Renaissance philosophy started in the mid-14th century and saw the flowering of humanism, the rejection of scholasticism and Aristotelianism, the renewal of interest in the ancients, and created the prerequisites for modern philosophy and science. At least, this is the conventional story. But, in fact, there was no Renaissance. It is an invention by historians, a fiction made in order to tell a story – a compelling story about the development of philosophy, but nevertheless a story. In fact, all periodisation is ‘mere’ interpretation. This view is called historiographical nihilism.
Historiography was for a long time simply the writing of histories. Sweden, for example, had a royal historiographer, which was a formal appointment at the Royal Court. For a period in the late 17th century, the position was held by the philosopher Samuel Pufendorf (1632-94). He wrote several books in Latin on the history of Gustav II Adolf’s war efforts in Europe during the Thirty Years’ War, as well as one about Queen Christina’s abdication. Recently, historiography has become more a study of how history is written. In the second sense, it is the works of the historians and their methods that are the object of study, and not history itself. A historiographer doesn’t write histories, but develops theories about how history is written.
Nihilism, of course, has been given many meanings and has been interpreted in many different ways by philosophers throughout history. In the context of historiography, it means the rejection of, or – in a slightly weaker form – the scepticism towards historiographical concepts such as periodisation, but also other concepts pertaining to the development of a ‘theory’ of history; consequently, it implies that there can’t be only one method of history but many.
Historiographical nihilism has nothing against using periodisation in history and philosophy as a heuristic tool or for pedagogic purposes, but it reminds us that, as such, they’re always false, and when we study the details of history, it will become obvious that such grand statements as the outline of a period such as the Renaissance are futile and empty. The arbitrariness of assigning the term ‘Renaissance philosophy’ to a period in time can be easily seen if we have a look at the historical development of the term itself.
Renaissance philosophy is often presented as a conflict between humanism and scholasticism, or sometimes it’s simply described as the philosophy of humanism. This is a deeply problematic characterisation, partly based on the assumption of a conflict between two philosophical traditions – a conflict that never actually existed, and was in fact constructed by the introduction of two highly controversial terms: ‘humanism’ and ‘scholasticism’. A telling example of how problematic these terms are as a characterisation of philosophy in the 16th century can be found in Michel de Montaigne (1533-92). He was critical of a lot of philosophy that came before him, but he didn’t contrast what he rejected with some kind of humanism, and his sceptical essay An Apology for Raymond Sebond (1580) wasn’t directed at scholastic philosophy. In fact, both these terms were invented much later as a means to write about or introduce Renaissance philosophy. Persisting with this simplistic dichotomy only perverts any attempt at writing the history of 14th- to 16th-century philosophy.
One of the first attempts at writing a history of philosophy in a modern way was Johann Jacob Brucker’s five-volume Historia critica philosophiae (1742-44) published in Leipzig. He didn’t use the terms ‘Renaissance’ or ‘humanism’, but the term ‘scholastic’ was important for him. The narrative we still live with in philosophy, for the most part, was already laid down by him. It’s the familiar narrative that emphasises the ancient beginning of philosophy, followed by a collapse in the Middle Ages, and an eventual recovery of ancient wisdom in what much later became called ‘Renaissance philosophy’.
The US philosopher Brian Copenhaver, one of the foremost scholars of our time, develops this idea in his contribution to The Routledge Companion to Sixteenth-Century Philosophy (2017). In ‘Philosophy as Descartes Found It: Humanists v Scholastics?’, he explains how Brucker’s ideal was developed from Cicero and called by him ‘humanitatis litterae’ or ‘humanitatis studia’. For Brucker, these terms signified the works of the classical authors and the study of them. The Latin he used for the teaching of the classical authors was ‘humanior disciplina’. Brucker sees himself as completing a project he claims was started by Petrarch in the mid-14th century: a cultural renewal that would save philosophy from the darkness of scholasticism.
As we’ve come to know more about the period referred to by Brucker as the Middle Age, it has become clear that it’s simply wrong to call it a decline. It is instead extraordinarily rich philosophically, and should be celebrated as hugely innovative. It’s by no means a ‘dark age’. Quite the contrary. So the view that emerges in Brucker stems from a lack of knowledge and understanding of the philosophy of that time.
If it’s a period, then there has to be a reason for why it’s a period. It has to be united by something
The use of the term ‘humanism’ to signify a coherent movement was first introduced in the 19th century, around the same time as the advent of the term ‘Renaissance’. Crucially, neither were initially used in connection with philosophy. Rather, they were used by art historians, especially prominent among them Jacob Burckhardt in his great work, Die Kultur der Renaissance in Italien (1860). Later, John Addington Symonds’s magnificent work in seven volumes, Renaissance in Italy (1875-86), also made use of ‘humanism’ and ‘Renaissance’ as a means to discuss a particular era in the history of art. Both terms were formed in the tradition of Brucker and were intended to capture something new – to make clear a clean break from the supposed darkness and ignorance of the Middle Ages. They were conceptions of certain perceived historical developments or movements in art, and not formed to fit philosophy. Indeed, they still don’t fit well.
