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Italian philosophy, Magic and Peter of Spain

Interview by Richard Marshall.


Brian Copenhaver is the philosopher who thinks all the time about magic and philosophy, about the distorted Pico, the Renaissance, Hegel, Kant, Kabbalism, about magic and science, occult qualities, Pythogoras, Iamblichus, the Italian Idealists, Gentile, Croce, about Dewey and Croce, about their politics, about Peter of Spain, his logic and metaphysical commitments. This one’s a Renaissance man on Renaissance men and then some…

3:AM: What made you become a philosopher?

Brian Copenhaver: Jesuits made me do it: for six of my eighteen years in Roman Catholic schools and colleges, I was taught by Jesuits. Since that was before the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) modernized the Church, my undergraduate education was still the post- medieval Jesuit kind, which had been designed in 1599. Scholastic philosophy and theology were big parts of that curriculum.


3:AM: You ask: what were the philosophical foundations of belief in magic among educated Europeans in the period between Ockham and Leibniz? Before answering this could you sketch out the situation regarding belief in magic throughout this period. Belief in magic was pretty universal wasn’t it – even the great Newton was an occultist wasn’t he? Was philosophy in this period a philosophy of magic?

BC: Most philosophy in those days had nothing to do with magic. But the philosophy that prevailed until the end of the period, scholastic Aristotelianism, provided theoretical foundations for belief in magic: the key theory was the hylemorphic doctrine of form and matter, substance and quality. As long as the dominant philosophy was scholastic, and the standard cosmology was geocentric, educated people took magic for granted. Magic was an article of everyone’s mental furniture. But all that was changing even before Leibniz collided with Newton.

When Leibniz attacked Newton’s theory of gravitational force acting at a distance, he called gravity an ‘occult quality,’ claiming that Newton had reverted to the scholastic matter-theory that Boyle, Descartes, Galileo, Hobbes and others had repudiated. Had Leibniz known that Newton kept working at alchemy through most of his career, he might have another charge to add to his indictment. After Newton died in 1727, his admirers kept quiet about his alchemy, studied in modern times by Betty Jo Dobbs and others. Calling Newton an ‘occultist’ would be off the mark in two ways. First, as a technical matter, Leibniz was wrong to say that Newton’s gravity was an ‘occult quality.’ The charge was just name-calling. Second, in broader terms, the hard-core occultists of the day, like Robert Fludd and Thomas Vaughan, had been called out by Johann Kepler as ‘theosophists’ to distinguish their extravagant (and heterodox) religiosity from his own careful mathematical science or, to use the word then current, ‘philosophy’ – which was a model for Newton. At the beginning of the Principia, Newton made sure to declare his opposition to occult qualities. And he was surely no theosophist, despite his long labors in alchemy and his fascination with apocalyptic biblical chronology.

3:AM: The fifteenth century Italian philosopher Pico is someone you’ve written about. He worked on several occult texts and writers didn’t he? He may be obscure to many readers. Can you first introduce us to him and say why he’s important to anyone wanting to understand a strand of Italian and European intellectual thought in this period – and which other figures does he connect with?

BC: Like Marsilio Ficino, Pietro Pomponazzi and Lorenzo Valla, Giovanni Pico was a famous philosopher in his own day – though little known now to English-speaking students or teachers of philosophy. In Italy, however, Pico always was and still is a celebrity, at the level of someone like Thomas Jefferson. He is better known to Italians than the most celebrated heroes of American philosophy – Ralph Waldo Emerson, William James, John Dewey – are now known in their own country. To some extent, Pico became famous for being famous. Like Mozart, he was brilliant and died young, leaving a great story behind.

Dead at thirty-one, he had no time to complete a settled philosophy. To make the story even more confusing, he’s best known for a short speech that he did not call an Oration on the Dignity of Man. That title came from a later editor who seems to have read only the first few pages of the Oration, whose subject is ascetic mysticism, about as far from post-Kantian notions of ‘human dignity’ as you can get. ‘Mysticism,’ as I’m using it, means nothing more mysterious or weird than many religions. It’s a religious practice, grounded in a theological theory: mystics want to speak directly with God, without help from priests or preachers. In Pico’s case, this direct contact was a step toward complete union with God, so that the self could be absorbed in God, deified and annihilated. So much for the autonomy of the human person.

