that was neither theology nor to be confined solely by the authority of classical texts (although this ‘rejection’ of an aspect of Aristotle was seen as a development or improvement of this still revered figure).

While this seems to show the emergence of a new discipline, that of modern or experimental science, it was noted that ‘experiment’ for these medieval philosophers of nature had the meaning it had for Aristotle: experience.  Rather than a method of verification and falsification it was a direct experience of rational order in nature. Rather than measuring and recording a pattern or regularity, experiment concerned rather the concrete encounter with singular natures of things (substances rather than accidents to use the Aristotelian terminology).  Claims that Roger Bacon or Robert Grosseteste were either worthy of the title of the first modern scientist were dispelled even by those keen to defend their brilliance, relevance and legacy.  Furthermore, developments in technology did not have a role in the development of physics or natural philosophy, it was as if these studies and the practical sciences including engineering, warcraft and navigation lived isolated, parallel lives.    

A general sense emerged that medieval physics is built upon ontological foundations and deductive logic that are foreign to modern science.  There was a fascinating paper revealing the syllogistic method of Johannes Scharpe (ca. 1360 – after 1415), an Oxford Realist, for solving problems in the relations of material objects.  Yet a focus on the rational understanding of nature was a powerful legacy.  Thinkers looked within and around matter for solutions to problems like magnetism.  This can reveal influences on the modern science that defined itself clearly and forcefully with figures like Galileo and Newton.  Yet it also develops ontological commitments that have their origins in Aristotle, on whose works a great many commentaries were composed by medieval thinkers, in ways that can enlighten and enliven philosophy today.  

As one speaker concluded at the end of his paper, anyone who thinks that the term medieval stands for backward and non-scientific ‘needs a kick!’

In : Medieval Philosophy 



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On the Very Idea of Medieval Physics

Posted by Edward Willatt on Sunday, February 28, 2016 Under: Medieval Philosophy


Having just attended a conference on medieval physics I am struck by the difficulty in defining the activities of these thinkers.  On the one hand universities in this era insisted on a training in physics, informed by classical texts and Aristotle in particular, before students could study theology.  The medieval physics that developed sought a rational understanding of nature and thus distinguished itself from inward looking  Augustinian and Platonic notions of study.  A drive to mathematicise physics, contrary to Aristotle, also seems to have marked the emergence of a discipline that was neither theology nor to be confined solely by the authority of classical texts (although this ‘rejection’ of an aspect of Aristotle was seen as a development or improvement of this still revered figure).

While this seems to show the emergence of a new discipline, that of modern or experimental science, it was noted that ‘experiment’ for these medieval philosophers of nature had the meaning it had for Aristotle: experience.  Rather than a method of verification and falsification it was a direct experience of rational order in nature. Rather than measuring and recording a pattern or regularity, experiment concerned rather the concrete encounter with singular natures of things (substances rather than accidents to use the Aristotelian terminology).  Claims that Roger Bacon or Robert Grosseteste were either worthy of the title of the first modern scientist were dispelled even by those keen to defend their brilliance, relevance and legacy.  Furthermore, developments in technology did not have a role in the development of physics or natural philosophy, it was as if these studies and the practical sciences including engineering, warcraft and navigation lived isolated, parallel lives.    

A general sense emerged that medieval physics is built upon ontological foundations and deductive logic that are foreign to modern science.  There was a fascinating paper revealing the syllogistic method of Johannes Scharpe (ca. 1360 – after 1415), an Oxford Realist, for solving problems in the relations of material objects.  Yet a focus on the rational understanding of nature was a powerful legacy.  Thinkers looked within and around matter for solutions to problems like magnetism.  This can reveal influences on the modern science that defined itself clearly and forcefully with figures like Galileo and Newton.  Yet it also develops ontological commitments that have their origins in Aristotle, on whose works a great many commentaries were composed by medieval thinkers, in ways that can enlighten and enliven philosophy today.  

As one speaker concluded at the end of his paper, anyone who thinks that the term medieval stands for backward and non-scientific ‘needs a kick!’

In : Medieval Philosophy 



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