Research Early Career Research Spotlight: Nathaniel Bulthius

Early Career Research Spotlight: Nathaniel Bulthius

This edition of the Early Career Research Spotlight focuses on the work of Nathaniel Bulthius.  He is a Visiting Assistant Professor at Colgate University who earned his Ph.D. from Cornell University in 2014, where he wrote a dissertation on a theory of the proposition developed by Walter Burley (a contemporary of and philosophical antagonist to William Ockham). His research focuses on intersection of the philosophy of language, the philosophy of mind, and metaphysics in late medieval philosophy, with an emphasis on theories of propositions. Lately , he has also been thinking about philosophy of science in the medieval period. His most recent publications include an article on Burley’s theory of the proposition in the British Journal for the History of Philosophy and a chapter on Burley’s theory of universals in an edited volume dealing with Ockham’s philosophical contemporaries.

Much of your work centers on the concepts Medieval philosophers use, and in particular on the role of universals as well as how propositions relate to the external world.  Can you outline these debates as they occurred in Medieval philosophy, and the stakes they have for knowledge?

Both concepts have long pedigrees in medieval philosophy. Recounting the history of debates about even just one of them would probably take us too far afield, or at least require far too much digital ink. So, I’ll try instead to put those concepts in a bit of their late medieval context, as that’s the area of history that most of my own research has focused on.

I’ll start with the concept of the universal. Most of the central figures of the thirteenth century espouse some version of what I call “moderate realism.” That term gets used in lots of different ways by scholars, but I take it to mean that everything in the world exists as a particular, but that certain things are particular not in themselves (they aren’t individuals), but only because of their relation to something else, which individuates them. Call those things that exist merely as individuated, rather than as individuals per se, “common natures.” Duns Scotus is surely an advocate of this view. I’m inclined to think Aquinas is too, though I’m less sanguine about that. The putative payoff of this account is that we don’t run into the sorts of philosophical absurdities that come with standard realist accounts—where universals exist in the world as universals, really distinct from particulars—but we’re still able to reap the benefit of the standard realist account: we can secure knowledge about the natural order, as our general concepts track the common natures that are individuated in the external world. On this picture, our knowledge that water is H2O, for example, is guaranteed, in part, by the fact that that knowledge-state is tracking (and revealing the underlying structure of) a certain common nature out in the world: water, which exists as individuated in every instance of water.

The problem for the moderate realist is that she needs to commit herself to an unintuitive—or, if Ockham is right, downright incoherent—account of the nature of identity relations. Ockham’s negative philosophical project is essentially to harp on that problem of identity. Of course, merely negative philosophical projects are rarely satisfying. What we want is some alternative account: in Ockham’s case, some alternative account of how language and cognition work, such that general, scientific knowledge can be secured in a world where everything is individual as such. And that’s where Ockham’s other, positive philosophical project comes in. Ockham applies the theory of supposition—a theory originally meant to articulate the semantics of declarative sentences (or “propositions”) in natural language—to a sophisticated theory of mental language. The result, Ockham argues, is an account of how knowledge—and general, scientific knowledge especially—is possible in a world devoid of anything common.

It’s in part because of the role of mental language in Ockham’s philosophy that the proposition (and the mental proposition in particular) becomes so central an object of study in the fourteenth century. The theory of supposition is a theory of the semantic properties of terms: subjects and predicates. So, if we are going to apply that theory to the mind, we need something in the mind that has predicate structure. Hence, the mental proposition. But the claim that thought has linguistic structure raises a whole host of questions that get debated throughout the fourteenth century: how should we understand the structure of a mental proposition? what sorts of things can serve as the terms of mental propositions? how do mental propositions and their parts come to have the semantic properties that they do? what, if anything, do mental propositions represent? are our beliefs, etc., constituted by, or merely directed at, these mental propositions? what is the relationship between mental language and natural language? and so on.

The deep concern with, and sophisticated theorizing about, mental propositions in the medieval period reaches its zenith in the medieval period following Ockham’s work. Having said that, though, it’s important to recognize that Ockham’s account didn’t develop in a vacuum. There’s at least hints of the concept of mental language as far back as Augustine (4th c. CE) and Boethius (6th c. CE), and the idea is developed in various ways by Anselm (11th c. CE) and Peter Abelard (12th c. CE). Things seem to me to begin to reach a boiling point in the second half of the thirteenth century, with Aquinas’s concept of the inner, or mental, word and the subsequent developments and criticisms of it, culminating at the end of the thirteenth century with Scotus’s account of the mental proposition—a clear forerunner to the account of the mental proposition that Ockham would develop some 20-odd years later. Likewise, the early work of Walter Burley, a fellow of Merton College and slightly older contemporary of Ockham’s is developing a sophisticated theory of the mental proposition as early as 1301, providing some evidence that there was an active debate at Oxford about the nature of the mental proposition in the years immediately prior to Ockham’s time there.

