John Murdoch – The Analytical Character of Late Medieval Learning

18 September, 2017 - MA Coursework

John E. Murdoch, “The Analytic Character of Late Medieval Learning: Natural Philosophy without Nature,” in Approaches to Nature in the Middle Ages, ed. Lawrence D. Roberts (Binghampton, NY: Medieval & Renaissance Texts & Studies, 1982).


In “The Analytic Character of Late Medieval Learning: Natural Philosophy without Nature” John Murdoch, like Ernest Moody in his “Empiricism and Metaphysics in Medieval Philosophy,” sought to counteract the prevailing historiographic attitude toward the fourteenth century: that it was, relative to the thirteenth century, a period of skepticism, destruction, and decline. While Murdoch supports Moody’s claim that, against the backdrop of the speculative philosophy of the thirteenth century, the fourteenth was analytic, he takes issue with Moody’s reductive simplification of this transition. For Moody, the prevailing historiographic attitude to the fourteenth century was due to the superior theological attention paid in the thirteenth century; so for Moody, by this standard of quality, the fourteenth century was seen in decline because it “withdrew itself from the kind of questions which are of interest to theology and thereby ceased to be of value as a medium of expression for theology.” Murdoch disputes this with the, what seems obvious and undeniable now, claim that theology and philosophy were as mutually co-constitutive as ever in the fourteenth century. Murdoch also chafes at the emphasis Moody places on the role of empiricism in fourteenth century philosophy. Though Murdoch does not stoop to this accusation (I have no such scruples), it appears that Moody was motivated by a Whiggish concern to reframe fourteenth century philosophy, with its attendant shift from theological to empirical concerns, as the herald and harbinger of the scientific revolution and enlightenment. Murdoch tempers this flame:

True, empiricist epistemology was dominant in the fourteenth century. But this did not mean that natural philosophy then proceeded by a dramatic increase in attention being paid to experience and observation (let alone anything like experiment) or was suddenly overwrought with concern about testing or matching its result with nature; in a very important way natural philosophy was not about nature.


And now we are getting to the crux of the matter for Murdoch. Rather than being about nature, fourteenth-century philosophical investigations were secundum imaginationem. That is, the extension of the application of logic and logico-mathematical techniques in both generating and resolving problems.

Thus Murdoch’s years investing medieval languages of analysis: proportiones, intension and remission, first and last instants, beginning and ceasing, the theory of supposition. Murdoch deals with all of this in other papers. In the present text he is concerned with “the metalinguistic treatment of problems; the application of the doctrine of supposition; and the impact of the tradition of solving sophisms.”






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