Not just a genuflection to contemporary identity, what can we mean by a multicultural middle ages and in particular multicultural medieval philosophy (or philosophies)? Clearly this volume is trying to do something beyond the classic reader for students wanting some background in medieval thought before they move onto the more serious (!) work of Descartes, Locke, Hume and Kant - and beyond to the questions that we ask. On the one hand, the analytic tradition has become co-opted into a whiggish notion of intellectual progress, of hard won liberties, a tradition of imperial triumphalism in which the rationalities and intellectual traditions are not terribly significant. On the other hand, such a conception would be a travesty for the analytic tradition since some of the best thinkers working towards global philosophy and the dialogues between cultural traditions come from that training (one thinks of Jay Garfield, Jonardon Ganeri and others). But there is a sense of the analytic tradition that is in the background of the conception of this volume.
What is it seeking to include and what is the very conception of philosophy at its heart? There are plenty of existing readers on medieval philosophy and for some time such works have included the Jewish and Islamic philosophical traditions (this was already the case with Hyman and Mahdi back in the 1960s). Hyman et al (currently in its third iteration) was more geared towards use in analytic departments but it still included pseudo-Dionysius. Other works have presented us with readers specifically on Islam (one thinks of Muhammad Ali Khalidi's volume for Cambridge University Press that like this volume is primarily selections from existing published translations, and the late David Reisman and Jon McGinnis' Hackett volume).
What sets this new volume published by Bloomsbury apart from previous attempts?
First, let us consider what the eminent specialist of Aquinas’ thought and of medieval philosophy Bernard McGinn says in his preface and Bruce Foltz, the general editor, in his introduction, and then consider the practice of the volume.
McGinn points to three contributions of the volume. First, the ‘postmodern’ turn allows us to reconsider the significance of medieval philosophy within the history of philosophy and indeed within our contemporary philosophical concerns within a global context. Therefore, one needs to go beyond the simple confines of the Latin tradition (well represented in the historical and textual volumes of readers edited by Robert Pasnau and others for Cambridge University Press) and include the Eastern Byzantine tradition (pace Dimitri Gutas’ recent denial of any ‘actual’ philosophy in that tradition in the Cambridge Intellectual History of Byzantium), the Jewish and the Islamic traditions. Second, the definition of philosophy assumed takes us back to the very word and the notion – made especially popular by the late Pierre Hadot – of philosophy as ‘a way of life’ and a love of wisdom. That necessarily takes us beyond the narrowly ratiocinative and embraces the ‘mystical’.
Third, the medieval thinkers presented are considered on their own terms embracing but modifying Neoplatonism and not just as adapters of the ancient rationalists. In this sense, one might consider much of the volume to constitute medieval Abrahamic Neoplatonisms. And it deliberately marginalises the ‘analyticisation’ of medieval philosophy – which may constitute an obstacle for some to adopt this text. While it is possible to rehabilitate Neoplatonism for analytic philosophers - one thinks of the work of Lloyd Gerson, the late Anthony Lloyd, and Christopher Martin - it seems that the conceptualisation of the volume assumes an opposition between the analytic and the Neoplatonic.
Foltz gives the ‘innovative’ approach more precision. History is important even for philosophy and one needs to engage medieval philosophy for its philosophical questions and not as mere antiquarian artefacts. Descartes after all did not emerge ex nihilo (and his debt to Augustine in particular is well documented in an excellent monograph by Stephen Menn).
The volume covers four traditions: the Latin West, the Greek East, the Jewish and the Islamic. The addition of the Byzantine is significant – and seen in the light of the separate embrace of it in Peter Adamson’s influential History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps podcast timely. These traditions are considered on their own terms and not as satellites of Latin scholasticism, and hence what is important for them is paramount; for example, Ibn Rushd or Averroes is a pivotal figure for Latin Aristotelianism but not so for the Islamic medieval tradition and hence, unlike other readers, does not take up too much space. Mystics are also included – and since the sense of wisdom or its pursuit in these four traditions tends to embrace them, that is perfectly reasonable. Besides, one may already query the neat distinction that us moderns make between the rational and the mystical since what counts is the nature of discourse and argument and not merely the mode of language or particular logical form of argument. Knowledge is thus linked to spiritual exercise and practice.
Foltz goes on to emphasise four points. First, one needs to reintegrate the religious into the philosophical. Denying religion makes it difficult to follow the motivations, contexts and even content of various types of argument. Second, theistic philosophy in the middle period followed Neoplatonisms in its pursuit of spiritual exercises and, ways of life and care of the self – Foltz explicitly cites the importance of Hadot and Foucault for this process (and one cannot help feel that McGushin’s excellent study of askesis in Foucault would be a useful prop to this point).
