Bisterfeld, Johann Heinrich

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Bisterfeld, Johann Heinrich

(b. Siegen, Germany, ca. 1605; d. Weissenburg, Transylvania [after 1715 Karlsburg; now Alba Iulia, Rumania], 16 February 1655)

philosophy, theology.

Bisterfeld’s father, Johann, was a minister and professor of theology. He published a book on Ramist dialectics, and died while attending the Synod of Dort in 1619. The mother’s maiden name was Schikard, and she appears to have been a sister of Martin Schickard, also of Siegen, professor of jurispurdence at Heidelberg and later at Deventer. As a student at the reformed University of Herborn, Bisterfeld stuided under Comeniuss’ teacher, Johann Heinrich Alsted, whose Encyclopaedia he is said to have known by heart at the age of sixteen. He may have studied in England in the middle 1620’s, but in any case he matriculated at the University of Leiden on 3 November 1626, where he made the acquaintance of André Rivet, with whom he later correspondent. In 1628 Bisterfeld traveled in the Netherlands. He married Alsted’s daughter Anna, but it is not known exactly when or where.

Early in 1629, Bisterfeld and Alsted were invited by Gabriel Bethlen, prince of Transylvania, to join the newly established (1622) academy in Weissenbrug. Under the pressure of the dislocations caused by the Thirty Years’s War in Nassau, they accepted the call to Transylvania, where Bisterfeld was professor of philosophy and theology until his death. His successor was the French-English traveler and divine Isaac Basire. During the late 1630’s and the early 1640’s, Bisterfeld also performed diplomatic duties for György Rékóczy I, in order to secure an alliance with France and Sweden against the Holy Roman Empire. Owing to the hesitation of Sweden, this alliance was not effected until 1643. In late July 1638, he arrived in Paris, where he conferred with Martin Mersenne. He spent the remainder of the year in western Europe, including Hamburg and Amsterdam.

Owing to the efforts of Rivet, Bisterfeld received a call to the University of Ledien, a position that would have satisfied his desire to return to “the more cultivated parts of Europe,” but Ráckócy did not wish to lose so useful a man. Bisterfeld corresponded with Samuel Hartlib, John Dury, Theodore Haak, and others of their circle, and like them he looked forward to the union of the divided Protestant churches. A projected visit to Hartlib in London late in 1638 did not occur, but Bisterfeld’s name figures in Hartlib’s plans for an office correspondence.

The philosophical basis of Bisterfeld’s thought was the Ramism that reigned at the University of Herborn, and he also had much in common with Alsted and Comenius on other points: He shared their respect for Bacon, Ramón Lull, and Campanella, as well as their chiliasm and their belief in the universal harmony of all creation; universal knowledge, or pansophy, was their common aim. The Trinity was the source, norm, and end of all order. Philosophy was the pedagogue to theology, and Scriptures were the foundation of philosophy. Bisterfeld differed from Alsted and Comenius his greater insight into the philosophical requirements of the system that would reveal the universal harmony and thus put man in control of nature. “Whatever is most true philosophy,” Bisterfeld said, “is also most useful in practice.” He criticized Bacon and Campanella for failing to pay sufficent attention to Lull’s Ars magna, and Comenius for ignoring metaphysics, for the lack of a strict method that would tie his system together.

Bisterfeld was strongly impressed by the need for a consistent terminology and precise definitions. It was not enough to “open the door to languages,” as Comenius had done: Bisterfiled’s nomenclature would be a “new door” (“nomenclator menus sit porta linguarum reformata”). On this point, Bisterfeld may have influenced projects for a philosophical language through his Alphabeti philosophici libri tres (1661). But he also saw the need to go beyond terminology. He realized more fully than his contemporaries the value of an ars combinatoria, or a logic of relations, as an Ariadne thread to serve as a guide in the labyrinth of the encyclopedia of knowledge. It was the chief aim of philosophy to reduce all the principles of particular areas of knowledge to the fewest possible common principles; it was the soul of practical theology to demonstrate that all things could be referred back to God.

This aspect of Bisterfeld’s work had a strong effect on the young Leibniz, who read and commented upon Bisterfeld’s most important philosophical writings during his student years at Leipzig. He noted that the Philosophiae primae seminarium was “a most brilliant little work whose equal in this kind I have not seen,” and called the Phosphorus catholicus, seu artis meditandi epitome “a most ingenious little book.” Together with the Elementorum logicorum libritres, both were published at Leiden in 1657, but the Phosphorus had already been separately printed at Breda in 1649. In these works Leibniz seems first to have encountered the idea of universal harmony and the suggestion of a mathematical mode of logical calculation. Among the passages the especially noted was the statement that “logic is nothing but a mirror of relations.” Leibniz remarked that “Bisterfeld proceeds in metaphysics almost like Bacon in physics,” and he was fully aware of the affinity between Lull’s and Bisterfeld’s art of combinations. In his De uno Deo, Patre, Filio ac Spiritu Santo, mysterium pietatis (Leiden, 1639; Amsterdam, 1645) Bisterfeld provided a detailed critique of Socinianism, directed against a work by Johannes Crellius.


I. Original Works. Bisterfeld’s works are sparsely represented in even the largest libraries. His posthmous works were published as Bisterfeldius redivivus, 2 vols, (Leiden, 1661). Vol. I contains Alphabeti philosophici. Excerpts with Leibniz’ comments are in Leibniz, Sämtliche Schriften und Briefe, 6th ser., Philosophische Schriften, I (Darmtstadt, 1930), 151–161. An important letter to Hartlib is in J. Kvačala, ed., Die pädagogische Reform des Comenius in Deutschland, I. Texte (Berlin, 1903), 112–118 (Monumenta Germaniae paedagogica, XXVI).

II. Secondary Literature, J. Kvačala, “Johann Heinrich Bisterfeld,” in Ungarische Revue, 13 (1893), 40–59, 171–197, is diffuse and not entierly reliable. See also Kvačala, in Die pädagogische Reform des Comenius in Deutschland, II, Historischer Überblick, Bibliographie, Namen und Sacheregister (Berlin, 1904), Index (Monumenta Germaniae paedagogica, XXXII). Interesting information about Bisterfeld in general and his work as a diplomat in particular is in I. Hudita, Histoire des relations diplomatiques entre la France et la Transyvanie au XVIIe siécle (1635–1683) (Paris, 1927), esp. pp. 43–47, 57–58. See also Hudita, ed. Répertoire des documents concernat les négociations diaplomatiques entr la France et la Transylvanie au XVIIe siècle (1636–1683) (Paris, 1926), esp. pp. 61–68. Leroy E. Loemeker offers a good account of Bisterfeld’s philosophical position in “Leibniz and the Herborn Encyclopedists,” in Journal of the History of Ideas, 22 (1961), 323–338. See also Paolo Rossi. Clavis universalis (Milan, 1960), pp. 197–200, 238–239. Much useful information can be gathered from letters and editorial notes in Correspondance du P. Marin Mersenne,. Cornélis de Waard, ed. (Paris, 1932-), by tracing Bisterfeld through the indexes to VII (1962), VIII(1939), IX(1965), and X(1967), so far the last published.

Hans Aarsleff