The reading group on Calcidius and Ibn Gabirol is coming to an end—our last meeting is going to be on Feb 15th. We had some great fun trying to understand many intricate doctrinal points on ontology and cosmology. It has been wild. But also incredibly pleasurable. My most sincere gratitude goes to all the brave participants, each one of whom has added very valuable insights and interpretative perspectives.
Here’s a photo from the last session of the reading group.
Looking forward to seeing you all next semester, with a new reading group on an equally peculiar medieval thinker: Roger Bacon.
My friend Rosie Reed Gold visited me this weekend. It has been a special visit. Rosie is a fantastic artist based in London (you can find here some of her impressive creations and here some of the amazing photos she takes). We met in Oxford last year and since the very beginning we knew that there was something fast growing from our conversations on philosophy, art, and medieval science. A strange idea. A collaboration was looming. And it is a very special collaboration, I would say.
Different approaches to truth. There is no need to refer to Hans Georg Gadamer to see that there’s something in art which is irreducible to our standard comprehension of verbal assertions or mathematical equations. Aesthetic experiences offer a different access to something that we might call truth. A truth of the event which is in front of us. An access to a different comprehension of that event—that thing, that happening, that thought represented and therefore uncovered by the artistic creation. A non-apophantic assertion of something that is differently processed by our minds. An un-covering of a reality hidden beneath a surface of rational consideration.
There is a philosophical dimension within art that goes well beyond aesthetics. But can we talk of an artistic dimension within philosophy? Can art help us grasp something philosophically relevant from our consideration of a doctrine or maybe even in our attempts at resolving thorny interpretative problems? And what kind of knowledge would that be, if we assume that an artistic access to philosophy is indeed feasible?
Similar considerations, of course, can be made about contemporary science. Can science contribute to the solution of historically determined theoretical problems not directly related to practices and concrete realisations of something? Can scientific knowledge and an utterly scientific approach help us understanding doctrinal problems and aspects, for instance, of Premodern metaphysics? At a first glance, access, methods, and basic assumptions of contemporary science appear to impede similar applications. Which, in the best case, would result into an extemporaneous anachronistic interpretation of historically determined problems.
Not necessarily, though, and not always…
Let matter enter the scene, then! As I was saying, a daring project is looming, getting closer and closer. After two intense days of intriguing discussions, Rosie and I were exhausted yet replenished with new brilliant ideas and plans. It will be a matter of unhinging—figuratively, and perhaps also literally—some basic assumptions and linchpins. But it is always like this, isn’t it?
Il primo di giugno abbiamo presentato presso la SISMEL di Firenze il volume Vedere nell’ombra. Studi su natura, spiritualità e scienze operative offerti a Michela Pereira. Dopo mesi di pianificazione, siamo riusciti a mantenere il ‘segreto’ e fare una bella sorpresa a Michela, che non si aspettava nulla. Una festa con amici e colleghi e un gran momento per ritrovarsi insieme e festeggiare una persona che ha dato così tanto a tutti noi.
A seguire, alcuni scatti presi durante il pomeriggio fiorentino.
One of the best things of this line of work is the oneiric dimension of travel. It is not the travel in itself to be oneiric—even though, when one travels to the US or Canada, there’s always a sleepy state that goes on for days: nothing poetic, though, just jet-lag. The oneiric dimension happens when you fly away to attend a conference or a meeting and, suddenly, you are in a completely different academic environment. There, for just a few days, you can dream of living a different life working at a different university. From this point of view, America is unparalleled and the Ordered Universe project a sort of “Traumfabrik”! It was the OU that marked May 2018 with a long trip to Montreal and Kalamazoo, and a Chicago-ending.
