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Defining Philosophy in Early Modern Germany (VIII): Keckermann and Crell against the Ancients

Stefan Heßbrüggen-Walter

In the previous post of this series, we have seen how Francesco Piccolomini and Michael Piccart argue for the thesis that philosophy cannot be defined at all. However, neither of them was concerned in any detail with previous attempts to define philosophy in any detail in order to show their shortcomings (Piccolomini was content to provide a priori reasons why such a definition is impossible, Piccart focuses on his Ramist opponents). Fortunatus Crell and Bartholomäus Keckermann develop a critical analysis of proposals of how to define philosophy and discard them all (it should be noted, though that Keckermann thus turns against his earlier self, because he had first believed that philosophy could be understood as a good habit of the soul, see this earlier post).


In the Praefatio to his In octo acroamaticos Aristotelis libros commentarii, Crellius quotes numerous purported definitions of philosophy, but only three of them deserve closer analysis, because the rest of them are encomia rather than definitiones: they contain a praise of philosophy, but cannot count as definitions. His three candidates for a definition of philosophy are:

  1. philosophy as cognitio rerum prout sunt,
  2. philosophy as divinarum et humanarum rerum, causaumque, quibus haeres continentur, scientia,
  3. philosophy as artium dicendi, Physiologiae, et praeceptorum de moribus cognitio tanta quantam humana mens in hac naturae imbecillitate assequi potest.1

(ad 1) This definition fails, because it refers only to metaphysics and it does not contain a proper genus of philosophy, maybe because cognitio is an end of philosophy (see below).2

(ad 2) This definition is insufficient, because it concerns only the contemplative parts of philosophy and leaves out those parts that are concerned with action (i.e. practical philosophy).3

(ad 3) This definition is mistaken in three respects: it omits metaphysics and mathematics, although these are the most noble parts of contemplative philosophy; it presumes that the liberal arts are a part of philosophy; and it determines the genus of philosophy by its end, knowledge (cognitio), not taking into account the main goal of practical philosophy, action.4

So none of these definitions gives the proper genus of philosophy and their scope is either too broad, including the liberal arts, or too small, excluding practical philosophy. The nominal sense of philosophy as ‘love of wisdom’ does not provide more illumination either: wisdom and the love of wisdom both again only address the cognitive concerns of philosophy, leaving out moral philosophy as one of its constituent parts. It may be conceded that philosophy as a whole has acquired its name from its nobler part, contemplative philosophy, but that does not count against the consensus omnium that maintains that moral philosophy is a proper part of philosophy, too.5

But there is nevertheless something to be learned from Aristotle, namely from his understanding of wisdom as a ‘composite habit’; it has two parts, namely knowledge and intellect.6 So even though this definition of wisdom does not grasp the essence of philosophy, it shows that in principle it should be possible to define philosophy as a composite habit, too, consisting of a theoretical and a practical part.7 Accordingly, Crellius proposes to define philosophy as a composite habit, consisting in wisdom and prudence and asserts that this is the Peripatetic definition of philosophy as a whole. The genus, habit, is known from logic. The specific difference in this definition consists in the two intellectual virtues that are joined in philosophy as a composite habit.8

In order to explicate his own definition Crellius refers to the five intellectual virtues in EN 6 and relates them to the distinction between eternal or necessary things and contingent or changeable things. What belongs to the first realm, does either not change at all because of its eternity or eventual changes are caused by the nature of the thing. Disciplines dealing with eternal things are concerned with contemplation or cognition. Their objects are not subject to human influence (non fieri, sed cognosci a nobis possunt). Three intellectual virtues are in this sense concerned with contemplation: scientia, intelligentia, and sapientia. Disciplines dealing with contingent objects can be called ‘practical’ (Crellius provides a reference to Averroes), because they aim at actio et effectio. This does not preclude that in these disciplines we get to know things - but always having action in view as the ultimate end, so that this knowledge must always be applicable to problems of how to act or what to do.9 Crellius argues that his definition of philosophy is complete, because it comprises all dimensions of what our minds can in excel in, excluding only our ability to produce things, i. e. the artes.10


