Early Modern Thought Online: The Blog

"Early Modern Thought Online" (EMTO) is a database offering access to about 13.500 digitized source texts from early modern philosophy and related disciplines like history of science and history of theology provided by libraries in Europe and overseas. In the present stage of its development, EMTO presents mainly links to external resources. This blog intends to show how to profit from concepts and methods of the digital humanities. It will give practical advice on how to use digitised sources. We will present digital collections relevant to our field, and discuss their relevance for early modern philosophy and history of ideas. But we want to do philosophy as well: present ongoing research related to sources present in EMTO. We hope that this blog, as well as EMTO as a whole, will be a helpful tool and provide a lively forum for discussion. EMTO is on Twitter, Facebook and Google+. Original content is licensed via the CC by-nc-sa 3.0 license.

Scienza collaborativa su git


Fra le comunità di scienziati, una delle nuove frontiere è la scrittura collaborativa tramite “version control system”, cioè programmi utilizzati dagli informatici per scrivere software collaborativamente.

Un articolo che illustra questa nuova tendenza è “Git can facilitate greater reproducibility and increased transparency in science”, leggibile qui.

Per chi volesse imparare ad usare git, consigliamo questo tutorial, e questa demo.

Review of Ulrich Leinsle, Introduction to Scholastic Theology »


Book review: Healing, Performance and Ceremony in the Writings of Three Early Modern Physicians »

In keeping with the aim of the series, The History of Medicine in Context, M.A. Katritzky’s study of the print and manuscript writings of Felix (1536-1614) and Thomas Platter (1574-1628) and Hippolytus Guarinonius (1571-1654) contextualises the early modern practice of medicine within the history of theatre, thus establishing unwonted connections between spectacles of healing, performance and ceremony.

Fish or fowl? »

Defining Philosophy in Early Modern Germany (VII): Piccolomini and Piccart on Not Defining Philosophy

Stefan Heßbrüggen-Walter

In the last post we have seen how Christoph Butel, teaching in Szczecin, hesitated to provide a definition of philosophy, stating his proposal only as an occasion for further discussion (disputationis causa). In this post, I want to introduce Francisco Piccolomini’s stricter thesis that philosophy cannot be defined at all. True, Piccolomini is no German, but his views were nevertheless influential in the German discourse, e. g. in a dissertation on defining philosophy written by Michael Piccart and published in the venerable collection of dissertations from Altdorf University, the Philosophia Altdorphiana.


In his De Rerum Definitionibus, Piccolomini bases his argument on the observation that philosophers themselves cannot agree on a valid definition of philosophy. He suspects that this is due to the fact that instead of delivering a proper definition of philosophy, most such attempts should be classified as mere descriptions of philosophy.1 In his Naturae totius universi scientia, he goes one step further and provides four arguments why a definition of philosophy must fail in principle:

  1. Philosophy is not a substance. Aristotle states in Met. 7 that only substances can be defined properly.
  2. It is no species ultima i. e. no species that consists only of individuals. Only such a species can be defined perfectly (presumably because the differences between individuals are accidental and therefore irrelevant for a definition. In defining a higher genus, specific differences between different kinds belonging to this genus, must be left out).
  3. Philosophy could only be defined, if all parts of philosophy shared a common core (natura): but philosophy is not an univocal term.
  4. Only those things can be defined that are the subject of a science. For this, they must be unchangeable. But philosophy is a human artifact.2

Two of these arguments, (1) and (2), draw on Aristotle’s general methodology of definitions and will not be further discussed here. In the third argument, Piccolomini contends that philosophy is not homogeneous. This will be the topic of the next post in this series. This leaves us with the fourth argument, namely that philosophy is undefinable, because it is an artifact, a production of man. Accordingly, Piccolomini later on lets an imaginary objector pose the question: “[…] ad quem artificem pertineat Philosophiam definire”? In answering this objection, Piccolomini again accepts the philosophy is the result of what an artifex does. So he searches for the knowledgeable human (which is how you could translate ‘artifex' in this context) who knows how to define philosophy. Two disciplines and their representatives are uniquely qualified for that: The dialectician presents his understanding of philosophy accessibly (populariter), but imprecisely (per communia). The metaphysician proceeds with precision (per propria) and with knowledge (scienter). Hence, it would fall to the metaphysician to define philosophy strictly, if he could.3

