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An Aristotelian Theory of
Divine Illumination: Robert
Grosseteste's Commentary on
the Posterior Analytics
Christina Van Dyke

Calvin College ,
Published online: 22 Sep 2009.

To cite this article: Christina Van Dyke (2009) An Aristotelian Theory of Divine
Illumination: Robert Grosseteste's Commentary on the Posterior Analytics , British
Journal for the History of Philosophy, 17:4, 685-704, DOI: 10.1080/09608780902986581
To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/09608780902986581

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British Journal for the History of Philosophy 17(4) 2009: 685704

ARTICLE

AN ARISTOTELIAN THEORY OF DIVINE


ILLUMINATION: ROBERT GROSSETESTES
COMMENTARY ON THE POSTERIOR ANALYTICS

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Christina Van Dyke


Two central accounts of human cognition emerge over the course of the
Middle Ages: the theory of divine illumination and an Aristotelian theory
centred on knowledge abstracted from sense data. Typically, these two
accounts are seen as competing views of the origins of human knowledge;
theories of divine illumination focus on Gods direct intervention in our
epistemic lives, whereas Aristotelian theories generally claim that our
knowledge derives primarily (or even entirely) from sense perception. In this
paper, I address an early attempt to reconcile these two accounts namely,
Robert Grossetestes commentary on Aristotles Posterior Analytics and I
argue (against common consensus) that Grossetestes eorts to bring
Aristotles account of human cognition into harmony with a theory of
divine illumination proves largely successful.
Written in the 1220s, Grossetestes commentary on the Posterior Analytics
(CPA) focuses primarily on Aristotles account of how human beings acquire
knowledge.1 Historically, the commentarys main interest lies in its systematic
introduction of Aristotelian epistemology to the medieval discussion.
Grosseteste is a key gure in the reintroduction of Aristotle to the Latin
West, the Posterior Analytics is a key Aristotelian work, and Grossetestes is
quite likely its earliest completed commentary in the Latin West.
Philosophically, the most original and intriguing feature of this commentary
is the way in which it explicates Aristotelian epistemology within a framework
of illumination. One of the main developments in medieval epistemology
previous to the thirteenth century was Augustines theory of divine
illumination; as is clear from earlier works such as De veritate, Grosseteste
1
The exact date of the commentarys composition is unclear; James McEvoy dates it to the late
1220s and, most likely, to around 1228. This seems reasonable to me; since nothing of
philosophical importance for this paper hangs on the exact date of composition, in what follows
I will assume that Grosseteste wrote the commentary in the mid-to-late 1220s. (For a detailed
discussion of this topic, see McEvoys The Chronology of Robert Grossetestes Writings on
Nature and Natural Philosophy, Speculum 58 (1983) 63643. For a contrasting view, see
Richard Southerns argument for a slightly earlier date [12201225] in Robert Grosseteste. The
Growth of an English Mind (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986) 1313.)

British Journal for the History of Philosophy


ISSN 0960-8788 print/ISSN 1469-3526 online 2009 BSHP
http://www.informaworld.com DOI: 10.1080/09608780902986581

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CHRISTINA VAN DYKE

himself advocated some version of such a theory.2 At the same time, in the
CPA Grosseteste directly interacts with Aristotles account of cognition,
according to which human beings acquire knowledge not from God but
through a complex process beginning with sense perception.
Scholarly opinions concerning Grossetestes attitudes toward Augustinian
illumination and Aristotelian epistemology in the CPA tend to fall into two
distinct camps: that of scholars such as Etienne Gilson, Lawrence Lynch
and James McEvoy3 who hold that Grosseteste himself does not advocate
the Aristotelian account on which he comments and that of scholars such
as Steven Marrone, who argues that Grossetestes exposure to the Posterior
Analytics leads him to abandon completely a theory of divine illumination in
the CPA in favour of a humanist theory that no longer requires Gods
involvement in our cognitive lives.4
I believe, in contrast, that Grosseteste quite consciously attempts to
embed the new epistemology of the Posterior Analytics within an account
of divine illumination, and that he himself thought he had successfully
reconciled the Augustinian and Aristotelian views. In this paper, I argue
that Grosseteste synthesizes an Aristotelian model of cognition (centring on
abstraction to universals from sensible particulars) with a robust theory of
divine illumination by claiming that, while human beings do acquire
knowledge by engaging in the process of abstraction from sense perception
to universal concepts, God plays a necessary role in this process by
illuminating the objects of our intellection i.e. making them intelligible to
us. This interpretation of Grossetestes intentions in the CPA leaves him
with a more ambitious and philosophically challenging project than has
been widely acknowledged: one that seeks to preserve the best elements of
both Augustinian and Aristotelian theories of knowledge.

1. UNIVERSAL TRUTHS AND GODS IDEAS


In CPA I.7, Grosseteste breaks from straightforward commentary on
Aristotles text for the rst time in order to situate the discussion of
2

Although Richard Southern argues in favour of a later date for De veritate in Robert
Grosseteste (113), I follow Steven Marrone in holding that De veritate was most probably
composed sometime in the 1220s. (See, for example, Marrones The Light of Thy Countenance:
Science and Knowledge of God in the Thirteenth Century, vol. 1: A Doctrine of Divine Illumination
(Leiden: Brill, 2001) 345.)
3
See, respectively, Pourquoi S. Thomas a critique S. Augustin (Archives dhistoire doctrinale et
litteraire du Moyen Age, 1 (Paris, 1926), 1126); The Doctrine of Divine Ideas and Illumination
in Robert Grosseteste, Bishop of Lincoln (Mediaeval Studies, 3 (1941), 16173); and The
Philosophy of Robert Grosseteste (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1982), especially 327, and n15.
4
This is his central argument in Chapter Six of William of Auvergne and Robert Grosseteste: New
Ideas of Truth in the Early Thirteenth Century (Princeton: Princeton University Press. 1983). It
also features prominently in Chapters One to Four of Volume One of his later The Light of Thy
Countenance (38108).

