About the project

This project undertakes an interdisciplinary investigation of ideas of uncertainty, relativism and scepticism in the Middle Ages. This is a topic of central intellectual importance and has large cultural consequences. The Middle Ages is often still treated by non-medievalists as a period of naive epistemological self-confidence, and we hope that ultimately this ambitiously revisionist project will have impact beyond medieval studies, illustrating the extent to which this was a period in which many thinkers were intrigued by, and comfortable with, uncertainty.

There is in fact already strong interest in this topic among historians of medieval philosophy, although the dialogue between them and scholars beyond their discipline remains fragmentary. We therefore intend to stimulate dialogue amongst scholars working in philosophy, theology, literature, and history. A workshop in April 2011 will bring them together to consider the various forms of scepticism and relativism in lay, vernacular and even heterodox contexts. Participants have been selected for their expertise and their interest in intellectual exchange. Pre-circulated papers will be crucial in allowing scholars from different areas to get to grips with each other’s ideas; we plan for maximum dialogue time in the workshop itself and exchanges will continue after the workshop as contributions are refined for publication and new, collaborative perspectives are developed among participants.

The result will be a long-overdue reassessment of institutionally-produced philosophy in Latin, itself polyvocal and often conflict-ridden, in its relations with other discourses, such as extramurally produced literary texts in the vernacular. We will address fundamental questions about the conceptual and institutional frameworks within which philosophy, much of it secular in orientation, was practised. Much of what we call medieval philosophy was practised by vocational 'philosophers' within educational institutions, subject to various kinds of ecclesiastical support and control. Did this delimit its terms? To what extent could intellectual practice accommodate some forms of uncertainty, and what were the traces, both institutional and intellectual, of such accommodation? What was the relation between institutional philosophy and the intellectual work performed in texts written outside the schools, including writings in the various vernaculars? If it was liberating for medieval thinkers to perform such intellectual work at varying degrees of distance from educational institutions, have modern intellectual historians been slow to recognise this? These are the kinds of question that we will be asking participants to address from the perspective of their own expertise, and we hope that in due course this will also encourage them to examine and reassess the intellectual and methodological assumptions of that expertise.

The question remains whether or not scepticism could have been apprehended in the later medieval period as a recognizable philosophical position. But equally important is the possibility that there was a sceptical undercurrent throughout the Middle Ages, accommodating modes of thought and feeling necessarily unable to find open or fully theorized expression elsewhere. We intend this project to stimulate, from a methodologically enriched perspective, broader comprehension of a compelling period in intellectual and cultural history, raising issues of major import both for the history of the Middle Ages and for the history of intellectual life more generally.

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