It was my first time in Montreal, Quebec. Sincerely, I couldn’t imagine what I was going to experience there (terrific food, more terrific food, beautiful people, awesome architecture, decadent landscapes, and much more). As always, companionship was amazing. Ordered Universe symposia and meetings are not only brilliant moments of theoretical discussion, but also great gathering of new and old friends. We always have such a good time together, and the Montreal symposium wasn’t different. We had days of incredibly fascinating and stimulating discussions on Grosseteste’s De motu supercelestium and De motu corporali et luce, the latter being one of my favourite works authored by Grosseteste. Hosted by Faith Wallis at McGill University, the workshop was ultimately fantastic, undoubtedly a success. Not to mention the extraordinary food we had there at a series of astounding restaurants!
Quebec cuisine has quite a reputation…. and it deserves it! I also had a chance to try again the famous poutine. After my Toronto experience, I had no expectations, as that very first poutine I ate was horrible. Nonetheless, the real Quebec poutine I had in Montreal was like an inspiring and overwhelming dream made of gravy, cheese, French fries, and smoked meat. Fantastic!
Aesthetically, Montreal is such a beautiful city. Relaxed, European, and safe. A fusion of contemporary architecture and old (at least for that continent) buildings. Walking my way down to the St Lawrence river has been quite an experience. But it wasn’t enough. Between the end of the symposium and the beginning of another brilliant meeting (the McGill-Durham graduate conference to which some of the best graduate students of both universities participated—with a lovely intruder from Oxford), I did what I usually do when I’m in those huge American conglomerates of people and buildings we call metropolises: I walked. And I went to Little Italy (sorry, “la petite Italie”), Mile End, walking my way down through the Plateau down to the river. A tremendous experience, in which I also discovered that bagels are actually made in dedicated bakeries (maybe “bageleries”?) by real people. I also tried a fresh-made one: it was superb. (As always, I have also taken a lot of pictures and I now realise that I need to enrol on some sort of photography social platform. Otherwise, no one will ever see the actual results of my long walks through Europe and America!)
The spectre of Kalamazoo was looming, though. Kalamazoo was not a problem, it was the 14-hour-long drive from Montreal! A group of seven people from Durham (well, actually six, as there still was the lovely intruder from Oxford, but it was like as she was from Durham) locked into a car, even if a good one, for such a long time and without smoking? It’s not a joke: it happened! And I can proudly say that I survived it! Maybe, for the sake of this blog, I should say that it was a great fun and we had an amazing time while we were trapped in there. It would be a lie: it was so boring, notwithstanding many attempts at having fun. We made it to Kalamazoo, though, and that’s what’s important.
Kalamazoo. The place, the Zoo. Amazing, but too short. I wasn’t able to meet with all the people I wanted to meet. Nevertheless, new friendships have begun, old friends have been met, new collaborations have been established, no disease from the dorms has been contracted, and knowledge has been shared: that’s the spirit of Kalamazoo! The two panels on medieval science organised by OU were terrific and we got some very positive feedbacks. I have understood that blue margaritas are not my cup of tea and I had a splendid stimulating time there. I definitely look forward to going back to Kalamazoo next year.
Before flying back to Europe, I had two days in Chicago. I love that town. Architecturally speaking, no other city is like Chicago, not even New York can compete with such an outstanding aesthetic exquisiteness. I slept my nights there laying literally in front of five huge lightened letters (they were T-R-U-M-P and, believe me, it was a sort of Mordor-like experience: next time, I will think it twice before booking my hotel).
I met with a fantastic friend who gave me a tour of the University of Chicago, I walked a lot, and I finally tried a Chicago deep-dish pizza!! Yes, I did so! It was since 2015, when I was at Notre Dame, that I wanted to try one. Problem is that I went to a restaurant (Labriola: gorgeous!) two hours before taking my taxi to the airport, and I couldn’t imagine that a Chicago deep-dish pizza was that… large! After two slices, I felt I was going to die. With six more in front of me, I decided to do what an American would do: ask for boxes. That’s how I had got a real Chicago deep-dish pizza in Europe.