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687

incorruptible truths and demonstrative proofs (APo 75b2223) in a broader


context that includes Gods relation to universal principles for cognizing
eternal and unchanging truths.5 In the process, he both introduces the basic
elements of his theory of illumination and separates the cognition of
necessary truths from cognition of both God and Gods ideas. Augustine
himself famously claims that all necessary truths are contained in some way
in the divine essence, so that when human beings know truth, they also (in
some sense) know the divine Truth.6 In I.7, however, Grosseteste makes it
clear that the universals that human beings generally cognize in this life are
not themselves the necessary, immutable and eternal ideas that Augustine
describes as contained in the divine essence, but rather the formal causes
that Aristotle discusses in his Posterior Analytics. As we will see, this
distinction relates in crucial ways to the general position Grosseteste takes in
the CPA concerning Gods role in the process of human cognition.
Grosseteste distinguishes in I.7 between ve dierent types of universal, or
cognizing principle.7 The rst, highest kind of universal is a means of
cognizing the uncreated ideas (rationes) of things ideas that exist from
eternity in the rst cause.8 Grosseteste characterizes universals of this sort
as the necessary truths contained in the essence of God, the one necessary,
eternal and immutable truth. Unlike Augustine, however, who describes
these ideas as available in common to all who discern what is unchangeably
5

All references to Grossetestes commentary and translations of the Latin text are from to
Pietro Rossis 1981 edition: Commentarius in Posteriorum Analyticorum Libros (Firenze, Italy:
Leo S. Olschki).
6
See, for example, De libero arbitrio, where Augustines argument for Gods existence relies on
our recognizing that all immutable truths are part of a single, higher truth:
You cannot deny the existence of an unchangeable truth that contains everything that
is unchangeably true. And you cannot claim that this truth is yours or mine or anyone
elses; it is present and reveals itself in common to all who discern what is
unchangeably true, like a light that is public and yet strangely hidden.
(II.12, using Thomas Williamss translation in On Free Choice of the Will,
Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1993: 54)
Williams relies on the Latin text in the critical edition in the Corpus Christianorum: Series
Latina series, vol. 29, edited by W. M. Green (Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols, 1970).
7
These are, respectively: (a) uncreated ideas of things, which exist from eternity in the rst cause,
(b) exemplar forms and causative ideas of created things (which the intelligences possess and
through which they aid God in the creation of corporeal species), (c) causative ideas of
terrestrial species (located in the powers and illuminating principles of the heavenly bodies),
(d) formal causes, or that in the thing by virtue of which it is what it is, and (e) ideas of
accidents such as colour and sound, which can eventually lead weaker intellects to the cognition
of genera and species. Steven Marrone, James McEvoy and Pietro Rossi each discuss this
passage in detail in, respectively, William of Auvergne and Robert Grosseteste, 16678, The
Philosophy of Robert Grosseteste (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1982) 3279, and Robert
Grosseteste and the Object of Scientic Knowledge in Robert Grosseteste: New Perspectives
on his Thought and Scholarship, edited by James McEvoy, in Instrumenta Patristica, 27
(Turnhout, 1995) 5375.
8
In addition, they serve as principles of creation (creatrices) the ideas of things to be created
and [their] formal exemplar causes.

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CHRISTINA VAN DYKE

true (DLA II.12), Grosseteste reserves cognition of these principles for only
those intellects pure and separated from phantasms, able to contemplate
the rst light, for these ideas involve both the clearest possible cognition of
created things and direct cognition of God, the rst light who makes things
visible to our mental vision: When the pure intellect is able to x its sight on
these things, it cognizes created things in them as truly and clearly as
possible and not only created things but also the rst light itself in which it
cognizes other things (10811).
By and large, human intellects are not pure enough in this life to access
these principles: we interact primarily with physical objects, and our concern
for them typically prevents us from completely transcending material
considerations.9 Grosseteste allows that some human beings achieve
cognition of the causative ideas of terrestrial species located in the heavenly
bodies through the study of astronomy, but he holds that human cognition
typically involves only lower-level universals such as formal causes and the
accidents that follow on the true essences of things, such as shape and
colour. Grossetestes specic interest in human (rather than divine or angelic)
knowledge leads him, then, to focus on these types of universal throughout
the CPA, particularly formal causes which he describes in familiar terms as
that by which [a] thing is what it is (1312). Grosseteste goes on to claim that
these widely accessible principles of cognition, or forms (such as animal or
human being) correspond directly to the universals on which Aristotle
focuses in the Posterior Analytics.10
By distinguishing between these dierent types of universal and claiming
explicitly that human beings have access in general only to the type of which
Aristotle was speaking, Grosseteste thus separates our everyday cognition of
universal truths from the sort that would also entail direct cognition of God.
In a later discussion, Grosseteste even goes so far as to claim: [A]lthough
uncreated ideas and denitions (rationes) exist from eternity in the divine
mind, these ideas dont pertain at all to the sort of thinking (ratiocinationem)
in which one thing is predicated of another (I.15, 1468, added emphasis).11
In other words, when in the ordinary course of things a human being
reaches the conclusion of a demonstrative argument (for example All cats
are mammals), the universals she employs are not the divine ideas of cat
and mammal.
Unlike many (perhaps most) theories of divine illumination, then,
Grossetestes account does not entail that cognizing necessary truths brings
9
He does leave open the possibility that certain people who are entirely separated from the love
and phantasmata of corporeal things (I.14) might receive illumination directly from God and
thus share cognition of the rst and highest type of universal, but he makes it clear that this is
far from the norm for human beings whose intellects are weighed down by corrupt, corporeal
bodies.
10
As he puts it: [T]his is Aristotles position with regard to genera and species (1401).
11
Grosseteste goes on to say that he is talking here of predications involving demonstrations
and thought processes philosophical thought in general, then.

ROBERT GROSSETESTES COMMENTARY

689

12

normal human beings into direct epistemic contact with God. As


Grosseteste goes on to explain, such contact is generally prevented by the
union of our immaterial intellects with corrupt physical bodies. The
following section examines both this claim and its consequences in detail, for
I believe they hold the key to understanding the nature of Grossetestes
project in the CPA.