However, there is a certain tension between this understanding of philosophy as a human invention and Piccolomini’s assertion that philosophy is a Divine gift that is efficiently caused by our nature. Granted, both, God and nature, are only remote causes of philosophy. Besides them, there are two proximate causes of philosophy, one of them the main cause (causa principalis), the other instrumental (causa organica).4 Piccolomini explains his views on philosophy as a Divine gift by distinguishing three different schools: the ‘theologians’, Platonists, and Peripatetics. What the ‘theologians’ have to say bears a certain similarity to an understanding of philosophy as prisca sapientia: According to Piccolomini, theologians hold that God created Adam with all epistemically relevant habits (omni scientiarum habitu cumulatissime ornatus). Moses received Divine truth on Mount Sinai, from where it ended up in the Cabbala. Remaining ignorance was removed from those with the right disposition by the prophets and Christ. Nothing what other schools can contribute is allowed to contradict these fundamental truths.5 Platonists add the insight that what we can know philosophically has been planted into our souls by our creator before birth, so that philosophy consists in a rediscovery of innate truths. Aristotelians contend that it is our natural tendency for the true and the good that serves as the first basis for the formation of philosophical knowledge and philosophically informed habits.6 Theologians and Platonists concede the points made by the Aristotelians. But they restrict the scope of these natural tendencies: they do not imply that everone is capable of becoming a philosopher. Besides the remote causes of philosophy, we must contemplate its proximate causes: again, two kinds of proximate causes must be distinguished, namely ‘instrumental’ causes and the ‘principal’ proximate cause of philosophy. The first class of instrumental causes comprises the ‘instrumental discplines’, i. e. the liberal arts. The second class concerns the external circumstances of learning, the amount of work invested (vigiliae ac labores, sine quibus nullam scientiam consequimur) and eventually the political climate, whether or not a monarch is in favor of the arts (favor principum, qui […] se reddunt parentes scientiarum). But the main proximate cause is the intellectual talent of the philosophising individual the conditions of which are enumerated in Plato’s Republic.7

So the principal proximate cause of being a philosopher is having the talent to be a philosopher. And only insofar as our talents are a Divine gift that is linked to our individual nature, we can say that philosophy is a Divine gift or something that we do by nature. However, Piccolomini introduces another complication. He agrees with the objection that philosophy is regarded by Aristotle as eternal, so that it could not have been caused. This is a flat contradiction to his assertion that philosophy is an artifact, because it depends on human talent as its principal proximate cause.

It may be possible to read this statement in a way that render his views in some way consistent. It could be that Piccolomini distinguishes here implicitly two different forms of philosophy, namely philosophy from a Divine standpoint that is, of course, unchangeable and eternal, and the human fabrication that is a partial image of this Divine philosophy. His statement that the purported inventors should rather be seen as ‘reinventors’ (redintegratores) of philosophy points into a similar direction.8 But, of course, such a fundamental distinction, if it is in fact made by Piccolomini, should feature prominently in his description of philosophy rather than being hidden away in a obiter dictum.

However, Piccolomini’s own ‘description’ of philosophy does not contain any hint whether or not philosophy is eternal or a human artefact. He even leaves out God and nature as remote causes of philosophy and mentions only its proximate cause. For him, philosophy is a dual habit, consisting in contemplation and action and arising out of a natural disposition of the soul. Its main aim is the highest good relative to the respective faculty of contemplation or action (pro facultate).[^8]


Michael Piccart, student of Taurellus and Scherb in Altdorf, published a dissertation on the concept of philosophy in the 1604 dissertation collection Philosophia Altdorphiana. He agrees with Piccolomini that philosophy cannot be defined. But he uses only one of Piccolomini’s four arguments, namely the heterogeneity of its theoretical and practical part.9 In his own version of a ‘description’ of philosophy he mentions explicitly both remote and proximate causes, i. e. God, nature, and sufficient cognitive abilities (ingenium capax). And he makes explicit that philosophy is a human invention (Dei ac naturae vi et perspicaci ingenio inventus).10