Such a long trip (more than three weeks!) would require, perhaps, a long and detailed report. Luckily for you, though, I really don’t have time to do so, and I’ll limit myself to some quick notes on a superb dissemination-and-research trip.
First destination: Boston. My very good friend, Katja Krause, had organised an outstanding workshop at Harvard on a fascinating theme: science and religion. It was my first time in Massachusetts, and it has been such a splendid experience. Boston is incredibly European: so much history, everything is clean-and-polished, public transportation is perfect, no Walmart on sight (with my profound disappointment). It was like not being in America at all! The workshop went marvellously well (and how could have not been so, with such a brilliant host, Katja): different perspectives and approaches (theology, history of science, philosophy) on a delicate matter such as the relation between religion and scientific knowledge from the Late Antiquity to the Early Modernity. From Byzantine alchemy to Galileo’s astronomical observations, passing through the Arabic and Latin traditions, the workshop has been incredibly interesting, opening new lines (and collaborations) to be carefully explored.
Second destination: Toronto. My first time in Canada, too, my first time participating in a HSS meeting: curiosity, eagerness, anxiety were the traits depicting my mood when the aircraft landed at Pearson. Toronto is just so different from what I was expecting: I thought I would have been landing in a kind of Switzerland of America, with Toronto as a sort of Zurich or Bern. To the contrary, Toronto is like New York, as if they were twin sisters separated at birth and raised in two different, but not far-away, villages. Beauty and contradictions, luxury and poverty, all condensed in one big and freezing city: outstanding aesthetical instantiation of human existence, with tall buildings and British shades all over the place. The History of Science Society meeting was hosted right at the centre of the city centre – nothing more central! – at the Sheraton. Hundreds of historians of science presenting their research, approach, problems, and doubts on that long history of scientific reflection which mostly corresponds to the history of human progress. A fascinating, formative, brilliant experience, which was crowned by our panel on the limits of science (Late Antiquity to Early Modernity). That was the exquisite fruit of such beautiful minds (Steven, Katja, Yehuda, and Vincenzo) filling a ‘medieval gap’ with incredibly interesting contributions. Perhaps, the best academic moment of my trip to America, a trip which was loaded of outstanding academic moments. And yes, I did find time to quickly go to Niagara Falls (there are no words to describe that!).
No time to rest, and I was on my way to the third destination of my trip: Dallas. Another first time, here: Texas, the wild land with lots of guns, and its ‘come and take it!’ echoing far away. I was totally ready to see those landscapes I imagined to be filled with oil extraction plants, people with Stetson cowboy hats, and money flowing all over the way… As often happens, though, I soon realised that my expectations were the outcome of unsound mental constructions (let’s just call them prejudices). Coming from Toronto (1 C°) to Dallas (28 C°), the first days were marked by a real and enveloping thermal shock. Moreover, Dallas is a rather peculiar city, very different from New York or Chicago, and far away from European Boston. There is no actual ‘downtown’, or better, for sure there is one, but it is not a real place to walk down (apart from Thanksgiving Square). It reminded me a lot of Indianapolis, which is not a bad place, but is ‘different’. I was very lucky, though, for in Dallas I met with two of my best adventuring companions, my very good friends Therese and David. As a consequence, Texas has been simply and utterly amazing! The ACPA meeting was superb: shifting from the history of science to philosophy (in a very strict sense) has been like coming back home (from a short trip, though), and the ACPA people are so friendly, interesting, and brilliant scholars! I was very happy to participate in the Dallas meeting, and I have to admit that I learnt many things and discovered new valuable approaches. A remarkable experience mingled with jalapeño margaritas, the best barbecue I’ve ever tasted (brisket, what a discovery! If you have the occasion to do so, go to Pecan Lodge in Dallas!), the rodeo in Fort Worth (unbelievable!), corn-and-pineapple-covered-with-paprika lollypops (yes, they exist to demonstrate that Hegel was wrong: what is irrational is real, too!), the G.W.B. Presidential Library, and many other splendid things. But time runs fast, and the final destination of my trip was looming up already. As soon as the meeting was over, Therese, David, and I rent a car to San Antonio, passing through Austin (outstanding museum of Texas there!) while listening to Johnny Cash.
