ND   JMC : History of Medieval Philosophy / by Maurice De Wulf

267. Influence of Albert the Great on Philosophy. -- Albert popularized Aristotle. He conceived and executed the great project of "reconstructing Aristotle for the use of the Latins".{1} To make the Stagirite "intelligible" he wrote a free paraphrase of all the latter's works, following the titles and the order of the various treatises (32). "He did not undertake to write a commentary on the text of Aristotle, but borrowed from him a doctrinal scheme which he filled in copiously from the materials furnished both by Aristotle himself and his commentators, adding thereto opinions and speculations of his own."{2} This plan makes it somewhat difficult to get at Albert's own philosophical views. Sometimes his commentaries are plainly the simple exposition of the views of others, views with which his own personal opinions are irreconcilable. At other times he approves of the view he is expounding.{3} The value of his paraphrases in relation to his whole philosophical system varies from one passage to another, and only a detailed study of them could lead to any accurate estimate.

The erudition of Albert the Great was prodigious. He was familiar not merely with Aristotle but with more of the Jewish and Arabian authors than any other scholastic;{4} and his attainments went far beyond philosophical writers merely.{5} Though a scholar, however, he was not a historian; in the history of philosophy he made some astonishing and almost unpardonable blunders.

Albert was the greatest scientist of his time. He boldly and repeatedly proclaimed and upheld the rights of observation, experience and induction, thus directing the attention of his contemporaries towards the facts of Nature: "oportet experimentum non in uno modo, sed secundum omnes circumstantias probare".{6} He was well versed in zoology, botany, geography, astronomy, mineralogy, alchemy and medicine; in all these branches he had recourse to exact observation, and many of his theories marked a step forward in their progress.{7}

Albert's teaching methods were unfortunately defective in many respects. His colossal paraphrase sins by excess; we must, however, remember that it reproduces an oral exposition and was meant to be a work of popularization. We encounter another defect in the interminable digressions into which he lapses, especially in the De Anima and the Metaphysics. His diction is uncouth; his language loose and often ambiguous.

Peripateticism, which forms the substance of Albert's philosophy, was subjected by him to a twofold process of purification. On the one hand, the Dominican master divests Aristotle's own thought of the garb of the Jewish and Arabian commentaries, often contrasting the latter with the former and refuting the principles of Averroës and Avicenna;{8} on the other hand, he corrects and completes many of Aristotle's own theories in accordance with the characteristic spirit and genius of scholasticism. Thus, he clearly propounds the doctrine of personal immortality and substitutes for the notion of the Prime Mover that of the Infinite Being. In this way Albert the Great prepared the way for St. Thomas; he advocated many a doctrine attributed too exclusively to his pupil. It is only a detailed study of his works that can show how far history has been unjust to the philosopher of Bollstädt, or in what degree it has unduly lessened his lustre by its unmeasured laudations of the "Angel of the Schools".

If we look, not at this or that particular doctrine, but at Albert's whole philosophical system, in itself and abstracting from the difficult circumstances in which it appeared, we cannot fail to see that it lacks organic unity in many departments. A very vigorous effort was needed to plant the Aristotelian doctrine in positions previously occupied by the older scholasticism. But Albert was unable to free himself sufficiently from traditional influences that were irreconcilable with his new standpoint, or even, sometimes, from the Neo-Platonic influences of the Arabians. We may apply to his philosophy in general what Schneider has said of his psychology: "Nothing could be more misleading than to consider it as a single, closed system. No doubt, the influence of Aristotle is predominant, but the co-existence of traditional and Arabian elements forbids us to speak of one Albertine system of psychology."{9} Albert amasses the doctrines, but St. Thomas corrects the defects in his master's presentation of them. "Albert's claim to renown lies less in the building up of an original system of philosophy than in the genius and industry he has shown in placing within reach of the medieval world of letters the previously acquired treasures of human knowledge, in starting a new and vigorous and fertile intellectual movement during his lifetime, and in winning over to Aristotle the best intellects of the Middle Ages."{10}

{1} MANDONNET, Siger de Brabant, etc., p. li. "Nostra intentio est omnes dictas partes (physicam, metaphysicam et mathematicam) facere Latinis intelligibiles" (Phys., Lib. i., tr. 1, cap. 1).

{2} Ibid., p. liii.

{3} See SCHNEIDER'S Introduction, Die Psychol. Alberts d. Grossen. In the Summa de Homine and in the Summa Theologiae we find Albert's own psychological views. In the De Anima, the Libri Ethicorum the De Intellectu et Intelligibili it is necessary to pick and choose. Schneider adopts the following criterion: Albert may be taken as admitting all the theories reconcilable with Christian dogma (pp. 3-7).

{4} He calls Costa ben Luca by the names of Constabulus, Constabulinus, Costabenluce; John Avendeath he calls Collectanus (for Toletanus). SCHNEIDER, op. cit. pp. 9, 13.

{5} GUTTMANN, op. cit. (229), pp. 47-120: Seine Kenntniss d. nichtphilosophischen jüdischen Litteratur.

{6} Ethic, Lib. Vi., tr. 2, c. 25. Cf. MICHAËL, Kulturzustande d. deutschen Volkes während d. xiii. Jahrh., iii., pp. 446 sqq.

{7} There are in existence numerous special works on the place and influence of Albert the Great in each of those sciences. Enumerated by MICHAËL, op. cit.

{8} See his treatise against Averroës. Cf. GUTTMANN, op. cit., pp. 62, 78.

{9} Op. cit., p. x and 1.

{10} MANDONNET, Dict. Théol. Cath., t. i., col. 672. Dr. BAEUMKER passes the following judgment on Albert the Great, à propos of Schneider's work, in a notice of the latter in Ebbinghaus's Zeitschrift für Psychologie (1908, p. 440): "The method observed by Albert in his work is of great importance to the historian of philosophy. It enables the historian to watch the gradual growth of scholasticism in the early Middle Ages; for it reveals to him, now in parallel channels, now in conflict, the various forces that were gradually to merge together in the formation of a great synthesis. Aristotelianism, Neo-Platonism, Augustinism, a philosophy developing independently from within, and a dominant theology: all are to be seen in their separate, original forms in Albert, even when the blending process has already commenced."

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