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Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Albert the Great

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In the field of psychology, Albert worked primarily on the exposition of the fundamental concepts of Aristotle's theory of the soul, especially of the theory of the intellect. Albert tried to correct and contribute to the exposition of Aristotle in two areas. He fought against the doctrine of the unity of the intellect (or 'monopsychism' as Leibniz called it), which tradition attributed to Averroes but which Albert attributed to 'all of the Arabs'; and he followed Averroes in criticizing the materialism of Alexander of Aphrodisias. In addition to his critical work, Albert also tried to integrate the essence of the Greek-Arabic theory of the intellect, beginning with Averroes' version, from which he 'dissents little' ('in paucis dissentimus', De anima III, 3, 11). Indeed, it is clear that the monopsychism Albert criticizes is the same as that which Averroes already criticized in his 'Great' commentary on On the Soul: Avempace's thesis that there is only one intellect for all men, which is joined to the human soul 'by means of images' (phantasmata). 

« Albert the Great (1200-80) Albert the Great was the first scholastic interpreter of Aristotle's work in its entirety, as well as being a theologian and preacher.

He left an encyclopedic body of work covering all areas of medieval knowledge, both in philosophy (logic, ethics, metaphysics, sciences of nature, meteorology, mineralogy, psychology, anthropology, physiology, biology, natural sciences and zoology) and in theology (biblical commentaries, systematic theology, liturgy and sermons).

His philosophical work is based on both Arabic sources (including Alfarabi, Avicenna and Averroes) and Greek and Byzantine sources (such as Eustratius of Nicaea and Michael of Ephesus).

Its aim is to insure that the Latin world was properly introduced to philosophy by providing a systematic exposition of Aristotelian positions.

Albert's method of exposition (paraphrase in the style of Avicenna rather than literal commentary in the style of Averroes), the relative heterogeneity of his sources and his own avowed general intention 'to list the opinions of the philosophers without asserting anything about the truth' of the opinions listed, all contribute to making his work seem eclectic or even theoretically inconsistent.

This was compounded by the nature and number of spurious writings which, beginning in the fourteenth century, were traditionally attributed to him in the fields of alchemy, obstetrics, magic and necromancy, such as The Great and the Little Albert, The Secrets of Women and The Secrets of the Egyptians.

This impression fades, however, when one examines the authentic works in the light of the history of medieval Aristotelianism and of the reception of the philosophical sources of late antiquity in the context of the thirteenth-century university.

1 Introduction of philosophy to the Latins After studying in Padua and Cologne, Albert entered the Dominican order around 1220.

He was the first German to become master of theology at the University of Paris (1245-8).

He then taught at the Dominican studium at Cologne (where his students included Thomas Aquinas (until 1252) and Ulrich of Strasbourg). Between 1254 and 1257 he was the Dominican Provincial of Teutonia (Germany).

As bishop of Ratisbon (Regensburg) in 1260, at the express request of Pope Urban IV, he preached the crusade 'in Germany, Bohemia and other Germanic countries'.

After various visits to Würzburg (1264) and Strasbourg (1267), he lived in Cologne until his death in 1280.

Albert's teaching in Paris was dominated by his writing the Summa de creaturis (Book of the Creatures) before 1246.

Despite the censure imposed on the study of Aristotle during the preceding decade, Albert made extensive use of Greek-Arabic Aristotelianism in his theology.

The same tendency can be seen in his commentary on the Sentences, begun in Paris and finished in Cologne in 1249.

It was also in Cologne, while at the studium generale of the Dominican Order, that Albert wrote most of his works in natural philosophy, including the Physics, the commentary on On the Heavens, the Liber de natura locorum (The Nature of Places) and the De causis et proprietatibus elementorum (The Causes and Properties of the Elements).

In 1250-2, he presented in lectures his first commentary on the Nicomachean Ethics (the Super Ethica, a question-commentary).

He returned to the Nicomachean Ethics in 1262-3, this time producing a paraphrastic commentary, the Ethica.

Albert's large-scale paraphrases on the Organon were written between 1252 and 1256, based on Arabic works by Avicenna and Alfarabi which are for the most part lost today, and also on Latin works (the Logica modernorum and commentaries by Robert Kilwardby, with which Albert became familiar in Paris).

The works on botany (De vegetabilibus et plantis libri VII) and on mineralogy (De mineralibus) were written in 1256-7; the treatises on biology and zoology (Quaestiones super De animalibus) are drawn from disputed questions held in 1258.

In 1262-3, Albert wrote his commentary on Euclid (Super Euclidem).

The last years of his life were devoted to metaphysics and theology; his paraphrase of the Metaphysics was written in 1263-7.

At the same time he wrote the De causis et processu universitatis (The Causes and Development of the Universe), a general exposition of an Aristotelian natural theology in which Albert brings together all the intellectual themes of late antiquity that were available in the second half of the thirteenth century.

At this time, the mendicant orders vigorously denounced the intrusion of philosophy into theology.

For instance, Bonaventure in the Collationes de Decem praeceptis (Discourses on the Ten Commandments) in 1267 attacked the 'arrogant presumption of philosophical investigation' that 'corrupts all of Holy Scripture' and denounced not only those who 'create' the philosophical 'fictions' but also those who 'sustain and reproduce them'.

In that context, Albert's project to 'bring Aristotle to the Latins' constitutes a genuine defence of philosophical endeavour, not only in the medieval university but also in Christian society in general.

In Albert's view, the enemies of philosophy who 'killed Socrates, threw Plato out of Athens… and forced Aristotle into exile' (he openly criticizes them in his paraphrase of the Politics VIII, 6) are comparable to the 'brute beasts' of his time who 'blaspheme against what they don't know', university 'preachers' who in their sermons 'attack the use of philosophy with all possible means', 'without anyone's being able to answer them' (commentary on the VIIth Letter of Dionysius).

In opposition to these critics, Albert asserts the need to know and assimilate the philosophy of the ancients.

His insistence on the need for philosophy might seem ambiguous in so far as it gives rise to a distinction between two disciplines 'distinct in their principles': theology, which is 'founded on revelation and prophecy', and philosophy, which is 'founded on reason' (Metaphysica XI, 3, 7).

This distinction, however, corresponds to a deeply rooted tendency in the thirteenth century.

The condemnations of 1277 at Paris are evidence of its strength and efficacy. Nihil ad me de Dei miraculis, cum ego de naturalibus disseram (God's miracles mean nothing to me, since I am discussing natural things and events), the rallying cry of the 'Latin Averroists' popularized by Siger of Brabant (De anima intellectiva (The Intellective Soul) III), was originally Albert's (De generatione et corruptione I, 1, 22).

He borrowed it consciously and simultaneously from two authorities, one philosophical (Averroes) and the other theological (Bernard of Clairvaux, reformulating a passage from Augustine).

Albert wrote all his philosophical paraphrases in order to develop fully the discipline of philosophical research, a discipline that is autonomous in its own domain, the domain of rational argumentation.

The nature of Albert's commentaries might also seem ambiguous, in so far as his avowed Aristotelianism covers a complex mix of Aristotelian and Neoplatonic theses.

This ambiguity, however, cannot be blamed on Albert as it is present in his own Arabic 'Aristotelian' sources, which were for the most part permeated with the syncretic view of Aristotle inherited from the Neoplatonic commentators of the fifth and sixth centuries.

In asserting that 'philosophical perfection' can only be attained with both Aristotle and Plato as its foundation (Metaphysica I, 5, 15), Albert, who knows little of Plato, is really taking up the 'harmonizing' reading of the Neoplatonic philosophers of late antiquity, which was adopted by the Arabic Aristotelians.

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