Medieval Relativisms by John Marenbon

In a commencement speech at Dickinson College yesterday that focused on the virtues of free speech and free inquiry, Ian McEwan referenced the golden age of the pagan philosophers. But from the turn of the fifth century to the beginning of the eighteenth, Christian intellectuals were as fascinated as they were perplexed by the “Problem of Paganism,” or how to reconcile the fact that the great thinkers of antiquity, whose ideas formed the cornerstones of Greek and Roman civilization, were also pagans and, according to Christian teachings, damned. John Marenbon, author of the new book Pagans and Philosophers, has written a post explaining that relativism (the idea that there can be no objective right or wrong), is hardly a post-modern idea, but one that emerged in medieval times as a response to this tension.

Medieval Relativisms
By John Marenbon

Pagans and Philosophers jacketRelativism is often thought to be a characteristically modern, or even post-modern, idea. Those who have looked more deeply add that there was an important strand of relativism in ancient philosophy and they point (perhaps wrongly) to Montaigne’s remark, made late in the sixteenth century, that ‘we have no criterion of truth or reason than the example and idea of the opinions and customs of the country where we are’ as signalling a revival of relativist thinking. But the Middle Ages are regarded as a time of uniformity, when a monolithic Christianity dominated the lives and thoughts of everyone, from scholars to peasants – a culture without room for relativism. This stereotype is wrong. Medieval culture was not monolithic, because it was riven by a central tension. As medieval Christian thinkers knew, their civilization was based on the pagan culture of Greece and Rome. Pagan philosophers, such as Plato and Aristotle, were their intellectual guides, and figures from antiquity, such as the sternly upright Cato or Regulus, the general who kept the promise he had given to his enemies even at the cost of his life, were widely cited as moral exemplars. Yet, supposedly, Christian truth had replaced pagan ignorance, and without the guidance and grace provided for Christians alone, it was impossible to live a morally virtuous life. One approach to removing this tension was to argue that the pagans in question were not really pagans at all. Another approach, though, was to develop some variety of limited relativism.

One example of limited relativism is the view proposed by Boethius of Dacia, a Master in the University of Paris in the 1260s. Boethius was an Arts Master: his job was to teach a curriculum based on Aristotle. Boethius was impressed by Aristotelian science and wanted to remain true to it even on those points where it goes against Christian teaching. For example, Christians believe that the universe had a beginning, when God created it, but Aristotle thought that the universe was eternal – every change is preceded by another change, and so on, for ever. In Boethius’s view, the Christian view contradicts the very principles of Aristotelian natural science, and so an Arts Master like himself is required to declare ‘The world has no beginning’. But how can he do so, if he is also a Christian? Boethius solves the problem by relativizing what thinkers say within a particular discipline to the principles of that discipline. When the Arts Master, in the course of teaching natural science, says ‘The world has no beginning’, his sentence means: ‘The world has no beginning according to the principles of natural science’ – a statement which is consistent with declaring that, according to Christian belief the world did have a beginning. Relativizing strategies were also used by theologians such as Henry of Ghent, Duns Scotus and William of Ockham to explain how some pagans can have even heroic virtue and yet be without the sort of virtue which good Christians alone can have.

These and other medieval relativisms were limited, in the sense that one reference frame, that of Christianity, was always acknowledged to be the superior one. But Boethius’s relativism allowed pragmatically a space for people to develop a purely rational scientific world-view in its own terms, and that of the theologians allowed them to praise and respect figures like Cato and Regulus, leaving aside the question of whether or not they are in Hell. Contemporary relativists often advocate an unlimited version of relativism, in which no reference frame is considered superior to another. But there are grave difficulties in making such relativism coherent. The less ambitious medieval approach might be the most sensible one.

John Marenbon is a senior research fellow at Trinity College, University of Cambridge, honorary professor of medieval philosophy at Cambridge, and a fellow of the British Academy. He is the author and editor of many books, including Abelard in Four Dimensions, The Oxford Handbook of Medieval Philosophy, The Cambridge Companion to Boethius, and Medieval Philosophy: An Historical and Philosophical Introduction.

