Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2011.03.64

Arbogast Schmitt, Gyburg Radke-Uhlmann (ed.), Philosophie im Umbruch: der Bruch mit dem Aristotelismus im Hellenismus und im späten Mittelalter - seine Bedeutung für die Entstehung eines epochalen Gegensatzbewusstseins von Antike und Moderne. 6. Tagung der Karl und Gertrud Abel-Stiftung am 29. und 30. November 2002 in Marburg. Philosophie der Antike; Bd. 21.   Stuttgart:  Franz Steiner Verlag, 2009.  Pp. 244.  ISBN 9783515090841.  €47.00.  

Reviewed by Vishwa Adluri, Hunter College (

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

Philosophie im Umbruch contains ten articles on the “break” (Umbruch) with Aristotelian philosophy in the Hellenistic period and in the late Middle Ages. As the title indicates, many (although not all) of the articles are concerned with the reception of Aristotle in these periods: chapter 3 compares Aristotle’s doctrine of categories with the Stoic doctrine of categories, chapter 4 examines the reception of Aristotle in the Middle Ages, while chapters 5 and 6 focus on the significance of Duns Scotus’ interpretation of Aristotle. The remaining chapters examine the influence of Middle Platonic and Neoplatonic philosophy on medieval philosophy (ch. 1), the differing strategies of the care of the self (Selbstpflege) in Plato and the Stoic philosophers (ch. 2), the reinterpretation of the ternar essentia-virtus-operatio in the Middle Ages and in early modern thinkers such as Leibniz and Spinoza (ch. 7), Scaliger’s concept of the universal (ch. 8), Hellenism in Shakespeare’s Roman plays (ch. 9), and the tradition of οἰκείωσις in modernity (ch. 10). As is often the case with conference proceedings (the articles in this volume were all originally presented at the 6th Meeting of the Karl und Gertrud Abel-Stiftung), the contributions cover a broad range of thematic areas and are mostly addressed at a specialist audience. The editors’ foreword, however, provides an excellent introduction to the volume’s central argument, as well as a useful synopsis of each of the individual contributions. The volume as a whole provides a useful overview of some topics in contemporary scholarship on medieval and Hellenistic philosophy. The comprehensive Allgemeines Literaturverzeichnis and Stellenindex make it a useful reference-work, especially for scholars interested in contemporary German scholarship on the reception of Platonic and Aristotelian philosophy. The editors are two of the foremost contemporary scholars of ancient and medieval philosophy in Germany today (Schmitt is the author of a new translation and commentary of Aristotle’s Poetics and Radke-Uhlmann was the youngest ever recipient of the Leibniz Prize, awarded for her contributions to the history of philosophy and literary theory and criticism and for her doctoral dissertation on theory of number in Plato and Platonism in late antiquity) and this volume will hopefully bring their work to the attention of wider audiences outside Germany.

The basic premise of the conference was to examine the relation of the philosophical schools of Hellenistic antiquity to Platonic and Aristotelian philosophy, with a specific emphasis on the contrasting conceptions of rationality in Platonism and Aristotelianism in antiquity and the Middle Ages, on the one hand, and in Hellenistic, late Scholasticism, and early modernity, on the other. While the ten articles take up different aspects of this break between antiquity and Hellenistic philosophy, they all focus to varying degrees on “one … central aspect” of this break: the elevation of “the faculty of representation [Vorstellungskraft] to the leading psychic faculty of man” (7). With the exception of chapter 5 (and to an extent chapter 6), however, the articles are less concerned with the epistemological consequences of this change than with its effects on poetics, literature, the educational system and the understanding of science, and ethics. The reader is thus well-advised to first read these two chapters and then work his/ her way back through the remaining articles.

In its basic project, this volume draws extensively upon Arbogast Schmitt’s magnum opus, Die Moderne und Platon: Zwei Grundformen europäischer Rationalität.1 There Schmitt argued that modernity’s “break” with the Aristotelianism of the Middle Ages was not so much a break with antiquity as a turn away from one antiquity—the antiquity of Platonic and Aristotelian rationalism—to another antiquity, that of the Hellenistic philosophical schools. Rather than opposing a pre-rational antiquity to the rationalism of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, Schmitt suggested, one should speak of two different concepts of rationality: Platonic and modern rationality. Modernity does not “discover” the concept of rationality, as it likes to claim: it merely invokes a different concept of rationality, one grounded in a distinction between passive receptivity and active representation. Schmitt demonstrates that this distinction originally arose among the Hellenistic schools. Thus, whereas Platonic and Aristotelian philosophy saw the fundamental act of thinking (Denken) as discrimination (Unterscheiden), the Hellenistic schools elevated representation (Vorstellung, repraesentatio) to the primary act of thought.

