Albert the Great (Before 1200–1280)

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According to the near-contemporary testimony of Tolomeo of Lucca (Historia Ecclesiastica [1317], 22.19) and confirmed by other, later sources, Albert the Great (Albertus Magnus) was more than 80 years old when he died on November 15, 1280, establishing the turn of the thirteenth century as the terminus ante quem of his birth. He was born in the town of Lauingen in Schwaben in the diocese of Augsburg, at the time a part of Bavaria, the son of a knight in the service of the counts of Bollestadt. He was already a student in the studium litterarum at Padua when, in 1223, Jordan of Saxony came in search of recruits to the Dominican Order among the young men in residence at the new university. Albert received the habit from Jordan sometime around Easter of 1223 and was sent to Cologne for his novitiate. By 1228 he had become a lecturer (lector ), and he served in that office in Dominican communities at Heldesheim, Freiberg, Regensburg, and Strassburg. In 1243 or 1244 he was sent to Paris by John of Wildeshausen, where he became a master of theology in 1245 and lectured on Peter Lombard's Sententiarum (Sentences).

In the fall of 1245 Thomas Aquinas was sent to Paris, also at the direction of John of Wildeshausen, and in 1248 he and probably other Dominicans accompanied Albert to Cologne, where Albert was to establish the first studium generale (or liberal-arts college) in Germany. He served as Provincial of Teutonia from 1254 to 1257, during which time he was summoned before the papal curia to defend the Dominican Order against the attacks of William of Saint-Amour. He was well received by the curia, and his lectures and debating were found to be extraordinary. In January of 1260 Pope Alexander IV appointed him bishop of Regensburg, but he served less than two years before submitting his resignation, after instituting many reforms in his diocese. Although retired, he was directed by Pope Urban IV, in 1263, to preach to the Germans a crusade to the Holy Land, and this he did, until Urban's death in 1264.

It is said that after the death of Thomas Aquinas, Albert traveled to Paris one last time to defend the views of his former student, but this story, related at the canonization proceedings for Aquinas in 1319, is not fully consistent with other known facts about Albert's final years and, indeed, appears to interpret the events in Paris in 1277 in a manner that places far too much importance on the connection, if any, between Aquinas and the doctrines that were being formally condemned. The complete absence of any official correspondence after August 18, 1279, in the face of a full and active participation in the life of the Church and his order right up until that date, has suggested to some that Albert's memory, and perhaps other aspects of his mental life, had begun to fail him at that time, but there is no good reason to suppose, as some have done, that this decline began as early as 1277. Whether he was already in decline or not, he and his Dominican brothers were apparently not unprepared when death finally took him away on November 15, 1280.


Albert was committed to the preservation and propagation of the philosophical ideas of antiquity, in particular the philosophy of Aristotle, which he saw himself as introducing to the Latin west. Like Aristotle, he produced a body of philosophical work that spanned the discipline in both breadth and depth. As in the case of Aristotle, some of the works attributed to Albert in his corpus are not actually from his hand, and other works known to have been written by him have yet to be found. Little is known with any certainty about the chronology of the corpus, but there are good reasons for thinking that the bulk of his philosophical writings, in particular, his Aristotelian paraphrases, were completed between the years 1250 and 1270.

His corpus can be divided into three main categories: philosophy (nine treatises in logic, five in metaphysics, and three in ethics), theology (thirty treatises), and what we would call natural science but what throughout the medieval period was known as natural philosophy (twenty-two treatises). His method in most of his writings is the paraphrastic style employed by Avicenna (ibn Sīnā), as opposed to the line-by-line commentary characteristic of the works of Averroes (ibn Rushd), and his logical works in particular are deeply influenced by the work not only of Avicenna but also of al-Fārābī and Robert Kilwardby. Although Aristotle's scientific writings had been condemned in 1210 by Innocent III and the University of Paris established a commission to purge the Aristotelian corpus of heretical ideas in 1231, Albert encountered no difficulty in making use of Aristotelian ideas when he began to work on his Summa de creaturis (Treatise on creatures), before 1246, and his commentary on the Sententiarum of Peter Lombard, completed in 1249. It was probably not until the condemnation of 1277 that Aristotelianism as such encountered any serious resistance at the universities.


