Another worry: How to think about intellectual history

Another aspect of broadly historical theology that I’ve been concerned/ sometimes not sure what to make of is what we could think of as intellectual history or the history of ideas.  What I have in mind is sort of inevitably broad and general claims about progress or change in the ways in which people go about a discipline like Theology across a time period.  An obvious example is thought about modernity, where we might consider the origins of thought that can be classified as modern, and more fundamentally the characteristics that we take as associated with modernity.  This sort of thinking can often take the form of a narrative linking the work of various thinkers and other relevant conditions, to see trends or patterns.

In some form I think this sort of work is crucial, in order that we put thinkers that we study in broad context, as well as looking at their specific situation, and see these crucial links between ideas.  It helps us have an understanding of the thought patterns that we inherit, and to try to make sense of the reason why our thought world is so different than that of the Patristic Fathers or the Scholastics.

However, so often trend spotting can turn in to an over generalization that neglects particular aspects of the complex thought of individuals.  There can also be a problem with assimilating historical effects with necessary consequences.  Often the ideas people have come to inspire in others thoughts and patterns that they never intended, and did not follow directly from what they said.  Perhaps the worst defect of this sort of historical work though is that it can inspire an overly active historical imagination, and turn from linking ideas in to ideological storytelling.  I’m not saying that it is illegitimate to tell history in a way that highlights the concerns that the historian or theologian takes to be relevant: to some extent this is probably unavoidable.  I do think though that we need to be aware of the way in which we are using history, and make adequate room to be concerned with the particulars.  In this way we are less likely to reflect our own agenda back in to history, and come to more tentative and untidy, but hopefully more accurate conclusions.

My interest in intellectual history is primarily associated with the late medieval period, and the ways in which some of the ideas of late Scholasticism move on from what has come before, and perhaps provide a route on towards the Reformation and the Enlightenment.  This is a period where there are plenty of narratives available concerning what is going on, many of which have some ideological agenda either for or against changes that we might associate with modernity.  The period is often of interest to those concerned with the Reformation (did Luther mess up because he’d read too much Nominalism and not enough Thomas Aquinas?) because it provides the context of some of the issue that would come to explode, and both Catholics and Protestants need some story about how these events came about.  This can often mean that various ideas and tendencies of the late Scholastics can be exaggerated and read through a very broad narrative.  Two of the best known Scholastic thinkers John Duns Scotus and William of Ockham frequently seem to come in for unfair treatment as having between them taken apart the great Scholastic synthesis (as represented by our hero Aquinas) complete with realism about universals, the doctrine of analogy, the affirmation that Theology is scientia etc.  Yes, both did make some very important critiques of some of their predecessors, but this is all within the Scholastic methodology, and they did so because they thought they had encountered errors (and I’m not prejudging that they’re wrong).  Freddoso complains vigorously about the approaches of historians to Ockham, in the introduction to his translation of Ockham’s Quodlibetal questions, claiming that we absolutely should see Ockham as an important and even revolutionary thinker, but the revolution is one in ontology: a philosophical thesis about whether entities like universals exist (and is best appreciated by analytic philosophers!) Whatever consequences his ideas may he had historically, the radical content of the views  themselves is more limited.

I think this sort of warning is important, but I am also still interested in what effects nominalism and other notable changes in the metaphysical  views of late Scholasticism may have had for the course of Theology.  There are patterns of change between the Mediaeval and Modern eras, so it seems worth trying to source them. I also have  strong conviction that some of these thinkers are asking interesting questions and producing insightful critiques of those before.  I have very much enjoyed reading the work of Heiko Oberman on the Late Mediaeval period, which could often be described as intellectual history.  He manages to constantly write in such a way that you feel he really sympathizes and understands the people he describes.  He also makes some very interesting claims about the impact of the late medieval Nominalists on the development of empirical science, the general move to avoid speculation and the question of forerunners to Luther. Yet these are all carefully qualified, and made with careful attention to details. This is an example of some one who, to the best of my knowledge and opinion tells the story very well.  I don’t think it is an easy task though, particularly for the theologian who does have their own opinion and ideological agenda (but I do think that some modern theologians tell really not very good historical stories of Christianity, and it annoys me).


8 thoughts on “Another worry: How to think about intellectual history

  1. Have you read Luther as Nominalist? It’s a phenomenally good book imo broaching exactly the question (I think?) you’re asking: namely, how do we give a proper historical account of ideas without reducing our accounts of the particular thoughts of particular thinkers to subsidiaries of historical trends and failing to do justice to the individual character of their work…


  2. And Bill, I think I looked at Gillespie on your suggestion last year- of what I remember that was an example of something that was an interesting narrative, and probably has some truth, but I thought seemed a bit exaggerated and probably contained some of the problems of a generalized historical narrative not taking Ockham etc on their own terms (and underplaying the philosophical details). But the idea of theological background to modernity seems worth thinking about generally.


  3. I think your central point is important and correct. I do worry, however, that some responses to grand historical narratives about the nominalists can be pushed in unhelpful direction. Yes, the nominalists’ principal innovations were in matters of rarified metaphysics, and their closest intellectual descendants today are analytic metaphysicians such as Oriel’s own Gonzalo Rodriguez-Pereyra. But the temptation to respond to grand narratives by saying ‘Don’t exaggerate; they’re just doing rarified metaphysics’ is a bad one, at least if the reply doesn’t get a great deal more sophisticated than that. It’s bad because it assumes that rarified metaphysics can’t have big historical implications.

    Not that I expect these to be world-historical events, but today I was twice reminded of how easily metaphysics meets practical concern. The first was a class on mind and language, and it laid bare the thread from metaphysical questions about truth-makers and possible worlds through to general theories of content and on to theories of mental representation, which finally issued in implications for empirical psychology. Later at the Jowett Society, we heard a talk on ideology, which showed how to put metaphysical discussions of natural kinds and natural properties at the service of political critique.

    In short, metaphysics matters and therefore I’m not wasting my life.

    Also Tim Williamson was so sassy at the Jowett, as were several others, it was great.


  4. The Luther as Nominalist (by Graham white, I think…) might be right up your street, Alec: primarily because it a) gives a very nuanced and detailed view of Luther’s far more interesting thoughts re. Aristotelian logic than is usually done (I think) and b) it presents the metaphysical views entailed by that as key to the historical development of the reformation.


  5. I really do actually hope (and think) that Ockham etc with their nominalism did make an important difference to future patterns of thought. And I really don’t think that it is a bad thing tell a historical narrative of how these concerns affect us today (I’m interested because I think it’s influential and important.) I just worry that the narratives can be told in the wrong ways, and lack historical accuracy and sensitivity (and I worry that I’m often too ready to buy in to it.)

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