How have you intervened in contemporary debates regarding Medieval philosophy?

Much of my research has focused on Walter Burley, a central but poorly understood player in the linguistic turn that occurred at Oxford at the beginning of the fourteenth century. No medieval scholar would argue that we have a complete picture of Burley’s thought. But there has been scholarly agreement around some of his views strong enough, I think, for that agreement to be called the received view.

A key claim Burley makes throughout his career is that the mind can make a proposition out of things “outside the soul”. On its face, Burley seems to be saying the mind has an almost telekinetic ability to put together objects in the world (particulars and universals), crafting an object out of them that has alethic value (indeed, is the primary bearer of truth). Almost no scholar of Burley takes him literally on this point. The standard interpretation (and I’m generalizing here a bit) maintains that, by “thing outside the soul,” Burley really means that the mind can combine things in the soul (i.e., concepts) into a proposition, where these concepts represent things outside the soul, and those propositions are true just in case they correspond to some state of affairs. So, on this score, Burley is speaking metaphorically, or in a kind of shorthand, when he says the mind makes a proposition of out things outside the mind. This interpretation of Burley’s view has an added benefit in that it would place the view comfortably among the kinds of theories of the mental proposition that one finds in the late 13th and early 14th centuries.

But I’ve always felt that what charity demands of us historians of philosophy is that we try to make sense of the plain meaning of the things a given figure says—especially when its repeated frequently and persistently throughout that figure’s career—unless we have strong independent reason to think they are speaking in some non-standard way. And I just don’t see anything in Burley’s work to suggest he means something radically different by the phrase ‘thing outside the mind’ than what’s typically meant by it in the early fourteenth century. So, I’ve argued that Burley in fact does intend to say, in the most literal way possible, that the mind can form a proposition out of things outside of the soul: that, for Burley, the primary bearers of truth value are constructed by the mind out of (to borrow some contemporary terminology) objects, properties and relations. That reading seems to me to require far less massaging of the texts—not just the one I’ve mentioned, but many others besides. And, moreover, I think his theory has far more philosophical merit than scholars of Burley have thought possible. At a minimum, it fits well with some of the more general (and less controversial) philosophical commitments that Burley has.

I’ve also been working to sort out Burley’s theory of universals. Burley is sometimes called an “exaggerated realist,” though it’s rarely spelled out what that is supposed to mean. It’s clear that his realism is supposed to be more extreme, in some sense, than the sort of realism espoused by Scotus. But, beyond that, it hadn’t seemed to me that anyone had clearly articulated what Burley’s realism consisted in, or what sort of philosophical work the account was meant to perform.

So I took up the task. My own claim about Burley’s account is two-fold: first, that Burley’s thinking about the nature of universals undergoes a significant shift midway through his career (thanks in large part to Ockham’s criticisms of the “moderate realism” that Burley defended in the first half of his career) and, second, that his mature theory abandons the main motivation for realism in the medieval period: to explain why objects in our world have the intrinsic character and causal powers that they do, such that they are members of various kinds. When it comes questions of kind membership, then, the answers Burley gives in the second half of his career come out looking very much like Ockham’s. But, in contrast to Ockham, Burley still thinks there is a role for universals in our philosophical theorizing. For they are what our general terms and general concepts signify, and so are needed to explain the possibility of knowledge and our communication of it.

As best I can tell, Burley’s mature account of universals doesn’t gain any traction with his contemporaries or successors; the realism that develops in the late fourteenth-century is a sort of warmed-over moderate realism from the late thirteenth century. (Burley’s account of the proposition suffers a similar fate.) That it didn’t get taken up seems to me to be unfortunate. I think the account of universals he ultimately develops is fascinating, with some strong philosophical appeal, and I would have liked to have seen in what ways it would have been developed by subsequent generations of philosophers.

You reference Ockham and Burley in a number of papers.  What draws you to these philosophers?

I think it’s best to say what first drew me to them in graduate school, before I talk about what draws them to me now, because those two things are quite different. When I first began to think seriously about what sort of research I’d pursue—philosophy of mind? philosophy of language? some area in the history of philosophy?—my committee chair, Scott MacDonald, suggested I read William Ockham’s Summa Logicae and Walter Burley’s On the Purity of the Art of Logic, rival logical textbooks from the early fourteenth century, in contrast with one another. (As he noted, it could at once scratch my itch for philosophy of mind and language while keeping a foot in the history of philosophy.) Reading those two textbooks, I was struck by the philosophical (and personal) antagonism between Ockham and Burley. Their philosophical worldviews seemed to me diametrically opposed: Ockham the great defender of nominalism, and Burley his bitter realist rival. I saw them as standard-bearers for the division between nominalists and realists that is often taken to define late medieval philosophy.