Part of what was at issue in the condemnation of 1277 was the relation between philosophy and theology, which the so-called Latin Averroists argued were separate disciplines corresponding to entirely distinct objects of knowledge, and hence governing different sorts of truths. The truths of theology were grounded in divine revelation and prophecy, while those of philosophy were grounded in human reason, and the mendicant orders were concerned to keep the two disciplines separate, on the grounds that philosophy, an inherently skeptical discipline, might intrude itself into theology in an unwarranted way, calling into question conclusions drawn in a domain in which it had no authority. In this context, Albert's insistence on the importance of knowing and understanding the philosophy of the ancient Greeks is striking and serves to illustrate his intellectual integrity.

Albert's approach to ancient philosophy has been criticized by late-twentieth-century historians of philosophy as an unrealistic syncretism of Aristotelianism and Neoplatonism. The complaint is that the two systems are philosophically and philologically incompatible, and any attempt to reconcile them is not only doomed to failure but is also methodologically misguided. It is worth noting, however, that this view is itself grounded in historical research based upon certain a priori assumptions about the relation between Plato's philosophical system and Aristotle's. Albert's Neoplatonism was essentially the Neoplatonism of the Greek commentators on Aristotle, which was itself an attempt to syncretize Plato and Aristotle, and it is fair to say that in antiquity the disparities between the two systems were not viewed as they have been by modern commentators. In fact, Albert, in offering a Neoplatonic harmonization of the two systems, is simply following the example, not only of his Arabic sources, but of a tradition that extends back to the Hellenistic period. The view that the systems are beyond harmonizing is of rather recent vintage and is subject to modification.


Albert's metaphysics focused primarily on a theory of causation that can be traced to such sources as Aristotle, Avicenna, Pseudo-Dionysius, and the Liber de causis (The Book of Causes ). He adapted the Neoplatonic notion of emanation of form, but in his system the causation is by attraction rather than by pure emanation from the One. He preferred attraction to pure emanation because he identified the One with the Good, and the Good, by its very nature, is diffusive of itself and of being (diffusivum sui et esse ), that is, it causes other things to be by means of a kind of "calling to resemblance." (Albert here treats the word for good, "bonum," as cognate with the verb "boare" [to call]. This appeal to homespun etymology was also common in antiquity, particularly in Plato but also in Aristotle.) By virtue of this "calling to resemblance," the Good is not merely the first mover, as Aristotle's unmoved mover is, but is also the first producer, that is, the Creatora role for the First Cause that is not found in Aristotle's Metaphysics (bk. ?), but rather is drawn from the Liber de causis, which Albert regarded as Aristotelian in provenance.


Albert's logical works consist, for the most part, of paraphrases of the treatises of the Organon (from Gr. "organōn," instrument, tool), so-called in the medieval period because logic was viewed not as a part of philosophy but rather as an implement that is necessary for the advancement of philosophy. The Organon consisted of Aristotle's Categories, De interpretatione (On interpretation), Topics (including the De sophisticis elenchis [On sophistical refutations]), Prior Analytics, and Posterior Analytics. Yet Albert moved beyond Aristotle in a number of areas, most notably in his treatment of universals, which was grounded on the notion of form found in Plato and Aristotle. Aristotle had objected to the separability of the Platonic form and argued that forms are immanent in particulars. Drawing again upon Aristotle's Greek commentators, Albert argued that the universal must be analyzed into three modi essendi, or modes of being. Although a universal is a metaphysical unity, it may be considered under three aspects: as an entity in its own right, really existing separately from a particular, as in the mind of God (ante rem ); as an entity that informs a particular, causing it to be the thing it is (in re ); or as an entity in human thought (post rem ). The distinction between the universal in re and the universal post rem is grounded in the Aristotelian notion of abstraction, which is discussed in more detail below under the heading of "Natural Science." Although Albert achieves here another notable syncretism, it is worth noting that he does not treat universals as substantial forms, as Plato and Aristotle both do.

Natural Science

Albert's interest in the natural world was driven by his belief that all knowledge is interconnected, and he pursued scientific questions with such intensity that critics, such as Henry of Ghent (De scriptoribus ecclesiasticis 2.10) suggested that he neglected theology and philosophy. Of particular interest with regard to his scientific writings is his attitude toward the distinction between rationalism and empiricism, a distinction that had been of great interest in antiquity but that had faded during the early medieval period as a consequence of both the ascendancy of rationalism under the influence of Neoplatonism and the decline in scientific investigations during periods of social and political upheaval. Working against the grain of the prevailing rationalism, Albert's attitude towards work in the natural sciences was decidedly empiricist: experimentum solum certificat in talibus ("Experience alone gives certainty in such matters" (De vegetabilibus et plantis, VI, 2.1). Although "experimentum" (here translated "experience") is reminiscent of our word "experiment," the modern concept of scientific experiment, in which a hypothesis is tested against observational data for confirmation or falsification, was unknown at this time.