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2. AFFECTUS ET ASPECTUS: MENTAL VISION AND


THE LOVE OF THE BODY
Although I.7 is the rst passage in which he makes a signicant break with
the text on which he is commenting, Grosseteste introduces his theory of
illumination toward the beginning of the opening chapter of the CPA,
writing:
Neither the one who produces an external sound nor the external visible
writing in a text teaches these two things merely move and stimulate [the
learner]. The true teacher, however, is the one who internally illumines the
mind and reveals the truth.
(336)

This is a clear reference to Augustines De magistro (12.3940); the true


teacher to whom Grosseteste refers here is, of course, God, who illuminates
our intellects from within and who is directly responsible for human
learning and knowledge.13
On a traditional understanding of Augustines theory of divine illumination, the highest truth not only contains all necessary truths it also reveals
them to our intellects. Although a professor who gives a talk on dierential
equations might speak the truth, that lecture is merely an instrumental
means of the students acquiring knowledge: the student gains actual
knowledge of the truth about these things only when God illumines her
intellect while she contemplates what the professor is saying.

12

One disadvantage of this distinction between the truth which is part of the divine essence and
the truth which human beings cognize is that it appears to remove the explanation for the
necessity of certain sorts of truth. Augustine thought that by identifying necessary truths with
the divine, he thereby gained an explanation for their necessity. Grosseteste cannot make the
same sort of appeal, however, and so he must provide another account of the necessity of
necessary truths one which is more Aristotelian in nature.
13
Interestingly, Steven Marrone does not see this as a clear reference to Augustine, despite the
fact that Grosseteste himself had strongly advocated Augustines theory in earlier works and the
fact that this is almost a direct quotation from De magistro. Rather, Marrone writes in The
Light of Thy Countenance: Although his words recall Augustine on God as within each person
teacher of mind, it is more than likely that Grosseteste was not thinking about the divinity (48).

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CHRISTINA VAN DYKE

It is clear throughout the CPA that Grosseteste is deeply committed to an


illuminationist theory of some sort.14 Although Grosseteste describes direct
illumination as the ideal method for acquiring knowledge he consistently
holds that the highest and best sort of learning results from Gods revealing
the truth from within he argues in various places throughout the CPA
that this is not how human beings generally acquire knowledge. Our bodies,
corrupted by original sin, interfere with Gods directly illumining our
intellects. As a result, Grosseteste believes, our acquisition of universal
knowledge involves the complex process of abstracting from and reasoning
about sense data that Aristotle describes in the Posterior Analytics.
In order to appreciate fully the dierence between the ideal and the
ordinary processes of human cognition in the CPA, it is important rst to
note the distinction Grosseteste repeatedly draws between human and nonhuman knowers. In discussing the claim that sense perception is necessary
for demonstrative knowledge in I.14, for example, Grosseteste qualies
Aristotles statement that a lack in sense perception causes a lack in
knowledge by stating that this holds true only in the case of human knowers.
Both God and the angels possess knowledge without possessing sense
perception at all; in fact, Grosseteste claims: knowledge is most complete in
these things that lack senses (2278). Human beings require sense
perception in order to acquire knowledge not because sense perception is
a necessary condition for cognition but because human intellects are, in
some way, inferior to other minds. The fact that a lack in sense perception
causes a corresponding lack in human knowledge merely underscores the
sense in which human intellective activity falls short of the ideal.
Grossetestes explanation of the problem with human intellects is also his
answer to the question of why human beings do not generally cognize the
eternal, unchanging truths contained in Gods essence: namely, the
human intellects union with the body, which was corrupted by the fall.15
As he puts it, relying heavily on the metaphor of intellective vision and
illumination:
[I]f the highest part of the human soul, which is called the intellective
part . . . were not clouded and weighed down by the weight of the corrupt
corporeal body, it would have complete knowledge without the aid of senseperception through an irradiation received from a higher light, just as it will
have when the soul has been stripped from the body and perhaps as those who
14
In fact, Grossetestes attraction to the metaphor of illumination famously leads him later in
his career to develop a complex metaphysics of light, according to which light is central to the
workings of the physical universe as well as to human understanding. See De luce (123540) for
his fullest discussion of this theory.
15
It appears that the diculty of the body is two-fold for Grosseteste: rst, he comes extremely
close to advocating the Platonic belief that human intellects would be better o without bodies
to begin with; second, the Christian doctrine of the fall explains that we now possess bodies that
are even worse than they have to be.

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are wholly separated from the love and the phantasms of corporeal things
have.
(22835).

Ideally, human cognition would take place without the aid of sense
perception, just as is the case for God and the angels. The corrupt body
renders this possibility unavailable to the vast majority of human beings,
however: Because the purity of the eye of the soul is clouded and weighed
down by the corrupt body, all the powers of the rational soul in a human
being are occupied from birth (nato) by the weight of the body so that they
cannot act, and so are in a certain way sleepy (2358). In Grossetestes
general metaphor of illumination, it is the souls vision that allows us to see
the light of truth; thus, when our bodies cloud our mental sight, our ability
to cognize is compromised.
Toward the end of I.14, Grosseteste describes more fully how our bodies
draw our intellects vision away from their proper light:
Now the reason why the souls sight is clouded through the weight of the
corrupt body is that the aection and vision (aectus et aspectus) of the soul
are not distinct, and it attains its vision only by means of that by which it
attains its aection or its love. Therefore, since the love and aection of the
soul are turned toward the body and toward bodily enticements, it necessarily
pulls the souls vision with it and turns it away from its light, which is related
to it just as the sun is related to the external eyes. But the minds vision that is
turned away from its light is necessarily turned toward darkness and idleness
(otium).16
(27986)

On Grossetestes account, what the soul sees (aspectus) is inseparably linked


to what it loves (aectus). Our mental gaze is pulled toward the objects of
our aection and we love the body. We love feeding it, resting it,
pleasuring it: all manner of bodily enticements. Our inner vision, taken up
with these physical concerns, turns toward the material world and away
from the immaterial and intelligible light of truth. Thus, the blame for our
darkened mental vision falls squarely on the shoulders of the fallen body.
Human intellects are, in this way, prevented from gaining knowledge in
the best possible way (that is, directly from a higher light).17 Instead,
Grosseteste claims that we must gain knowledge of universals in a less ideal
way, describing the process in detail as follows:
And so when over time the senses act through their many meetings with
sensible things, reason (which is mixed up with these senses and in them as if it
were carried toward the sensible things in a boat) is awakened. But once it is
16

See Chapter 18, conclusion 28 for further discussion about love and desire moving the soul.
A higher light could be either God or an intelligences reection of Gods rationes causales.