This is not the only significant difference: first of all, Piccart, unlike Piccolomini, has a clearly defined opponent: Ramism. Ramists typically identify philosophy and dialectic. They must be classified as ‘pedants’ (acutuli) without a clear commitment to truth.11 And, according to Piccart, the two main parts of philosophy can be defined. Theoretical philosophy ‘intuits’ all parts of the world that can be the object of scientific knowledge. It serves the ‘theoretical good’ (bonum theoreticum).12 Practical philosophy guides human action and serves the highest practical good.13

Moreover, Piccart distinguishes between a complete and an incomplete form of the philosophical habit: the word ‘philosophy’ can denote either the progress (itio et progressus) in learning philosophy or the habit after this process has been completed. Although Piccart states explicitly that he will concern himself only with the complete habit, this distinction is not completely irrelevant in the context of his overall argument.14 The reason for this is that Piccart extends the catalogue of ‘instrumental causes’ of philosophy. One of the instrumental causes not mentioned by Piccolomini is a teacher:

The mind of philosophical students is a tabula rasa. This does not only imply that students have no preconceptions when beginning to learn about philosophy. It also means that was has been written first on this table can be erased only with difficulty. The process of learning philosophy presupposes the distinction between incomplete and complete philosophical habits.15 Furthermore, we need bona fortuna, sufficient means, because a life in poverty is an insurmountable obstacle to doing philosophy. The first philosophers, Egyptian priests, lived on other people’s money (ex alieno vivebant).16 Another important instrument of philosophy not mentioned by Piccolomini is sense perception. We rely on the senses in ‘building’ philosophy, and the end result (the habit) depends on them, too. Piccart gives the example of Galen’s sense of taste that allowed him to discern properties of pharmaceutical substances with extraordinary precision.17 A last aspect not taken into account by Piccolomini concerns the affective foundation of philosophy. Piccart contends that we must be ‘crazy about truth’ and ‘mad about wisdom’ and regards this as a second principal cause of philosophy.18


To my knowledge, Piccolomini’s quite peculiar metaphilosophical views have gone unnoticed until now (I would be happy to be corrected!). The same is then, of course, true for their reception in Germany. However, although Piccart does agree with Piccolomini to a large extent, he deviates in some important details from the views of his Italian colleague: this concerns not only the importance of integrating teaching into a complete view of philosophy, but, more importantly, the affective requirements of becoming a true philosopher. This emphasis on the subjective prerequisites of doing philosophy is a novel aspect not to be found in the other authors discussed until now in this series. It remains to be seen to which extent this new perspective on metaphilosophical problems was influential in subsequent debates of how (not) to define philosophy. In the next post, I will discuss two other authors defending the undefinability of philosophy, Fortunatus Crell and, again, Bartholomäus Keckermann.

  1. Cf. Francisco Piccolomini, De Rerum Definitionibus, Francofurti 1600, p. 64: “Philosophia universe sumpta cum exacte definiri nequeat, variis circumscriptionibus ex variis causis depromptis, modo aliquo adumbratur. Nam ex fine, ac simul ex forma hae peti possunt circumscriptiones, vel proprie, vel per metaphoram ei competentes.” It should be noted that Piccolomini in the same text deems philosophy to be definable through the four Aristotelian causes. Cf. ibid.: Et addendo circumscriptiones ex causa efficiente depromptas; dicere possumus, Philosophiam esse Donum Dei, Munus Saturni, […] Hae, ac similes aliae circumscriptiones, vel universae Philosophiae, vel partibus variis eius competunt, ut consideranti redditur notum. Putarem ego primo Philosophiam universe sumptam per omne genus causae ita esse definiendam.” This contradiction is difficult to resolve: either a definition through the four Aristotelian causes is a definition of philosophy, then philosophy is not undefinable. Or the four Aristotelian causes can only be used to derive a (complete) description of philosophy. 