Keckermann extends Crellius’ catalogue of ancient definitions, including not only cognition or awareness of Divine and human things, but also two more Platonic (or platonicising) views of philosophy: philosophy as the attempt to get as similar to God as one can (i.e. to ‘deify oneself’ within the limits of the humanly possible) and philosophy as a meditation of death. These last two views had been disqualified by Crellius as mere encomia. Keckermann’s criticism is a bit more detailed. True, to define philosophy as ‘self-deification’ in the aforementioned sense is a logical mistake, because this purported definition does not contain a valid genus. But equally important is the fact that to strive for similarity with the Divine is a topic that belongs to theology rather than to philosophy.11 The second platonising definition of philosophy Crellius does not really adress is the view of philosophy as meditatio mortis. Keckermann argues that this can at best be regarded as an effect of philosophy, but an effect cannot be at the same time a genus of the cause responsible for bringing about this effect. Following Ammonius, he also maintains that this definition is metaphorical, because it does not concern natural death, i.e. the separation of the soul from the body at the end of life, but rather a turn of the soul from the objects of the senses towards the sumblime contemplation of things. And again the definition is too broad, because meditating our finitude is an important subject in theology, because it is intimately related to the problems of sin.12

Finally, we can follow Plato in presuming that philosophy is some kind of awareness of Divine and human things. Crellius had subsumed this awareness under the heading of knowledge in the full-blown sense (scientia). This version of the definition is traced back to the Stoics by Keckermann.13 The same formula, substituting cognitio as the genus of philosophy is ascribed by him to Cicero.14 Keckermann himself prefers to render the original Platonic term γνῶσις as notitia.15

In his objections to this tradition of defining philosophy, Keckermann refers explicitly to a contemporary author defending this tradition of defining philosophy as the most adequate solution: Franciscus Toletus.Toletus believed that the disjunction between immaterial, i.e. abstract, and material, i.e. concrete objects is complete and that this definition is the only one grasping both the theoretical and the practical part of philosophy. So his understanding of this definition is completely contrary to Crellius who had, as mentioned above, denied its validity, because it only refers to the theoretical part of philosophy.

Keckermann does not agree with either Crellius or Toletus, although his reading of the definition seems to be closer to Toletus. But he regards it as inadequate. The first mistake is, again, logical. The genus is too remote. In other words, there are kinds of cognition, awareness or knowledge that do not belong to philosophy.16 Keckermann’s second objection concerns the scope of the definition: awareness of divine things is also topical in theology. And cholars of law apply the same definition to their own discipline. Finally, both natural philosophy and mathematics are not captured by this definition, because neither domain of objects is clearly either divine or human (again, Keckermann does not provide more argument to clarify this assumption).17

The last authority criticised by Keckermann is Speusipp. He defined philosophy as both a desire (appetitus) for wisdom and contemplation of ‘truth as truth’ (contemplatio veritatis ut veritas est). Two genera are posited in this definition, but none of them is a true genus of philosophy. And if we assume that each definition is supposed to cover both the theoretical and the practical part of philosophy, both attempts fail, because they include only one of these parts. To define philosophy as contemplatio veritatis excludes the practical part (the question whether a desire for wisdom can cover both parts of philosophy is, again, not discussed by Keckermann).18

What about Aristotle himself? In his extant work, we find no general definition of philosophy. What is called “philosophy” in Met. 1.2 (and defined as ‘science of truth’) refers in fact only to its theoretical part: only here, truth is an end in itself. In practical philosophy, the end is action, as is emphasised by Aristotle in the very same passage.19


Since this blog post is too long already, a detailed treatment of Keckermann’s own views on the indefinability of philosophy (and his engagement with Crellius) must be deferred to the next post. But it should already have become clear that both Crellius and Keckermann share the notion that the debate about defining philosophy must remain stagnant as long as it is exclusively wedded to the range of definitions to be found in ancient texts. And both believe that the main task in this debate is to do justice to the fact that philosophy is concerned both with knowledge and action. Whereas Crellius believes that this tradition can be extended creatively by an understanding of philosophy as a composite habit, Keckermann is more sceptical - as I will discuss in the next post of this series.

  1. Fortunatus Crell, In octo acroamaticos Aristotelis libros commentarii, Neostadii in Palatinatu: Harnisch, Matthaeus, 1587, p. 1

  2. Cf. Crell, p. 1: “[…] non prima [sc. definitio]: quia primam tantum Philosophiam definit: cuius tamen verum genus non continet: […]” 

  3. Cf. Crell, p. 1: “non quinta […]: quia partem duntaxat Philosophiae quae in contemplatione versatur, non totam Philosophiam, quae etiam in actione consistit, definit.” 

  4. Cf. Crell, p. 1: “non ultima: quia […] tum contemplantis Philosophiae duas nobilissimas partes, Metaphysicen et Mathematicen omittit: tum artes dicendi, quae Philosophiae pars […] non sunt, admiscet: et quidem primum illic locum assignat: tum denique genus, a fine petitum, cognitionem ponit: quae contemplantis tantum, teste ipsomet Aristotele, non practicae Philosophiae finis est.” 