The few days I spent in San Antonio were like a dream. I still happen to think on those days wondering whether they were real or not. San Antonio is such an oneiric, relaxing, awesome place, with its River Walk, the Alamo, the Missions, wildlife for free, and delicious restaurants. I went to Southern Texas to meet with two amazing colleagues from Texas State University, Yasmine and David. Medieval Iberia in Texas! We decided to start collaborating on new projects and, you will see, this is going to be terrific, for impressive things have been planned (no spoilers, though, although I can’t wait for them).
Another walk through downtown San Antonio, and it was time already (?!) to go back to Europe, academically and personally enriched by this magnificent trip, with so many plans and even more things to do. And a beautiful surprise, too: I’ve been awarded a Humboldt Fellowship in Berlin, starting on September 2018!
I’ve just signed a new collaboration to an intriguing research project: Hermenéutica patrística y medievalbased at the University of Navarra. I can only imagine how the synergies between such a brilliant research team will contribute to the pursue of this interesting project, under the supervision of Maria Jesús Soto Bruna.
Finally, the ‘Gundissalinus World Tour’ comes to an end. After the awesome days in Milwaukee, I flew to DC, where I enjoyed the wonderful weather and the restored Capitol dome (amazing!) for a couple of days, working on the next meetings. Then, a 10h30-long train trip to Columbia, SC: in a dream-like atmosphere, I drifted along brown-and-yellow woods, tiny lakes, small towns, chatting with nameless people for just the time of a coffee while the train passes the border between Virginia and North Carolina.
Columbia is just as I imagined the capital of South Carolina following the sweet descriptions my friends gave me last year: a calm, tidy, green town, with an effervescent atmosphere. The real surprise has been the USC campus: it’s not a campus, it’s like a huge and vast garden, or possibly an open museum surrounded by trees and flowers. I can’t imagine a better place for a student to spend his/her years at the university! The buildings, with their colonial style outside joined to a high-tech modern style on the inside, well, they were just astoundingly beautiful. The crowded streets, with hundreds of students, don’t spoil the sense of friendly order you can perceive throughout the whole campus; and the Horseshoe, with its benches and historical buildings – with their columns, windows, flags, and porches – gives you the rare sense to breathe the very history of that marvellous country.
Just this experience would have been enough. The best part of the week I spent in Columbia, though, has been the people with whom I stayed: Jerry and Lilla Hackett. It’s extremely difficult to summarise in just a few words how beautiful, exciting, stimulating, and unique those days have been for me. Jerry and Lilla are wonderful people, with such a kindness and fondness – so rare in these times – that I truly felt like home since the very first moment. And besides chatting and working on Gundissalinus and Bacon, we had a memorable week marked by unforgettable moments. Let me mention two of them, just to give you a taste of that week: the presidential election of Donald J. Trump and the concert of Bob Dylan, to which Jerry and Lilla invited me. Two moments I won’t ever forget, for different and contrasting reasons…
And then my talks. I had the occasion to briefly present to the USC Philosophy Department Grosseteste and the work the Ordered Universe Project is pursuing. Trying to explain to the colleagues the running of the project is so difficult: it’s a strange alchemy of people and skills, philosophy and science, laws of refraction and Aristotle’s physics… a joining of perspectives that works just perfectly. And it is always a pleasure to see how interested the people are regarding this pioneering project that, beside of producing so many crucial contributions to our understanding of Grosseteste, is also providing an example of how an interdisciplinary approach to humanities can and should be developed.
