Potestas Essendi

A Virtual Space for Thoughts on the Middle Ages, by Nicola Polloni


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Back from Pamplona

I’ve just come back from a brilliant workshop in Pamplona! After months collaborating together on our project , the members of the research group ‘Hermenéutica patrística y medieval (LOGOS)’ (based at the Instituto de Estudios Medievales of the University of Navarra) finally met! What can I say? It’s been a marvellous day of study led by María Jesús Soto-Bruna: so many interesting talks, new tempting ideas, projects, collaborations… Just brilliant! So many good people there, can’t wait to the next meeting (and go back to Pamplona, hopefully!).

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Fall 2017 – Research Trip to America

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.

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Workshop at Harvard

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Boston

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!).

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At the HSS Meeting in Toronto

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Toronto from the CN Tower

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.

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Dallas

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Rodeo (Fort Worth)

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).

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The Alamo

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At Texas State University

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!


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Translating Experience. Medieval Encounters with Nature, Self, and God

Screen Shot 2017-05-12 at 07.57.14Just a few more days… On June 5th-6th, Katja and I will be hosting the awesome conference on ‘medieval experience’ in Durham. If you cannot come to Durham, but you really would like to participate in the conference, no worries: we have prepared a dedicated Facebook page and the entire conference will be streamed live there! New technological means for a conference that we are confident will add precious contributions to the ongoing scholarly debate on the concept of experience in the Middle Ages.

Here’s the link to the FB page

…and here’s the programme!

 


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Translating Experience

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What is the role of experience in medieval encounters with nature, self, and God? The Aristotelian sciences, such as astronomy and meteorology, zoology and botany, as well as other medieval disciplines such as medicine, alchemy, and magic drew on experience in different ways and to different degrees. Their applications range from singular references to experience in different arguments to collected works of experience, such as the medical literary genre of the Experimenta that focuses on medical remedies. Yet the same concepts—tajriba, nissayon, experientia / experimentum—are also used in the encounter with the self; more specifically in the realms of epistemological inquiry, internal reflection on experience of the natural world, or the question of conscience. A third prominent area where experience plays a central role in medieval discourses is encounters with the divine through rapture, prophecy, the practice of magic and necromancy—discourses in which the concept of experience finds its very limits.

Despite their diversity of applications, all three encounters of experience with nature, self, and God seem to share a twofold approach: on the one hand, ‘experience’ is discussed as a noetic object to reflect upon epistemological and psychological questions; on the other hand, ‘experience’ is used as noetic tool to increase, correct, and corroborate the knowledge acquired in the different disciplines. What seems to underlie all encounters with experience and approaches to it, however, are questions of ‘translation’ on the three levels of the conceptual, the linguistic, and the material—translations that cross not only cultural and religious boundaries, but also from the real world to that of parchment.

The aim of our first conference on the vast topic of experience in the medieval world is to explore some fundamental basics in order to begin to conceive of medieval experience in a more nuanced fashion. Among the questions we would like to explore are those concerning three different perspectives:

(1) Experience as a tool of knowledge: How did medieval thinkers draw on experience in these three different encounters of nature, self, and God? Does experience assume different roles and functions within the different disciplines?

(2) Experience as an object of knowledge: Was experience conceived of differently in the two realms of the empirical and the non-empirical? Or was experience thought to involve some common core—a core concept that could be ‘translated’ from one encounter to another and from one realm to another?

(3) The aspect of ‘translating’ experience: How did medieval thinkers negotiate linguistic translations of experience from one scholarly language to another (Arabic, Latin, and Hebrew)? To what extent did these linguistic translations involve trans-cultural and trans-religious translations of experience in theory and practice? How and why did medieval thinkers translate experience from technical and difficult language to a simpler and easy-to-understand language? And last but not least, how did material translations—the very activity of writing experienced events onto parchment—affect the medieval understandings and applications of experience found in their texts?

The conference is sponsored by the Department of History and the Department of Theology of Durham University, the Institute for Medieval and Early Modern Studies (IMEMS), with the support of the Society for Medieval Philosophy (SOFIME) and the Italian Society for the Study of Medieval Philosophy (SISPM).

Conference Website


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Cross-Cultural Perspectives on Medieval Philosophy

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Bibliography (Primary sources):

  • Gundissalinus, De processione mundi, English translation by J.A. Laumakis, The Procession of the World, Milwaukee 2002.
  • Ibn Gabirol, The Font of Life, English translation by J.A. Laumakis, Milwaukee 2014.
  • Avicenna, The Metaphysics of the Healing, English translation by M.E. Marmura, Provo 2005.
  • Hermann of Carinthia, De essentiis, critical edition and English translation by Ch. Burnett, Leiden 1982.


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Gundissalinus in the New World

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Let the ‘Dominicus Gundissalinus Tour’ begin!

I’ll be giving a couple of talks in the US in October/November on Gundissalinus and the problems of cross-cultural exchanges of philosophical knowledge during the Middle Ages. Everyone is welcome!

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screen-shot-2016-10-17-at-19-36-0831 October 2016 – Lecture, University of Notre Dame: Translation and Appropriation: Necromancy, Astrology, Alchemy, Notre Dame (IN), United States.