Pico’s most original effort was to underwrite his Christian mysticism with the Jewish kind called ‘Kabbalah.’ To announce this project, he planned to debate 900 philosophical theses in Rome in front of the College of Cardinals: 119 of the theses present his Christianized Kabbalah. But the plan failed: the Church condemned some of the theses, and Pico hurried away to France. Returning to Italy, he toned down his Kabbalah in the Heptaplus of 1489, which interprets the Bible’s creation story.


Pico’s enthusiasm for Kabbalah was motivated by his (mistaken) belief in its antiquity. He thought that Kabbalah was the secret, oral part of the revelation that God gave to Moses, who made its written part public in the Bible. Parallel to these two channels – written and oral – of sacred revelation, he also found a third tradition of secular pagan wisdom in writings ascribed to primordial figures like Zoroaster, Hermes Trismegistus and Orpheus, studied by later sages like Pythagoras, culminating with Socrates and Plato and then passed on to Plotinus and the Neoplatonists. This theory of cultural history, the ‘ancient theology,’ was Marsilio Ficino’s before Pico was born.

To reinforce his Kabbalah, Pico advocated a certain type of magic, which he called ‘natural’ to distinguish it from the ‘demonic’ kind that he did not allow. Natural magic uses powers that come from nature but are hard to find – requiring the skills of a magus to locate and deploy them. Magical powers in nature produce astonishing effects. Aristotle’s hylemorphic metaphysics, well known to Pico in this application and explored in detail by Ficino, provides a philosophical account of nature’s magical powers.

After Pico invented Christian Kabbalah and advocated natural magic in a series of works written around 1486, in his last years he turned against a key component of magic in the Western tradition – astrology. But he left his enormous polemic against astrology unfinished, and there is still no reliable edition. So we still don’t know exactly what Pico was attacking when he attacked astrology.

3:AM: You write about Pico and the link between magic and the dignity of man. Can you say something about this as perhaps a way to start answering your initial question regarding the philosophical roots of magical thinking. Was Pico reworking occult texts to fit with his own philosophical approach or did he see himself as delivering to his modern readers wisdom of the ancients without any tinctures of the contemporary?

BC: After Hegel lectured on the history of philosophy, Pico’s period – now usually called the ‘Renaissance’ – gradually became invisible in philosophy’s official history, especially its Anglophone version. But the omission was a novelty, motivated by Hegel’s preference for a German Reformation, not an Italian Renaissance, as the formative moment of modernity. By contrast, the Renaissance was alive and well in Hegel’s main source of historical information, the Critical History of Philosophy by Johann Jakob Brucker (1742-44), where Pico gets plenty of attention, though not in a happy way: he comes in for harsh words as a wooly-brained syncretist – a mixer-up of things (especially Judaism and Christianity) that ought to stay unmixed.

Later in the eighteenth century, after Kant’s enormous success, Brucker’s History was still indispensable. So the immense Critical History had to be put into Kantspeak, a task begun by several writers in the 1790s. Accordingly, one of those historians, Wilhelm Tennemann, interpreted the dignitas in the (inauthentic) title of Pico’s famous speech as prefiguring Kant’s Würde – the root of all post-Kantian theories of human dignity. Thus was Pico launched on his posthumous career as the modern world’s favorite Renaissance ‘humanist,’ the bold young herald of human freedom and dignity. After World War II, as publishers supplied material for college courses on ‘western civilization,’ this misunderstanding of Pico as an optimist progressive became a fixture in the textbooks, though he was actually a body-hating, world-fleeing ascetic.

In 1964, in a best-seller still in print, France Yates (an inspiration to me) linked this distorted picture of Pico with her equally incorrect account of magic in Pico’s culture – which was also Ficino’s environment and, later, Giordano Bruno’s. Her hugely successful book, Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition, misrepresents magic as ‘Hermetic,’ though there is no magic to speak of in the relevant Hermetic texts, the fourteen treatises of the Greek Hermetic Corpus translated into Latin by Ficino. Yates romanticizes magic as Faustian proto-science, as ‘working’ on a brave new world untested by medieval ascetics, who only prayed for a good exit from it. But Pico’s Kabbalist mysticism, and with it his magic, was deeply indebted to the Christian asceticism of the Middle Ages.

When Pico and Ficino saw ancient Neoplatonic philosophers as taking magic seriously and justifying belief in it, they read the texts correctly. Not so, however, when Pico interpreted Kabbalist writings as proofs of Christian doctrine: those were arrogant mistakes by a young genius whose enthusiasm for esoteric wisdom left good judgment behind.