Nevertheless, the most amazing and intriguing event has been the workshop on Gundissalinus and Ibn Daud organised by Jerry. Only the warm air of South Carolina and the genius of Jerry could have thought on a meeting of this kind in America: and the outcomes have been astounding!! Four scholars – Jerry Hackett, Katja Vehlow, Caleb Colley, and I – talking about the role played by Gundissalinus and Ibn Daud in the history of medieval philosophy. And so many ideas, perspectives, new data and sources, Aquinas and Bacon, Peckham and Gundissalinus: simply amazing, extremely useful, just perfect! I won’t spoil anything (the proceedings are likely to be published soon, for the very high level of the discussion): just wait and see!
With the colloquium, the American part of the tour came to an end, and I had to fly back to Europe, with the usual sadness I feel when I have to leave the US. Next destination: Barcelona, where the VII congress of the Sociedad de Filosofía Medieval (i.e., SOFIME) was about to begin. Barcelona, or better, Cerdanyola del Vallés, the small town where the Universidad Autónoma de Barcelona is located, and where I spent some fruitful months working on my dissertation during my PhD. It’s always like coming home: the streets, the concrete buildings, tapas y cañas. And my magister, the person who gave me method, knowledge, and perspective: Alexander Fidora.
The congress went perfectly well: many people, old friends and new ones, a lot of fun as only the Spanish academia is able to provide. My talk on the authorship of the De immortalitate animae received many interesting questions, and I have to say that some of them, as well as the overall acceptance of my hypothesis, were quite unexpected. Also regarding this point there will be some surprises, since it’s not just the De immortalitate animae but also another anonymous writing that is going to be hopefully attributed to Gundissalinus (a point that I clarified thanks to the ‘World Tour’ and the many discussions I had in the US). But no spoilers: just give me a couple of months and I’ll tell you exactly what I mean.
There’s no need to underline how interesting were many of the talks and lectures delivered in Barcelona: possibly, that’s normal (but not obvious) in such a prestigious gathering. What I should mention here is that the SOFIME assembly asked me to become Editor Assistant of the Revista Española de Filosofía Medieval and, also, person in charge of the digital communication of the society. It will be a honour and a great pleasure for me to contribute to the society with my skills, accompanied by a lot of humility. It has been such a great surprise, and I can’t describe how astounded I was in that moment (and even now). Let me just thank again my Spanish colleagues for their trust in me.
There would be many other things to say and write, new collaborations and projects, the agreement for a new introductory monograph on Gundissalinus’s thought (to be published next Spring), and the many interesting people I’ve met here. But I have to admit to myself (and to you) that I’m beginning to be quite tired, after almost a whole month travelling from a place to another every few days. On Monday, I will finally fly back to Durham: the ‘Gundissalinus World Tour’ is over, but the many outcomes of this trip will have a long-lasting effect on my work and my research. And beside that, this month has been just amazing.
The first ten days in the US have passed: two lectures and many precious moments of enrichment, reflection, discussion and (often quite underestimated) fun. It all began in a very bad way: the journey Durham – South Bend lasted 45 (you’re not misreading: forty-five) hours, a time during which I had the occasion to cultivate a crucial and painful virtue: patience (a vast amount of it). But once the plane did land in Chicago, and I entered the train to South Bend, all the stress and the fatigue of the long trip suddenly disappeared.
Notre Dame is a strange place. A golden campus in the middle of nowhere, a peculiar geographical position thanks to which the Winter is so cold that once, when I tried to visit the campus (and even heading downtown: how foolish of me), I had to run home very fast since I couldn’t feel my feet and hands anymore. And all that after just 15 minutes at -23! It was February 2015, and I was there for my SIEPM fellowship, a crucial moment, I can see that now, looking backwards to my PhD. In those months spent in South Bend, Indiana, I had the occasion to make friends with the squirrels and learn from prestigious scholars; I tasted my first pineapple pizza and my first grapples; I saw the contradictions of the American welfare state and the astonishing wonders of the American dream. I loved it, and sometimes I hated it: but going back to South Bend has been like going home and meet with old good friends (and I do not mean the squirrels).