Unsurprisingly, Schmitt’s article “Anschauung und Denken bei Duns Scotus: Über eine für die neuzeitliche Erkenntnistheorie folgenreiche Akzentverlagerung in der spätmittelalterlichen Aristoteles-Deutung” is, along with Gyburg Radke-Uhlmann’s “Kontinuität oder Bruch? — Die Diskussion um die Univozität des Seins zwischen Heinrich von Gent und Johannes Duns Scotus als philosophiegeschichtliches Exemplum,” one of the two central texts in this volume. In his article, Schmitt argues that Scotus’ Aristotle interpretation is key to understanding the renewed interest in Hellenistic philosophy in late Scholasticism, as it led to a reinterpretation of Aristotelian epistemology along lines more congenial to Stoic epistemology. Not only does Scotus lay the foundations for a renewed and positive reception of Stoic philosophy, but he also heralds the turn to the individual object and to the empiricism characteristic of modernity. “In Duns Scotus, the individual object attains a new dignity; for him, it is no longer the methodological starting-point, but the substantial [sachliche] basis of all cognition, since it is the foundation of all further predications that can be made of it and, as this foundation, constitutes a simple unity, one that is not further analyzable (res simplex)” (81). Whereas Schmitt provides the foundation through his analysis of the epistemological theories of Scotus and Aristotle, Radke-Uhlmann traces the consequences of Scotus’ reversal of Aristotle’s position for his ontology. Like Schmitt, Radke-Uhlmann sees Scotus as a key figure in the break between ancient and modern philosophy; thus, she argues that “Scotus is an important source of ideas for the transcendental turn that Kant fulfills” (105), as his new interpretation of a univocal concept of being prepares the way for the transcendental philosophical concept of being. In a virtuoso analysis of Scotus’ Univozitätslehre, Radke-Uhlmann demonstrates how the introduction of a concept of being that contains “subjective reality” and “constitutes” “something real and common between God and creation” “ultimately rescinds the necessity of an analogical gradation [of Being]” (126-7). Indeed, if something abstract and common between these two “exists,” then the “systematic ascent via the scala naturae” is “no longer necessary—and, ultimately, no longer possible” (127).

The remaining articles in this volume build upon and further develop Schmitt’s analysis of the break between antiquity and modernity, focusing especially on demonstrating how the turn to representation can account for a number of far-reading transformations in ethical, cultural, and religious spheres. Ilsetraut Hadot (“Martianus Capella: Mittler zwischen Griechisch-Römischer Antike und Lateinischem Mittelalter”) demonstrates that Capella’s understanding of the artes liberales is Neoplatonic rather than Hellenistic in origin. The educational system of the Middle Ages, consequently, cannot be understood as a continuation of the Hellenistic and Roman educational ideal, but must be seen as Platonic and Middle Platonic in its origins. Michael Erler (“Kontinuität in Diskontinuität. Strategien der Selbstpflege bei Platon und im Epikureismus”) compares the Stoic doctrine of a care of the self to the Platonic doctrine as articulated especially in Plato’s Phaedo. Erler argues that the Stoic doctrine is not a new invention, since Plato’s doctrine of the care of the self already anticipates many central aspects of the later Stoic doctrine. But, as Erler further shows, the Stoics only retain the outward form of the Platonic doctrine, while essentially transforming its content: “from a ὁμοίωσις θεῷ develops a ὁμοίωσις τῷ σοφῷ, from a purification of the true self from the passions develops a care of the mortal self, from a healing of the ‘child in the man’ in Plato develops a therapy of man as a child in Lucretius” (49). Rainer Thiel (“Aristotelische und stoische Kategorienlehre”) contrasts the respective doctrines of categories, focusing especially on the essentialization of the categories—which for Aristotle represent predicative rather than ontological categories—under the Stoics. Kurt Flasch (“Aristoteleskritik im Mittelalter”) covers the tradition of Aristotle critique in the Middle Ages from the 13th century onward, focusing especially on the way various interpreters sought to appropriate the philosopher in order to claim legitimacy for their own doctrinal standpoint. Thomas Leinkauf (“Der Ternar essentia-virtus-operatio und die Essentialisierung des Akzidentien. Ein Beispiel für die produktive Funktion antiker Philosopheme in der Entwicklung frühneuzeitlicher Philosophie”) focuses on an explication of how the equation of being and the individual thing in Scotus leads to a “substantialization of accidents” as also to an “accidentalization of substance”—a development whose consequences, he argues, can be traced down to Spinoza and Leibniz. In her discussion of Scaliger’s poetics (“Das Allgemeine als Gegenstand der Literature: Scaligers Begriff des Allgemeinen und seine stoischen Prämissen”), Ulrike Zeuch argues that Scaliger is key to understanding the intensified reception of Stoic ideas in early modern literature, as he reinterprets Aristotle’s theory of the universal in poetry in a completely Stoic sense. Verena Lobsien (“Zweifel am Römertum: Hellenismen in Shakespeares Römerdramen”) focuses on the ambiguous status of Stoic values in Shakespeare’s Roman plays: while Stoic values such as conservatio sui and constantia are held in high esteem, one can also note a “growing doubt” (181) vis-à-vis man’s position in a hierarchical universe. Lobsien thus argues for seeing “contours of modern subjectivity” already developing in Shakespeare’s work.