3:AM: How important was Kabbalah in European thought? What are the chief characteristics of Kabbalah that were influential, and how did European intellectuals develop their thinking in the light of its influence?

BC: Until Pico wrote about it, almost no Christians knew anything at all about Kabbalah, at a time when it was obscure to most Jews. Today, thanks to Gershom Scholem and Moshe Idel, a great deal is known about this tradition of esoteric exegesis and mystical spirituality, even though secrecy is a large part of its character. Modern research on Kabbalah is almost entirely about texts written in Hebrew and Aramaic by Jews. In that framework, the Christian Kabbalah invented by Pico, which he described in Latin and others discussed in the European vernaculars, is a remarkable but secondary enterprise.

At certain moments – when Johann Reuchlin was attacked as a Judaizer, for example, or when zealous Christians made bonfires of Hebrew books – Kabbalah made the headlines: but not often. Except for the few Jews who sustained this medieval tradition and carried it into modern times, Kabbalah was truly arcane. And many educated Jews came to be embarrassed by it. One cause of scandal was the disaster of Shabbetai Zevi, a famous admirer of Kabbalah: after 1648, he claimed to be the Messiah, attracted many followers but eventually left them distraught by converting to Islam.

As some Jews forgot Kabbalah in the Enlightenment, few Christians of that era had mastered the languages needed to study it, but for them Pico was still an inspiration. On the other hand, why the very idea of a Christian Kabbalah might be offensive for Jews is evident from Pico’s approach to it: at best, he treats Kabbalah as concealing a great treasure, a secret trinitarian theology; at worst, he declares this esoteric system to be a Jewish weapon that will defeat the Jews in debate and then ‘save’ them by conversion to Christianity.


3:AM: How important was magic for the scientific Renaissance?

BC: Science had a revolution in the seventeenth century: many would agree with that. But did science have a renaissance in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries? The renaissance sited in that earlier period is the invention of Jacob Burckhardt – a moment of cultural history conceived by an art historian.

Magic (using the word provisionally and eurocentrically) peaked twice as a topic of interest to eminent thinkers: first between Plotinus (d. 270 CE) and Proclus (d. 485), then later between Ficino (1433-99) and Bruno (1548-1600). The second period coincides with Burckhardt’s renaissance, which produced no revolutionary works by Boyle, Descartes, Galileo, Hobbes, Huygens, Leibniz, Newton or Pascal – and only one by Kepler. What Copernicus announced in 1543 turned the universe inside out only later, after Kepler and Galileo publicized it.

Lesser scientists were making progress in smaller ways, to be sure. However, except for Kepler’s Cosmographic Mystery of 1596 – almost too late for Burckhardt’s renaissance – the only scientific achievement with revolutionary effect before 1600 was the pictorial human anatomy published by Andreas Vesalius – also in 1543, like the equally great book by Copernicus. But this achievement was as much artistic as scientific, inseparable from Burckhardt’s cultural and art-historical renaissance. Likewise for Leonardo da Vinci, who turned art into a kind of science, keeping most of it secret in coded notebooks. Leonardo, Michelangelo and Raphael, along with Machiavelli and Leon Battista Alberti, are the titans of Burckhardt’s renaissance. Only Leonardo was a scientist – in some sense.

Notice this: used as I have been using it, the words ‘science’ and ‘scientists’ are anachronisms. Better to talk about ‘natural philosophers’ and ‘natural philosophy,’ as in Newton’s masterpiece: The Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy. Before Galileo and Descartes abandoned scholastic metaphysics and its matter-theory, natural philosophy was Aristotelian, and magic was part of natural philosophy. In fact, after Ficino, Pico and Pomponazzi, magic was prominent in natural philosophy, not just a piece of it. If the story of science in the renaissance is about natural philosophy, magic is a big part of it – just as the repudiation of magic in the seventeenth century is a big part of the story of the scientific revolution.

3:AM: And was there a well developed philosophy of magic that would have been embedded in the thought of the leading intellectuals at the time? If so, what was it?

BC: Part of the best-developed and paramount philosophy – Aristotelian natural philosophy – was a metaphysics and matter-theory often called ‘hylemorphic’ because its core components were matter (hulê) and form (morphê) seen as correlative principles. Within the hylemorphic doctrine, form was thought of in various ways. A form puts a horse in the equine species, for example, not the bovine species, where cows belong: this is the job of a ‘specific’ form. A form – perhaps the very same form – also accounts for the autonomous existence of that horse as a distinct substance: this work is done by a ‘substantial’ form. A substantial form ensures that a thing is, a specific form says what a thing is.

