Medieval Philosophy and Philosophical Medievalism the Public Understanding of Medieval Philosophy

By Artimon, Teodora | Philosophy Today, May 2013 | Go to article overview

Medieval Philosophy and Philosophical Medievalism the Public Understanding of Medieval Philosophy


Artimon, Teodora, Philosophy Today


All knowledge begins with the eyes, although the freshness of our earliest perceptions is soon clouded. Language and ideas are always preceded by our perceptual structuring of existence.

Roberto Rossellini, 1973 1

One can conceive of writing infinitely on past texts, or at least I can. Now, one could very well imagine a time when works in the traditional sense of the word would no longer be written, and the works of the past would be rewritten endlessly, "endlessly" in the sense of "perpetually": there would be an activity of proliferating commentary, branching out, recurrent, which would be true writing activity of our time.2

In 1971, in an interview, Roland Barthes was discussing the writing activity of his time. His idea of endlessly writing on past texts can surely be applied to the writing of history, but if one discusses historiography today, it encompasses more than writing in the traditional sense. History, and also historiography, have entered a new realm, colliding with the public sphere more than they ever have. Historiography in particular is "endlessly" and "perpetually" expanding, to put it in Barthes's words.

This essay will discuss something that may be called "public historiography." The sphere of historiography is often times is aimed at the academy and scholars but not so much the larger public. Naturally, the public can have access to more or less every piece of writing in a particular field of history, but it usually happens that non-specialists only encounter star titles and "bestsellers," such as Robert Massie's Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman* Stacy Schiff's Cleopatra: A Life, 4 Charles C. Mann's 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created, 5 or personal histories such as Mark Twain's Autobiography of Mark Twain.6 These histories are written with the specific purpose of reaching not only specialists but also the general public. Can one discuss, in this case, a particular type of historiography, a "public historiography?"

This essay will define the problematic of "public historiography" in the context of medieval philosophy. How is medieval philosophy perceived in the twentieth and the twenty-first centuries by the general public? Academic philosophy started, already at the beginning of the twentieth century, to see its audience diminish, as scholars started to discuss the "end of philosophy" as well as the end of its addressability.7 What is the situation with the wider public of philosophy today, then? Does philosophy, especially medieval, interest the public anymore? Can medieval philosophy's "public historiography" still intrigue today's lay philosophers?

Public historiography has an advantage when compared to traditional historiography: it is immensely flexible. It is not only comprised of written material, but also of fictional literature, films, museum exhibits, and even television shows. Indeed, the public historiography of medieval philosophy abounds in material which, if studied, unveils how the public understands and receives the past.

Let us take public historiography as a fact for the moment and dive into a small portion of its material: the material of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries that portrays medieval philosophy for every type of public. In other words, let us dive into the world of philosophical medievalism.

Medieval Philosophy: From its History(iography) to its Film(ography)

Kant believed that whereas philosophy draws from the fountain of reason itself, historians do nothing more than "tell the world" what philosophers have drawn from that very fountain.8 For him, the history of philosophy was philosophy itself; therefore there was no need for historians to interfere with their stories. Was there really no need?

This essay will touch upon figures such as Augustine of Hippo, Peter Abelard, al-Ghazali, Averroes, and Michel de Montaigne. How much is the history of their writings and their biographies needed when compared to their writings themselves? …

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