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Defining Philosophy in Early Modern Germany (V): Is Philosophy More Than Just a Good Habit?

Stefan Heßbrüggen-Walter

Links to previous posts in this series can be found in the archive.

I must start with a correction: In the previous post, I had relied on my faulty memory in estimating the distance in time between the publication of Casmann’s Modesta Assertio and relevant publications by Keckermann and Timpler. But I had not noted that the first edition of Timpler’s Systema Metaphysicae was published in 1604. Moreover, it had escaped me that Keckermann, too, began to address the question how to define philosophy in his Praecognita Logica published first in 1599 before Casmann.

Keckermann’s and Timpler’s contributions are interesting not only in the context of a history of ‘Reformed’ philosophy. Comparing their views highlights a difference in understanding philosophy that on further reflection may be fairly fundamental at least for the German discourse on the subject. Both authors differ in their assessment of what philosophy is (i. e. to what genus it belongs).

In order to explain their difference in this respect it may be helpful to use an analogy. A computer program first consists of a number of commands, procedures, or statements that are written down by programmers and can be printed in a book: the ‘source code’. In order to run the program on a machine, it must be ‘compiled’. If this ‘executable’ file is loaded into a machine, the CPU processes the instructions in order to e. g. paint a character in the window you are working in. For Keckermann (and the majority of early moderns), philosophy exists in human beings as such an ‘executable’: it is a permanent disposition to think and act in certain ‘philosophical’ ways. Timpler is the first in this German debate to explicitly distinguish this disposition (the existence of which he doesn’t deny) from the underlying ‘source code’, i. e. philosophy as it can be written down in a book.

Keckermann: Philosophy as Habit

Habits are, for Keckermann, one of three factors that are necessary to enjoy the goods philosophy has to offer: to live in agreement with one’s intellect, a life that makes us happy.1 For this to be possible, there must first be an object to be known. And we must have a natural faculty of the soul that relates to this object. Besides this, we need a reliable disposition to know the object of a natural faculty methodically (ordinate) and without succumbing to error.2 Such a disposition can be acquired either supernaturally through Divine illumination or naturally through learning. In a post-lapsarian world, the latter is more common, but it is important to note that the first option is not categorically denied. Keckermann only points out that it happens rarely and cannot be expected by anyone. In the light of Hoffmann’s criticism discussed in the last post this might mean that supernatural inspiration for leading a naturally good life is possible, but no one should count on this option. Keckermann thus occupies middle ground between Casmann and Hoffmann: philosophy suffices to attain ‘natural perfection’ in hac vita. In this he agrees with Casmann. But we must take into account the possibility that even after the Fall some individuals (we may think e. g. of the Apostles) may have been provided with the necessary insights without tedious study. This is a concession to Hoffmann.3

Nevertheless, the only reliable path to living in agreement with one’s intellect is study. Keckermann distinguishes two kinds of disciplines that help us in that, ‘objective’ and ‘directive’ disciplines.4 ‘Objective’ disciplines analyse a domain of objects existing in the real world (res ipsas in natura positas): theology, jurisprudence, medicine, and philosophy. Mathematics is a part of philosophy, history and the ars militaris are a part of political philosophy.5 Directive disciplines are not concerned with things themselves, but with enhancing our intellect by providing tools (instrumenta) and rules (normae) for its operation. This concerns thought and language: the former is regulated by logic, the latter by grammar, rhetoric, and poetic.6

So for the early Keckermann philosophy is a habit that is customarily acquired through study and learning and provides methodical and error-free knowledge of a domain of objects accessible to our natural cognitive faculties. This domain is defined through an enumeration of philosophical disciplines (namely metaphysics, physics, mathematics, ethics and their subdisciplines).

If we compare this to earlier views of the subject, we see that for Keckermann philosophy is no ‘superdiscipline’ encompassing all the rest of the disciplines (as the Ramist Daubenrock had held). And dialectic is not a part of philosophy, but an instrument (this may be inspired by the Aristotelian Zabarella, a connection I will not explore here). Philosophy is not concerned with Christian wisdom (against Casmann), but a limited domain that determines its place in the system of knowledge as a whole.

