Monday 5 June

Durham University, History Department, Seminar Room 1

09.00: Registration and welcoming words

First Session

10.30: KATJA KRAUSE & NICOLA POLLONI (Durham University): ‘The Light of Nature? No “Experience” in the Middle Ages!’

11.00: THERESE CORY (Notre Dame University): ‘Aquinas on Experience and Its Scope’

11.45: DAVID CORY (Notre Dame University): ‘The “obscure and hidden” work of the vegetal soul in Thomas Aquinas’

Second Session

14.00:CELIA LOPEZ (Universidade do Porto): ‘Experience and Self-Knowledge in Petrus Hispanus’s Theory of the Soul’

14.45: JON MCGINNIS (University of Missouri – St Louis): ‘A Matter of Priorities: Avicenna’s Solution to Meno’s Paradox and Its implications for the Sciences’

15.30: break

15.45: NICHOLAS OSCHMAN (Marquette University): ‘Translating Truth into Images in al-Fārābī’s Polis’

16.30: FEDERICO DAL BO (Universidad Autónoma de Barcelona): ‘The “Sacrifice of Isaac” as God’s Self-Testing in the XIII Century Spanish Kabbalah’

17.15: break

17.30: Keynote SpeakerSTEVEN HARVEY (Bar-Ilan University): ‘The Place of Observation and Experience in the Quest for True Knowledge among Jewish Aristotelians in the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Centuries’

Tuesday 6 June

Durham University, History Department, Seminar Room 1

Third Session

09.30: JOSÉ HIGUERA RUBIO (Universidade do Porto): ‘Ars experimentalis: Experience in Demonstrative and Productive Disciplines’

10.15: DRAGOS CALMA (University of Cambridge): ‘From Senses to the Self and God’

11.00: break

11.15: MÁRIO CORREIA (Universidade do Porto): ‘Experience and Natural Philosophy in Italian Renaissance Scholasticism: Gomes of Lisbon’s Scotistic Response to Nicoletto Vernia’

12.00: KATJA KRAUSE & NICOLA POLLONI (Durham University): ‘The Light of Nature! No “Experience” in the Middle Ages?’


Dragos Calma (University of Cambridge)
From Senses to the Self and God

What is the role of phantasms and abstraction in the process of knowing through senses? What is the relation between the particular known through senses and the possibility of knowing its origin in God’s mind? What connects the common experience of everyday life and the God’s intellect? It is the self, according to the answer of Heymeric of Campo (+ 1460); more precisely, it is the inner self that operates with concepts denuded of all sensible traces (such as quantity or quality). It is an ascetic knowledge, a diversion from senses which culminates with the recovery of pure concepts produced by the intellect after the experience of the sensible world; an ascetic knowledge which requires both a trained intellect and a spiritual life. The three stages of abstraction from phantasms described by Heymeric of Campo correspond to a spiritual progression enabled by the study of a variety of sciences, all culminating with metaphysics.

Mário Correia (Universidade do Porto)
Experience and natural philosophy in Italian Renaissance Scholasticism: Gomes of Lisbon’s Scotistic response to Nicoletto Vernia

During the 15th and the 16th centuries, one of the most controversial philosophical disputes was the question of method in natural philosophy. The tension between observational experience and geometrization, demonstration from the effects (demonstratio quia) and from the causes (demonstratio propter quid), and also between Aristotle’s authority and new philosophical tendencies made some philosophers search for new solutions. Others criticized this new solutions and tried to show the validity of several medieval scholastic readings of Aristotle. With this communication, I intend to present the role of experience in the dispute between Nicoletto Vernia’s Averroistic approach to the subject-matter of natural philosophy and Gomes of Lisbon’s Scotistic response to it. While Vernia considers that the subject-matter of physics is mobile body, Gomes argues it is natural substance. What is at stake is how to combine experience, definition and demonstration in the process of knowledge.

