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Grant, Grant. The Nature of Natural Philosophy in the Late Middle Ages.

GRANT, Grant. The Nature of Natural Philosophy in the Late Middle Ages. Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 2010. xvi + 355pp. Cloth, $64.95--Among scholars of medieval science of the past fifty years, Edward Grant's contributions have had far-reaching influence, for much of the modern understanding of medieval ideas about natural philosophy and cosmology rests on Grant's scholarship, both in the editions and translations that formed much of his early work and in his analysis of the elements of medieval science that comprises his later work. Beginning with Physical Science in the Middle Ages (1971) and more recently The Foundations of Modern Science in the Middle Ages: Their Religious, Institutional and Intellectual Contexts (1996) and God and Reason in the Middle Ages (2001), Grant has had a central place in the teaching of premodern science in modern universities. This collection of essays on medieval natural philosophy is in a sense a hybrid volume, because while the original essays were largely contributions to specialized journals and edited collections, time has enabled them to become a useful pedagogical tool.

Although this is a collection of essays rather than a monograph with integrated chapters in pursuit of a single thesis, one over-arching point, articulated in the introduction and in several of the essays, is that it is possible to tread a middle ground between Duhem and Koyre, that is, to see the relationship between medieval and early modern science as neither absolutely continuous--so that the science of the middle ages led to, or foreshadowed, or caused the new science of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries--nor discontinuous and incommensurable--that is, created and existing in different epistemic and methodological worlds. Instead, the author suggests that if one considers whether sixteenth- and seventeenth-century science could have come into existence without the translations of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries and the subsequent assimilation of Greek and Islamic materials in Western European medieval culture, the answer must be "no." He points to two developments that follow from this momentous transmission: "the formation of the medieval university, and the emergence of theologian-natural philosophers." In addition, in several of the essays that comprise the work, he discusses theses that have come to be associated with his scholarship over the decades, among them the suggestion that the quaestio form of scholastic discourse contributed to-----one might even say caused--the atomization of ideas about natural philosophy in the middle ages and prevented a medieval synthesis that would have remedied the defects of Aristotelian science and replaced it with a different model of the world before the early modern authors did so and swept away the medieval scholastic explanations of nature. He also emphasizes the foundational importance of the Condemnations of 1277 and related events, again not drawing the facile connections of Duhem, but instead focusing on the tendency to invoke divine omnipotence, counterfactual conditions, and hypothetical explanations of the natural world.

Eleven of the twelve essays in this collection have been published previously, ranging from 1978 to 2008. None of these has been updated or annotated to address current perspectives, so that the author's position on the Condemnations of 1277 (dating from 1979) does not address the work and views of, say, John Murdoch's "1277 and late medieval natural philosophy" (1998) or the new edition and study of the text itself by David Pich6 (1999). Chapter 6, "God and the Medieval Cosmos," was previously unpublished, and its synthetic treatment contains few references, largely those from other work by the author.

Although it may be unfair to single out one article for prolonged discussion, I believe that the most controversial of the twelve essays will be "The Fate of Ancient Greek Natural Philosophy in the Middle Ages: Islam and Western Christianity," published two years ago in this journal. The central issue of the article is: "Why did Islam, which reached a higher state of scientific development in the Middle Ages than the Latin West, fail to continue its development, while the West, which started much later, surpassed Islam by 1600?" In general, the author's response is that the answer can be found in the attitude toward science, and natural philosophy in particular, that prevailed in Islam and the West during the middle ages. His view is often characterized as the marginality thesis, developed by several Islamists, but especially by the Hungarian Ignaz Goldziher, on whom Grant relies quite heavily in the middle section of his article. Goldziher's 1915 study sought to analyze the attitude of what he called the "Old Islamic Orthodoxy" to the foreign sciences. Subsequent readers have often misconstrued this as an attempt to analyze the general view of all lslam to the foreign sciences, something that Goldziher never sought to do. Certainly it is possible to find (as Grant does, in the quotations from al-Ghazfili and Ibn as-Salah) statements that reflect intolerance of the foreign sciences in Islam, but elsewhere in Islamic culture the study of natural philosophy continued unabated: Averroes (who receives little discussion in the article) continued to write commentaries on Aristotle in Andalusian Spain. Moreover, beyond the foreign sciences, it is instructive to note that kaldm itself was derided by the Orthodox for the same reason: rather than the contrast of sacred and secular, it is traditional and nontraditional interpretations that were frequently the fault lines for argument and condemnation.

While the marginality thesis is one way of viewing the role of natural philosophy in Islam, there are others that have challenged it. Although Grant cites A. I. Sabra's "Science and Philosophy in Medieval Islamic Theology" (1994), it would be interesting to see his response to an earlier article, "The Appropriation and Subsequent Naturalization of Greek Science in Medieval Islam: A Preliminary Statement." There, Sabra tackles the same question that the author addresses in this essay, and comes to a very different assessment of the issue, one that largely reflects the differences in the way that science was appropriated (his term: "naturalized") in Islamic culture. Decline of science in Islam, to which Grant returns at the end of the essay in an essentialist conclusion that cements Seyyed Hossein Nasr and Richard Nesbitt, is seen by Sabra as a consequence of the function served by science in medieval Islamic culture. While Grant's essay concludes with a series of further questions as areas for future investigation, an attempt to confront these rival perspectives would also prove enlightening.

One minor point that might also be noted: a subsidiary issue in the essay is the contrast of Islamic madrasa and European university. Here, as elsewhere in the collection of essays (and in the Preface) the author assumes that theological masters had all previously been students in the university's faculty of arts. While many of the early members of religious orders had begun their academic career as arts masters and then moved on to theological faculties before joining the Franciscan or Dominican orders--this was one of the causes of the imbroglio over administration at Paris in the first half of the thirteenth century--subsequent mendicant theologians were never, as a rule, members of the arts faculty, but instead acquired their understanding of Aristotle by a parallel course in the studia naturalia of their own order. In fact, this is a point that might help the author address a contrast: those European studia are probably closer to the madrasa in mission and function than university and madrasa. Yet by all accounts, the studia naturalia achieved a high level of analysis of natural philosophy from the mid-thirteenth century to the end of the middle ages.

In spite of these observations, this volume is a very useful compendium of studies of medieval natural philosophy, both writ large and for their historiographical value. When combined with more recent studies of the topic and contrasted with rival perspectives, the book provides a challenging introduction to medieval philosophy of nature and its twentieth-century historical analysis.--Steven J. Livesey, The University of Oklahoma.
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Author:Livesey, Steven J.
Publication:The Review of Metaphysics
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 1, 2010
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