Timpler’s Understanding of Philosophy

Timpler himself makes explicit the differences in understanding philosophy and its place in the overall canon of disciplines in his criticism of Keckermann’s distinction between ‘objective’ and ‘directive’ disciplines. He first gives a brief, but correct summary of Keckermann’s position and proposes then three objections.

First of all, it is wrong to assume that only certain disciplines deal with a definite domain of objects: in fact, this is true for every discipline, because every discipline is concerned with something that can be known (a scibile or obiectum intellectionis humanae) - every discipline is concerned either with being as such (ens in genere) or one of its two species, the ens reale or the ens rationis. In other words, Keckermann would need an argument why the ens rationis should not count as an object of the human intellect.7 Conversely, disciplines that are concerned with a domain of objects enhance our intellect through the cognition of these objects, so that all disciplines are not only ‘objective’, but also ‘directive’.8 Therefore, every discipline must contain rules and norms that guide our search of the truth - at least on the level of application (the norms themselves may be taken from other disciplines, like logic or grammar).9

Timpler introduces three, instead of two, highest genera of learning: philologia, philosophia, theologia. Philologia prepares for philosophy and theology, teaching letters and comprising grammar, rhetoric, poetic, music, logic, and history. Philosophy concerns the studium sapientiae naturalis et terrenae. It helps us to achieve proficiency in achieving contemplative knowledge and in leading a good life (ad bene contemplandum et agendum). Theology allows us to live good and participate in Divine grace (ad bene beateque vivendum). It is concerned with supernatural wisdom (studium sapientiae praeternaturalis et caelestis).10

Again Timpler discusses objections. The first argues from the Ciceronian view discussed in the first post of this series that philosophy is the study of all liberal arts and knowledge of human and Divine things (scientia rerum humanarum et divinarum), so that philology and theology must be subsumed as parts of philosophy. In this perspective, Timpler is misguided, because he does not acknowledge that philosophy is first and foremost concerned with wisdom.11

Timpler’s response to this is twofold. His first point is that we shouldn’t trust nominal definitions, because usage can be lax and need not be a clear guide regarding the precise extension of a concept.12 So the Ciceronian formula contradicts the entrenched usage of the term ‘philosophy’: philosophy was only rarely understood as the totality of liberal arts. It consists only of those disciplines that direct us ad bene contemplandum et agendum ex naturali rationis lumine. For this we need metaphysics, physics, and mathematics in the domain of contemplative thought and ethics, economics, and politics in the domain of action.13

The second objection argues from what we could call the ‘humanist’s standpoint’: All arts are concerned with speech, because they regulate how to talk about a given domain. Therefore, all arts are ‘philological’.14 In replying, Timpler again refers to the consensus omnium: philology as the study of letters is the common way to use the term. Its function has always been only propaedeutic.15

The last two objections focus on the relation between philosophy and the ‘higher faculties’. Regarding theology, it must be asked whether it makes sense to classify it as a ‘liberal art’, since it depends only on supernatural inspiration, namely the Divine word: human efforts do not contribute to it.16 As far as medicine and jurisprudence are concerned, they cannot be subsumed under one of Timpler’s position highest genera of learning which shows that his way of dividing learning is mistaken.17

Timpler replies that for him theology in parts belongs to the liberal arts, insofar as it can be understood as an ordered systema of precepts collected from Scripture. It concerns those parts of revealed knowledge that can be gleaned from reading Scripture and meditating on it. Its principles may be supernatural, but how we apply these principles to acquire knowledge is not in itself supernatural. Or, to put it more bluntly: in order to learn how to live in grace, do not nead illumination, but hard work in order to know what God expects from us.18 Medicine and jurisprudence should be understood as ‘offspring’ (soboles) of philosophy which we may take to be their mother. Medicine originated in physics, jurisprudence in ethics, politics, and economics. So it is possible in principle to construe them as parts of philosophy.19