A Mere Philosopher?

The Physicist and the Philosopher by Jimena CanalesOn the 6th of April, 1922, two men met at the Société française de philosophie to discuss relativity and the nature of time. One was the winner of the previous year’s Nobel Prize in Physics, Albert Einstein, renowned for a series of extraordinary innovations in scientific theory. The other was the French philosopher, Henri Bergson. In The Physicist and the Philosopher, Jimena Canales recounts the events of that meeting, and traces the public controversy that unfolded over the years that followed. Bergson was perceived to have lost the debate and, more generally, philosophy to have lost the authority to speak on matters of science.

Perhaps the greatest evidence of that loss is that it is hard to imagine an equivalent meeting today, the great physicist and the great philosopher debating as equals. While the physical sciences enjoy unprecedented prestige and funding on university campuses, many philosophy departments face cutbacks. Yet less than a century ago, Henri Bergson enjoyed enormous celebrity. His lecture at Columbia University in 1913 resulted in the first traffic jam ever seen on Broadway. His work was translated into multiple languages, influencing not only his fellow philosophers but also artists and writers (Willa Cather named one of her characters after Bergson). His writings on evolutionary theory earned him the condemnation of the Catholic Church. Students were crowded out of his classes at the Collège de France by the curious public.

The young Bergson showed promise in mathematics, but chose instead to study humanities at the École Normale. His disappointed math teacher commented “you could have been a mathematician; you will be a mere philosopher” — a harbinger of later developments? Einstein and his supporters attacked Bergson’s understanding of relativity and asserted that philosophy had no part to play in grasping the nature of time. Bergson countered that, on the contrary, it was he who had been misunderstood, but to no avail: the Einstein/Bergson debate set the tone for a debate on the relationship between philosophy and the sciences that continues to this day. At a recent roundtable discussion hosted by Philosophy Now, biologist Lewis Wolpert dismissed philosophy as “irrelevant” to science. In this, do we hear an echo of Einstein’s claim that time can be understood either psychologically or physically, but not philosophically?

Happy Birthday, Søren Kierkegaard

Lowrie jacket5-8 Kierkegaard_TheSeducersDiaryIntroversion has been having a moment of late, and today happens to be the birthday of one of the world’s most famous—and brilliant—introverts. To quote the (excellent) copy for A Short Life of Kierkegaard by Walter Lowrie, Kierkegaard was “a small, insignificant-looking intellectual with absurdly long legs, a veritable Hans Christian Andersen caricature of a man.” In life, he often hid behind pseudonyms, and yet, he remains one of the most important thinkers of modern times. Read about Kierkegaard’s turbulent life in this classic biography (literary duel? Check. Tragic love affair? Check.) or sample The Seducer’s Diary, which John Updike called, “An intricate curiosity—a feverishly intellectual attempt to reconstruct an erotic failure as a pedagogic success, a wound masked as a boast.”

Happy Birthday, Søren Kierkegaard.

Read Chapter 1 of The Seducer’s Diary here.

Read the Introduction to A Short Life of Kierkegaard here.

Spotlight on…Philosophers and Mystics

A Short Life of Kierkegaard, by Walter Lowrie

A Short Life of Kierkegaard
by Walter Lowrie

The nineteenth century was a period of extraordinary advances in science and engineering that seemed to bring the dream of a comprehensive understanding of the physical world within reach. Yet it was also the century that gave us Kierkegaard, Nietzsche and Kafka, three writers whose work expressed the subjective dimension of life, analyzed the role of human choice and will, and rejected a purely rationalist vision of existence.