17

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CHRISTINA VAN DYKE

awakened, reason begins to distinguish between and to consider separately


things that had been confused in the senses as, for example, sight confuses
color, magnitude, shape, and body, and in its judgment these things are all
taken as one thing. Awakened reason, however, distinguishes color from
magnitude and shape from body and, furthermore, shape and magnitude from
the substance of the body. And so, through drawing distinctions and
abstracting, it comes to the cognition of the substance of the body that bears
(deferentis) the magnitude, shape, and color. Nevertheless, reason knows that
this universal exists in actuality only after it has made this abstraction from
many individuals and after it has occurred to reason that it has found in many
individuals what it judges to be one and the same thing. This is the way,
therefore, in which the simple universal is obtained from individual things
through the help of the senses.
(I.14.23852)

In other words, although love of the body draws the souls vision away from
its proper light, reason is roused by its repeated exposure to the information
it receives from the senses. Presented with a hotchpotch of sense-data,
reason eventually begins to distinguish between, for example, colour, size
and shape. After reason makes a sucient number of distinctions,
abstractions and judgements, moreover, we can gain knowledge of simple
universals such as red and large.18 Thus, at the same time that the body
prevents the intellect from engaging in ideal cognition, information acquired
through the physical senses does provide the intellect with the means for
attaining knowledge.19

18

This is the process for acquiring what Grosseteste calls a simple universal; he also describes
how human beings arrive at knowledge of complex experiential universals (such as his favourite
example: scammony enduces red bile), but that discussion is tangential to the topic of this
paper.
19
This sort of cognition is less perfect than the sort acquired through direct illumination,
however: rst, it is acquired in an inferior way; second, it is capable of being in error (since,
unlike the cognition which involves direct illumination, we are able to make mistaken
judgements on the basis of our sense data); and third, its less clear, deep, and explanatory. As
Grosseteste remarks in I.7, we are able to access the formal causes of which Aristotle speaks
through sense perception, but were not able to cognize created things as truly and clearly as
possible because we are not cognizing them in the rst light itself. Furthermore, although most
people will at least arrive at the understanding of the essential nature of, for example, a human
being, through this process of abstracting from sense data, certain weak intellects will never
even reach full understanding of these simple universals on the basis of sense perception. See I.7,
where Grosseteste claims that
The weak intellect, which cannot rise to the cognition of these true genera and species,
knows things only through the accidents following from the true essences of things,
and for that intellect these accidents are genera and species and are principles only of
knowing and not of being.
(1415)
Theyll never be able to transcend the limits of what they perceive.

ROBERT GROSSETESTES COMMENTARY

693

Grosseteste takes pains to redescribes this process at the end of I.14 this
time in explicitly illuminationist terms of the intellects discovering and
turning toward the spiritual light:

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The minds vision that is turned away from its light is necessarily turned
toward darkness and idleness until, coming through the external senses in
some way out into the external sensible light, it in some way nds again a trace
of the light born in it. When it stumbles upon that, it begins as if awakened
to seek the proper light; and, to the extent that [the minds] love is turned away
from corruptible corporeal things, its vision is turned toward its light and nds
that light again.
(28691)

Grosseteste here draws a close parallel between mental and physical vision:
when the intellect receives visual data through sight something possible
only because the external light of the sun illuminates both our eyes and
external objects reason nally has something to work with, and the
intellect is able to begin the process of becoming itself illuminated. Thus, the
initial impetus for the intellects seeking the higher realm of truth is
the information it receives from the body; the mind must turn its aections
away from physical concerns to some extent, however, for it actually to
reach knowledge of universals.

3. INTERPRETING THE METAPHOR OF ILLUMINATION


IN THE CPA
As we have just seen, Grosseteste frequently employs the language of
illumination in explicating Aristotles text. The precise role that the
metaphor of illumination is meant to play in the CPA is an object of
signicant controversy, however. In particular, although some scholars (for
example, Etienne Gilson, Lawrence Lynch and James McEvoy) hold that
Grosseteste rejects Aristotles theory of abstraction and advocates a
thoroughly Augustinian theory of divine illumination throughout his
corpus, others (most notably Steven Marrone) believe that Grosseteste
oers an Aristotelian picture of cognition in the CPA as a replacement for
his earlier theory of divine illumination, arguing that the continued mention
of illumination refers merely to the natural light of the human intellect.
My own position is that Grosseteste intends neither to reject Aristotles
account nor to jettison Gods involvement in human cognition: I believe
that Grosseteste sees himself as placing the process of Aristotelian
abstraction within a broader framework that includes divine illumination.
In this section, therefore, I argue against the strictly Augustinian
interpretation by pointing out signicant ways in which the theory of
illumination presented in the CPA diverges from traditional versions, and I