But I’m far less inclined to think of Ockham and Burley’s relationship in such stark and simple terms. The philosophical history is just far more complex. It became clear early on in my research that the semantic program that underlies Ockham’s nominalism owes a significant debt to Burley’s earlier work on the theory of supposition. And I’ve argued that Ockham had, in turn, a significant impact on the development of Burley’s thought: forcing Burley to abandon his commitment to moderate realism (the standard approach to universals in late 13th and early 14th century) in favor of a version of realism about universals that is, on some fronts, consistent with Ockham’s nominalism, and, on others, avoids the criticisms of realism Ockham had raised. In the end, both are extremely intelligent men, who see linguistic analysis as the key to clarifying fundamental problems in philosophy, and who are concerned with developing a philosophical account that can make sense of our ability to understand and talk about our world. They have deep and fundamental philosophical disagreements, to be sure, but how those disagreements manifest in their respective philosophical projects is more complex and nuanced than I, at least, first appreciated. And it’s just that complexity and nuance that keeps me coming back to them today.

What have your studies of Medieval philosophy revealed to you about the nature and origins of contemporary philosophy?

I don’t know if it has revealed anything to me about the nature and origins of contemporary philosophy per se. I have been struck by how quite a few of the puzzles and projects that I investigate in my research resonate with those we pursue in philosophy today: for example, concerns about the nature of the primary bearers of truth (or truth itself, for that matter), debates about internalism vs. externalism of content, and questions about the nature and existence of properties. But I guess we shouldn’t find those resonances all that surprising, since they each in their own way are touching upon perennial issues in philosophy.

Rather than contemporary philosophy in particular, I think my research has caused me to more fully appreciate that philosophy in general is an historical discipline: that, for any given period, not just the solutions but also the problems are understood within a particular conceptual framework, and that that framework constrains and molds which projects are pursued, and why, and how. That doesn’t mean I don’t think there can be anything like progress in philosophy. I’m inclined to think there is, on some understanding of ‘progress’. But I do think it means that the study of the history of philosophy is, and will always be, relevant to current philosophical theorizing. For it’s a given that the broad conceptual framework within which we philosophers all work blinds us to certain territories in logical space. Those territories might be relatively barren, or relatively fecund–but, blind to them, we can’t know which and where they are. The study of the history of philosophy allows us a chance to see a different way not just of answering certain philosophical questions but of asking the questions themselves, and so opens regions of logical space we couldn’t have seen by our own lights. Of course, sometimes the results from our exploration of philosophical history might lead us to nothing but dry ground—but sometimes that exploration will take us to a place that can produce for us real philosophical fruit.

Can you elaborate on the historical context that produced Medieval philosophy, and how Medieval philosophy influenced that historical context in turn?  What contributions did Medieval philosophers, such as the ones you focus on, contribute that helped inaugurate the Modern era of philosophy?

You could point to many, many things that served to shape medieval philosophy into the form that we know it today. For example, you could point to an assortment of geo-political factors (the Diocletian tax, land and social reforms at the end of the crisis of the third century, the division of the Roman Empire into West and East at about the same time, the mass immigration of the Goths into the Empire in the fourth century, the Byzantine-Sassanian wars that opened the way for the Arab conquests in the seventh century, and so on) that laid the groundwork for medieval society—and so the form that educational institutions and practices in particular would take—in both East and West. And, of course, the rise of Christianity in the Roman Empire and, later, of Islam in Middle East (and its spread across North Africa and up into Spain) were essential in bringing about the sorts of concerns raised within and constraints placed upon medieval philosophical inquiry.

For all that, though, I’m inclined to think that the largest driver of philosophical inquiry in the medieval period was philosophical inquiry in the late antique period. To focus on medieval philosophy in just the Latin West (which is already to exclude a great deal of medieval philosophy), Augustine is key. A highly original thinker of the late antique period, Augustine’s philosophy shows Neo-Platonic and Stoic influences, with an overarching concern to integrate philosophical thought with Christian faith. His philosophical impact is felt, well, even today, honestly. But his influence is especially central to medieval philosophical development in the Latin West. Until roughly the eleventh century, Augustine’s works serve to frame philosophical discourse, as seen, for example, in the works of Anselm of Canterbury. And you can trace significant Augustinian influences in the works of Aquinas, Bonaventure, and Duns Scotus in the thirteenth century, and of Thomas Bradwardine and Gregory of Rimini in the fourteenth century, to name just a few. The story gets complicated by the reintroduction of Aristotle into the Latin West over the course of the eleventh and twelfth centuries. Those in the Latin West, from the beginning, had access to a little bit of Aristotle—the Categories and De Interpretatione—but the arrival of the full Aristotelian corpus (via medieval Arabic philosophers and grammarians, and accompanied by Arabic commentaries on Aristotle’s works and Arabic texts dealing with philosophical themes in those works) meant that philosophers in the Latin West had to wrestle with how to reconcile the autochthonous Augustinian philosophical tradition with the newly-arrived Aristotelian corpus and the Arabic philosophical tradition by which it arrived. Aquinas represents one end of the spectrum: the view that the indigenous Christian philosophical tradition and Aristotelian tradition are wholly (or nearly wholly) reconcilable with one another. But others (Bonaventure, for example) aren’t quite as optimistic about the compatibility of these two traditions. And, by the fourteenth century, philosophers had developed wholly original tools of analysis, and had applied those tools to develop philosophical solutions for which there is no real precedent in either Augustinianism or Aristotelianism.

