Monday, March 5, 2012

God's Philosophers by James Hannam

I decided to take a break from the study of war, and picked up this at Chapters last week:

Actually, I picked up the slightly-differently-covered softcover, but the principle is the same.

Hannam does a very interesting inversion of the standard story of the poorly-named middle ages.  He begins with a history of the great medieval scholars.  If you already have your Abelard sorted out from your Adelard there are not a lot of new names, but the exposition is exceptionally clear and accessible.  It is a bit more than a refresher for me, and it has been more than 30 years since I tackled any of this in any detail.  Medieval science and philosophy, in case you are not familiar with it, was far in advance of where it is usually portrayed, and the efforts of the church were not always stifling.  Plus I came away with a far better understanding of the distinction between realism and nominalism, which is an issue I still run into in looking, for example, at evolutionary biology.

The next step was new to me: the Renaissance as an intellectual disaster.  To push the envelope of Hannam's thesis, it was triumph of the literature nerds, with medieval mathematics and logic texts pulled from the syllabus because they were hard to understand, and thousands of medieval Latin manuscripts recycled for binding printed books.  This by "scholars" with such a shallow knowledge of history that they confused classics copied in Carolingian Miniscule as original manuscripts of centuries before.

As far as I can tell thus far, Hannam does not view history as a tale of simple, directed progress.  After a lot of reading in biology in the last few years, I am coming to see the relegation of "progress" as a tool for organizing our mental map of the world as a step just as important in the 21st century as moving ourselves from the center of the universe was in the 16th.

I have to mull over his ideas and his sources a bit but the ideas are at least novel and something of a fresh take for me at least.

A great book for anyone interested in History and Philosophy of Science, and for that matter in historiography.  If you are in the SCA and want ammunition to defend the accomplishments of your period, this is definitely a book you want to read.

Cleanly written, I'd say accessible to a high school student but useful for an undergrad in an introductory or non-specialist program covering the material; or great, of course, for an interested amateur.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for this post. I hadn't heard of this book and will keep an eye out for it. As a former medievalist I have always been irritated by the cliche that it was an ignorant age when the church suppressed knowledge to preserve its power. Sounds like this is a good antidote to that cliche.