So, for Timpler, the nominal definition of philosophy does not provide any clues about its subject matter besides the rather obvious fact that philosophy is concerned with ‘natural wisdom’. Howeer, it does not have any encyclopedic ambitions. The humanist idea to subsume philosophical reflection under the study of letters in general is as misguided. Theology is a separate discipline (this distinction is more clear-cut than what we find in Casmann). However, in its ordinary course of business it employs the same techniques as other liberal arts. Medicine and jurisprudence can be construed as parts of philosophy.

Philosophy as such is one of the three highest genera of learning. It is concerned with a domain of knowable objects (scibilia) which includes both entia realia and entia rationis. It has a normative component, because it enhances our intellect and directs it in its search for contemplative truth and morally good action. In this endeavour, it is limited to what can be known relying on our natural faculties, it does not aspire to supernatural wisdom (again, this clearly differs from Casmann’s conception of ‘Christian Philosophy’).

Timpler On What is the Genus of Philosophy

In order to complete this account of Timpler’s metaphilosophical views, we still need to find out more about the genus of philosophy. For this, we must first get a grasp of his distinction between ‘external’ and ‘internal’ artes. Timpler points out that this distinction is an innovation (a nullo alio Philosopho hactenus tradita), which is quite unusual. But as soon as we examine how things stand (or, as you would say in German, ‘die Sache selbst’ (res ipsa), it is unavoidable.20

The crux of this distinction is that an ars as such does not exist. Or, to put it differently: it can only exist in two different manifestations. As internal art, art is a the manifestation of an external art in a human being, i.e an acquired disposition to think and act in a certain defined manner.21 As external art, art is a systema. Timpler quotes Lucian’s definition of systema and renders it in Latin as follows:

compages praeceptorum certorum usu probatorum ad finem aliquem utilem in vita.

A systema is a collection of doctrine or precepts that is intended to help us in reaching certain goals in life. But not every systema is an ‘external liberal art’. For this, additional requirements must be fulfilled. An ‘external liberal art’ is defined as

systema methodicum certorum praeceptorum de re aliqua scibili utilique traditorum ad erudiendum et perficiendum hominem.22

So besides being a ‘body of doctrine’ that consists of parts, the relations between these parts must be ‘methodical’, i. e. not confused or unorganised. And the subject matter to be organised in this systema must help us to become more erudite and perfect.

If we apply these general reflections on the notion of a liberal art to Timpler’s views on philosophy, the following notion of philosophy as an ‘external liberal art’ emerges:

Philosophy as systema is a methodically organised and body of doctrine (that can e. g. be contained in a book). It is concerned with those knowable objects (scibilia) which can be known to ‘natural reason’, i. e. without relying on supernatural principles. The precepts concerning these knowable objects must be methodically organised and be apt to better human beings in what they know and how they act.

Philosophy as ‘internal liberal art’ concerns the ‘subjective side’ of philosophy, i. e. its existence in human individuals. It is a

habitus intellectualis hominem perficiens, doctumque et aptum reddens ad artificiose contemplandum vel operandum.23

This definition is based on a Ramist divisio. A habit is a permanent quality of man that determines us to act either in a good or in a bad way.24 Habits are either good or bad (virtus or vitium).25 Both kinds are either innate or acquired.26 Acquired correct habits are either intellectual or moral.27 A good intellectual habit (i. e an intellectual virtue) consists in knowledge (notitia) that is acquired through learning and that enables humans to use their gifts well (ad bene muneris sui functiones obeundas).28 Such habits are either liberal or illiberal.29 Liberal habits allow us to fulfill the duties of learning and virtue. Illiberal habits lead us away from learning and virtue towards the corporeal functions of human beings.30


Debate on ‘metaphilosophical questions’ is not a very common phenomenon within early modern philosophy. So the German situation may very well be an exception. And if we compare the discussion of these problems in Timpler to previous texts (Liddel/Martini, Pernot, Daubenrock), the level of sophistication achieved by Timpler is quite astonishing. We can surmise that this debate was at least in part due to the anti-philosophical polemic of Hoffmann and Casmann’s overreaching reply. It is remarkable that neither Keckermann nor Timpler side with Casmann here. Both rather see the necessity to recalibrate the precarious relationship between philosophy and theology and to preserve an independent domain of inquiry for philosophical reflection.