One of the most prominent 20th-century scholars of Renaissance thought was the German American philosopher Paul Oskar Kristeller (1905-99). His writings make clear the difficulty of pinpointing what exactly the period of Renaissance philosophy is. In his book The Classics and Renaissance Thought (1955), he notes that Renaissance humanism is ‘a broad cultural and literary movement, which in its substance was not philosophical, but had important philosophical implications and consequences.’ He is also unable to find a philosophical core to this ‘movement’, but rather a shared belief in the value of humanity and humanistic learning, as well as the revival of ancient learning.
It’s questionable that there ever really was a ‘movement’ other than in the mind of 19th- and early 20th-century historians. After all, the shared beliefs that Kristeller identifies are not unique to ‘humanists’. Such beliefs were certainly prevalent during the 8th and 9th centuries when the English scholar Alcuin (c735-804) set about organising teaching in the empire of Charles the Great, as well as in the 12th century when Aristotle and Avicenna were being translated into Latin. The people of these times had an equal interest in reviving ancient learning. Similar beliefs were present. This way of thinking can also be found in the early Arabic philosophical tradition among the Syriac Christians who translated ancient philosophy into Arabic earlier in the history of philosophy.
Aware of the problem, Kristeller proposes in the same book that Renaissance philosophy is ‘that period of Western European history which extends approximately from 1300 to 1600, without any preconceptions as to the characteristics or merits of that period, or of those periods preceding and following it.’ It makes little sense, at least in my mind, to call this a period in the history of philosophy. If it’s a period, then there has to be a reason for why it’s a period. It has to be united by something – likely some core thought. But it is not. Hence Renaissance philosophy is only an arbitrary designation. It makes more sense to talk about ‘the long Middle Ages’, which began with the reintroduction of philosophy in the 8th century and continues into the Enlightenment. The French historian Jacques Le Goff suggested something similar in 1988, stretching the ‘Middle Ages’ even further, but it’s ultimately a recognition that periodisation itself is hopeless.
A more recent and also more nuanced view of what Renaissance philosophy might be is expressed by Copenhaver and Charles Schmitt in Renaissance Philosophy (1992). In their introduction, they write that:
The customary divide between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance is particularly artificial for intellectual history, including the history of those ideas and thinkers called ‘philosophy’ and ‘philosophers’. Much of the most admired, most discussed, and most characteristic philosophy of the Renaissance was indeed ‘medieval’ philosophy, which flourished in the 16th century … The works of Thomas Bradwardine and William of Heytesbury and the logical writings of Paul of Venice were all printed, read, and discussed well into the 16th century. On a broader front, the writings of Averroes (Ibn Rushd), whom medieval philosophers called the commentator on Aristotle, remained central to many different areas of philosophy until the end of the 16th century.
They have largely dropped the division between ‘humanists’ and ‘scholastics’, at least in theory, if not in the thinkers they choose to cover. It’s not quite admitting that there’s nothing that is ‘Renaissance philosophy’, but it certainly leans in that direction.
To illustrate how precarious it can be to construct or, for that matter, to compare historical concepts across time developed in different contexts, it might be useful to ponder an example from ‘scholastic’ philosophy. Medieval, or ‘scholastic’, philosophy is often shown to have interest for contemporary philosophers by reference to the problem of universals. A prominent position in this debate is nominalism. It was called that already at the time, and defended in slightly different versions by such prominent philosophers as Peter Abelard (1079-1142) and William Ockham (c1285-1347). It’s often assumed that their views are, if not the same, then at least very similar to contemporary nominalism. As such, it’s a view that holds, primarily, that all that exists are individuals, and that there are no abstract entities or universals outside the mind. As it stands, however, this isn’t quite sufficient as a characterisation of medieval nominalism since, on such a definition, a thinker we wouldn’t normally think of as a nominalist would become a nominalist – namely Thomas Aquinas (1225-74), who also holds that everything that exists is individual, and that universals exist only in the mind.
To distinguish such different thinkers as Aquinas and Ockham from one another on this point, one has to become much more detailed and give a philosophically more sophisticated reading of their texts, which incorporates much more in the characterisation than the simple idea that nominalism means that only individuals exist. One has to specify what they mean by individuation, what cognition is and how it works, etc. It’s in the details of their respective philosophical views that one finds the difference between them, and only then can one see what it would mean to call Aquinas a realist and Ockham a medieval nominalist. The thought that one can simply compare concepts developed in different contexts and in different times leads to the wrong conclusion, and generates a false picture of these thinkers in which they suddenly look similar when, in fact, they’re not.
It seems also more valuable and interesting that there are differences between contemporary nominalism and medieval nominalism, rather than seeing them as exactly the same thing. The difference can teach us something about philosophy, while an identity cannot. We don’t need to remake the historically given philosophical position to make them relevant, since it’s exactly the difference, and our detailed understanding of the historical position, that makes them interesting philosophically.