To residents of Copenhagen in the first half of the nineteenth century, Søren Kierkegaard was a familiar sight, his striking figure daily walking the streets of the town. But few, if any, would have known that he was the author of several volumes of philosophy and theology – his early works were published under a series of unlikely pseudonyms, including Johannes de Silentio and Hilarius Bookbinder. Despite the oddness of his pen-names, Kierkegaard was deeply in earnest, and occupied his last years with an extended critique of the Church of Denmark in a series of pamphlets. His arguments that faith is rooted in an act of individual choice, not church ritual, and that state involvement corrupted the church, were highly influential, and his reputation grew rapidly after his early death in 1855. W. Lowrie’s A Short Life of Soren Kierkegaard is a perfect introduction to Kierkegaard’s life and work by one of his first English translators. For those willing to make a leap of faith and tackle Kierkegaard’s life in greater detail, Joakim Garff’s magisterial Søren Kierkegaard: A Biography is the definitive work.

As the subtitle of Walter Kaufman’s Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist suggests, Friedrich Nietzsche’s thoughts on religion were far removed from those of Kierkegaard. He derided Christian ethics as “slave morality” and proclaimed the need for the individual to overcome their social, cultural and moral context through the force of will. His radical ideas and poetic, allusive style were unsuccessful in his lifetime – he printed a mere forty copies of the fourth part of Thus Spake Zarathustra – but his influence has grown enormously in the century following his death, as much among writers and artists as philosophers.

Nietzsche eventually succumbed to insanity and lived the last years of his life in the care of his sister, Elizabeth Förster-Nietzsche, who edited his remaining manuscripts for publication after his death. It is often argued that she introduced an anti-semitic and nationalist slant that later made Nietzsche’s thought more appealing to the Nazis. However, were it not for similar efforts by Max Brod, none of Franz Kafka’s novels would have survived. On his deathbed, Kafka asked Brod to destroy his manuscripts and diaries, but convinced of Kafka’s genius, Brod instead chose to preserve them and edit them for publication. A perfectionist, Kafka could not bring himself to finish any of the novels, but even in their incomplete forms, the Trial and the Castle stand as undisputed classics. Reiner Stach’s monumental biography (Kafka: The Decisive Years, and Kafka: The Years of Insight) paints an astonishingly detailed picture of a deeply introspective writer and his life in Prague at the turn of the century.

A few words on the “Bullshit Centenary”

k7929[1]We are all familiar with Princeton University Press’s famous publication On Bullshit by Harry G. Frankfurt, winner of the 2005 Bestseller Award in Philosophy. Well, the history of the word “bullshit” goes far back in time, but perhaps not as far as one might think…

One hundred years ago a young immigrant poet submitted his poem “The Triumph of Bullshit” for publication in a London avant‑garde magazine. The editor’s letter explaining his rejection of the work makes clear he decided to “stick to my naif determination to have no ‘Words ending in -Uck, -Unt and –Ugger’.” Probably the word “bullshit” was imported from the poet’s native US; but so far no one has found “bullshit” in print as a single word before 1915.

Source: The Guardian, “TS Eliot: the poet who conquered the world, 50 years on,” http://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/jan/10/from-tom-to-ts-eliot-world-poet

How do we reconcile this young subversive poet with the “po-faced ‘Pope of Russell Square’ (as the older Eliot came to be nicknamed)” who is widely respected as one of the finest poet of the 20th century? What else do we owe to TS Eliot? Read more here: http://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/jan/10/from-tom-to-ts-eliot-world-poet

New Philosophy Catalog!

Be among the first to browse and download our new philosophy catalog!

Of particular interest is Jason Stanley’s How Propaganda Works. Our democracy today is fraught with political campaigns, lobbyists, liberal media, and Fox News, all using language to influence the way we think and reason about public issues. Even so, many of us believe that propaganda and manipulation aren’t problems for us—not in the way they were for the totalitarian societies of the mid-twentieth century. In How Propaganda Works, Stanley demonstrates that more attention needs to be paid. He examines how propaganda operates subtly, how it undermines democracy—particularly the ideals of democratic deliberation and equality—and how it has damaged democracies of the past.