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CHRISTINA VAN DYKE

then undermine the exclusively Aristotelian reading by providing strong


evidence that the spiritual light which Grosseteste claims makes cognition
possible is God and not the light of the human intellect.
The Augustinian interpretation of the CPA relies on the intuition that
Grossetestes views on cognition remained virtually unchanged despite his
exposure to Aristotles epistemology.20 Gilson, for instance, writes that
Grossetestes thought in the CPA moves on a level that is entirely
Augustinian and totally foreign to Aristotelianism (98) a sentiment
repeated approvingly by James McEvoy.21 Lynch agrees, responding to the
possibility that Grosseteste holds a theory of the agent intellect with the
comment: There is no question of introducing an Aristotelian active
intellect, for there is no Aristotelian abstraction. There is only Augustinian
illumination (1723).22 In other words, Lynch sees Grosseteste as so rmly
wedded to an Augustinian theory of cognition that he has no need for
Aristotles process of abstracting from sense data to universals, much less
his theory of the active intellect.23 This reading does render Grossetestes
epistemic views constant through his corpus; it does not, however, seem to
t well with the position on ordinary human cognition that emerges
throughout the CPA.
First, as we have already seen, Grosseteste explicitly claims in both I.7
and I.15 that the universals we employ in making demonstrative arguments
are not themselves the eternal and unchanging ideas in Gods mind. This,
however, constitutes an important modication of Augustines theory, as it
is traditionally understood. In separating the cognition of necessary truths
from the cognition of God, Grosseteste appears to have removed what
Gilson himself sees as a feature paradigmatic of most illuminationist
theories namely, providing the intellect with both knowledge of necessary
truths and certainty in its knowledge of those truths.24 On a classically
Augustinian theory of divine illumination, what makes something true is the
extent to which it conforms to the relevant idea(s) in Gods mind, and we are
assured of access to this truth because God himself shares it with us, a light
shining for anyone with eyes to see it. Both our knowledge of such things as
the essence of human being and our certainty that we know those things
come directly from God. In the CPA, however, Grosseteste presents a
20

Lynch grants that Grossetestes reading of natural philosophy may have been inuenced by
Aristotle, but he is resolute in claiming that this inuence does not extend to his thinking about
metaphysical or epistemic matters. See, for example, The Doctrine of Divine Illumination, 172.
21
Pourquoi S. Thomas a critique S. Augustin., and The Philosophy of Robert Grosseteste, 327.
22
Ibid.
23
It also would raise questions about Grossetestes attitude toward an Averroistic account of the
Agent Intellect; Lynch thus heads this issue o at the pass. In fact, although Grosseteste himself
would have been familiar with the doctrine of the Agent Intellect, there is no indication in the
CPA that he felt any attraction toward such a position himself.
24
See Gilsons Sur quelques dicultes de lillumination augustinienne, RNS 36 (1934) 32131,
especially 3223.

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theory in which the relation between our knowledge of necessary truths and
God is far less direct. We may have eyes designed to see Gods truth, but in
Grossetestes metaphor our vision is drawn away from that truth by our
bodies and our love for physical things, and we are not in a position to use
our mental sight for its intended use. This denial of one of the central
features of Augustines own view raises immediate worries about calling
Grossetestes position entirely Augustinian.
Even more important in responding to the strictly Augustinian
interpretation of the CPA, however, is Grossetestes detailed description
in I.14 of the process by which reason acquires knowledge of universals. As
we saw in Section II, although ideal human cognition would involve the sort
of direct epistemic contact many illuminationist theories advocate as the
norm, Grosseteste holds that the vast majority of human beings are forced
to undertake the less perfect process of beginning with the information
gathered by the senses and through drawing distinctions and abstracting
from that information reaching comprehension of necessary truths. This
painstaking process of reasons acquiring knowledge of universals through
abstraction from sense data very closely resembles the theory Aristotle
himself advocates. Given, then, not only Grossetestes claims that human
beings do not cognize the truths present in Gods own essence and that
Gods illuminating work is actively interfered with by our love for the
material world, but also his explicit appeal to abstraction from sense data in
describing the alternate process of how human beings acquire knowledge of
universals, it seems extremely unlikely that Grossetestes epistemic theory in
the CPA represents an allegiance to Augustine that proves totally foreign to
Aristotelianism.
If the idea that Grossetestes theory of illumination remains in every way
Augustinian seems implausible, however, what about the suggestion that
Grosseteste completely abandons Augustines theory of divine illumination
in favour of Aristotles? Steven Marrone, for instance, claims that, When
Grosseteste came to write his Commentary on the Posterior Analytics . . . he
had by this time totally excised any mention of God or a conformity to some
ideal exemplar from his formal denition of simple truth (157).25 As we
have already seen, Grosseteste appears to oer a theory of divine
illumination that applies to human beings only hypothetically or potentially:
if the human intellect were completely puried or not joined to a corrupt
corporeal body, then human beings could acquire knowledge by gazing at
25
William of Auvergne and Robert Grosseteste. Marrone is here contrasting Grossetestes
position on simple truth in the CPA and the ostensibly earlier De veritate. It seems to me,
however, that Marrone overlooks the natural consequences of the dramatic shift in topic
between the two works. An explanation of the nature of truth naturally has a very dierent
focus from a discussion of how human beings acquire demonstrative knowledge. In The Light of
Thy Countenance, Marrone does qualies this claim somewhat, writing: At the very least,
Grosstestes focus has changed, and his interest in Aristotle overwhelmed his ability to maintain
explicit place for the epistemological principles of Augustines thought (50).

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Gods light. When the body dies, then the unencumbered intellect can receive
illumination directly from God. In this life, however, human intellects are
joined to corrupt bodies and almost never free from the love of corporeal
things.26 Marrone contends that Grosseteste does not appeal to divine
illumination at all in explaining the actual process by which human beings
typically acquire scientic knowledge. In emphasizing the role of sense
perception and reason and not God in the cognitive process, Grosseteste
has, Marrone claims, diminished divine participation in human intellection
to insignicance: Only the resounding echo of Augustines words make
one reluctant to say divine illumination has dropped entirely out of the
picture (50).27
Marrones argument relies heavily on the supposition that Grosseteste
replaces the light of God with the light of human reason. In the CPA, he
claims, illumination serves largely as a convenient metaphor for explaining
the Aristotelian account of cognition to readers steeped in Augustinian
illuminationist imagery: Careful examination suggests that Grosseteste had
changed his entire approach [to the human cognitive process in the CPA]
(47).28 In order to show that the theory of cognition laid out in the CPA
does involve divine illumination, then, I need to demonstrate that
Grosseteste refers to God and not to human reason when he speaks
of the spiritual light that plays a crucial role in human cognition.
According to Marrone, There is ample evidence [Grosseteste] held that the
mind itself had a power that could be described as a light and that acted to
make intelligible objects visible to it (198). Whats more, since the intellect
was its own illuminator . . . here is a way to read the image of intelligible
light without making any reference to God at all, and it appears to have the
explicit approval of the author himself (199).29 Although Grossetestes CPA
retains illuminationist language, then, Marrone concludes that the human
intellect functions as the sole spiritual light that enables us to cognize
truth.30
I believe, however, that Grosseteste is clearly still referring to God when
he speaks of the spiritual light in the CPA. As we saw in Section I, he
explicitly calls God the rst light in I.7, claiming that when the pure
intellect cognizes the highest sort of universal, it cognizes not only created
things but also the rst light itself in which it cognizes other things (111).
Although this alone does not establish that God is the spiritual light
26

