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Abstract of Comments: Were there Significant Differences between Medieval and Early Modern Scholastic Natural Philosophy?

Content and Procedures Author(s): Edith Dudley Sylla Source: Nos, Vol. 18, No. 1, 1984 A. P. A. Western Division Meetings (Mar., 1984), pp. 15-16 Published by: Blackwell Publishing Stable URL: Accessed: 07/10/2010 14:42
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Were There Significant DifferencesBetween Medieval and Early Modern Scholastic Natural Philosophy? Content and Procedures

Very broadly speaking, there are two ways in which early modern scholastic natural philosophy might have differed from the previous Aristotelian tradition. First, early modem scholastics might have rejected or modified specific doctrines held by medieval scholastic Aristotelians. Second, early modem scholastics might have been unlike their medieval predecessors in their approach to Aristotle in general, for instance, in exhibiting greater diversity and independence among themselves or in being more open to the accommodation of non-scholastic or non-Aristotelian input. In his paper Professor Edward Grant takes the specific doctrine of the incorruptibility of the heavens as a case study for differences between medieval and early modern scholastic natural philosophy and finds that a significant number of early modern scholastics, under the influence of the astronomical work of a Brahe or a Galileo, came to accept celestial corruptibility. At the beginning of his paper Professor Grant cites the common perception of Aristotelianism as a single, unchanging, monolithic entity stretching from the Middle Ages through the Renaissance and contrasts this to Charles Schmitt's recent assertions that there was a very great diversity of attitudes and methods among the Aristotelians of the Renaissance, that Renaissance Aristotelianism was no mere blind continuation of medieval Aristotelianism, and that Renaissance Aristotelianism continued to develop in a progressive way, frequently influencing positively key and forwardlooking thinkers of the period. While not disagreeing with Schmitt's characterization of Renaissance Aristotelianism, I would want to add the observation that neither was medieval scholastic Aristotelianism the monolithic and unchanging entity it is sometimes supposed to have been. If in the early modern period scholastic Aristotelians held a spectrum of views about the incorruptibility or corruptibility of the heavens, so in the medieval period Aristotelians held a spectrum of ideas about the nature of the heavens, disagreeing, for instance, concerning the matter of the heavens: do the heavens contain matter, and,



if so, is this matter of the same sort as the matter underlying the elements in the terrestrial realm? How are the celestial movers related to the spheres they move? Are they separate entities or are they the very forms of the celestial bodies? If the latter, are the celestial spheres alive? If, therefore, Professor Grant has provided evidence of a greater inclination to accept the corruptibility of the heavens among early modern than medieval Aristotelians, he has not necessarily demonstrated a greater flexibility or openness to the consideration of new evidence among the later group. Whether or not a given thinker is ready to modify received doctrine on a given point may depend not only on the author's innate tendency to dogmatism, but also on the interdependence between the doctrine at issue and other elements of the intellectual system of which it is a part, whether that system is confined to a single discipline or encompasses several disciplines or a whole world view. What appears as dogmatism to early modern critics of Aristotelianism might sometimes better be seen as evidence of the coherence and consistency of Aristotelianism as a highly articulated and interdependent system. Even within such a system, however, some elements are more central and some more marginal. If we are to learn something about early modern scholasticism as a whole from the case of the doctrine of the incorruptibility of the heavens, we need to inquire in more detail about the place of this doctrine within various naturalistic and Christian dans l'Univers de Saint Thomas Aristotelianisms. In his Les CorpsCelestes d'Aquin, Thomas Litt provides ample material for assessing the role of the doctrine of the incorruptibility of the heavens within the oeuvre of St. Thomas.