Albertus Magnus, De animalibus. 14th century. Albert the Great's Empirical Anthropology.

Albertus Magnus, De animalibus, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Département des manuscrits, Latin 16169, details of f. 134, 14th century.

Project (2020)

Between Natural Philosophy and Convention: Albert the Great’s Approach to an Empirical Anthropology

Albert the Great (1200–1280) is one of the earliest and most influential thirteenth-century thinkers to study human beings from the perspective of natural philosophy. This naturalization of the human being, a feature often regarded as a characteristic of the Renaissance, already finds distinctive expression in Albert’s work. However, Albert’s progressive approach in matters of scientific method seems to clash with his individual theories on particular themes of natural philosophy. As soon as Albert leaves the theoretical discourse on human nature as such and ventures into the details of the nature of women or of different peoples, certain Aristotelian conventions appear to determine his discussion.

By focusing on Albert the Great, my project will bring out the relevance of anthropology for the history of natural philosophy, the history of science, and gender studies. I have designed two case studies: differentiation by sex, and the influence of climate on the human constitution. These will cast light on the deeper structure of my main concern, the tension and possibly unresolved contradiction between the theoretical background of Aristotelian science and its empirical implications. My methodological premise is, thus, that Albert’s work should be read neither against the background of a modern image of humans, or women in particular, nor as purely immanent within an Aristotelian worldview. Rather, I aim to shift the focus towards the specific historical dynamics of the epoch and its theoretical characteristics.