For a discussion of what people might qualify for this extremely rare distinction, see the
discussion in McEvoys The Philosophy of Robert Grosseteste (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1982)
3259.
27
The Light of Thy Countenance.
28
Ibid.
29
William of Auvergne and Robert Grosseteste.
30
See, for example, 489 of The Light of Thy Countenance, where Marrone makes the case that
certain passages in the CPA imply that mind served as sole intelligible light in normal
intellection (48).

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Grosseteste speaks of in later passages, since human intellects typically lack


access to this level of cognition, the fact that Grosseteste here takes for
granted a framework of divine illumination strongly indicates that he means
to situate Aristotles account of cognition in the Posterior Analytics within a
broader theory of divine illumination a theory, moreover, that would have
been very familiar to his audience. Given this context, it would be extremely
surprising for Grosseteste to expect readers to take the mention of a
spiritual light or the intellects proper light later in his commentary as
referring solely to the human intellect and not to God, absent further
discussion.
Indeed, in later passages (especially an extended discussion of the
metaphor of illumination in I.17), claims Grosseteste makes about the
spiritual light and its relation to both our intellect and the objects of
cognition give us good reason to think that he identies the spiritual light of
the intellect with God and not human reason in the CPA. In a passage
early in I.17, for instance, Grosseteste describes the light in question as
follows:
I hold that there is a spiritual light which pours over intelligible things and the
minds eye a light that is related to the interior eye and intelligible things just
as the corporeal sun is related to the corporeal eye and to corporeal visible
things. Therefore, the intelligible things that are more receptive of this spiritual
light are more visible to the interior eye, and the things that are more receptive
of this light are by nature more similar to this light. And so the things that are
more receptive of this light are penetrated more perfectly by a mental sight that
is also a spiritual irradiation, and this penetration is more perfect and more
certain.
(3947)

Ironically, although Marrone himself uses this passage to support the claim
that the spiritual light is the human intellect,31 I believe two features of this
passage make it clear that Grosseteste means to identify the spiritual light
which pours over intelligible things and the minds eye with God.
First, Grosseteste claims here that the light is related to the minds eye and
the objects of cognition in the same way that the corporeal sun is related to
the corporeal eye and corporeal visible objects. If we take this comparison
seriously, it seems hard to believe that the spiritual light is the light of the
human intellect. The sun is external both to the eyes and to external objects,
and it shines on both alike. If the spiritual light were the intellect, it is
dicult to see how this analogy would work: the intellect would have to
shine on itself at the same time as it shone on the objects of cognition.
Second, Grosseteste here describes a mental sight which he claims
penetrates more intelligible objects more perfectly, and he calls this power of
the intellect also (similiter) a spiritual irradiation comparing it in this way
31

See n31, Chapter One of The Light of Thy Countenance.

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CHRISTINA VAN DYKE

to the spiritual light he was already discussing. The mental acuity of our
intellects might also be a sort of light, then, but this seems to rule out the
possibility that this mental acuity is the spiritual light itself.32 Thus, I believe
that although Marrone is right to claim that the mind itself had a power
that could be described as a light, he errs in identifying that light with the
spiritual light of which Grosseteste speaks throughout his commentary.
Later in the same chapter, Grosseteste explains that universal demonstration is superior to particular demonstration because universal demonstration brings one to know what is less mixed up with phantasmata and closer
to the spiritual light through which mental vision becomes certain . . .
[U]niversal demonstration brings one to know better, since it brings one to
know what is more visible to the minds eye (21216). The objects of
universal demonstration are described here as both easier to see with the
minds eye and nearer to the spiritual light that makes knowledge possible.
Marrone reads this passage as further evidence that Grosseteste identies
the spiritual light as the human intellect: what made an object more
receptive to this light was its closeness to intellect, a closeness that could be
glossed as proximity to the intelligible light itself. The implication was that
intellect and intelligible light were the same (48, n31).33 This interpretation
seems a stretch, however, especially since in earlier passages (including the
extended discussion in I.7), the more removed from phantasms an object (or
an intellect) is, the closer Grosseteste claims it is to the divine light.
A further passage toward the end of I.17 also supports the claim that the
spiritual light is the rst light and not the light of human reason. According
to Grosseteste:
Things that are prior are closer to the spiritual light, by which when it pours
over intelligible objects those objects are made actually visible to the minds
vision (aspectus). And these prior things are more receptive of that light and
more penetrable by the minds vision, for which reason they are more certain,
and knowledge of these things is more certain knowledge. Considered in this
way, the knowledge belonging to separated incorporeal substances is more
certain than the knowledge belonging to incorporeal substances that are tied to
a body, and this knowledge in turn is more certain than the knowledge
belonging to corporeal substances.34
(3407)

32

Marrone, however, refers to this as a parenthesis of much signicance, glossing this claim as
follows: In other words, the light of the intellect was itself a candidate for the intelligible
illumination he had just lines before compared to the rays of the sun (LTC 48). This seems quite
a stretch to me, however in fact, I nd it just as plausible to suppose that Grossetestes calling
the intellect likewise an irradiation (irradiatio) and not a light indicates that he is thinking of
the intellect as something that, at best, reects the light shining on it from God.
33
The Light of Thy Countenance.
34
By incorporeal substances that are bound to a body, Grosseteste clearly refers to human
beings, whose immaterial intellect is tied to a corporeal body.