Third, by multicultural the editors indicate the present context and realise that the four traditions are indeed living ones and not merely historical epochs superseded by modernist concerns. Decolonisation – not explicitly cited – seems to be part of the reason too in the general editor’s disavowal of the Western model of ‘cultural assimilation’. Or perhaps my decolonising assumption are reading too much in. What is required is position recognition without condescension and analysis of theistic thought without the secular bias. And whether one can use the colonisers' language and categories to decolonise (finding a new philosophical lexicon on the terms of the texts themselves can be a task since they already use the paradigms and concepts of the Aristotelian tradition even when avowedly anti-Aristotelian). Finally, the editors seek readers who are not just philosophers or historians of philosophy but also practitioners of the four traditions which in the light of the modern academic study of the field is realistic and preferable. After all, we tend to think about how we can take academic research beyond the narrow confines of the academy and consider carefully the identity of the ‘general reader’. In these terms, these are laudable intentions and ones that are consistent with the shift towards global philosophy that radically decentres the hegemony of the Anglo-American analytic tradition and proclaims a decolonisation of the field.
The practice of the volume is divided into five parts. While quibbling about lacunae is not always that important, I will mention passages and works that are important for the themes outlined. The first is on the ancient with the emphasis on the ‘spiritual’ which explains the Platonic and Neoplatonic (Plotinus and Proclus). Godlikeness or theosis is a major theme and aim of philosophy but the relevant passages in the Theaetetus, Timaeusor Phaedrus are not included. Nor is the account of the doffing metaphor of Enneads IV.8.1 of Plotinus, much beloved of mystics included. Pythagoras’ Golden Verses and their commentary by Iamblichus are similarly absent (in fact any work of Iamblichus). Given the importance of the Theologia Aristotelis and Liber de Causis (from the Plotinian and Proclean corpora) in Arabic and then in Latin, the absence of any corresponding passages is somewhat unfortunate. Aristotle remains critical but De Anima III and Metaphysics Lambda (again textual pericopes with a major influence on the medieval) are similarly lacunae. Nevertheless, the Stoic sense of the inner citadel and the practice of philosophy and the Neoplatonic metaphysics of emanation are well covered.
Part two on the Greek Christian tradition is far more adequate and covers pretty much all that one expects – and would be well supported in a class by the volumes on early Christian philosophy by George Karamanolis and on Byzantine philosophy by Katrina Ierodiakonou.
In particular, the passages selected demonstrate how theological language and mystical insight are significant for philosophy in that tradition. This part in itself is a major contribution to any reader in medieval philosophy. Part three on the Latin tradition is more predictable – the inclusion of Marguerite Porete, Nicholas of Cusa and Meister Eckhart essential. Perhaps some Julian of Norwich or the Cloud of Unknowing and maybe even some Pseudo-Dionisius might have been salient? Part four on the Jewish tradition adds some Talmudic, Rabbinic and Midrashic material to the standard canon: but again, no Nahmanides, no David Maimonides, no Joseph Albo and no Hasday Crescas. Furthermore, it is odd that the category of Jewish philosophy still alludes those who wrote in Arabic like the Karaite authors, Abūʾl-Barakāt al-Baghdādī and Ibn Kammūna. The final part on the Islamic tradition does exactly what it should – start with the Theologia Aristotelis and its doffing metaphor and include Ibn Ṭufayl, Ibn ʿArabī and Mullā Ṣadrā. Averroes is appropriately marginalised – although one would wish to see passages from the commentary on the Rhetoric and the Metaphysics which was salient. For Avicenna, I would have also included latter parts of Remarks and Admonitions (al-Ishārāt waʾl-tanbīhāt) often called the ‘mysticism’. The final testament of the Philosophy of Illumination (Ḥikmat al-ishrāq) of Suhrawardī similarly on the practice of following a sage and on the spiritual practice of philosophy would be essential. Since the selections are based on existing translations, some of these lacunae are understandable but that does not hold for all of them.
The volume on the whole is to be recommended. It is reader friendly and one could easily design an undergraduate course with this as the main text – and then complement it with surveys and relevant histories. However, if one accepts the provincialisation of European cultural hegemony and even of periodisation – and reads medieval as a shorthand for the pre-modern – than maybe the absence of a more thorough going multicultural approach is telling. Why should one restrict philosophy to the Abrahamic traditions and the reception and development of ‘philosophia’ even if taken in the more expansive sense that embraces the theological and the mystical? Why not include African, Chinese, Indian and other philosophical traditions? Similarly, one wonders why a more thematic approach is not taken in order to juxtapose and bring the traditions into more of a conversation. As it stands the volume has five self-contained sections that could easily be taught in isolation, not necessarily in pursuit of comparative philosophy (which is not an avowed aim) but at least to allow us to consider how the arguments and discourse in this volume constitute the philosophical. At one level that is asking too much – and given the existing extent of translated materials unreasonable especially when it comes to Islamic thought.
The volume that I would like to see would engage these questions – and do more than that in introducing the categories of the philosophical, the spiritual and the medieval. One also wonders whether one can have a volume that satisfies the Hadotians as well as the analytic philosophers since the material of interest to the latter is rather limited. But that is not the book before me – and this particular publication still has much to commend itself, to be read, used and enjoyed. So adopt it as a text in classes. Unless you are in an analytic department in which the selection on the whole will seem rather crazy. It seems that the culture wars on what constitutes philosophy - and even how those in related fields conceive of philosophy - will remain ongoing for the foreseeable future.