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COMETH - Conceptions of Medieval Thought

Reflections about medieval thought are almost as old as ‘medieval’ thinking itself. What does it mean to lead the life of the mind, the bios theoretikos; to belong to a certain philosophical, theological, juridical, etc., school; to defend a specific set of doctrines and methods in contradistinction to competing models? Not only modern medievalists, but medieval thinkers themselves pondered the specificity of their own conceptual tools against the historical background. And like their modern successors, they did not limit themselves to mere factual accounts. Rather, they developed their ‘histories of thought’ to express, chiefly between the lines, their views of what thought actually ought to be like; to defend and justify their set of doctrines and methods; and to prevent competing approaches from entering or taking over the mainstream language game (Germann 2015).
Conceptions of medieval thought, therefore, have never been simple representations. They are constructions based on intellectual programs and replete with implicit strategies and hidden agendas (König-Pralong 2014; Zahnd 2015c).
Typically produced for a more or less specific public, these conceptions reverberate what the reader (or listener) is supposed to identify as the very essence of medieval thought (Iribarren 2012). Across the ages, stretching from medieval to modern historiography, conceptions of medieval thought were, accordingly, fashioned strategically, be it as counter-models or as historical legitimation of one’s own intellectual ideal and school of thought (König-Pralong 2012; Zahnd 2015a). Since their origins, therefore, conceptions of ‘medieval’ thought - in the frame of the medieval theoretical disciplines as well as in their historiography - have offered reflections on the nature of the respective sciences, disciplinary practices, and language games.
It is obvious that the study of these conceptions requires an approach bringing together the methods applied in the various fields of intellectual, cultural, and social history. Tracing the implied strategies and agendas presupposes intimate familiarity with the religious, social, political, and cultural factors prevailing in certain periods and regions. Even though such a trans-disciplinary approach has long been identified as a desideratum, with scarce exceptions (cf. Bynum 1990) it has not been established in the study of medieval thought and its history so far. This is precisely
what we intend to do: we aim to explore conceptions of medieval thought by bringing together the various competencies concentrated in the Upper Rhine Area. The project we propose to the FRIAS shall be dedicated to a specific aspect within this broader frame, namely, the joint problem of language and method. This focus is due to the observation that a distinct feature of medieval thought - be it in the Latin, Arabic, or other linguistic spheres - consists in the concern scholars tend to display for a specific language and a particular set of methods considered to form the backbone of their respective discipline or of the presumably ‘correct’ manner of thinking and conveying thought (Briguglia 2011; Germann 2013; Iribarren 2014, Zahnd 2015b). Issues concerning the language and method related to a given theoretical discipline, hence, constituted a privileged theoretical framework for historiography, both medieval and modern (Grabmann 1909; Ong 1958; Quinto 2001).
Thus, for instance, the question of the specificity of philosophical language and method were already at the core of medieval debates - e.g., in al-Fārābī’s (d. 950) Book of Letters (Germann forthcoming) or during the so-called Wegestreit of the 15th century (Hoenen 2003) - just as in modern historiography (König-Pralong 2015). Yet, what is the role that reflections on language and method play within the various attempts to construct the ‘history’ of a certain discipline? What continuities and ruptures did the intellectual actors, both medieval and modern, single out as the narrative of their own tradition, school, or - eventually - Sonderweg? It is research questions such as these, pursued across the disciplines, cultures, and epochs, which require further investigation and shall be at the center of our envisaged project.