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Knowledge possessed by intelligences (angels) is said to be more certain than


the knowledge possessed by human intellects because that knowledge is of
prior things things that are closer to the spiritual light. It would make
little sense for Grosseteste to claim that intelligences had knowledge of
things closer to the spiritual light than the objects of human cognition,
however, if the spiritual light were the human intellect. Instead, this passage
appears to refer back to I.7, where Grosseteste claims that intelligences use
higher principles of cognition than human beings higher precisely in the
sense that they are closer to the rst light, i.e. God. It seems sensible, then, to
understand the spiritual light mentioned here as the same as the rst light
of which Grosseteste speaks in I.7. Because the other passages in the CPA
that mention the spiritual light parallel the passages I have already
discussed,35 I see no further reason for thinking that Grosseteste means to
refer to the human intellect, as opposed to God, when he speaks in the CPA
of a light that pours over intelligible objects and that makes those objects
actually visible to the minds vision.

4. GODS ROLE IN HUMAN COGNITION


I have argued, then, that Grosseteste neither presents a strictly Augustinian
understanding of divine illumination nor removes God entirely from his
account of human cognition in the CPA. This raises an obvious question for
his theory, however: what role does Grosseteste mean the spiritual light
plays in human cognition?
On standard theories of divine illumination, God acts directly on our
intellects so that we can both know the truth and recognize that we know the
truth. Grosseteste rejects this possibility, focusing instead on the relation
between God and the intelligible objects rather than the relation between
God and human intellects. Indeed, I believe that the central function of the
spiritual light in the CPA is to shine on the proper objects of cognition so
that they become visible to us as we engage in the process of abstraction. On
my reading of Grossetestes account, then, although God does not hold the
normative role common to most illuminationist theories laying bare the
criteria by which mind can separate truth from falsehood and thus providing
the epistemic basis for certitude (33)36 God nevertheless retains what
Etienne Gilson has referred to as a crucial ideogenic function in the human
acquisition of universal concepts, making the proper objects of cognition
accessible to human intellects.37
35

See, for example, II.6 (1047).


Marrone, The Light of Thy Countenance.
37
Sur quelques dicultes. Not surprisingly, this possibility is explicitly ruled out by Marrone:
Might there still be place for God in the origin of concepts? As before with the
question of truth and certitude, eliminating divine presence in formal matters of
largely epistemic concern need not have precluded its reappearance under more
36

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CHRISTINA VAN DYKE

In I.19, Grosseteste provides a concise description of the process of


illumination as he conceives of it. I want to begin with this basic framework
and then develop it as he does to demonstrate the specic role
illumination plays in the CPA. In his words:

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I hold that there is a mental vision for the apprehending of intelligible things,
that the things visible to this vision are what we call intelligible and knowable,
and that there is a light that pouring over both the vision and the visible
things brings about actual sight, just as the light of the sun brings about
[sight] in external vision.
(2932)

I have argued in the previous section that the light that brings about actual
[mental] sight is God, as opposed to the light of the human intellect. The
parallel drawn here between external and mental sight entails, then, that
Gods light functions in human cognition in much the same way that the
suns light functions in vision namely, by illuminating knowable things
and the faculty of mental sight in a way that makes us able to grasp
intelligible objects.
This much of the story seems clear. What needs elaboration is how best to
understand this metaphor, particularly in light of Grossetestes remarks
about the negative eects the body has on our mental vision. Gods light
does shine on our intellects, as Grosseteste states repeatedly. The problem
with human cognition is that our mental gaze is stubbornly focused not on
that light, but rather on physical enticements; our attachment (both literal
and metaphorical) to material things typically prevents us from turning
directly to the light that makes intellection possible.
Numerous passages, including several from I.17 which we have already
seen, suggest that Grosseteste focuses for this reason on Gods relation to
the objects that we cognize, rather than on Gods relation to our intellects.
Take, for instance, his claim that [T]hings that are prior are closer to the
spiritual light by which when it pours over intelligible objects those
objects are made actually visible to the minds vision. Here the emphasis is
on Gods relation to the objects of our mental vision; what makes us able to
see the objects of cognition is the fact that the spiritual light shines on
them. In fact, what makes certain intelligible objects prior to others is not
their proximity to our intellects, but rather their proximity to God. The
closer these objects are to the spiritual light, the brighter they are to us and
the better our grasp of them is.

ambiguous, process-oriented guise, this time as source of an Augustinian light


necessary for ideogenesis. But again, the later works of Grosseteste . . . leave little
room for the doctrines associated with a notion of divine illumination.
(TLTC 67)

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Grossetestes focus is also on the relation between God and the objects of
human cognition (and not our intellects) when he writes:

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[T]he intelligible things that are more receptive of this spiritual light are more
visible to the interior eye, and the things that are more receptive of this light
are by nature more similar to this light. And so the things that are more
receptive of this light are penetrated more perfectly by a mental sight that is
also a spiritual irradiation, and this penetration is more perfect and more
certain.
(I.17.3947)

The intelligible objects that are the most receptive of the spiritual light that
are the brightest are the ones that are most similar to that light; that is,
they are the ones that are most similar to the eternal, immaterial,
unchanging God. Presumably, then, the objects that are most suited to
cognition are themselves eternal, immaterial, unchanging and so forth.
Taken to its logical conclusion, Grossetestes claim implies that the optimal
object of human cognition is God himself.
This is, in fact, what Grosseteste claims later in I.17: To the intellect such
as it ought to be considered in its highest state divine things are most
certain, and to the extent that things are prior and more sublime by nature,
they are more certain (3635). As we saw in Section I, the highest objects of
cognition are God and Gods own ideas,
since when the pure intellect is able to x its sight on them, it cognizes created
things in them as truly and clearly as possible and not only created things,
but also the rst light itself in which it cognizes other things.
(I.7.10810)

As we also saw in Section I, however, although our knowledge of the things


closest to God should be the most certain, in the normal course of things it is
not; the corrupt physical body interferes with the ideal cognitive process. As
Grosseteste writes:
Divine things are more visible to the minds vision that is healthy and not
clouded by phantasmata . . . But to the minds vision that is unhealthy,38 such
as our vision is while we are burdened by the weight of the corrupt body and
the love of corporeal things, the things that are more visible are covered up
with phantasmata . . . Therefore to the human intellect such as is currently in
us, mathematical things are most certain, for the imaginable phantasmata
received by sight aid us in comprehending them.
(I.17.35363)

38

Taking aegro for egro.