Following up on this discussion of nominalism, a clearer statement about the metaphysics of history can further guide us towards a firmer understanding of historiographical nihilism. A similar metaphysics of the history of philosophy can be found in the Canadian philosopher Claude Panaccio’s book Récit et reconstruction: Les fondements de la méthode en histoire de la philosophie (2019), meaning ‘Story and Reconstruction: The Foundations of the Method in the History of Philosophy’. According to this metaphysics, concrete individuals such as Plato, Bertrand Russell, and the city of Stolkholm, and individual events, such as the death of René Descartes, are basic to the ontology. Meanwhile, philosophical views, doctrines, ideas and thoughts are not basic, and are instead construed as expressions of written or spoken utterances, which according to this metaphysics are events.
There are no meanings or universal concepts other than those formed by the historian
The basic elements of study for the historian are singular events of linguistic utterances. These come to the historian usually through manuscripts or books, which contain the expressions of ideas or thoughts of the individual philosophers. For the historian of philosophy, humans or places are referred to only in so far as they are connected to utterances. They can hence figure in explanations of these utterances.
On this view, then, history of philosophy becomes a domain of linguistic events given by space and time, and it’s in this way that it’s available to the historian of philosophy. It’s impossible, on such a view of history, to see a plausible singular development of history; instead, it contains breaks and discontinuities. Any order to this domain can be given to it only by the historian. In fact, I think one can say that it becomes the task of the historian to provide the domain of history of philosophy with an order and a structure: that is, a narrative or interpretation.
Obviously, the historical data, the concrete individual things and the individual events, mainly, the linguistic events, can’t be interpreted or understood any which way. The utterances are in a language, and as such they have meaning to the historian, a meaning that’s constructed from the language and the time and place of the utterance. There are, however, no meanings or universal concepts other than those formed by the historian, and each reader or historian will construct their own meaning from which he or she can build an interpretation.
In a certain sense, historiographical nihilism falls out of this metaphysics. Any narrative constructed by the historian will be just that, a construction. In the same way, any division of history into periods will be, to some extent, arbitrary and up to the historian, since there are no general concepts or universals in history that can be discovered by the historian; they are instead formed out of the singular events studied by him or her. The ‘Renaissance’ or ‘Renaissance philosophy’ is exactly such a formation.
Following this conception of the metaphysics of history, it seems plausible that history of philosophy can be done either from what might be called ‘the top down’ or ‘the bottom up’. A top-down approach gives us a powerful narrative and is quite common among historians, particularly in the history of ideas. It’s an approach that’s prone to divide history into periods. On such an approach, we assume and start off with general concepts that we fit together into a historical narrative, along with texts and historical events. An example of this approach can be found in the historian Arthur O Lovejoy’s book The Great Chain of Being (1936). The intellectual historian’s task, according to him, is to find so-called unit-ideas that explain the revolutions and the flow of intellectual history. The historian clears away the irrelevant circumstances, the idiosyncratic commitments and the beliefs of philosophers to properly identify the unit-idea.
In his book, Lovejoy exemplifies this with ‘the great chain of being’, which he identifies in Plato and traces into modern philosophy. It involves three principles, namely of plenitude, of continuity, and of linear gradation. The first principle says that the Universe is full, that is, that anything that’s really possible will at one point be actual. The second says that the Universe is a continuously connected series of events. The third says that it contains a hierarchy from the most basic existence all the way up to God.
Another take, which seems opposed, is the bottom-up approach to the history of philosophy. On such a view one has to look primarily at the historical data first, that is, the individual things, people or individual events (linguistic utterances) that make up history. This approach aims to build a narrative or a story from the ground up, based on these data, but it worries less about how to fit the data into a plausible narrative. It should, as much as possible, let the data suggest a narrative. The historian’s access to the data, however, comes to him or her through filters, which he or she will have to bracket or compensate for in various ways to be able to come as close to the data as possible. A filter can be a classical language or a text in manuscript or in several manuscripts where the actual text first has to be constructed, but a filter is also the historian’s own presuppositions, prejudices, education, etc, which he or she has to be aware of and which threaten to distort his or her interpretation of the data. Historiographical concepts and periodisation, which have become standard interpretations or tools of the trade, are other such filters. They’re part of a heritage that the historian needs to be sceptical towards. These filters will have an effect on the constructed interpretation of the linguistic utterances. The historian also needs imagination and experience to guide him or her in the construction of a plausible narrative.
Perhaps a bottom-up approach can be questioned, since we, and the historian too, take a lot of things for granted all the time. It’s impossible to do the history of philosophy without certain presuppositions, which simply can’t be bracketed, since we have to assume something. The idea isn’t to reject all that has been done by others, but to emphasise that it’s only from individual utterances, however these are available to the historian, that an interpretation can be plausibly built, and that any generalised characteristics about a period or age will have to be built from a detailed study of the text that makes these individual utterances available.
Historiographical nihilism urges us to reject or be extremely sceptical of historical generalisations and historiographical concepts. They can have their use in a pedagogic context or as heuristic tools, but they won’t help the scholar or historian him- or herself. The most obvious example of this is attempts at periodisation in the history of philosophy and any suggestion of a period called ‘Renaissance philosophy’. Obviously, a period can be arbitrarily designated ‘the 16th century’ or ‘these philosophers’ followed by an enumeration, but then one has emptied the word ‘Renaissance’ of its meaning, and this is exactly the point of historiographical nihilism.