Thursday, November 15, 2018

Universal Doctor

Today is the feast of St. Albert the Great, Doctor of the Church, patron saint of scientists and engineers, teacher of St. Thomas Aquinas. Born probably at some point in the 1190s in Bavaria, his own name for himself was Albert of Lauingen, but we don't know if the 'Lauingen' referred to his actual birthplace or to his family's being from there. He became a Dominican in the 1220s and in the following decades became recognized as their most talented teacher, which is why he was sometimes called 'Albert the Great' in his lifetime. He was a major figure in the reintroduction of Aristotle into the West, writing commentaries on the bulk of the Aristotelian corpus. He was briefly bishop of Regensburg, but spent most of his career in other positions. He lived a famously long life, outliving most of his early students and dying in Cologne in 1280. He was deeply interested in the natural world; we have a story, from Albert himself about his trying to get an ostrich to eat gravel in order to test whether the claims in the books about them doing so were true (he couldn't get the ostrich to eat it). He is the first person in the West to work on a systematic study of minerals and stones, and may be the first person to have identified specific organs in a fertilized egg.

In investigations of nature, however, it is necessary not only to consider the changeable understood universally according to its common features, but it is necessary to get down to details so that the primary agent in each individual case may be ascertained, especially in sensible, animate things, because in investigations of nature we must discover the universal principles through singulars, since in such investigations the particulars are better known than the universals. It is through the singulars that we come to believe that it is convenient and necessary for universals and their principles to exist, since it is only those universals which are exemplified in particulars that we accept, while those which are not exemplified in particulars, we reject.

[Albert the Great, De animalibus IX tr. 2, c.4, ed. HernannStadler, in: BGPhlvfA5, Munster9 16'.T21, ll.16-21m as quoted in Leen Spruit, "Albert the Great on the Epistemology of Natural Science", p. 64.]

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