Academic journal article Journal of the History of Ideas

Valla Our Contemporary: Philosophy and Philology

Academic journal article Journal of the History of Ideas

Valla Our Contemporary: Philosophy and Philology

Article excerpt

Even before the Italians knew what to call their Renaissance, they knew the names of its heroes, one of whom was Lorenzo Valla. Accordingly, by the time Count Terenzio Mamiani della Rovere published one of the first modern histories of Italian philosophy in 1834, Valla's place in the story of that subject had long been established-for Italians, at least. "He began by ridiculing blind trust in Aristotle's words," wrote Mamiani,

and then went on to show how the highest categories and first predicables had been based on false assumptions, proving this by the correct meaning of terms, by the usage of speakers and by arguments from common sense. Valla overthrew the classifications of Porphyry in the same way. He shows how the basic rules of logic are simple and completely self-evident.1

In tribute to Salvatore Camporeale of the Order of Preachers, I shall preach a sermon about this celebrated Italian philosopher. My text is an article on Valla that Campo published in 1986, and my contention is that Valla was a remarkably original thinker who has been much underrated in the Anglophone world, in part because he has not been read often enough or carefully enough in a contemporary philosophical framework.2

The Philosopher's Index is the most important general bibliography for philosophers now writing in English. The on-line version that gives nearly four thousand references in five languages for Descartes, over nine thousand for Aristotle, and nearly ten thousand for Kant turns up only forty-two for Valla; twenty-five of these are in English, but only two are in major Anglophone journals of philosophy.31 call that underrated and understudied.

The first English-language entry for Valla in the Philosopher's Index dates from 1948, The Renaissance Philosophy of Man, a very influential book of readings (still in print) that presents Valla as a moral philosopher and Renaissance philosophy as not terribly important. The next entry, from 1964, refers to an equally influential book, Paul Kristeller's Eight Philosophers of the Italian Renaissance, one of whom is Valla, described by Kristeller not only as a moral philosopher but also, and more importantly, as a philosophical critic of logic and language.4 Around the same time, Hanna Gray, Jerrold Seigel, Charles Trinkaus, and others in this country had begun to study Valla's theory of language in more depth, and a few years later Camporeale's masterful book on Valla appeared in 1972.5

Since Camporeale's book was then and is now the best account in any language of a brilliant philosopher, its absence from the Philosopher's Index indicates a kind of oblivion in Anglophone philosophy. In Europe and especially in Italy, by contrast, interest in Valla has been more or less continuous since his death in 1457. Mario Nizolio continued Valla's work in the sixteenth century, and both Valla and Nizolio were well known to Leibniz, who in turn was the subject of an important book by Bertrand Russell in 1900.6 Russell's most popular work, however, was the History of Western Philosophy that he wrote much later, during the Second World War.7

Many people have taken their bearings on the history of philosophy from Russell's exuberant History. Amazon.com still offers five editions by four publishers. And Amazon's rankings of sales of more recent accounts of the Renaissance period, the Cambridge History of Renaissance Philosophy and the Renaissance Philosophy volume of Oxford's History of Western Philosophy, lag far behind the figures for a single edition of Russell's broader treatment (8,970 Russell; 481,085 Cambridge; 507,316 Oxford).8

Despite its great success, Russell's book does not do well by our topic. His treatment of the Renaissance is like Burckhardt directed by Victor Hugo and produced by Macaulay. Cardinals poison each other while free-thinking scholars entertain princes to procure patronage. Humanism meanwhile dozes under the rubble of antiquity, too dazed by the ruins to produce original philosophy. …

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