Many things having such forms are ordinary natural objects, accessible to the senses, unlike the forms themselves, which are immaterial and therefore elude the senses. Things that have substantial and specific forms also have other forms, called ‘accidental’ because they come and go without eliminating what they leave behind. Many accidental forms are detected by the senses – as hot or cold and wet or dry, for example. They are ‘manifest’ because they are sensed – by the sense of touch, in the case of the four elementary qualities. Ultimately, these and other manifest qualities are forms of the four material elements – earth, water, air and fire – of which all earthly things are made.

Other accidental forms are not material, however, nor can they be sensed: since they are not manifest, they are ‘occult,’ meaning ‘hidden.’ These imperceptible accidents are not forms of the four material elements. The source of these ‘occult qualities,’ immaterial and not sensed, is substantial form, likewise immaterial and not sensed.

Occult qualities explain why magnets attract iron, why chaff clings to amber, why rhubarb purges and why opium is narcotic: all these are veridical effects, often observed. Occult qualities also explain other effects which, while they may escape observation, were certified by authoritative texts: mighty lions fear puny roosters, say the ancient books, the evil eye harms its victims without contact, and a tiny fish (the remora or ‘ship- holder’) stops huge ships under sail. Well-attested accounts of such phenomena supplied data for magic. The hylemorphic metaphysics of substantial forms and occult qualities provided a theory to save the magical phenomena.


3:AM: In Pico’s Oration, he writes about other ancient occult sources as well as the Kabbalah, including Pythagoras and Plotinus. Are moderns who ignore the occult elements in these philosophers distorting our understanding of their work when they do this?

BC: For Pythagoras himself, it’s hard to say, since not much more than his name and place is known about him. Much later, however, others identified themselves as ‘Pythagorean’ because they thought they knew his teachings and wanted to follow them. Some of what they took to be Pythagorean was magic – broadly speaking.

Iamblichus (d. 325 CE) is a good example. He wrote an influential work On the Pythagorean Life that records traditional stories about Pythagoras. He also wrote On the Mysteries of Egypt, which lays out a philosophy of magic. Its main topic is theurgy, the ritual needed to attract a good god from the realms beyond heaven to the earth below – also the mistakes to avoid in such rituals, which may attract evil demons instead of good gods if the performances, or the theory behind them, go wrong.

Is it because he wrote about something as disreputable as theurgy that contemporary philosophers mostly ignore Iamblichus? They show more interest in his teacher, Porphyry, who debated his student about theurgy. But Porphyry also wrote a famous Introduction to Aristotle’s logic and metaphysics whose longevity alone attracts attention to it. Porphyry’s teacher, Plotinus, gets even more respect – as he should, since he produced the richest metaphysics in the Platonic manner after Plato himself.
It’s often said that Plotinus has nothing to say about theurgy, which is true: theurgy entered the Neoplatonic tradition later, with Porphyry. It’s also said that Plotinus thought magic beneath him, as a sage, which is also true. Nonetheless, he theorized about the magic that he scorned, never doubting its reality – only its value. He despised magic but took it seriously. Since the Enlightenment, however, philosophy has forgotten magic so thoroughly that a philosopher who took it seriously today would lose status as a philosopher. Since Plotinus is unshakable in his historical standing, the easy way out is to ignore his interest in magic – which distorts his thinking.

3AM: Is your claim that Italian Hegelianism is rooted in this occult philosophizing of Pico? Again, are we distorting Hegel if these rather weird elements are missed out, maybe to the point where the intellectual integrity of Hegelian Idealism is compromised?

BC: Giovanni Gentile, Italian and a reformed Hegelian, promoted Pico as the epochal renaissance voice of human dignity – not as a Kabbalist or a magus. Gentile’s conception of Pico is just one expression, among many, of his Hegelian historicism. But Gentile didn’t go to Pico for his Hegel.
As for Hegel and weirdness, the weirdest thing about him, for my money, was his deliberate decision to make his writing hard to understand. And he succeeded! But the ‘occultism’ that people began to call by that name in Hegel’s time wasn’t all that important to him. For sure, like many thinkers of the Romantic period, he was curious about figures from the past who are now often called, very loosely, ‘mystics’ – especially if they seemed to ratify his Teutonocentric view of history: “The German Spirit is the Spirit of the new world,” he declared, and “its aim is the realization of absolute truth as the unlimited selfdetermination of freedom.”

