Aquinas Lecture 2012: Dr. Michael Tkacz "Albert the Great and the New Aristotelianism: A Turning Point in the Western Intellectual Tradition"
The 22nd Annual Aquinas Lecture
Albert the Great and the New Aristotelianism: A Turning Point in the Western Intellectual Tradition by Dr. Michael Tkacz
Tuesday, March 6, 2012
The great twentieth-century medievalist Etienne Gilson once quipped that, while everyone acknowledges the historical importance of St. Albert the Great, few know what he actually did. Albert is vaguely remembered as a professor in the medieval University of Paris, as an early Dominican theologian with a fondness for the study of nature, as bishop of Regensburg, and as the founder of the first institution of higher education in Germany at Cologne where he was the teacher of his more famous Dominican confrere St. Thomas Aquinas. Yet, Albert’s historical importance is far more significant than these admittedly memorable credentials would suggest. His life and work, in fact, represent a crucial turning point in intellectual history, a water-shed moment that separates two distinct stages in the development of the Western Intellectual Tradition.
Albert lived at the time when two formative events in intellectual history conjoined to create a new intellectual culture. The first was the establishment of the universities of Western Europe, the first legally incorporated institutions devoted solely to the acquisition of knowledge. The second was the recovery in the Latin West of the books of Aristotle containing a large body of scientific research and a developed scientific method. In this historical context, Albert made two unprecedented contributions to intellectual development: he reestablished empirical studies after a long period of neglect, and he recovered Aristotle’s naturalistic conception of form, clearly distinguishing it from that of the Platonists and establishing it as a philosophical foundation for scientific research into nature.
Albert is the remote origin of modern scientific research, for he provided the foundation upon which the work of later researchers such as Galileo and Newton and the whole enterprise of modern science has been built. He achieved this within the Christian culture derived from the Apostolic tradition and the work of the Church Fathers. He represents the turning point in intellectual history that gave rise to our modern advances in scientific research. Albert achieved this in an explicitly Christian manner, professionally functioning as an orthodox Christian theologian and faithfully living the life of a Dominican friar.
Dr. Michael W. Tkacz is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Gonzaga University and President of the Society for Thomistic Natural Philosophy. His articles on St. Albert the Great and on other topics in medieval philosophy have appeared in The Review of Metaphysics, Vivarium, The Thomist, and elsewhere.