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Immateriality, Thinking and the Self in the Philosophy of the Long Middle Ages

A joint project of the Philosophy Faculty, University of Cambridge and the Department of Philosophy, Peking University, financed by the British Academy through an International Partnership and Mobility Grant, March 2015 – February 2016.

In this project, we aim to bring together two very different philosophy departments – Cambridge and Peking University – through a project led by a medieval philosophy specialist from each institution, but to which we invite the other members of their departments to contribute, by using their various expertise (ranging from analytic to Chinese philosophy) to cast light on the following problem: how did (Western) philosophers in the Middle Ages and the seventeenth century conceive the immaterial things, such as the human soul, which played so large a part in their thought?

Project Leaders: John Marenbon (Cambridge) Wu Tianyue (Beijing)

The main events sponsored by the project will be a conference in Cambridge in early July on: ‘Immateriality, Thinking and the Self in the Philosophy of the Long Middle Ages –  the analytic perspective on the problem’ and one in Beijing in December on ‘Immateriality, Thinking and the Self in the Philosophy of the Long Middle Ages and its broader context.’  We are eager for participants from Cambridge who would like either to contribute to the July conference or to come to Beijing in December – there are places for two, and possibly more, people to come, with all expenses paid.  Further material (details of papers, abstracts and, where possible, whole papers) will appear on this website in due course. Below is a fuller description of the project and short biographies of the two Project Leaders, and two Chinese participants, who will also be coming to Cambridge for the July conference.  Anyone interested should contact John Marenbon at .

The Project

The feature of medieval and much early modern philosophy which seems strangest to readers today is the large role given to concrete, immaterial things: not just God (in all sorts of ways a special case), but souls and angels (or, in some traditions, Intelligences). All these things are considered to be essentially thinkers, but, before Descartes, the thinking involved (intelligere – ‘intellectual thinking’) is of a very special sort: grasping universals and syllogizing with them, so as to demonstrate scientific truths. In humans, it is only this intellectually thinking thing which is considered immaterial and immortal, and it is the subject for moral judgement, reward and punishment. Usually, this complex of ideas is simply taken for granted, as a starting point for discussing medieval philosophy of mind and metaphysics. Our project aims to examine it, distinguishing its various forms in different Western traditions (Latin, Greek, Arabic, Jewish) from c. 200 to c.1700, and to understand it, making use of the insights of those working in other areas of philosophy. An important feature of the project is its chronological range. When philosophers today think about immaterial concrete things, they usually have Cartesian minds in view. We shall explore how far Descartes inherits an earlier view of immaterial thinkers, and how far his far broader conception of thinking transforms the notion.

The Philosophy Department at Peking University

Peking University has the oldest and most renowned Philosophy Department in China. For further information, see

Project Leaders and Participants

John Marenbon is a Title B (Senior Research) Fellow of Trinity College and Honorary Professor of Medieval Philosophy in the University of Cambridge. His most recent books are Pagans and Philosophers. The problem of paganism from Augustine to Leibniz (Princeton U. P., 2015), Abelard in Four Dimensions: a twelfth-century philosopher in his context and ours (Notre Dame U. P., 2013) and, as editor, The Oxford Handbook of Medieval Philosophy (2012).

Tianyue Wu (Ph.D. Philosophy, Leuven, 2007) is Associate Professor of Ancient and Medieval Philosophy at Peking University. He is also the vice-director of the Centre for Classical Studies there. He is the author of Voluntas et Libertas: A Philosophical Account of Augustine’s Conception of the Will in the Domain of Moral Psychology (in Chinese, 2010) and has published a series of articles on Augustine in journals like Recherches de Théologie et Philosophie médiévales, Augustiniana, and the Modern Schoolman

Liu Zhe, PhD in Leuven in 2005 and Associate Professor both in the Institute of Foreign Philosophy and Department of Philosophy at Peking University since 2009. Member of the editorial board of the British Journal for the History of Philosophy since 2014. Research interests in the theory of subjectivity, German idealism, German and French phenomenology and early modern philosophy. Publications in Chinese: Hegel’s Dialectical-Speculative Concept of Genuine Infinity. Beijing 2009; Reading Merleau-Ponty. Eds. Du Xiaozhen and Liu Zhe. Beijing 2011, “Merleau-Ponty’s Anti-Cartesian Theory of Embodiment”, in Social Sciences in China (8), 2014, and “Kant or Fichte”, in Beida Journal of Philosophy (11), 2010. Publications in English: “Is Fichte’s Transcendental Thinking Transcendental Argument”, in Fichte and Transcendental Philosophy, (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), “Fichte’s Practical Self-consciousness and Hegel’s Speculation”,in Fichte-Studien (37), 2013; “A Fundamental Limit of Merleau-Ponty’s Transcendental Phenomenology”, in Chiasmi International (11), 2009; “Hegel on Fichte’s Practical Self-consciousness”, in Philosophy Today (52), 2008; “Sartre on Kant in the Transcendence of the Ego”, in Idealistic Studies (37), 2007. Other essays on theories of self-consciousness and consciousness in German idealism, German and French phenomenology.

Qilin Li received his Ph. D degree from McMaster University in 2013 and currently holds a postdoctoral fellowship position in the Department of Philosophy at Peking University. His research is in epistemology, philosophy of language as well as philosophy of mind, in the tradition of analytic philosophy. He is especially interested in the topics of epistemic contextualism of knowledge ascription, the interface of semantics and pragmatics and context-sensitivity in the philosophy of language. He teaches both undergraduate and graduate courses in the fields of epistemology, philosophy of language and philosophy of mind.