When was medieval philosophy?
Lecture by John Marenbon
Given at the University of Cambridge on November 30, 2011
Introduction: Examiners are usually instructed to avoid setting questions that can be answered perfectly well in a short phrase. You may feel that the same injunction should apply to lecture titles, and that I have broken it. ‘When was medieval philosophy?’ During the Middle Ages! But it is precisely because I think that this obvious answer is the wrong one one that I have chosen to pose the question. Here are four better answers:
From c. 200 to c. 1700.
Grammatical niceties aside, each these answers is in some way right, as I hope to explain. But I realize that, in my haste to address the subject of my lecture, I have not yet said anything about its occasion, nor, what is more important, taken the chance to thank the two bodies which have made this Honorary Professorship possible. The first is Trinity College, where I have been – forever, as it were – as an undergraduate, graduate and fellow. It has afforded me a wonderfully ancien régime career at Cambridge. Had I, as a student, entered any other college or university, in the UK or elsewhere, I might well have ended up as an academic, even perhaps as an historian of philosophy. But no other institution in the world would have given me the same freedom to pursue my intellectual project – one which, in considerable measure, I had in mind right from the beginning – in its own terms, rather than according to the artificial and often damaging constraints imposed by the division of teaching and research into faculties and departments.
That freedom has had its costs, since a person not squarely in one faculty is likely to wander uncomfortably between many. But my gratitude to the Philosophy Faculty is not just because I now have a home. It is also, and more importantly, because it is my home. The proper place for my work – for the work of anyone in my subject – is a philosophy department.