  2. Cf. Francisco Piccolomini, Naturae totius universi scientia perfecto quinque partibus absoluta, Francofurti 1628, p. 46: “Non valeat exacte definiri [sc. philosophiam], primo quia non est substantia; exactae autem definitiones substantiarum sunt ex septimo Metaphysicae: secundo quia non est species ultima, quae sola, cum sit postrema perfectione praedita, valet perfecte definiri: tertio quia non est aliquid univocum et natura una in omnibus eadem, sed ab uno: quarto quia perfecte definitiones sunt rerum natura constantium, de quibus formatae sunt scientiae: Philosophia vero humano ingenio formata est.” 

  3. Cf. Piccolomini, Naturae totius universi scientia, p. 47: “Respondeo eas et praesertim communem Philosophiae definitionem attinere ad disciplinas communes, qualis est Dialectica et Metaphysica. Dialecticus id facit populariter, et per communia, Metaphysica vero scienter, et per propria: hinc absolute dicuntur ad Metaphysicum pertinere.” It could be objected that Aristotle himself does not define philosophy in Met. Again, Piccolomini concedes the point. Instead, he says, Aristotle gives us a way and norms for defining philosophy (methodus et regulae) and provides us with indications how to proceed (e. g. defining metaphysics as the science of truth or declaring the good to be the highest end of practical philosophy). Cf. ibid.: “At dubitabit aliquis, quia sic Arist. esset diminutus, cum in Metaphysica Philosophiam et eiu partes non definiverit. Respondeo non esse necessarium in Metaphysica omnia definire, sed esse satis tradere methodum et regulas, per quas habitu Metaphysico omnia definiantur. Definit Arist. in 2. Metaph. cont. 3 Philosophiam inspectricem, quod sit scientia veritatis manifestavit Philosophiae practicae finem esse bonum, quod in actione est collocatum; similiter manifestat in sexto, qui et quales sint habitus Mentis, in quibus versentur, ex quibus definitiones Philosophiae et partium eius eliciuntur.” 

  4. Cf. Piccolomini, Naturae totius universi scientia, p. 48: “Pro notitia efficientis (sc. causae) considerandum est, causam efficientem Philosophiae esse duplicem, unam proximam, alteram remotam: causa remota duplex est, Deus, et Natura; Proxima etiam est duplex una organica, altera principalis, ordiens a causa communi remota; […]” 

  5. Cf. ibid.: “Deus cui Natura famulatur, dicitur principium Philosophiae; quod quomodo fiat, a Theologis, Academicis, et Peripateticis vario modo explicatur. Ex sententia Theologorum, quae regula est caeterarum, Philosophia est munus Dei, primo quia creatus a Deo fuit Adam omni scientiarum habitu cumulatissime ornatus; secundo quia Moysi in Monte veritatem omnem Deus revelavit; et inde aiunt sapientes Hebraeorum fluxisse Chabalam; Tertia quia per Prophetas, et per unigenitum filium omnis ignorantiae caligo a recte affectis animis fuit longe repulsa, […]” 

  6. Cf. Piccolomini, Naturae totius universi scientia, p. 48f: ” Ex sententia autem Platonis, Philosophia est Dei Munus, quatenus per ideas Mentis, et rationes animae est nobis inserta; ac ita est coaeva animae nostrae, et scientia nostra est quaedam reminiscentia. Demum ex opinione Aristotelies, Philosophia est munus Dei et Naturae, quatenus horum munere praediti sumus facultate formandi illum, ac insuper donati sumus interna quadam propensione, et naturae instinctu ad verum et bonum, de quo legitur in prooemio Metaphysicae omnem hominem instinctu naturae expetere scientiam, et in prooemio Nicomachiorum omnem Methodum, actionem, et praelectionem tendere in bonum: desiderium autem veri et boni est desiderum Philosophiae.” 