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In our present state, our intellects are unhealthy, clouded with


phantasms (mental pictures, so to speak, of physical objects, that we can
recall at will) from their love for material things; this prevents us from
knowing those things such as God and the divine ideas that should be
clearest to us.
This passage proves highly useful in understanding Grossetestes attempt
to synthesize Aristotles account of cognition with a theory of divine
illumination. As we saw in Section II, our intellects are prevented from
receiving direct illumination by their attachment to corporeal things and
are, instead, forced to resort to abstracting to universals through a complex
process beginning with sense perception. Our love of the material world and
corresponding reliance on phantasms obscures our knowledge of God and
Gods ideas, for phantasms are representations of created material things
and cannot (Grosseteste implies here) help us reach a better understanding
of the uncreated divine nature. Material objects and the imaginable
phantasmata received by sight can help us reach an understanding of other
universals, however, such as those involved in mathematics. We can teach
children what numbers are, for instance, using apples, and we can teach
fractions by cutting up a chocolate cake and mentally comparing the
individual pieces to our memory of the whole. We can even begin to grasp
the concept of pie by repeatedly measuring the diameters and circumferences
of dierently sized cans. Although it would be better to receive complete
knowledge of ve, one-half, and pi directly from God (as the angels do),
without resorting to this lengthy and potentially futile process,39 sensory
experience and phantasms are necessary tools for ordinary human intellects
acquiring knowledge of universals.
Grosseteste sees Gods primary role in human cognition, I believe, as
illuminating the proper objects of our ordinary (as opposed to ideal)
knowledge, which he identies in I.7 as the universals Aristotle refers to in
the Posterior Analytics universals he claims we grasp through the process
of abstraction described in I.14. In this life, mathematical knowledge is the
most certain knowledge we have, for it involves unchanging, immaterial,
eternal truths that sense experience and phantasms can, nevertheless, aid us
in acquiring. There are many other universals, moreover, of which we can
also gain an understanding through sense perception, including the essences
of created beings such as daisies and human beings. Grosseteste makes it
clear that, in each case, that understanding depends crucially on Gods
assistance.
Grosseteste does not go into detail concerning what it means literally for
God to illuminate the objects of our cognition. It seems highly likely to me,
however, that he sees God as the answer to an important question
concerning the Aristotelian process of abstraction: namely, as we apply
reason to sense experience and phantasms, what enables us to abstract to the
39

See n19 above.

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actual essence of a substance? In other words, when we contemplate the


nature of the beings with whom we live, what enables us to reach the answer
rational animal rather than featherless biped or laughing strategist
what makes it possible for human intellects to, in Platos words, carve
reality at the joints?
On Aristotles account of cognition, human beings are left on their own to
acquire knowledge of universals; we rely on experience, trial and error, and
reason to get things right. On Augustines account, in contrast, we acquire
knowledge as a result of Gods acting directly on both our intellects and
intelligible objects. In the reading of the CPA for which I have argued, we
can see Grosseteste drawing elements from both theories: human cognition
requires our reasoning about sense experience and phantasms, but our
intellects are not left on their own during the process of abstraction. Rather,
God lights up the true essences of things when we engage in intellective
activity. He does not himself place knowledge of universals directly in our
intellects, as some theories of divine illumination hold, but he is responsible
for distinguishing them from the accidents of a substance; he makes those
universals catch our mental gaze in a special way. Intellects that remain
infatuated with material things might xate on a substances accidents and
fail to reach knowledge of that substances true essence, but Grosseteste
calls these intellects weak.40 The vast majority of human intellects, he
claims, can see the true natures of things when they engage reason long and
hard enough in the process of abstraction, and God the spiritual light is
responsible for that.
Grossetestes theory may diverge from a strictly Augustinian account,
then, but it is not one in which the metaphor of illumination collapses into
insignicance or humanism. Human beings may lack direct epistemic
contact with God, but God plays a necessary role in the acquisition of
universal concepts nevertheless; his light is a precondition for our being able
to grasp truth on any level. Although a mere half-century later, John
Pecham identies an inherent ideological conict41 between divine
illumination and Aristotelian abstraction and describes himself as part of
a movement attempting to protect the authentic teachings of Augustine
against the falsity advocated by the Aristotelians, Robert Grosseteste
appears much more interested in demonstrating the compatibility of the two
positions in his Posterior Analytics commentary than in setting one view
against the other.42 It seems only just, then, to recover the synthetic nature

40

See I.7, where Grosseteste describes the weak intellect as that which knows things only
through the accidents following from the true essences of things (1423).
41
Marrone, The Light of Thy Countenance, 14.
42
See, for example, letters Pecham writes in 1285 to the Bishop of Lincoln and cardinals in
which he describes the dierences between the Augustinian and the Aristotelian camps and
poses the question of what could be more important than supporting the authentic Augustinian
views against dangerous (presumably, Aristotelian) falsehoods.

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CHRISTINA VAN DYKE

of his project at a time when received scholarly opinions identify him as, at
heart, either resolutely Augustinian or entirely Aristotelian.43

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Calvin College

43

I owe many people thanks for their comments on earlier drafts of this paper, including the
long-suering audiences at the Midwestern Conference in Medieval Philosophy, the Cornell
Colloquium in Medieval Philosophy, the Posterior Analytics and Aristotelian Sciences
Marquette Summer Seminar in Ancient and Medieval Philosophy, and Baylor University. In
addition, I appreciate the useful discussion of this paper in my departments Colloquium, as
well as individual comments from Jeremiah Hackett at the Marquette seminar. Support from a
Calvin Research Fellowship allowed me the time o from teaching to take all this feedback into
consideration and use it to improve the paper. Most of all, however, I owe Scott MacDonald
my continuing gratitude not just for comments on every incarnation through which this paper
went, but also for the discussions of his translation of Grossetestes commentary that sparked
the idea for this paper in the rst place and for his support and encouragement since then.