3:AM: The Italian Idealist reaction to Kant was important and probably defines Italian philosophy between Kant and Croce. As you say, what is interesting is that whilst Idealism in the rest of Europe tended to die back under the assaults of Russell et al, the Italians kept it rolling until the 1950s. So firstly, can you sketch out what Italian Idealism looked like after Kant – were there features that were unusual even from the off?

BC: Before 1850, more or less, the leading Italian philosophers were not much impressed by Kant and knew even less about Hegel. Some thought that Reid handled the most pressing epistemic and metaphysical problems more effectively than Kant. After 1850, Hegel’s main spokesperson in Italy was Bertrando Spaventa, whose task was expository and exegetical: to provide Italians with a comprehensive picture of Hegel’s large and unwelcoming system. Spaventa influenced a line of neo-Hegelian idealists that culminated with Benedetto Croce and Giovanni Gentile. Shortly after 1900, they formed a partnership that lasted for about twenty years, until philosophy, aggravated by politics and personality, broke it up. After that, their enmity was the tormented axis of Italian philosophy until Gentile was assassinated in 1944 and Croce died in 1952.

Neither Croce nor Gentile was ‘Hegelian’ in any simple sense. Kant was crucial for them, along with Schelling, Fichte, Marx, Schelling, Schlegel and others – not to mention Giambattista Vico and the later Italian philosophers studied exhaustively by Gentile.

More than Gentile, Croce advertised his own brand of idealism – called the ‘philosophy of the spirit’ – as a rejection of Hegelian orthodoxy. Gentile named his system ‘actual idealism,’ which – unlike Croce’s – was a naturalist idealism, inasmuch as it makes the spirit immanent in the world, to rescue it from transcendence and abstraction. Also unlike Croce, Gentile put his actualism at the service of Mussolini’s fascism. He held high office in Mussolini’s government, while Croce risked his life in opposition.


3:AM: Croce is probably the one modern Italian philosopher who people might have heard about. Why wasn’t he receptive to developments in Anglo-American philosophy?

BC: Croce was anxious to engage with Anglophone philosophy, though in a critical way. Responsible criticism in philosophy is a two-way street, however, and Italian intellectual culture, from an American perspective, was about as accessible as the moons of Jupiter when Croce started his career.
Still, Croce’s generation of Italian thinkers, coming of age in the 1890s, was fascinated by the new American pragmatism of William James. England was closer and a better bet, however, and Croce could easily travel there. The most productive traffic from the British side was directed by R.G. Collingwood, though J.A. Smith and other British idealists were also friendly to Croce – not to speak of Douglas Ainslie’s English translations of his books. Croce himself contributed an important statement of his aesthetics to the Encyclopedia Britannica – at a time when real experts still wrote for that publication.

The Anglophone philosopher best placed to team up with Croce was John Dewey: both were international leaders in anti-fascist politics between the Wars, and both were renowned reformers of public education. Unfortunately, what might have been a partnership went off the rails when the American gratuitously – if only in passing – insulted the Italian in Art as Experience (1934). Croce replied in kind when he reviewed Dewey’s book in 1940. After World War II, an English translation of that review, with a reply from Dewey appended to it, rekindled the blaze. Others kept fanning the flames after both philosophers died in 1952.

Because of his public distinction, Dewey was almost uniquely suited – among American philosophers – to deal with Croce on his own terms. In Italy, since after the Napoleonic Wars, the norm had been for leading philosophers to hold high public office, at the national and ministerial levels. John Stuart Mill, Bertrand Russell and Dewey himself were great Anglophone philosophers with comparable political reach. But such roles were the norm, not the exception, for Italian philosophers of any prominence.

Italy had become a unified modern state only a few years before Croce was born. The philosopher Spaventa, Croce’s cousin, fought in the struggles that achieved national unity. The politics of unification and nationalism was in the blood and bones of modern Italian philosophy. Those vital interests gave patriotic energy to Italian philosophers, and none was more energetic than Croce. But the same patriotism made philosophy parochial in Italy – though Croce’s parish was in some ways global.

3:AM: Was Croce indebted to his occult predecessors in ways that were more than acknowledging them? Are there occult tinctures to his work?

