Why Medieval Philosophy Matters

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Stephen Boulter
Why Philosophy Matters
  • New York, NY: 
    Bloomsbury Academic
    , January
     216 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Stephen Boulter’s book on Why Medieval Philosophy Matters was introduced in 2019 as part of a series by Bloomsbury Press on Why Philosophy Matters. The term medieval is understood by the author as referring to the period of 500-1500 CE (Preface, viii). Boulter intends the book to function as a defense of the importance of medieval scholastic philosophy to the wider intellectual world, though not as a record of its history as others have done. The book also functions as part of a larger sustained argument for why philosophy matters (Preface, vii). To further clarify, the author states he is not considering every philosopher of this period, but primarily those who accept Aristotle and Augustine as their philosophical and religious authorities. He refers to such medieval philosophers as scholastics. Having defined what medieval philosophy is to the author, a central theme of the book is that such philosophy matters because the sciences are unable to answer all questions that arise within the sciences themselves including societal questions arising out of lived experience among social groups and countries (Preface, x).

To argue his case Boulter first presents an argument for why medieval philosophy doesn’t matter that applies to both medieval and philosophy in general.

The main argument cited against both medieval philosophy and philosophy in general is the so-called redundancy thesis. The redundancy thesis states that is the questions philosophy seeks to answer are answerable by other scientific and social scientific disciplines, this making philosophy unnecessary. This is a popular view espoused by people like astrophysicist Steven Hawking who has claimed that “Philosophy is dead”, thought to be supplanted by the sciences (4). So, Boulter begins by asking what questions are philosophical. Such questions include the origins of the cosmos, the meaning of life and humans place in it, the nature of right and wrong, knowledge, death and the afterlife (6-13). These questions are also commonly addressed in religion (7) but according to the Boulter sciences can also provide knowledge using their methods of empirical testability which philosophy and religion can also use in addition to their various forms of reason and revelation. Though Boulter seems to acknowledge the sciences as the “first port of call” to answer these questions the author argues that philosophy can help in resolving the tensions and logical conflicts arising between competing scientific theories in a manner that science alone cannot.  This he refers to as the insufficiency thesis, that science is insufficient of itself to resolve philosophical questions (6-13) and societal problems (13-22). This counters the redundancy thesis that science makes philosophy unnecessary.

The second type of tension that philosophy can address relates to social problems. Here he follows social anthropologist Ernest Gellner’s theories on collective institutions and social order which formulate the processes for knowledge acquisition, economic production and political government and control in modern western civilization (15, 154). Again, Boulter maintains that science(s) in themselves are insufficient to generate the change needed to adequately rectify and maintain societies with various social disorders. Here he also follows sociologist Max Weber’s claim that science is unable to address questions of value leading to “disenchantment”, Weber’s term for aporia (174-5) and discontent. Philosophical or religious reflection is a necessary function to address and ameliorate societal problems (135-52). The general approach includes a commonsense realism, a conviction that reality is a certain way and is knowable, including faith in the sciences and its methods as the surest way to knowledge of the empirical world. His claim is also common sense with respect to the realm of values that certain states of affairs are not good such as destitution, disease, malnutrition, early death, while other states are good such as joy, prosperity, health, security, longevity (26-30).

Other philosophical problems that scholastics address from Aristotle include the nature of things in their particularity, constancy and change. For example, why people are similar, different and change, leading to an ability to study things in their similarity and difference. Scholasticism, according to the author, provides a rational basis for both universals(constants) and specific events such as an ordered, intelligible universe of individual things for study by the sciences. There are discoverable laws of nature despite change. Consequently, there is a realistic place for scientific methods of experimentation and predictability. However, there is not just an intelligible framework for reality and its understanding.  Scholastic philosophy provides a basis for moral values despite humans failure to often not follow them. What stands behind this is the conviction of a God who is creator, and a fallen world that still has an awareness of good (46-52, 111-116, 141-152).

Boulter’s book seems well executed despite his use of terminology that needs significant definition before the argument can proceed. Yet there are potential objections. First, one becomes aware of the author’s own high regard for science. This is sufficiently high that philosophy readily becomes a kind of handmaiden to the sciences. Science takes pride of place for knowledge acquisition of empirical reality. Philosophy provides certain analytic and logical tools to help evaluate conflicting scientific theories. However, it can be asked whether these logical tools need be called philosophical. Why can’t these tools be scientific, mathematical and logical? If so, is philosophy needed?  Another question arises over the author’s thesis that scholastic medieval philosophy provides an intellectual milieu from which science can be practiced. However, in response it may be asked whether the advent of science is because of scholastic medieval philosophy or simply an emphasis on using reason, mathematics, empiricism and testing for discovery of the natural order as seemed to be the case for Aristotle? Yes, there is some order. But can’t this be inferred from regularities of nature (science) without asserting scholastic philosophy per se. The author admits that his is a defense of scholastic principles in a broader context of philosophy with the added emphasis on God. Is Boulter’s argument convincing enough that the so-called redundancy thesis is wrong? Are the sciences insufficient of themselves? And even if sciences cannot establish moral or religious truth, has philosophy, can philosophy do that? Despite questions raised by the authors arguments, for medieval scholastic philosophers, truth, goodness, knowledge, God and life matter. And if these things matter, medieval philosophy matters because these are what medieval philosophy is about.

About the Reviewer(s): 

John Mauger is a doctoral student in Religion at Claremont Graduate University.

Date of Review: 
October 22, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Stephen Boulter is Reader in Philosophy and Ethics, Oxford Brookes University.


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