For Albert, as for his contemporary Roger Bacon, the other great experimentalist of the thirteenth century, scientific "experiment" consisted in the gathering of observational data only, not the comparative analysis of data against hypotheses with controlled variables (The Latin word "experimentum" is cognate with the Greek word "empeiria" [experience], from which we get the English word "empiricism.") As in Aristotle's treatises on nature, observational data served only to illustrate or confirm a priori hypotheses, never as a means of hypothesis formation. But Albert is not a strict Aristotelian in this matter. For natural philosophers in the Aristotelian tradition, such as Aquinas, experience must be understood in terms of an inductive process leading from sense perception of particulars to the formation of general concepts in the soul, as described in Aristotle's Metaphysics (A.1) and Posterior Analytics (B.19).

In this account, the specific features of particulars are the proper objects of sense perception, but memory functions to gather together the perceptual information from similar particulars into what Aristotle calls an empeiria (experience) of the natural kind involved, and the rational faculty called nous in Greek (variously translated into English as either intellect or understanding) abstracts from empeiria an intelligible object, which then resides in nous and is a likeness (homoiōma ) of the immanent form present in the particulars. Since these intelligible objects are different in kind from the perceptual objects that are the proper objects of the perceptual faculties, Aristotle is properly regarded not as an empiricist but as a rationalist. Nonetheless, experience clearly plays an essential role in the acquisition of knowledge of universals.

For Albert, although scientific knowledge is of the universal, the mechanism by which the universal comes to reside in the soul is by the "calling to resemblance" of the emanation of the intelligences. Intelligences illuminate the human rational faculty in accord with the doctrine of causation by attraction, and universal concepts form in the soul not because of the capacity of human intellect to abstract them but because the First Cause uses the intellect in its causal process. In Albert's and Bacon's reliance on experience, though different in kind from later notions of experience, we see the beginnings of the movement that would, by the time of the Renaissance, establish empiricism as the dominant scientific attitude, an attitude that, in time, would drive a wedge between natural philosophy and first philosophy and separate the natural sciences from philosophy.

See also al-Fārābī; Aristotelianism; Aristotle; Avicenna; Bacon, Roger; Liber de Causis; Neoplatonism; Peter Lombard; Pseudo-Dionysius; Thomas Aquinas, St.


works by albert

Alberti Magni opera omnia, edited by the Institutum Alberti Magni Coloniense. Münster, Germany: Monasterium Westfalorum, 1951.

Alberti Magni opera omnia. 21 vols., edited by Petri Jammy. Lyon, France: 1651.

Alberti Magni opera omnia. 38 vols., edited by Auguste Borgnet and E. Borgnet. Paris: L. Vivès, 18901899.

works on albert

Bianchi, Luca. Il vescovo e i filosofi: La condanna pariginia del 1277 e l'evoluzione dell'aristotelismo scolastico. Bergamo, Italy: 1990.

Craemer-Ruegenberg, Ingrid. Albertus Magnus. Munich, Germany: Beck, 1980.

D'Ancona Costa, Cristina. Recherches sur le "Liber de causis." Paris: J. Vrin, 1995.

Hoenen, Maarten, and Alain de Libera. Albertus Magnus und der Albertismus: Deutsche philosophische Kultur des Mittelalters. Leiden, Germany: Brill, 1995.

Kovach, Francis J., and Robert W. Shahan, eds. Albert the Great: Commemorative Essays. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1980.

Libera, Alain de. Albert le Grand et la Philosophie. Paris: J. Vrin, 1990.

Pegis, Anton. "St. Albert the Great and the Problem of Soul as Substance." In his St. Thomas and the Problem of the Soul in the Thirteenth Century, chap. 3. Toronto: St. Michael's College, 1934.

Weisheipl, James, ed. Albertus Magnus and the Sciences: Commemorative Essays, 1980. Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 1980.

Zimmermann, Albert. Albert der Große: Seine Zeit, sein Werk, seine Wirkung. Berlin: de Gruyter, 1981.

Scott Carson (2005)

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Albert the Great (Before 1200–1280)

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