Timpler’s twofold conception of philosophy opens a problem space that is interesting in its own right. The relation between philosophy as it is written down in books and philosophy as it does its job in peoples’ heads deserves further investigation. If the foremost goal of philosophy is the transformation of minds, the central task of the philosopher is teaching (and a textbook is only an instrument in this endeavour). If the foremost goal of philosophy is the collection of transformative knowledge, the central task of the philosopher is thinking, so that the textbook is not just an instrument, but the final result of the philosophical activity.

  1. Cf. Keckermann, Bartholomäus. Praecognita Logica. Hanovia, 1604, p. 47: “Quaenam est post Fidem in Christum et voluntatis santificationem summa tua in hac vita perfectio, et voluptas? Si secundum intellectum vivam, […] hinc summa et inaestimabilis in mente voluptas oritur.” 

  2. Cf. Keckermann, Praecognita, p. 47f: “Quaenam vero ad eiusmodi cognitionem praecipue requiruntur? Tria. 1, id quod cognoscendum est sive obiectum. 2, potentia naturalis intelligendi fluens ab anima rationali. 3, Dispositio certa, per quam illa naturalis potentia in actum ordinate et sine errore deducatur.” 

  3. Cf. Keckermann, Praecognita, p. 48: “Unde ergo illa bene intelligendi Dispositio? Vel a Deo immediate infunditur, vel per disciplinam acquiritur: illa extraordinaria nunc est post lapsum, et rara, neminique in specie promissa: haec ordinaria et frequentior.” 

  4. Cf. Keckermann, Praecognita, p. 49: “Quotuplices ergo sunt Disciplinae, quae ad Rerum intellectionem Hominem disponunt? Duplices: obiectivae, et Directivae. Quotnam sunt Hominis operationes, quae egent eiusmodi normis artificialibus? Duae praecipue. primo quidem intellectio sive cogitatio de rebus: post cogitationum significatio, quae fit locutione et scriptione.” 

  5. Cf. Keckermann, Praecognita, p. 48f: “Quid vocas obiectivas? Sic voco eas, quae res ipsas in natura positas tanquam obiecta intellectionis nostrae tractant. Quotnam sunt illae? Quatuor maiores et principaliores. 1, S. S. Theologia. 2, Iurisprudentia. 3, Medicina. 4, Philosophia, quae in se continet Metaphysica, Physicam, Mathematicam, sub qua Arithmetica, Geometria, Astronomia, Musica, Optica, et denique Ethicam; sub qua Oecnomica, Politica, sub qua praeter Historias etiam […] Militaris continetur.” 

  6. Cf. Keckermann, Praecognita, p. 49: “Quid vocas directivas? Quae non tractant res ipsas cognoscendas; nec HOminis intellectum rebus ipsis informant et perficiunt; sed eius operationem aliquam tantum praeparant certis normis et instrumentis dirigunt et ordinant. Quae disciplinae dirigunt significationem cogitationum? Grammatica, Rhetorica, Poëtica. Quae vero intellectionem sive cogitationes? Sola illa divina magistra Logica, […]” 

  7. Cf. Timpler, Clemens. Metaphysicae Systema Methodicum: Libri Quinque; Per Theoremata Et Problemata Selecta Concinnatum. nunc denuò ab Auctore recognita. Hanoviae: Antonius, 1612, p. 25: “[…] videtur hae distributio disciplinarum non esse recipienda, […] Quia omnis disciplina habet certum obiectum, in quo explicando versatur, adeoque certum scibile tractat, tanquam obiectum intellectionis humanae. Ideoque etiam omnis disciplina est obiectiva. Ac licet non omnis disciplina res tantum tractat in natura extra intellectum positas; tamen quaelibet tractat vel ens in genere, vel certum genus entis sive realis, sive rationis: […].” 