Abstract: The early-medieval traditional articulation of knowledge was based on the division between trivium and quadrivium expounded, posited under the authority of authors like Boethius and Martianus Capella. The human knowledge, thus, found its development through the seven liberal arts­—grammar, rhetoric, dialectic, arithmetic, geometrics, music and astronomy. The seven liberal arts were accompanied, in the mind of any early-medieval scholar, by the twofold division of philosophy in theoretical and practical; and by the mechanical arts, from agriculture to architecture, to cynegetics and navigation, discussed by a vast number of classical and early-medieval sources, among which one has to remember at least Macrobius, Isidore of Seville, Augustine, Priscianus, and the Roman authorities such as Virgil’s and Vitruvius’s. Notwithstanding their undeniable bond with the classical (and pagan) authorities, in these medieval systems of knowledge there is no place for bizarre disciplines like astrology or divination, or demoniac arts like necromancy, while others were simply unknown, like science of gold-making that will be called alchimia. This situation will abruptly change in the second half of the twelfth century as a direct consequence of the translation movements from Arabic and Greek into Latin, a change of perspective that constitute the topic with which we are going to deal today. We will take into account two articulations of knowledge, the system proposed by Hugh of St Victor in his Didascalicon and that expounded by Gundissalinus in his De divisione philosophiae, pointing out how the scenario changes with the arrival of the ‘new’ sciences in the Latin West.

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screen-shot-2016-10-28-at-07-13-072 November 2016 – Lecture, Marquette University: Gundissalinus, Avicenna, and the Road to Paris, Milwaukee (WI), United States.

This talk is part of the Midwest Seminar in Ancient and Medieval Philosophy, and you can find more information on my contribution HERE.

Abstract: Together with two further, anonymous works,  the De causis primis et secundis and the Book on the Peregrinations of the Soul in the Afterlife, Gundissalinus’s writings mark the theoretical and even material path that will lead to the great receptions and criticisms of Avicenna and the other ‘Arabs’ in Paris and Oxford during the thirteenth century and beyond—from John Blund to Albert of Cologne, Thomas Aquinas, Roger Bacon, and Duns Scotus. Today we will try to cast some light on this very first stage of ‘theoretical appropriation’ of Avicenna’s doctrines in the Latin West.

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screen-shot-2016-11-05-at-12-51-5011 November 2016 – Talk: Dominicus Gundissalinus and the Renovation of Medieval Philosophy, Colloquium: Translation and Philosophy:  Gundisallinus and Ibn Daud in 12th Century Spain, University of South Carolina, Columbia (SC). Abstract: Gundissalinus’s contribution is crucial and developed in a twofold way. On the one hand, indeed, the translating activity pursued by Gundissalinus and his participation to the ‘Avicenna project’ with Abraham Ibn Daud made available to the Latin public texts whose relevance is undeniable for the subsequent Aristotelization of medieval philosophy: and this is the case of Avicenna’s De anima and Liber de philosophia prima. But Gundissalinus’s choice to translate also peculiar writings like al-Kindi’s De radiis or Ibn Gabirol’s Fons vitae had permanent consequences on the reflections of many philosophers, like Grosseteste or Bacon. On the other hand, the second and even more important contribution by Gundissalinus is his original philosophical speculation as it is offered in the treatises he wrote. With those writings, Gundissalinus tried to fill the gap in the Latin philosophical framework in which he received his education, and thus, in the first place, Chartres. He tried to exceed the limits of the Timaic Platonism, criticising the doctrine of primordial chaos in a Gabirolian basis; refusing the theory of the demiurge following Avicenna’s doctrine of necessary being; revising the cosmological Platonism of Hermann of Carinthia’s De essentiis by putting them under a crypto-Aristotelian natural lens. The very same effort can be seen at work on Gundissalinus’s elaboration of a new articulation of science, the De divisione philosophiae, where he proposes a lay system of knowledge that could be able to integrate the new disciplines whose knowledge was made available thanks to the translation movement. And finally, a very similar scenario is provided by the consideration of his De anima, and his theoretical effort at assimilating the great news of the time, that is, Avicenna’s psychology.

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Screen Shot 2016-10-28 at 07.24.24.png15 November 2016 – Talk: Gundisalvo, Guillermo de Auvernia, y el problema de atribución del ‘De immortalitate animae’, VII Congreso Internacional Iberoamericano de la Sociedad de Filosofía Medieval De relatione, Universidad Autónoma de Barcelona, Barcelona (ES), 14-16 November 2016.

Abstract: Entre las obras atribuidas a Gundisalvo, el tratado De immortalitate animae pone algunos problemas de primaria importancia. De hecho, existen dos versiones de la obra, con dos diferentes tradiciones manuscritas que atribuyen el tratado a Gundisalvo y a Guillermo de Auvernia, aspecto que ha suscitado, en las últimas décadas, la refutación de la paternidad gundisalviana del De immortalitate por muchos autores. En esta contribución se tomarán en cuenta los datos presentados a favor y en contra de la atribución a Gundisalvo y a Guillermo, con particular atención a la ontología en que se basa en tratado y a la posible historia del texto. Por último, se intentará proponer una hipótesis de investigación que pueda contribuir a la vexata quaestio sobre la paternidad de esta obra muy peculiar.

And more to come


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VII Congreso de SOFIME: De Relatione

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On November 14-16, 2016, the Spanish Society for Medieval Philosophy (SOFIME) will hold at the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona its 7th International Ibero-American Congress on the Occasion of Ramon Llull’s Seventh Centenary: De Relatione.

You can download HERE the preliminary programme of the congress.