BC: None at all that I know of. Few great thinkers have been more unmystical.
However, it was Croce’s one-time partner and later adversary, Giovanni Gentile, who lit the fire under Pico’s reputation in the twentieth century – not Pico the Kabbalist or Pico the advocate of natural magic (both historically real) but Pico the champion of human freedom and dignity (a post-Kantian fantasy).

3:AM: Was there a worked out philosophy of Fascism and anti-fascism – and where did Croce and Idealist philosophy generally stand in relation to political developments in Italy? Were philosophical currents more prominently foregrounded in the politics of that period than they were elsewhere?

BC: Croce, a fierce anti-fascist, advocated a secular “religion of liberalism” that was also historicist: this historicism was the main residue of Hegel’s thought in Croce’s system. In that system, the movement of history is dialectical (loosely speaking), and freedom is its goal, though the dialectic at work in history is neither material nor determined. History itself is the history of liberty, constituted by rational acts of human persons seeking freedom in ways that constantly clash and produce change, which is not necessarily progressive.

In practical politics, Croce was conservative, doubting that any policies of the state could actually enact liberal ideals. For a few years after World War II, he was the titular head of a Liberal Party in Italy, which soon collapsed in the face of two other religions that were more pragmatic: the Communist Party and the Roman Catholic Church.

Gentile meanwhile had been assassinated because he was a fascist. In the 1920s, after splitting with Croce, he had risen to high office in the Fascist Party, and for a few years he shaped Mussolini’s cultural policy more than anyone but the Duce himself. By the time Italian fascism hit bottom in the late thirties, intimidated by Hitler and promulgating its own disgraceful racial laws, Gentile was no longer a major force in the regime or the Party, which he never renounced. Gentile had immense philosophical talent – more focused than Croce’s, whose range was broader, less committed to philosophy. The grand historical narrative of Italian philosophy – with the politics of nation-building as its armature – is still Gentile’s. His metaphysics of actual idealism or actualism is a strikingly original attempt to naturalize (speaking very broadly) idealism.

Some Italians, recognizing Gentile’s genius and remembering how he and Croce dominated Italian culture between the Wars, are now reluctant to see actualism as fascist, even though Gentile himself sometimes degraded it in that way. Nonetheless, the chronology of his work, whose basic elements were in place before Mussolini founded the Fascist Party in 1919, is enough to establish its fundamental independence from fascist politics: Gentile’s ‘Act of Thinking as Pure Act’ appeared in 1911, when Mussolini was still a socialist, followed in 1916 by his General Theory of the Spirit as Pure Act.

In the Spring of 1924, Gentile organized a “Manifesto of the Fascist Intellectuals,” timed to coincide with the official birthday of the city of Rome. In language of a kind later called ‘Orwellian’ in English, the “Manifesto” proclaims a “faith of energy and violence, … of young people, resolute, armed, wearing the black shirt and organized militarily, opposing the law in order to set up a new law.” Croce’s “Reply by Italian Authors, Professors and Journalists” denounced the new faith as a “chaotic and incomprehensible religion.”

Both Croce and Gentile were thinkers of the first rank who formed their ideas in the crucible of nationalist politics, and – like many other Italian philosophers – they both held high office. In their day, for Italian philosophy in general, the course of academic as well as public debate about ideas was inseparable from current events. A public career like Dewey’s, exceptional in Anglophonia, was normal for philosophers in Italy. They would see nothing unusual, for example, about the scope and intensity of Russell’s politics: for them the anomaly would be the academic quietism of G.E. Moore, who wrote a famous “Refutation of Idealism” around the time when Gentile and Croce launched La Critica, the journal that was Italy’s main voice for a new, native idealism.


3:AM: Another figure you’ve recently been writing about is Peter of Spain. Can you tell us Who was the Peter of Spain who wrote the Summaries of Logic? Was he a Pope?

BC: No one knows for sure, but in all likehood Peter wasn’t a Pope. For a long time, however, many people thought that he was John XXI, who reigned for only a few months before dying in 1277. Peter the logician was probably a Dominican friar who came from Spain or Portugal or taught in that part of Europe, where lots of clerics were named Pedro.

3:AM: Can you sketch where the Summaries of Logic come into the story of medieval logic?

BC: The Summaries, true to its title, summarizes two things in its twelve chapters: first, the logic invented by Aristotle in the fourth century BCE, modified by Porphyry in the third century CE and put into Latin by Boethius more than two centuries later; second, new perpectives on logic that originated in the twelfth century.