Also be sure to note Carlos Fraenkel’s Teaching Plato in Palestine: Philosophy in a Divided World. This book is part intellectual travelogue, part plea for integrating philosophy into our personal and public life. Philosophical toolkit in tow, Fraenkel invites readers on a tour around the world as he meets students at Palestinian and Indonesian universities, lapsed Hasidic Jews in New York, teenagers from poor neighborhoods in Brazil, and the descendants of Iroquois warriors in Canada. They turn to Plato and Aristotle, al-Ghazālī and Maimonides, Spinoza and Nietzsche for help to tackle big questions: Does God exist? Is piety worth it? Can violence be justified? What is social justice and how can we get there? Who should rule? And how shall we deal with the legacy of colonialism? Fraenkel shows how useful the tools of philosophy can be—particularly in places fraught with conflict—to clarify such questions and explore answers to them.

And don’t miss out on Seana Valentine Shiffrin’s Speech Matters: On Lying, Morality, and the Law. To understand one another as individuals and to fulfill the moral duties that require such understanding, we must communicate with each other. We must also maintain protected channels that render reliable communication possible, a demand that, Shiffrin argues, yields a prohibition against lying and requires protection for free speech. This book makes a distinctive philosophical argument for the wrong of the lie and provides an original account of its difference from the wrong of deception.

More of our leading titles in philosophy can be found in the catalog. You may also sign up with ease to be notified of forthcoming titles at http://press.princeton.edu/subscribe/. (Your e-mail address will remain confidential!)

If you’re heading to the annual American Philosophical Association meeting in Philadelphia, PA December 27th-30th, come visit us at the Princeton booth. See you there!

Cowardice: A Brief History, the song

Walsh_CowardiceCowardice: A Brief History explores a subject that is as important as it has been overlooked. The book shows that over the course of modern western history, the idea of cowardice has faded–a welcome trend because the fear of being judged cowardly has led to much recklessness and violence. Yet when this trend goes too far, when cowardice is dismissed as an absurd or irrelevant idea, we lose an essential part of our ethical vocabulary. So while the book condemns specious and harmful invocations of cowardice, it also argues that a rigorous and nuanced conception of cowardice–one that condemns failures of duty born of excessive fear, to give a quick definition–is worth keeping.

The book focuses on the archetypal home of cowardice, the battlefield. Sometimes I felt like I was in a battle (mostly with myself) in writing it. It took me a long time–almost twenty years--to finish. But the last part of the book escapes from war to explore cowardice in everyday life, in religion and crime and in love (another kind of battlefield). As I was writing this part I was actually able to have some fun–even to the point that I wrote lyrics and sent them to the amazing Chandler Travis who put them to music and recorded a demo you can listen to here. We titled the tune… “Cowardice: A Brief History.”

This is probably the only scholarly book to have its own eponymous song released with it. This is probably the only song that alludes to The Temptations and the Russian General Georgy Zhukov (1896-1974) in the same verse. And this is probably not the sort of thing a writer should do if he wants to maintain any sense of dignity, gravitas, etc.

But one of the things Cowardice advocates is not giving in to the cowardice of fearing excessively what people might think. The book argues that fear of cowardice can–sometimes–actually be useful in battling against other fears, more useful even than the aspiration to courage. The existence of the book itself is a modest example of this usefulness. It didn’t require me to be courageous, but once I decided that it was my duty to write it, to start a conversation that would not take place without a book called Cowardice, the fear of being cowardly helped me finish it.


This is a guest post by Chris Walsh, associate director of the College of Arts and Sciences Writing Program at Boston University.

Cowardice: A Brief History  

Chris Walsh

 

Throwback Thursday #TBT: Bruce Aune’s Kant’s Theory of Morals (1980)


Throwback Thursday: Week 2


Aune, Kant's Theory of Morals

Hello again, everybody! Welcome to our second installment of Throwback Thursday (#TBT). This week’s #TBT goes to Bruce Aune’s Kant’s Theory of Morals (1980), another wonderful book brought back by the graces of the Princeton Legacy Library.

A brief description, for your viewing (and reading) pleasure:

Written for the general reader and the student of moral philosophy, this book provides a clear and unified treatment of Kant’s theory of morals. Bruce Aune takes into account all of Kant’s principal writings on morality and presents them in a contemporary idiom.

We hope you’re enjoying these soundbites – leave word in comments section below if there are any books you’d like to see featured in future #TBTs. Until next Thursday!

