Understanding Scholastic Thought With Foucault

I recently finished a book by Philipp W. Rosemann, entitled, Understanding Scholastic Thought with Foucault, and would highly recommend it to anyone with both medieval and postmodern sensibilities. Among the many topics and theses that Rosemann engages, the following were particularly interesting: (1) the presentation of a paradigm in which we understand the Western philosophical tradition in terms of the broad structure of a mythos/logos dialectic and scholastic thought with its sophia/moria dialectic reflects a moment within that larger context, (2) a discussion of the text-centeredness of the Scholastic culture and the conviction that though both the text of the world and the text of Scripture are to be read in light of their God given intelligibility, they are not exhaustible; hence, the “openness” of Scholastic thought which leads to more and more commentaries which together help us to gain more insight on the whole, yet never with the view to comprehension (3) an explanation of how St. Thomas convincingly brings together Greek circularity and Christian linearity, (4) a Foucaultian take on the need to understand an episteme’s “outside” in order to understand the episteme, (5) the “witch-hunt” as an example of the way in which the Scholastic episteme “closed the circle” and became irrationality, (6) a discussion of the “openness” of the quaestio vs. the new literary forms of e.g., Suarez, (7) an alternative take on Descartes [following Marion] and Luther both in respect to negative theology and the desire to safeguard God’s transcendence.

The book is exceedingly well-written, the ideas are presented with clarity and appeal, and Rosemann provides a helpful appendix entitled, “The Library of the Medievalist Philosopher.”

Allowing the Diversity of Texts to Speak

In his fascinating book, Understanding Scholastic Thought With Foucault, Philipp W. Rosemann illustrates how even the “letter,” i.e. the textual base in medieval studies, is affected by paradigm changes. As Rosemann explains, the German philologist, Karl Lachmann, pioneered an editorial method that has by and large determined the form of ancient and medieval texts as found in contemporary editions. The goal of the Lachmannian method is to “eliminate all the mistakes that are inevitable in the transmission of handwritten texts as copies, and so on. What the Lachmannians are trying to do is establish families of shared mistakes in the manuscript tradition and thus, by identifying the genealogical order in this tradition of copies, return to the source” (p. 11). As Rosemann observes, the presuppositions behind this approach is that “what counts in the history of a text is just the original in its pure identity; the differentiation this textual identity necessarily undergoes is an history of errors that should be overcome” (p. 11). Interestingly, due to both practical and theoretical reasons, contemporary editors have altered the Lachmannian method. On the practical side, the difficulties in trying to establish precise family groups of textual errors is virtually impossible, as the family types tend to negatively influence and corrupt one another. Theoretically speaking, “the Lachmannian method is founded upon a quest for lost origins, a quest that contemporary philosophy would denounce as being vain and imaginary. Why attempt to surmount the historical multiplicity of different readings of an original text, different readings that, after all, testify to the historical life of the original? What are the advantages of re-establishing the flawless identity of a text that, in its authentic form, may have remained totally insignificant?” (pp. 11-12). In contrast, contemporary editorial practices allow the diversity of texts to speak by producing editions that present us (in so far as it is possible) with the original text and the text’s historical development. That is, “they attempt at once to reconstruct the original identity of the text, and to preserve the difference of its historical expressions” (p. 12). Thus, in contrast with the goal of the Lachmannian approach, which tries to get back to the “pure: and “untainted” original, contemporary editorial practices view the diversity of the texts in a positive light, which supports Rosemann’s thesis that paradigm shifts affect even the “letter.”