David Cory (Notre Dame University)
The “obscure and hidden” work of the vegetal soul in Thomas Aquinas

In commenting on II De anima, Aquinas remarks that the work of the vegetal soul is obscure and hidden: “[Aristotle] shows that the works of the vegetative power are from the soul, which was necessary because since the active or passive qualities contribute to their operations, it may seem to someone that they are from nature and not from the soul.  And it is especially so because in plants life is obscure and hidden (Sentencia De anima, lib. 2 l. 7).” The obscurity of the soul comes from its use of the active and passive elemental powers, which are the ordinary active principles by which change occurs in the natural world. In other texts, e.g. Q. disp. de anima 13, Aquinas makes a different distinction between two classes of nature, inanimate and animate. There he says that the vegetal soul transcends inanimate nature (but not nature absolute) in its manner of acting. I contend that Aquinas is using the elemental active and passive powers to set an upper boundary on the kind of operation which vegetal souls can produce. This delimitation of the power of the vegetal soul does not reduce its work to that of the active and passive elemental powers. It does, however, make the distinction between inanimate forms and vegetal souls obscure and hidden. The implication of this “hidden” work for natural philosophy is that it is possible to give a relatively complete account of the life of plants at the level of instrumental causes, by considering only the kinds of causes familiar to the student of inanimate operations. While a truly complete account would, of course, consider those instrumental causes relative to their principal cause, the “obscure and hidden” character of the vegetal soul explains why it is easy to mistake the relatively complete account for the truly complete one.

Therese Cory (University of Notre Dame)
Aquinas on Experience and Its Scope

In this paper, I examine Aquinas’s use of the term experiri and related terms (sentire, videre) in reference to a certain kind of “experiential presence” of an object to an intellect.  Under what conditions, exactly, does this experiential kind of presence occur, and why does Aquinas accord it a special status?  I argue that for Aquinas, experiential presence has to do with a certain kind of causal relationship and likeness, which affects the way in which we are able to be assimilated to (and hence conceptualize) an object.  While sensation is a paradigm case of experiential presence, he holds that experiential presence is also possible on the intellectual level, not only with respect to material objects, but also immaterial objects.

Federico Dal Bo (Universidad Autónoma de Barcelona)
The ‘Sacrifice of Isaac’ as God’s Self-Testing in the XIII Century Spanish Kabbalah

The “Sacrifice of Isaac”—known as the “Binding of Isaac” in Jewish exegesis—is traditionally interpreted by Jewish commentators as Abraham’s final test: after being chosen as God’s champion and having become the first Jew on earth, Abraham is tested once more time and asked to sacrifice his own son Isaac as a human sacrifice to God. Jewish Kabbalists—especially the 13th century Spanish mystics Rabbi Yosef ben Abraham Gikatilla and Moshe de Leon—diverged from Jewish classical exegesis. At first, they acknowledged the classical assumption that God is testing Abraham, according to the letter of Scripture and yet argued that its mystical meaning would be much deeper—God would actually be testing Himself and proving the metaphysical necessity of balancing the different nuances of His divine “personality,” by teaching Himself both “fear” and “mercy.” In my paper I will address the kabbalistic interpretation of the “Sacrifice of Isaac” and show its human-divine ambivalence, due to a number of metaphysical presuppositions—especially the assumption that God and man are interconnected in terms of macro- and microcosm. With respect of this, Abraham’s human experience is translated into God’s divine experience and transformed into a metaphysical event that brings balance in God Himself.

Steven Harvey (Bar-Ilan University)
The Place of Observation and Experience in the Quest for True Knowledge among Jewish Aristotelians in the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Centuries

Jewish Aristotelians of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, following their two philosophical authorities, Maimonides and Averroes, sought truth and human perfection through the orderly study of Aristotle’s books on logic, natural science and metaphysics, as they were paraphrased and explained by Averroes. Averroes had famously claimed that Aristotle had originated these three disciplines and completed them. He thus saw his task as the study and explication of Aristotle’s writings. Jewish thinkers in turn expressed their intentions to convey, explain, simplify, and even – on occasion – critique Averroes’ commentaries on Aristotle. But did these thinkers really do as they wrote? And, in any case, was the careful study of such authoritative texts, combined with competence in formal logic, sufficient for leading one to true knowledge and perfection? In this paper, I will consider the role of observation, oral reports, and experience for late medieval Jewish thinkers in the study of physics, astronomy, meteorology, medicine, dreams and prophecy. For example, to what extent did experience (tajriba) for Maimonides have epistemological relevance outside of medicine? How did thirteenth-century Hebrew encyclopedists use experience to counter Averroes’ argument that theoretical knowledge cannot be acquired in dreams? Did the growing skepticism of medieval Jewry’s leading scientist, Gersonides, really lead him to abandon the search for truth in natural science, and instead devote virtually all his energies to observation and mathematical calculation in his attempt to solve problems associated with astronomy? Did the same Gersonides maintain that experience (nissayon) testifies to the fact that the future can be foretold in dreams and in prophecy? How did Ḥasdai Crescas, in his revolutionary critique of Aristotelian physics, use observation to reject some of Aristotle’s fundamental scientific teachings? And what led Joseph Albo in the early 1400s to emphasize the value of experience (nissayon) for natural science as well as for establishing theoretically the immortality of the soul from the Torah?