In just the way that medieval philosophy was shaped by, and yet wasn’t wholly derivative upon, late antique philosophy, so too it seems to me impossible to deny that modern philosophy, while highly original in its own right, was significantly shaped by medieval philosophical thought – and not merely as a critical reaction to it. It was certainly the case that modern philosophers (and especially those working outside the academic system of the time) were deeply suspicious of Aristotelian physics, and rightly so. Aristotelian physics is notorious for struggling to explain projectile motion, for example. But those disagreements about the nature of physical world seem to me occur against a background of agreement about science generally, both in theory and in practice. In the thirteenth century, for example, in the writings of both Robert Grosseteste and his student Roger Bacon, there is a keen interest in the nature of scientific knowledge, in the sort of knowledge that can be produced through observation, and in the nature of what we’d call the scientific method. (And this is to say nothing of the sort of sophisticated scientific inquiry we find in the Arabic world occurring even further back.) In the fourteenth century, the Oxford calculators—including Thomas Bradwardine and William Heytesbury, among others—both formulate and prove the mean speed theorem, nearly 300 years before Galileo! Around the same time, you have John Buridan formulating a theory of impetus—a kind of precursor to the theory of inertia—and Nicholas Oresme defending the thesis that atmospheric refraction occurs along a curve (again, about 300 years before Hooke and Newton). So scientific practice, and thinking about scientific practice and science more generally, runs more or less continuously from the medieval period into the early modern one.

I’ve also been struck by the sorts of complicated relationships modern philosophical theories have with their medieval predecessors. Descartes’s cogito is quite clearly cribbed from Augustine, though the philosophical import of that idea for Descartes’s philosophy differs from it for Augustine’s. And, while Descartes and Boyle will have no truck with a theory of substantial form, substantial form reappears in Leibniz’s philosophy—though radically altered from its Aristotelian character. Likewise, and to provide just one more example, debates about the nature of matter in the modern period—whether it is atomistic, corpuscular, or merely phenomenal, for example—seem to me to have some connection to debates about quantified matter in the late medieval period. I’m not a scholar of modern philosophy, so I’m not in a position to say how best to understand the precise ways in which medieval philosophy influences philosophizing in the modern period. But it’s at least clear that the old saw that modern philosophy constitutes the emergence, as if from the heavens, of light and reason in a world of darkness and religious dogmatism is nothing short of laughable.

Are there any ways your study of Medieval philosophy informs your teaching or service work?  If so, what are they?

Medieval philosophy – especially philosophy in the 13th and 14th centuries – rivals anything we have today in terms of its technical sophistication. But that very level of sophistication means that much of my work involves translating multifaceted and often subtle positions in various medieval debates—or even the debates themselves—into language that is accessible to colleagues who are have little if any working knowledge of medieval philosophy (which is to say, almost all of them!). It requires that I think deeply about the sorts of philosophical projects my colleagues are engaged in, what philosophical interests they have, and the ways in which they conceptualize those projects and interests, so that I can build a bridge between their experiences and outlooks and those had by the historical figures I study.

I’ve found those skills to be incredibly useful in the classroom. Philosophy as the practice of careful analysis is something that I believe is imbedded (even if only latently and inchoately) in the human condition. But philosophy as an historical discipline is another matter entirely; it is something completely foreign to almost every first-year student I encounter, and good deal of the seniors too! So a large part of the job, it seems to me, is translating the projects and puzzles we philosophers wrestle with into a framework that students themselves can understand. In my experience, that translation has taken many forms: for example, couching questions of evidence and justification within a larger discussion of fake news, utilizing students’ natural tendency to think of science as the final arbiter of truth as a starting point for an exploration of the nature of the mind, and having my students consider ethics and women’s health issues in light of recent political events. And there are surely myriad ways any one of those topics could be successfully introduced to students. Regardless, though, I believe that what matters most of all for successful teaching is that one can step into the mind of her audience: that she can gather relatively quickly what their interests and background knowledge are, and then craft a message based on that. But that sort of activity is something that we scholars of medieval philosophy must do on an almost daily basis. Given that, then, my research is, in part, continual practice for the classroom.


You can ask Nathaniel questions about his work in the comments section below.


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