The return to Notre Dame could have been just great, but spending those day with Therese and David Cory has been more than brilliant. They had arranged a true American experience for me, from the typical eggs-bacon-jam breakfast to pumpkin carving and trick-or-treating, yummi dinners, excursions to multi-coloured farmer’s markets, and… football! What an astounding experience, being there, the crowded stadium, the golden helmets, an exciting game whose outcomes were uncertain till the very end. And a good one for the Fighting Irish!
Then, the day of my lecture finally came. I was a bit concerned, for the topic (epistemology) and the authors I had to deal with (Augustine, Isidore, Hugh of St Victor, and Gundissalinus): in such a prestigious university, considering the extremely high level of both faculty and students of the MI, what could I expect to be asked about? And again, the magic of Notre Dame – fondly required, especially with a paper on alchemy and necromancy – converted the very substance of that lecture in one of the best moments of discussion and debate ever, comparable only to what came a few days later (spoiler!). We spent a lot of time discussing the implications that astrology has on the human free will, the ‘political problem’ arising from alchemy as aurifiction rather than aurifaction (but in both cases it was a huge problem), the overall epistemological problems of Gundissalinus’s classification of sciences, and how these border-line disciplines survived the condemnations by the Church.
After Notre Dame, I moved to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, right on the other side of Lake Michigan. Marquette University, one of the most prestigious academic institutions in America for medieval philosophy (and beyond). A bit anxious for the ‘big happening’, I was so eager to know what the people at Marquette think about the first reception of Avicenna in the Latin West. And the two days I spent in Milwaukee have been, by this viewpoint, definitely astonishing! Indeed, it’s always a pleasure to discuss your research with scholars dealing with topics related to yours, especially when they are so great scholars as Richard Taylor. But the discussion after my talk had something else, something difficult to define or describe (so Plotinian). A two-hours discussion, talking with Richard Taylor, David Tweteen, and the other members of the Mid-West seminar on the sources of Gundissalinus’s epistemological system, its peculiar merging of al-Farabi and Avicenna, the cosmological derivation of the universe and the influence of Abraham ibn Daud on this peculiar aspect of Gundissalinus’s reflection. But we also had the chance to discuss the intriguing treatise On the Peregrinations of the Soul in the Afterlife, a curious writing describing the ascent and descent of the soul after its separation from the body. One of the most precious moments of discussion, in general, and whose outcomes could be crucial under many respects for our understanding of the dynamics by which Avicenna and ‘the Arabs’ became part of the Latin philosophical tradition.
The days I spent in Milwaukee were then crowned by two further events. The first one is my attendance at Richard Taylor’s graduate course, where I met Marquette’s graduate students. They are so prepared and working on many interesting issues, and it is awesome to see how philosophy and research perpetuate themselves into the new generations – and the spirit of Avicenna appeared. Philosophy and knowledge in general have a development similar to what the Persian philosopher stated (following another friend of us) on the individuals who perpetuate the species through their offspring. But we often forget that when we give to anyone even just a glimpse of reflection (a lecture, a lesson, or just a few words), we are performing a maieutic operation, so important and so precious. The second event in Milwaukee is quite unrelated to academia or medieval philosophy, but not less historical: the Chicago Cubs won the World Series, and that’s a sort of ‘huge happening’ that I am so proud to have witnessed, even if just watching it on TV. Baseball is such a mental game – I’d even say, the ‘perfect’ game – and its discovery has been one of the best gifts I received by the period I spent in Notre Dame last year. As a chess game with a different ‘spirit’, baseball is like a medieval disputatio: you have to possess a vast knowledge of the authorities, reflect carefully, perform efficiently… and also have a bit of luck!
From Milwaukee I flew to Washington DC (with another flight cancelled and rebooked!), where I am now, revising my paper for the Colloquium at the University of South Carolina. Tomorrow afternoon, a long train trip (10:30h) will take me to Columbia, SC: I am sure I will have many things to add to this short update very, very soon. And in three days: presidential election!