  7. Cf. Piccolomini, Naturae totius universi scientia, p. 50: “Praeterea aeternorum, ut sunt aeterna, non est causa efficiens, Philosophia ex sententia Arist. in primo de Coelo, et primo Meteororum aeterna est, ut etiam asseritur ab Aver. 3. de Anima cont. 5. […] De altera difficultate dico eos, qui Philosophiae celebrantur inventores, ex sententia Aristotelis non absolute inventores, sed redintegratores iudicari debere.” 

  8. Cf. Piccolomini, Naturae totius universi scientia, p 46: “Philosophia universa est habitus humanae Mentis Mundum quavis ratione scienter contemplans, hominumque componens actiones, ex interna animi per naturam commotione, et foecunditate orta, ut summo bono pro facultate frueremur.” 

  9. Cf. Piccart, De Philosophia, p. 121, Th. V: “Eam [sc. philosophiam] definire commode non possumus, quia vocabulum ab uno est, quorum natura est, ut definiri nequeant: quia inaequaliter de pluribus sibi subjectis dicuntur.” 

  10. Cf. Piccart, De Philosophia, p. 122,Th. XI: “Philosophia est habitus mentis, omnes mundi partes (Deum et omne Ens) ea ratione qua possunt cadere sub scientiam considerans et hominum actiones componens, Dei ac naturae vi et perspicaci ingenio inventus, in cujus usu summum hominis bonum positum est.” 

  11. Cf. Piccart, De Philosophia, p. 121, Th. II: “Philosophia quippe hodie audit fere sola Dialectica, et philosophi salutantur illi acutuli, qui de questione proposita sine haesitatione εἰς ἐκάτερον norunt disputare. Utrumque pessime.” 

  12. Cf. Piccart, De Philosophia, p. 122,Th. XII: “Ex hac descriptione facile est excerpere utriusque philosophiae definitionem. Theoreticam enim dicere licebit, habitum mentis omnes mundi partes intuentem ea ratione, qua potest cadere sub scientiam, in quo consistat bonum Theoreticum.” 

  13. Cf. Piccart, De Philosophia, p. 122,Th. XIII: “Practicam vero habitum mentis, hominum actiones componentem, ut in omni vita honestum appareat, et homo summo bono practico perfruatur.” 

  14. Cf. Piccart, De Philosophia, p. 121, Th. IV: “Ac primum quidem tenendum hoc est, philosophia vocabulum ambiguum esse, significat enim aliquando investigationem veritatis, hoc est, itionem et progressum ad habitu philosophicum: interdum vero terminum itionis, hoc est, habitum adquisitum.” 

  15. Cf. Piccart, De Philosophia, p. 124f, Th. XXXIV ff: “Tertio requiritur Doctor. […] Atque magnum hoc est adjumentum, incidisse initio in fidelem et bonum praeceptorum, unde saepe Galenus talem commendat. Est enim mens discipuli tanquam tabula adhuc rasa, cui quod primum inscribitur, difficulter admodum eradicatur iterum, unde Plato duplicem mercedem ab eo posebat, quem dedocere male tradita debebat.” 

  16. Cf. Piccart, De Philosophia, p. 124, Th. XXX: “Ad organicas causas quod attinet, requiruntur primo Bona fortuna, quem enim paupertas premit, ille non facile Philosophabitur. Unde apud Aegypticos olim sacerdotes Philosophabantur, qui ex alieno vivebant.” 

  17. Cf. Piccart, De Philosophia, p. 124, Th. XXXI ff: “Requiritur deinde, Bonitas sensuum, extruitur enim Philosophia per sensus, et accomodatus etiam est habitus postea sensibus. Hinc laudatur Galenus quod gustatu valuerit, adeoque facultates simplicium medicamentorum potuerit discernere an videlicet sint galida, frigida, in secundo vel tertio gradu. Quo refero illud Aristotelicum, cum ait: Pereunte sensu uno, necesse esse, ut pereat scientia una.” 

  18. Cf. Piccart, De Philosophia, p. 124, Th. XXVIII, “Altera est φιλοπονία et ἐρωτικὴ μανία qui enim philosophari vult, aut Philosophi honore gaudere, eum oportet qoudam modo insanire amore pernoscendae veritatis et honesti.”