BC: So this is logic before Frege, Russell et al., and it fits in with a general education doesn’t it? What are the key features of this medieval logic that makes it so different from modern logics?

BC: Because the building blocks of contemporary logic, since Frege and Russell, have been propositions, their logic has sometimes been called ‘propositional,’ a word that describes only one of its components. Since the building blocks of Peter’s logic are terms as parts of propositions – like ‘Socrates’ and ‘wise’ in ‘Socrates is wise’ – the logic of the Summaries has sometimes been called ‘terminist,’ again describing only one of its features. Propositions made of terms can be true or false, and syllogisms made of propositions can be valid or invalid, though Peter gave no account of validity or of its failure. The logic now taught in universities is not syllogistic, as Aristotle’s was.

3:AM: Oxford and Paris were the centres of two different branches of logic in the thirteenth century weren’t they? Can you say something about where Peter’s book fits and the significance of this? Was his approach to produce something that was rather apart from the belligerent rivalries of competing schools of the time?

BC: The pioneering editor of the Latin Summaries, Lambertus De Rijk, found two manuscripts – one now in London, the other in Paris – which he saw as basic to his edition. He also thought that the twelfth-century tradition inherited by Peter had split into two by his time: one for Paris, the other for Oxford. However, since nothing is known about Peter’s career in those early universities, with all their squabbling, how all this might fit together is still a puzzle: for all we know, he might have made the combat worse.

3:AM: You say that Peter’s students would distil logic into a single word, ‘syllogisms,’ and you note that this would be a very different approach from someone like John of Salisbury. Was Peter an innovator or a synthesiser and routinizer?

BC: John’s conception of the original Aristotelian logic, with syllogisms at its core, wasn’t much different from Peter’s. But Peter was much more systematic and comprehensive than John as a teacher of logic. Any student who read his Summaries would understand that syllogisms were the main machinery: that would not be clear from John’s Metalogicon, however, which is more diffuse. Putting syllogisms at the center of logic was not at all innovative on Peter’s part, though he expressed the centrality of syllogistic in a way that remained the rule for centuries. His innovation was to add new logical material, never presented by Aristotle, to his textbook, which is not to say that he invented any of these novelties. We simply don’t know.

3:AM: Are there metaphysical commitments that flow from his logic – or prior metaphysical assumptions that flow into it?

BC: Peter’s elementary metaphysics is part and parcel of his logic. He didn’t think of metaphysics as something lurking in another part of the forest that might creep in to spoil his syllogistic. Like Aristotle, he sorted things in the world by categories – ten of them, including substance, quality, quantity, relation and so on: these are the elements of his metaphysics. The same categories sort not just things, however, also words that name things. Logic shows how to reason with words that are names of things – an offer from metaphysics that Peter could not refuse.

3:AM: Are there things in his logic that are still philosophically valuable today, or is the interest in him now just hostorical.

BC: Oh, yes: very valuable! My UCLA colleague, Terry Parsons, has just published a book that shows just how valuable: Articulating Medieval Logic, Oxford University Press, 2014.

3:AM: And finally, are there five books (other than your own) that readers here at 3:AM might read to delve further into your philosophical world?

BC: If you mean books in English, that’s hard to do. So, on modern Italian philosophy, I’ll mention Copenhaver and Copenhaver, From Kant to Croce, only because (I believe) it’s only thing of its kind. On magic, I can tell you about two things that aren’t yet books, but will be very soon: both are already listed by Amazon. Very soon, Cambridge University Press will publish my Magic in Western Culture: From Antiquity to the Enlightenment, which tells the story of magic eurocentrically and à la longue durée. Shortly after that, Penguin will publish The Book of Magic, an annotated collection of primary texts that covers the same period. The following books are about topics I find important, done in ways that I admire:

Anthony Grafton, Defenders of the Text: The Traditions of Scholarship in an Age of Science, 1450-1800. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1991.

Moshe Idel, Kabbalah in Italy, 1280-1510. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011.

William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience. New York: Barnes and Noble, 2004.

Charles Schmitt, Aristotle and the Renaissance. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1983.

D. P. Walker, Spiritual and Demonic Magic from Ficino to Campanella. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2000.

Richard Marshall is still biding his time.

Buy his book here to keep him biding!

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, September 12th, 2015.