Philosophy and scientia (Wissenschaft) in Philipp Melanchthon´s thought

In the latest edition that was dedicated to Philipp Melanchthon´s thought and that emerged as a result of the interdisciplinary workshop held at the Institute for Philosophy at the Free University of Berlin on 28 and 29 October 2010 and published in Berlin and Bretten, 2012, (Der letzte Umbruch), Dr Günther Frank offers a few explanatory remarks concerning the meaning of philosophy in Melanchthon´s sense. He poses the problem of the philosopher which Melanchthon was never regarded as, and brings forth the only scholars that have considered him as such, namely: Wilhelm Dilthey and Hans-Georg Gadamer. In his work of 1892 /1893, Dilthey described Melanchthon as a mediation figure that had carried out the transition between the old “theological-metaphysical System” and the naturalist system of the 17th century.  The debates held by Church historians have been ascribing to Melanchthon influences of the traditions of various schools: he has been regarded as an Aristotelian, Platonist or disciple ofCicero. This line of thought, however operates restrictively and doesn´t manage to cover the whole of his philosophical insight. In the extensive Oeuvre of Melanchthon we can identify three different apprehensions of philosophy.

  1. the Erasmian sense of philosophy, “philosophia Christi” or “philosophia Christiana”

The concept of “philosophia Christi” had been taken by Erasmus from the Church fathers which employed it in a sense that implicated a particular life form, more specifically the life of friars( like in the writings of  Clemens of Alexandria, John Crysostom or Augustin). Erasmus reinterprets the term and bestows on it a new meaning that applies not only to the life of monks, but to all Christians that chose to live according to the teachings of both Church Fathers and the New Testament. This double notion of what a Christian life implies, hardly interested in the speculative perspectives of a theoretical philosophy, is also assumed by Melanchthon-explained in his Declamation to the Paulinian Doctrine. Here, Melanchthon takes the philosophia christi and knits it together with a theology of justification. This declamation is a part of Melanchthon´s early writings in which is influenced by Luther´s critical stance regarding philosophy. His foreword to the 1520 edition of Aristofanes´s Clouds expresses his contempt only for the futility of the speculative philosophy in connection to the political reality. His critical attitude is not, as he will express in a brief letter addressed to the Augustinian Johannes Lang the same year, directed against the philosophers who remain modest and cautions inside of the borders of their own disciplines. As he insists upon in his opening speech of the 1518 school year at Wittenberg- De corrigendis adolescentiae studiis, the liberal arts are not to be given up, but renewed and improved-both Trivium – grammar, dialectics and rhetoric and and Quatrivium: arithmetics, geometry, music, astronomy.

  1. the humanist sense of philosophy

As noted above, Melanchthon aimed at improving and expanding the artes liberales :by introducing history and poetics into the school curricula. He was also bearing in mind the stoic classification of the fields of science: the linguistic, naturalistic and ethical disciplines and named the disciplines of Trivium and Quatrivium as “disciplina humanae” respectively philosophy.

 Günther Frank remarks that there is, strikingly,  no inclusion of moral philosophy in this aim of curricular reform. We can assume that such a conception of Melanchthon´s sense of philosophy-in the strict humanist sense would only narrow down the actual fields of interest which have preoccupied the humanist and foreclose so many philosophical writings that Melanchthon has published: works on Philosophy of law(Cicero), adaptations of Aristotelian psychology(De anima)  that turned out to be extremely important for the history of medicine and for the theory of science (because of the depicted doctrine of the intellect) and of course his contributions to natural philosophy(Initiae Doctrinae Physicae). It becomes obvious that he was not only aiming at reforming the faculty of arts but was also deeply concerned with the higher studies like jurisprudence, medicine and of course, theology. He introduces a philosophical conception of God in theology and philosophical godly proofs. He debates the doctrine of the world´s eternity and the problem of free will. That is how the philosophical stance expands into theological domain.

  1. the universally scientific (universalwissenschaftlich) sense of philosophy

There is a universal, scientific discipline which Philipp Melanchthon has in mind when writing the oration on philosophy in 1536. In a programmatic synopsis of the knowledge which philosophy embraces, the Reformer insists not only on the importance of knowledge of grammar(-a clear hint at the Trivium of the liberal arts) but also the philosophical scientia and so many other arts. He most clearly refers to the important forms of science, as they are described in Aristotle´s Nicomahean Ethics:the theoretic science- obtained through syllogistic demonstration relying on unchanging principles, as well as on things oriented “artes”. Natural philosophy and moral philosophy also belong to the abovementioned encompassing philosophy, like a scientific doctrine of method(dialectics) and the rhetoric. The students who go through such a scientific training, would afterwards obtain a state of mind that would permit them to posses a scientia argumentativa of which Aristotle has explained to be the science of the first, general and unchanging principles. Psychology, philosophy of law and moral philosophy, history, mathematics, astronomy and astrology all are part of this all-encompassing science (ars integra) that is build of this set of sciences. The metaphysics of Aristotle is-of course-not included.

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