  8. Cf. Timpler, Metaphysicae Systema, p. 26: “Quia omnis disciplina intellectum hominis rerum certarum, circa quas explicandas versatur, cognitione informat, et perficit.” 

  9. Cf. Timpler, Metaphysicae Systema, p. 26: “Quia omnis disciplina operationem aliquam hominis per sua praecepta tanquam normas et instrumenta dirigit, ne in rectitudine, quae in ea requiritur, aberret. Licet enim sola Grammatic tradat artificium pure et emendate loquendi; et sola Logica 

  10. Cf. Timpler, Metaphysicae Systema, p. 26: “Usitatum est in scholis, praesertim Aristotelicis, accurate distinguere inter Philologiam, PHilosophiam et Theologiam, et ad tria illa summa quasi capita ac genera omnes disciplinas liberales referre. Per Philologiam enim comprehendunt, Grammaticam, Rhetoricam, Poeticam, Musicam, Logicam, et Historiam. Per Philosophiam vero intelligunt studium sapientiae naturalis et terrenae, qua homo disponitur ad bene contemplandum et agendum. Per Theologiam intelligunt studium sapientiae praeternaturalis et caelestis, per quam homo disponitur ad bene beateque vivendum. Quod cum ita sit, videtur non inepte ars liberalis distribui posse, ita ut alia dicatur Philologica, alia Philosophica, alia Theologica.” 

  11. Cf. Timpler, Metaphysicae Systema, p. 26f: “[…] obiici potest, […] Philosophiam ex notatione nominis nihil aliud esse, quam studium sapientiae. Ideoque nihil aliud esse, quam studium sapientiae. Ideoque cum omnes artes liberales ad parandam sapientiam aliquid conferant, Philosophiae ambitu omnes ares liberales non immerito comprehendi, Et hinc Philosophiam definiri modo […] Rerum divinarum et humanarum causarumque quibus hae res continentur, scientiam: modo comprehensionem et doctrina artium liberalium. Proinde quam Theologicam artem sub Philosophica comprehendi.” 

  12. Cf. Timpler, Metaphysicae Systema, p. 27: “Vocabula sapenumero tam in communi loquendi consuetudine, quam in schola artificum in alia significatione vel latiore, vel uangustiore usurpati, quam ipsa notatio concedit, […] Ex notatione non semper rectum et firmum sumi posse de significatione usitata vocabulorum, sed ex usu et consuetudine communi et antiqua recte loquentium.” 

  13. Cf. Timpler, Metaphysicae Systema, p. 27f: “Philosophiae vocabulum apud veteres et probatos authores, et in communi etiam recte loquentium usu sumi non pro studio et doctrina omnium artium liberalium; sed tantum illarum, per quas homo disponitur ad bene contemplandum et agendum ex naturali rationis lumine; seu, per quas homo in rebus terrenis cognoscendis et agendis fit prudens et sapiens; cuiusmodi sunt metaphysica, Physica, Mathematica, Ethica, Oecnomica, Politica.” 

  14. Cf. Timpler, Metaphysicae Systema, p. 27: “Philologiam ex notatione nominis nihil aliud esse, quam studium artium liberalium, per quas […] tam ratio, quam oratio, informatur. Ideoque cum omnes artes liberales vel rationem vel orationem informent; inde sequi omnes artes posse dici Philologicas; Et sic ab iis Philosophicam et Theologicam non esse distinguendam.” 