José Higuera Rubio (Universidade do Porto)
Ars experimentalis: Experience in Demonstrative and Productive Disciplines

In Metaphysics (981a15-982a8) Aristotle deals with the relation among three aspects of prime philosophy: «art» as a productive or operative discipline; «science» as demonstrative knowledge of nature, and the concept of «experience». In this relation experience is a common source of art and science, since the repeated operation on the same matter produces the «expertise» on the operative arts. This fact happens in a similar way on science, because the inductive collection of sense data -the accumulative memories of particular experiences- has as an epistemic consequence: the inference of general truths. Furthermore, the sum of expertise in arts and general truths on sciences represents a sign of wisdom. In the Arab tradition, Avicenna criticises the assumption that accumulative experiences (tajriba) can produce science, while Maimonides finds that the use of medicines in similar conditions cannot guaranty good results. The 13th century masters -e. g. Aquinas, Albertus Magnus or Roger Bacon- try to build a consistent model of experience, in which art and science are differentiated by the peculiarities of each one. On the one hand, art faces unpredictable conditions that are operating on the matter; on the other hand, science holds its own principles that are knowable without experience. Both require experience: art for improving abilities and science for collecting demonstrative data. The flexible functions of experience on the art-science relation has an important role in disciplines such as practical geometry, astronomy, and dialectics. These examples demonstrate that operational expertise combined with the knowledge of principles, of geometry and logics, achieves a multidisciplinary model that, although it does not mean precisely an «experimental method», would represent a medieval model of ars experimentalis.

Celia López (Universidade do Porto)
Experience and Self-Knowledge in Petrus Hispanus’s Theory of the Soul

Among the philosophical questions concerning human cognition, the problem of self-knowledge seems to deserve a special inquiry due to its special condition as the object as well as the subject of knowledge itself. In the Middle Ages, this philosophical discussion could be boiled down into two main epistemological approaches, with roots in antiquity: the Platonic one, which considers that some kind of self-knowledge exists in the soul from its beginning, and the Aristotelian one, which conceives it as a secondary and a posteriori knowledge. Thus, many texts on psychology of the first half of the 13th century are good examples of the attempt of reconciling elements of both theoretical positions. This happens with the Sententia cum questionibus in libros De anima I-II Aristotelis, attributed to Petrus Hispanus, where the Aristotelian understanding of the soul is not to replace completely the Neoplatonic frame provided early in the Sententia. In consequence, some kind of self-knowledge is guaranteed from the very beginning of the soul, before the acquisition of species, as Boethius and Augustine defended. The aim of this paper is to describe self-knowledge according to Petrus Hispanus as well as making some remarks on it against the background of his eclectic psychological and epistemological theory.

Nicholas Oshman (Marquette University)
Translating Truth into Images in al-Fārābī’s Polis

In al-Madīna al-Fāḍila and elsewhere, al-Fārābī envisions a healthy polis as a city ruled by a wise man who is simultaneously a philosopher, a visionary prophet, and the owner of a perfected representative faculty. This Imām, understanding that many citizens are themselves unable to encounter truth directly through science and demonstration, is charged, nonetheless, with communicating truth to his citizenry. Thus, this Imām must somehow translate philosophical truths to those who cannot themselves assess the validity of demonstrations, via his perfected intellect and representative faculty, in order to rouse citizens’ imaginations by well-chosen words. In this function, the Imām must be a philosopher qua poet, who establishes laws, myths, and images which are, strictly speaking, not true, but are nonetheless similitudes of the truth. He must translate demonstrable truths into the imagery of religion, and when the Imām does so, al-Fārābī insists that the former can be known through the latter. Unfortunately, al-Fārābī never clearly explicates how demonstrable truths, i.e. propositional truths, can be translated faithfully into the symbols and laws of religious imagery. In this paper, I aim to elucidate why al-Fārābī believes that philosophical truths can be known through the particularity of religious images and the mechanisms by which the translation of philosophy into images occurs. In doing so, I hope to articulate the Fārābīan limitations of translating philosophical knowledge into imagistic expressions.