Princeton at Hay Festival


Hay on Monday evening
Blackburn at Hay
Simon Blackburn talks to Rosie Boycott
Mitton at Hay
Jacqueline Mitton broadens our knowledge of the solar system
Bethencourt at Hay
Francisco Bethencourt discusses “Racisms”

Last week was an important week in the British literary calendar–the week of Hay Festival! Set in beautiful Hay-on-Wye on the Welsh Borders, and running since 1988, the festival attracts thousands of book and culture enthusiasts from around the world every year. This year’s line-up was as strong as ever: with names such as Toni Morrison, Richard Dawkins, Stephen Fry, Mervin King, Jeremy Paxman, Simon Schama, Sebastian Faulks, William Dalrymple, Benedict Cumberbatch, Bear Grylls, Max Hastings, Rob Brydon, Bill Bailey and Dame Judi Dench (to name but a few to catch my eye in the jam-packed programme), 2014’s Festival could not fail to enthrall and delight anyone who walked its muddy paths.

And of course, Princeton University Press authors have been gracing the Hay stages this year, with a variety of wonderful events. From Diane Coyle, explaining GDP to us in plain English (and lo0king very stylish in her Hay wellies) to Michael Wood (translator of Dictionary of Untranslatables) discussing words that defy easy–or any–translation from one language and culture to another, to Ian Goldin’s talk about globalization and risk (The Butterfly Defect), last weekend got off to a great start.

Then, earlier in the week, Jacqueline Mitton (author of From Dust to Life) took a gripped audience on a journey through the history of our solar system in her “John Maddox Lecture”.  On Tuesday, Rosie Boycott spoke to Simon Blackburn about his book Mirror, Mirror–a fascinating conversation which covered everything from psychopathic tendencies displayed in senior management to whether Facebook is really that damaging to the young. Francisco Bethencourt, meanwhile, managed to squeeze a history of racisms into an hour and gave us lots to ponder.

If all this leaves you wishing you’d been there, there is still more to envy! Later in the week, Roger Scruton, Will Gompertz and others discussed the value of a Fine Art degree – does contemporary art celebrate concept without skill? On a parallel stage, renowned historian Averil Cameron (author of Byzantine Matters) convinced us that an understanding of the Byzantine era is just as important as studying, say, Rome or Greece. Finally, Michael Scott (author of Delphi), whom it is almost impossible to miss on the BBC these days, delivered a talk about Delphi: A History of the Center of the Ancient World on Friday.

Whether you swoon for science are potty for poetry, whether you want to dance the night away in a frenzy of jazz or are hoping to meet your favourite on-screen star, Hay Festival offers something new and exciting every year.

A special summer reading round-up from Executive Editor, Rob Tempio

Dear Friends, Book Lovers, and Knowledge Seekers:

photo[1]

A recent government-issued report on the security threats posed by climate change warns of the potential for widespread conflict due to food shortages and competition for resources. The fragility of our interconnected and interdependent global civilization is at stake. An unprecedented event? Not at all. In the 12th century B.C., the great civilizations of the late Bronze Age came tumbling down one by one wracked by war, famine, drought and numerous other calamities which in part may have been caused, recent evidence indicates, by an apparent change in climate. The archaeologist Eric Cline tells the story of this collapse in his fantastic and best-selling new book, 1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed. The book is part of a brand new series just launched here at the press: Turning Points in Ancient History, edited by ancient historian Barry Strauss. Professor Cline’s book is one the most exciting I have ever published (if you don’t believe me, watch this trailer).

 

The collapse of the Bronze Age is, as the ancient historian Ian Morris put it, “one of history’s greatest mysteries.” And yet so few people are aware of this pivotal event in human history. Eric Cline’s book is going a long way to remedy that. And so far, readers like it—they really like it.

