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Working with scholars from around the world, Stanford philosopher Rega Wood is on a mission to recover the lost works of Richard Rufus of Cornwall, the first professor of Aristotelian natural philosophy at a major Western University
BY MOLLY TAYLOR-POLESKEY
September 16, 2013
Aristotle is widely recognized as the founder of the scientific method. But without the efforts of one remarkable medieval teacher, Richard Rufus of Cornwall, Aristotle’s great works might never have influenced future generations of scientists.
By teaching Aristotles’ ideas on such subjects as physics, psychology, and metaphysics at a time when university students were examined only on the seven liberal arts, Rufus helped transform the medieval university curriculum in less than twenty-five years.
In place of fanciful, cosmological just-so stories influenced by Plato, Rufus launched a general research program that preceded the Scientific Revolution.
If it weren’t for the discovery and recovery efforts of Stanford philosopher Rega Wood
, Rufus’ contributions may have gone unrecognized.
Wood, a professor emeritus in Stanford’s Department of Philosophy
, is leading a team of international scholars and Stanford students who are working to uncover and publish all of Rufus’ works.
With support from the National Endowment for the Humanities, The Richard Rufus of Cornwall Project
has already published critical editions of two of Rufus’ works (In Aristotelis de generatione et corruptione
and In physicam Aristotelis
). Seven further volumes are planned and the next milestone is the online publication of Rufus’ first commentary on Aristotle’s Metaphysics
, which is expected by the end of 2013.
Professors from Stanford as well as from Georgetown University, St. Bonaventure University, the University of Auckland and the Albertus-Magnus-Institut in Germany have contributed philosophical, philological and paleographical expertise to ensure the accuracy of the first critical edition of Rufus’ works.
Wood, now a Professor of Philosophy at Indiana University
, began the research while at Stanford and the Stanford Deparment of Philosophy continues to support the project and its website. Wood returns to Stanford each spring to teach short courses.
“With the publication of Rufus’ works,” said Wood, “scholars will be able to provide an adequate account of the transformation of the world of learning in the 13th-century for the first time.”
The recovery and translation of Rufus’ lectures shows that medieval scholars responded much more critically to Aristotle than historians believed possible.
As an example, Wood pointed to Rufus’ rejection of Aristotle’s account of projectile motion. Aristotle claimed that projectiles were moved by the motion of the medium through which they traveled. In response, Rufus asked his student to consider a series of thought experiments that challenged Aristotle’s theory.
“How, for example, could arrows move in opposite directions in the same medium, if the air through which they traveled was responsible for their motion?” In this way, Wood noted, Rufus was not just sharing the works of Aristotle, but engaging in his own line of inquiry.
“For the first time,” Wood asserted, “a complete rational system that explained the world in terms of natural causes became available.” It was medieval natural philosophy, Wood said, that “focused the attention of Galileo and Descartes on significant physical problems and gave them something to reflect on and reject.”
Without Rufus’ works, she added, “not only would medieval science not have materialized, but the 17th-century Scientific Revolution, as we know it, could not have occurred.”
Tedious Translation Process
Wood, whose research centers on the history of philosophy, stumbled across Rufus’ lost lectures on Aristotle's Physics when she had rare access to 14th-century Physics lectures in the then East German archives of Erfurt’s Amploniana collection in 1984.
The handwriting and formatting of the manuscript she was reading alerted Wood to the fact that it could not have been written much after the middle of the 13th-century. “Since there are very few commentaries dated before 1250, and this one was brilliant, I was enthralled,” she says.
Over the years, members of the Rufus team have traveled to archives and libraries all over the Western world to provide accurate descriptions of all manuscripts, an essential step in evaluating their value as witnesses to the text.
All the surviving copies, Wood said, must be located and “the texts in all the reliable manuscripts must be compared in order to eliminate as many mistakes as possible.”
The scholars write detailed footnotes which “locate the works Rufus cites and print unpublished paraphrases of Rufus texts that show his influence and provide clues for understanding difficult passages” Wood said.
As Wood noted, it takes a long time to go from “flawed and incomplete manuscripts to a published edition with experts’ commentary and all variant texts.”
Like all medieval manuscripts, Rufus’ works were copied in abbreviated Latin scripts, which are difficult for the modern eye to decipher. A mistake of even a single word can completely alter the meaning of a sentence.
For example, Wood mentioned that on the first page of the first of the many critical editions she worked on, an earlier edition of William Ockham’s works omits a `not.’
“For centuries readers had to suppose that Ockham inferred that if God had not created something, it must be a real thing, rather than inferring that it must not be anything.”
High-Tech Tools for Medieval Sources
Over the course of the Richard Rufus Project, technology has changed the ways Wood and her international team interacts with one another and with the source material. The greatest advantage technology has brought, Wood says, is increased accuracy.
Digital copies of the documents allow the research team to efficiently check and recheck manuscript transcriptions as well as to perform side-by-side comparisons of texts of Rufus’ works housed in different archives.
Stanford alum Eva St. Clair, ’03, who has been working project since 2001 when she was an undergraduate research assistant, and currently heads the project’s NEH-funded outreach initiative, Bartholomew's World
, said it’s often more effective to work with digitized source materials.
Viewing manuscripts with Photoshop, which gives St. Clair the ability to manipulate images while working on complicated corrections and deletions, is “almost as good as (even occasionally better) than consulting the actual document.”
Technology has also changed the way scholars access the material. A printed volume takes about ten years to publish, but scholars can read preliminary versions ahead of publication at the project’s website
. Adding to their accessibility, these digital editions are keyword searchable.
According to Wood, the work is worth the investment because Rufus was a great philosopher who, although he had a very different philosophical outlook from ours, sought answers to “perennial philosophical problems.”
Rufus’ writings also hold valuable insights for modern students. Max Etchemendy, ’06, SLS ‘12, contributed a translation of Rufus’ treatise on perceptual psychology while working on the project as undergraduate research assistant in 2001.
Now working on a joint J.D./Ph.D. at Stanford, Echtemendy said that his medieval work has deeply influenced his view on the law. “There is a wealth of wonderful and surprising material in these early sources on everything from abortion law to self-defense. You can't read it without it affecting your perspective as a contemporary lawyer.”
“Today’s philosophers benefit from an awareness of the breadth of possible responses to the problems that still puzzle them.” And, Wood added “it’s fun to try to understand things that almost nobody has studied since 1350.”
Molly Taylor-Poleskey is a doctoral candidate in history at Stanford. For more news about the humanities at Stanford, visit the Human Experience.
Corrie Goldman, Director of Humanities Communication: (650) 724-8156, firstname.lastname@example.org