  5. Cf. Crell, p. 2: “Tametsi enim Philosophia, sicut et sapientiae, nomen ad solam contemplantem Philosophiam attinere videatur; moralis tamen non minus quam illa, Philosophiae appellatione comprehenditur: idque communi omnium consensione: licet ab illa, ut pote nobiliori parte, nomen sit consecuta.” 

  6. Cf. Crell, p. 2: “Sic enim sapientiam Philosophus definit: ‘ut sit intelligentia et scientia’, id est, habitus, ex duobus istis habitibus intelligentiae et scientiae, compositus.” 

  7. Cf. Crell, p. 2: “Ea igitur nobis adferenda definitio erit, qua hanc etiam Philosophiae partem amplectatur: ideoque eodem fere modo definienda nobis Philosophia utpote habitus compositus erit: quo sapientiam Philosophus definivit: […]” 

  8. Cf. Crell, p. 2: “[…] eodem fere modo definienda nobis Philosophia, utpote habitus compositus, erit: quo sapientiam Philosophus definivit: ut scilicet dicamus: Philosophiam esse habitum, sapientia et prudentia constantem: hanc Peripateticam totius Philosophiae definitionem esse statuo: […] Genus habitus est: differentia, sapientia et prudentia constans. genus ex Logicis notum est: de differentia aliquid breviter dicendum est.” 

  9. Cf. Crell, p. 2: “Aristoteles, libro sexto Ethicorum quinque recenset habitus: artem: scientiam: prudentiam: sapientiam: intelligentiam: idque ob diversas res, diversosque rerum fines et scopos. Res omnes vel necessariae sunt et sempiternae: vel contingentes et mutabiles: e quibus illae vel semper sunt et unquam fiunt: vel fiunt quidem: sed a natura non a nobis: hae vero a nobis pro consilio fiunt: itaque in nostro positae sunt arbitrio. Ceterum sicut duplicis generis res sunt: ita duplex disciplinarum genus est, quae res illas tractant: et duplex illarum disciplinarum finis et scopus. Quae res necessarias tractant Scientiae contemplantes dicuntur: quia finis earum contemplatio et cognitio est: idque propterea, quia de illis rebus agunt, quae non fieri sed cognosci duntaxat a nobis possunt. in his disciplinis tres illi habitus, scientia, intelligentia, sapientia, conspiciuntur. Quae res contingentes tractant practicae, quo modo ab Averroe vocantur, appellari possunt: quia finis earum actio et effectio est: idque propterea: quia in illis occupantur quae fieri a nobis possunt. Agunt quidem istae quoque disciplinae de rebus, ut illas cognoscant: sed non ut in cognitione subsistant: sed ut ad actionem cognitionem transferant quae ultimus et primarius earum finis est.” 

  10. Cf. Crell, p. 3: “Quia igitur tres illi habitus, scientia, intelligentia, et qui ex utroque constat, aliudque nihil est quam duo isti simul, sapientia, ad contemplantem prudentia ad agentem quibus duabus partibus tota Philosophia, ut iam iamque dicemus continetur, attinent idciro sapientia et prudentia Philosophiam definire.” 

  11. Cf. Keckermann, Opera Omnia, Genevae: Apud Petrum Aubertum 1614, col. 9f: “Ac primo quidem Platonem summum Philosophum in medium producamus, qui Philosophiae descriptionem diversam in diversis suis Dialogis proposuit. Primum ergo sic describit, quid sit ὁμοίως θεῶ κατὰ το δψνατὸν ἀνθρώπων similitudo Dei quatenus est homini possibilis. Quibus verbis impropria propositio continetur, qua effectus quidam Philosophiae generalis et latus de ipsa Philosophia praedicatur, ita ut nullo modo possit esse vera descriptio; i, quod genus non habeat legitimum; 2, quod non sit adaequata rei describendae; siquidem a Theologia potius hoc spectamus, ut reformet in nobis imaginem et similitudinem Dei. Ut taceam, quod iis verbis commiscentur ea quae sunt per Accidens, id est, imbecillitas humana, cum iis, quae sunt per se de Philosophiae natura. 