As a whole, this volume attests to continuing Germanophone contributions to the history of ideas and philology. In particular, it contributes to the ongoing reevaluation of modernity’s claim to having brought about a philosophical efflorescence through overcoming the “dark” Middle Ages. It thus makes an essential contribution to a continuing reevaluation of the Middle Ages and of many of the concepts (the discovery of self-determination, of freedom, of self-reflective thought, etc.) modernity claims to have “discovered” for the first time. In particular, this reevaluation challenges the view, canonical since Kant, of the Enlightenment as an overcoming of man’s “self-imposed immaturity.” As many of the essays evidence, the tradition of Greek philosophy and philology endures well into the Middle Ages and, as Schmitt and Radke’s research suggests, is finally overcome only in late Scholasticism with Scotus’ well-known turn to the Diesseits. While this historical context is familiar to scholars of medieval and Neoplatonic thought, the view of a revival in philosophical and scientific learning from the mid-14th and 15th centuries onward has become an article of faith of much modern and contemporary philosophy. Heidegger, for example, claims of Scotus that he “discovered a greater and finer proximity (haecceitas) to real life in its multiplicity and potential for tension than the Scholastics before him.” One thus hopes that the essays in this volume lead to a more nuanced appreciation of the history of ideas to say nothing of a more critical engagement with the problematic inheritance of the Enlightenment.

Table of contents

1. Ilsetraut Hadot
Martianus Capella: Mittler zwischen Griechisch-Römischer Antike und Lateinischem Mittelalter
2. Michael Erler
Kontinuität in Diskontinuität. Strategien der Selbstpflege bei Platon und im Epikureismus
3. Rainer Thiel
Aristotelische und stoische Kategorienlehre
4. Kurt Flasch
Aristoteleskritik im Mittelalter
5. Arbogast Schmitt
Anschauung und Denken bei Duns Scotus. Über eine für die neuzeitliche Erkenntnistheorie folgenreiche Akzentverlagerung in der spätmittelalterlichen Aristoteles-Deutung
6. Gyburg Radke-Uhlmann
Kontinuität oder Bruch? — Die Diskussion um die Univozität des Seins zwischen Heinrich von Gent und Johannes Duns Scouts als philosophiegeschichtliches Exemplum
7. Thomas Leinkauf
Der Ternar essentia-virtus-operatio und die Essentialisierung des Akzidentien. Ein Beispiel für die produktive Funktion antiker Philosopheme in der Entwicklung frühneuzeitlicher Philosophie
8. Ulrike Zeuch
Das Allgemeine als Gegenstand der Literatur. Scaligers Begriff des Allgemeinen und seine stoischen Prämissen
9. Verena Olejniczak Lobsien
Zweifel am Römertum. Hellenismen in Shakespeares Römerdramen
10. Reinhard Brandt
Selbstbewusstsein und Selbstsorge — Zur Tradition der οἰκείωσις in der Neuzeit


1.   Stuttgart: J. B. Metzler, 2003; 2nd rev. ed. 2008. For an English translation, see my Modernity and Plato (Rochester: Camden House, 2011).

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