  15. Cf. Timpler, Metaphysicae Systema, p. 28: “Philologiae vocabulum communiter usurpari a viris doctis pro studio humanioris literaturae, seu illarum duntaxat artium liberalium, quae ita rationem et orationem informant, ut tanquam famulae et pedissequae inserviant Philosophiae et Theologiae, […]” 

  16. Cf. Timpler, Metaphysicae Systema, p. 27: “Theologiam sacrosanctam inter artes liberales recte non numerari; cum ex principiis naturalibus no constet, sed supernaturalibus: Neque naturali sensus et rationis lumine, humanoque studio et industria sit inventa et constituta, sed lumine supernaturali verbi divini hominibus sit patefacta.” 

  17. Cf. Timpler, Metaphysicae Systema, p. 27: “Artem Medicam et Iuridicam neque ad Philologicam, neque ad Philosophicam, neque ad Theologicam artem referri posse: ideoque distributionem illam esse angustiorem suo distributo.” 

  18. Cf. Timpler, Metaphysicae Systema, p. 28: “Theologiam SacroSanctam numerari inter artes liberales, partim, quatenus sumitur pro systemate certorum praeceptorum ex S. Scriptura collectorum et methodice dispositorum, partim, quatenus accipitur pro notitia ordinaria rerum sacrarum et divinarum ex verbi Dei auditu, lectione et meditatione comparata. Ac licet principia ipsius non sint naturalia, sed supernaturalia; neque naturali rationis, sed supernaturali verbi divini lumine hominibus sint patefacta; tamen ordinarie a nobis non alio modo, ac relique artes acquiritur, nempe partim sensus adminiculo, partim meditatione et mathesi assidue et seria verbi divini a Deo nobis patefacta.” 

  19. Cf. Timpler, Metaphysicae Systema, p. 28: “Medicam et Iuridicam artem ex Philosophia, tanquam sobolem ex matre suam habere originem: illam quidem ex Physica; hanc vero ex Ethica, Politica, et oecnomica: Ideoque duas artes illas ad Philosophiam non male reduci posse.” 

  20. Cf. Timpler, Metaphysicae Systema, p. 3: “Caeterum quod ad distinctionem illam artis in externam et internam attinet, illa quidem, si ipsa vocabula spectes, nova est, et a nullo alio Philosopho hactenus tradita: nihilominus si res ipsas, quae vocabulis significantur, considerabis, re ipsa comperies, illam necessariam esse ad enucleandam et eruendam universam artis liberalis vim et signifiationem.” 

  21. Cf. Timpler, Metaphysicae Systema, p. 4: “[Sc. Ars liberalis interna] nihil aliud est, quam habitualis artis externae notitia.” 

  22. Timpler, Metaphysicae Systema, p. 4

  23. Timpler, Metaphysicae Systema, p. 31

  24. Cf. Timpler, Metaphysicae Systema, p. 31: “[…] habitum in genere […] esse qualitatem permanentem, per quam homo ad bene vel male agendum disponitur, […]”. 

  25. Cf. Timpler, Metaphysicae Systema, p. 31: “[…] habitum in genere alium esse rectum, alium pravum: quorum ille dicitur virtus, hic vitium, […] 

  26. Cf. Timpler, Metaphysicae Systema, p. 31: “utrumque vel esse innatum vel adventitium, […]” 

  27. Cf. Timpler, Metaphysicae Systema, p. 31: “[…] habitum recte adventitium vel esse intellectualem vel moralem […]” 

  28. Cf. Timpler, Metaphysicae Systema, p. 31: “[…] habitum intellectualem rectum esse notitiam discendo comparatam, per quam homo promtus est ad bene muneris sui functiones obeundas […]” 

  29. Cf. Timpler, Metaphysicae Systema, p. 31: “[…] Eundem alium esse liberalem, alium illiberalem […]” 

  30. Cf. Timpler, Metaphysicae Systema, p. 31: “Liberalem esse, qui hominem ad doctrinae et virtutis officia obeunda idoneum reddit. Contra illiberalis, qui hominem a dotrinae virtutisque studio avocat, et ad corporalia munia obeunda idoneum reddit.”