  12. Cf. Keckermann, col. 10f: “In Theage Plato philosophiam definit μελέτην τῶν θανάτω meditationem mortis. Sed nic in hac significatione legitimum genus est; quia meditatio mortis est effectus philosophiae. Effectus autem nuquam est rei genus. Secundo, in eo etiam peccat, quod Metaphorica Definitioni inserit contra Canonem bonae definitionis qui extat 6. Metaphys Absint Metaphorae a Definitionibus. Esse autem Metaphoricum hoc, quod dicit Plato, de meditatione mortis, testatur Ammonius super Isagogen Porphyrii, ubi inquit: Si mentem Platonis diligenter consideremus, duplicem is statuit mortem: Unam naturalem qua anima solvitur a corpore: Alteram voluntariam, qua anima intra corpus haerens sese abstrahit a sensibus, et elevat ad sublimem rerum contemplationem. Itaque iuxtaPlatonem meditatio mortis nihil est aliud, quam elevatio animae et abstractio a corporis sensibus. Denique etiam latior est Definitio haec definito, quia meditari mortem non tantum Philosophia, sed etiam Theologia, et quidem haec inprimis docet, cum mors sit stipendium peccati, cuius consideratio propria est Theologiae.” 

  13. Cf. Keckermann, col. 10: “Et Stoici in sua secta hanc Philosophiae Definitionem constanter retinuerunt, quod sit divinarum et humanarum rerum scientia.” 

  14. Cf. Keckermann, col. 10: “Quod Cicero secutus 2. Officiorum: Philosophia, inquit, est divinarum humanarumque rerum cognitio.” 

  15. Cf. Keckermann, p. 10: “Definit etiam Philosophiam Plato, quod sit gnw=sis tei/wn kai\ a)ntrwpi/nwn pragma/twn, kai\ tw=n e)n tau/tois ai)ti/wn notitia divinarum et humanarum rerum, atque adeo causarum, a quibus ea sunt.” 

  16. Keckermann does not go into the question whether there could be a genus of philosophy that is not too remote. 

  17. Cf. Keckermann, col. 10: “Franciscus Toletus hanc Definitionem ait esse omnium perfectissimam; utpote quae tam Theoreticam quam Practicam philosophiae partem complectatur, quaeque sic accipienda sit, ut per res divinas intelligantur abstracta ab omni materia, pureque intelligibilia: per res autem humanas materiata et sensibilia. Sed si res accuratius excutiatur, ne descriptio quidem philosophiae bona censeri debet. Nam primo Genus est valde remotum, quod decebat esse proximum lin legitima Definitione. Secundo, etiam definitio latior est definito; quia notitia rerum divinarum ad Theologiam quoque sanctam pertinet, atque ex eo factum est, ut Iurisperiti suae Iurisprudentiae eandem Definitionem accomodaverint, ut videre est in principio ff. ut taceam, quod nec Physica nec Mathematica doctrina sub hac definitione comprehendatur; maxima enim pars Physicae, nec ad qei=a, nec ad a)nqtrw/pina referri potest, quod idem de Mathematicis intelligi debet.” 

  18. Cf. Keckermann, col. 11: “Speusippus in Definitionibus Platonicis: Philosophia est, inquit appetitus sapientiae et contemplatio veritatis ut veritas est. Sed nec hic verum genus usurpatur, et praeterea etiam duo ponuntur genera, et insuper id in definitione ponitur, quod est definito angustius; si quidem contemplatio veritatis ad Theoreticam philosophiae partem per se pertinet, non autem Practicam, ut paulo post monebimus.” 

  19. Cf. Keckermann, col. 11: “De Arist. ante diximus, scripsisse eum praecognita philosophica sive de natura philosophiae libros tres; qui, si extarent, non magnopere opus hac nostra tractatione foret. Iam vero cum ii interciderint, factum est ut generalis Philosophiae descriptio nusquam in iis Aristotelis monumentis, quae hodie extant, relicta fuerit. Nam quod cap. 1.2. Metaph. Philosophiam ait esse scientiam veritatis, non existimanda est generalis ista descriptio, sed particularis explicatio, quid sit ea Philosophiae pars, quae Theoretica vocatur; quod sequentia statim verba disserte comprobant, quibus inter Philosophiae partem Theoreticam et Practicam disiunctione facta inquit: Theoreticae enim finis est veritas, Practicae autem opus.” 

"The Steadfast Philosopher" (Gerard van Honthorst, 1623, Collection Hohenbuchau, Schlangenbad, on loan to Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna)

"The Steadfast Philosopher" (Gerard van Honthorst, 1623, Collection Hohenbuchau, Schlangenbad, on loan to Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna)


Certosa di San Martino:

> Above: by Ciao Anita! (2009).

> Below: by Kyle Thompson-Westra (2011).