Oxford Philosophy

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Oxford Philosophy

Oxford and the Empirical Approach.

While the University of Paris was earning its reputation as the premier school in the West for the study of theology—the Parens scientiarum ("The Mother of all Knowledge") as Pope Gregory IX (c. 1145–1241) put it—the University at Oxford in England was developing its own tradition and making its own unique contribution. Many Englishmen had been active in the translation process in Spain and returned to England with word of new concepts and instruments of which no one in Britain had heard. One example was the astrolabe, used to observe the position of celestial bodies. In response to the interest in these new ideas, the young university at Oxford adopted a decidedly empirical approach to knowledge, even to theological knowledge.

Robert Grosseteste and Natural Philosophy.

The person most responsible for harnessing and giving direction to these tendencies was the humbly born Robert Grosseteste (c. 1175–1253), "Robert of the large head" in Norman French. A master of arts as early as the last decades of the twelfth century, Grosseteste contributed a number of scientific treatises, displaying wide and original thinking. Perhaps the most important among these was a treatise entitled De luce ("On Light"), which was the only treatise on cosmogony (an account of the generation of the universe) between Plato and the Renaissance. In what one modern author has compared to a "big bang" theory, Grosseteste observed that a point of light immediately diffuses itself in all directions, in a spherical shape. Recalling that the Genesis story begins with God's creation of light, Grosseteste found in its properties a natural explanation for physical reality, which therefore could be explained mathematically.

Grosseteste as Theologian and Bishop.

Well into his fifties, Grosseteste changed careers and became a theologian, accepting a post as the first lecturer to the Franciscans at Oxford, although he never joined the order. As theologian, Grosseteste insisted on the centrality of Scripture as opposed to the more speculative theology practiced by commentators on the Sentences at Paris. He also insisted on the importance of mastering the languages of the sacred text and showed the way by learning Greek himself. A third career ensued, that of the powerful bishopric of Lincoln, in whose diocese and jurisdiction lay the university at Oxford. Though Grosseteste took his pastoral duties seriously, he was ever aware of developments at his old university. At one point he wrote a letter to the Oxford masters enjoining them to keep the earliest and preferred lecturing times (the 6 a.m. shift) for Scripture, not the Sentences. The master guilty of the contrary practice was a young Dominican by the name of Richard Fishacre, and it took a letter from the pope himself in defense of the practice and of Fishacre's role before Grosseteste would desist.

Science as a Tool for Understanding.

The notion of employing natural philosophy—what moderns would simply call "science"—as a tool for the understanding of the sacred text, however, remained the permanent legacy of the man known as "Lincolniensis" (Grosseteste's sobriquet). A member of his "school," Richard Fishacre, in the prologue to his Commentary on the Sentences—the first composed at Oxford—borrows the story of Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar to illustrate the relationship between the disciplines. According to Fishacre's interpretation of the Old Testament story, Abraham's elderly wife Sarah could not become pregnant until Abraham slept with her serving girl, Hagar. Once Abraham had done so, Sarah was able to conceive, and Hagar was banished from the camp. In like manner, before the aspiring theologian can bear fruit, he has to bed down with the sciences, the knowledge of which is a necessary preparation for theology. The aspiring theologian should not, however, linger for too long a time in the bedchamber of the serving girl, but hurry on to the queen of the sciences.

A Model for Roger Bacon.

Grosseteste's approach became the model for the Christian theologian in the eyes of the contentious and outspoken Franciscan friar, Roger Bacon (c. 1214–1292), who praised Grosseteste's knowledge of languages and the experimental sciences. Bacon himself wrote Greek and Hebrew grammars and had some familiarity with Arabic; he also contributed to the science of optics (according to one legend he was the inventor of eyeglasses) and the rainbow. Never shy about promoting his own projects, Bacon addressed his Opus maius, literally the "Greater Work," to Pope Clement IV (d. 1268), who, unfortunately, died before he could give a response.


introduction: In the first cosmogony (a theoretical account of the origin of the material universe) since Plato's Timaeus, the Oxford master and later bishop of Lincoln, Robert Grosseteste, speculates that the property of light is to propagate itself infinitely and instantaneously in all directions to form a sphere. This "metaphysics of light," composed around 1225, is a bold and original attempt to explain how matter was generated from the initial creation of a point of light announced in the Genesis story.

The first corporeal form which some call corporeity is in my opinion light. For light of its very nature diffuses itself in every direction in such a way that a point of light will produce instantaneously a sphere of light of any size whatsoever, unless some opaque object stands in the way. Now the extension of matter in three dimensions is a necessary concomitant of corporeity, and this despite the fact that both corporeity and matter are in themselves simple substances lacking all dimension. But a form that is in itself simple, and without dimension could not introduce dimension in every direction into matter, which is likewise simple and without dimension, except by multiplying itself and diffusing itself instantaneously in every direction and thus extending matter in its own diffusion. For the form cannot desert matter, because it is inseparable from it, and matter itself cannot be deprived of form.

source: Robert Grosseteste, On Light (De Luce). Trans. Clare C. Riedl (Milwaukee: Marquette University Press, 1978). Reprinted in Medieval Philosophy. Vol. II of Philosophic Classics. 4th ed. Ed. Forrest E. Baird (Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 2003): 292–293.


Jeremiah Hackett, "Roger Bacon," in A Companion to Philosophy in the Middle Ages. Eds. Jorge J. E. Gracia and Timothy B. Noone (London: Blackwell, 2003): 616–625.

Neil Lewis, "Robert Grosseteste," in A Companion to Philosophy in the Middle Ages. Eds. Jorge J. E. Gracia and Timothy B. Noone (London: Blackwell, 2003): 597–606.

R. James Long, "Richard Fishacre," in A Companion to Philosophy in the Middle Ages. Eds. Jorge J. E. Gracia and Timothy B. Noone (London: Blackwell, 2003): 563–568.

James McEvoy, Robert Grosseteste (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000).

R. W. Southern, Robert Grosseteste; The Growth of an English Mind in Medieval Europe. 2nd ed. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992).

see also Visual Arts: Intellectual Influences on Art in the Later Middle Ages