Would the inhabitants of the Bronze Age World have seen it coming if they had an oracle like the famous one at Delphi? Probably not. As Michael Scott points out in his new book, Delphi: The History of the Center of the Ancient World, the oracle’s pronouncements were almost always cryptic and open to the interpretation those seeking answers wanted to give it—often with disastrous empire-ending results (see Croesus, King). Yet people from around the ancient world flocked to the site for nearly a thousand years for religious, political, and even financial reasons as Delphi was also the banking capital of the Greek city-states. A sacred site indeed. Michael Scott tells the full story of this magnificent site from its founding to its archaeological rediscovery in the 19th century. It truly was the center of the world in ancient times. In fact, the Greeks called the site the omphalos or “the belly-button of the ancient world” (which I guess is better than being “the armpit of America” like us here in NJ).

Speaking of seeing it coming, I recently came across a peculiar ad in the New York Subway system for the Manhattan Mini Storage reminding (warning?) New Yorkers that in 1789 the French aristocracy failed to see the revolution that was in their midst—a revolution which would end with many of them headed to the guillotine.

Does Manhattan Mini Storage know something we don’t? What exactly were the signs of the coming revolution that those decadent aristocrats missed (and which apparently should have had them heading for their storage lockers)? To find out more about the animating ideas of the French Revolution (and possible signs for our own times) read historian Jonathan Israel’s major new intellectual history of the French Revolution, Revolutionary Ideas.

As we head into Memorial Day weekend, I can heartily recommend any of these books for reading at the beach (or the shore if you live in New Jersey), especially if you’d like to impress your fellow beachgoers with your intellect, if not your tan. Our Bronze Age is better for your skin anyway. But as you work on your tan, it would do you well to remember that vanity has its drawbacks, as the philosopher Simon Blackburn reminds us in his wonderful meditation on the use and abuses of self-love, Mirror, Mirror.

It’s been a great pleasure to work on these books and so many other important and fascinating books this past year. I hope you’ll find one you like. Or why not more than one? After all, you’re worth it.

Happy reading this summer!

Rob Tempio, Executive Editor of Philosophy, Political Theory, and the Ancient World

Untranslatable Tuesdays – Media

media

To mark the publication of Dictionary of Untranslatables: A Philosophical Lexicon, we are delighted to share a series of playful graphics by our design team which illustrate some of the most interesting terms from the Dictionary. For week six in the “Untranslatable Tuesdays” series we present Media/Medium (of communication):

By the beginning of the twentieth century, the recognition of a family resemblance between the various “implements of intercommunication” meant that they could be compared and contrasted in profitable new ways. . . . The term “mass media” found its niche in scholarly articles by such influential American midcentury thinkers as Hadley Cantril, Harold Lasswell, and Paul Lazarsfeld. But European philosophers resisted this tendency. . . . For Sartre, Adorno, and their contemporaries, “mass media” was less an untranslatable than an untouchable sullied by intellectual and institutional associations with American cultural imperialism. . . . This resistance was soon exhausted. . . . Cognates like “multimedia,” “remediation,” and “mediality” proliferate globally. This reflects less the dominance of English than the collective urgency of an intellectual project. (Ben Kafka)

 

Untranslatable Tuesdays – Work

work-final

To mark the publication of Dictionary of Untranslatables: A Philosophical Lexicon, we are delighted to share a series of playful graphics by our design team which illustrate some of the most interesting terms from the Dictionary. For  the fourth in the “Untranslatable Tuesdays” series we present Work, with an abridged entry by Pascal David:

FRENCH       travail, oeuvre

GERMAN     Arbeit, Werk

GREEK       ponos, ergon

LATIN         labor, opus

The human activity that falls under the category of “work,” at least in some of its uses, is linked to pain (the French word travail derives from the Latin word for an instrument of torture), to labor (Lat. labor [the load], Eng. “labor”), and to accomplishment, to the notion of putting to work (Gr. ergasomai [ἐϱγάζομαι], Lat. opus, Fr. mise en oeuvre, Eng. “work,” Ger. Werk), which is not necessarily the oppo­site of leisure but can be its partner. With Hegel, work (Ger. Arbeit) becomes a philosophical concept, but it designates self-realization (whether the course of history or the life of God) rather than a reality that is exclusively or even primarily anthropological.

What does work mean to you?