Academic journal article The Review of Metaphysics

Albertus Magnus and the Recovery of Aristotelian Form

Academic journal article The Review of Metaphysics

Albertus Magnus and the Recovery of Aristotelian Form

Article excerpt

I

THE DISTINCTION OF THE PLATONIC and Aristotelian conceptions of form common to modern textbooks has a specifically medieval origin that is little remarked upon by historians of philosophy. Prior to the middle of the thirteenth century, interpretation of the works of Plato and Aristotle was dominated by the Neoplatonic tendency to harmonize their philosophies. Their differing accounts of form were understood as representing distinct dialectical approaches to the same, basically Platonic, ontology. (1) This dominance was first challenged by Albertus Magnus who, between 1250 and 1270, introduced a new Aristotelianism in the Latin West. His project to make the whole of the new learning of Aristotle available to the Latins, announced in the preface of the first of his Aristotelian commentaries, was intended to be more than simply the encyclopedic compendium for which he earned his title "the Great." (2) It was also an effort to recover the Aristotelian conception of form and clearly distinguish it from that of the Platonists. This recovery represents a significant development in the intellectual history of the West. Despite this, it has escaped the notice of most philosophers. (3)

Part of the reason for this is that Albert's philosophical contributions remain little known outside a limited circle of medievalists specializing in thirteenth-century thought. If Albert is generally known at all, it is as the teacher of Thomas Aquinas (4) and, perhaps, by his early modern reputation as the major authority on Aristotle's natural science. (5) There is, however, another reason for this situation intrinsic to the historical evidence. No less an historian than Etienne Gilson found that Albert's writings, especially his Aristotelian commentaries, represented "a gigantic literary production which defies analysis." (6) Amazed at the vast amount of philosophical and scientific information "heaped up" in Albert's works, Gilson found it difficult to discern between Albert's reports of the views of other thinkers and Albert's own philosophical position. Consequently, Gilson focused his attention on selected theological treatises which in his estimation provided firmer evidence of Albert's learning and originality. (7)

Gilson's approach has cast a long shadow, for it drew attention away from Albert's extensive and detailed treatments of Aristotle's natural science and scientific method. It was precisely this neglect of Albert's studies of nature that discouraged general philosophical awareness of his importance as the originator of a new and distinctive Aristotelianism. Fortunately, the scholarly situation has changed since Gilson's initial attempts at analysis, and the past few decades have seen a growing literature detailing the contributions to philosophy and the natural sciences found in Albert's Aristotelian books. (8) Recent scholarship has, as a result, increased appreciation of Albert's historic recovery of Aristotelian form.

It must be admitted, however, that the problem has yet to be fully resolved. Among the difficulties is that, even in those texts that provide the best evidence of Albert's Aristotelianism, his expression is often highly Platonic in diction and tone. (9) The commentary on the pseudo-Aristotelian Liber de causis presents a particular problem and has led some scholars to attribute to Albert a rather syncretic form of Aristotelianism (10) and others to deny his Aristotelianism altogether. (11) The problem is further exacerbated by the fact that Albert sometimes offers both Platonic and Aristotelian solutions to the same philosophical problem. (12) These difficulties have kept open the question of the nature and extent of Albert's Aristotelianism consequently obscuring his role in the recovery of a distinctively Aristotelian notion of form.

Nonetheless, the evidence of Albert's Aristotelianism found in his commentaries (13) as well as his revival of the long dormant research programs of Aristotle in biology and other sciences is too strong to ignore. …

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