Gesture, Perception and Event

11 October 2016, 13:30 - 15:30

S2, Alison Richard Building

A Mellon Teaching Seminar

Tuesdays in Michaelmas term 1.30-3.30pm starting on 11 October 2016.

Catherine Pickstock (Divinity)
Heather Webb (MML)

If you are interested in applying to attend the series  please click on the tab "How to Apply" above. It is open to graduate students, academics, and final year undergraduates in the University of Cambridge.

Whilst the Middle Ages were influenced by certain Greek philosophical traditions which regarded truth and science as an abstraction from matter, time, body and contingency, at the same time, however, the central doctrine of Christianity, that of the Incarnation, suggested that truth has been fully manifested in one particular time, as one particular embodied person. Here, truth is as much a performative manifestation as it is a theoretical indication of the universal. It also consists in Christ's deeds and gestures (for example, on Maundy Thursday) as much as in his words. Later Christian thought tended to resolve this tension in terms of a sharp distinction between natural and supernatural levels of understanding. But this was much less true of earlier Christian thought which made no abrupt distinction between philosophy and theology, as between the physical senses and metaphysics. Hence, the Greek pagan and Biblical traditions tended to be seen as mutually interfering. Furthermore, the notion of a ritual and performative dimension to truth was not wholly alien to the former tradition, as for theurgic Neoplatonism, elements of which were blended with Christian thought in Pseudo-Dionysius, Boethius, Maximus, John Damascene and Eriugena.

Our project seeks to investigate this mutual interference in the High to Late Middle Ages. We propose to investigate the ways in which attention to the link between physical perception and bodily gesture, on the one hand, and metaphysics, on the other, might yield a new understanding of Anselm’s Proslogion, a discourse long seen as part of the canon of a priori philosophy of religion; and, in the case of Thomas Aquinas, such an approach suggests that the realisation of truth becomes, still more than for Aristotle, a performative event as the utterance of an inner word expressing truth, and a concomitant return to an imaginative invocation. This model of understanding explicitly mirrors both the generation of the divine Word from the Father and its birth on earth from the Virgin. We will investigate this treatment of truth with reference to the Summa Theologiae and in Aquinas's Commentary on the Gospel of John. Truth here has become theologised as event. But does it also thereby become theologised as outwards corporeal gesture? We will explore whether this dimension of the re-conceptualisation of truth and knowledge is more manifest in the devotional writings of Catherine of Siena and the literary work of Dante. In the Vita nova and the Commedia, gestures tend both to disclose new truth to Dante and to lead him upwards to further disclosures. Equally, literary sources seem to indicate a spiritual seeing that is also corporeal, even if the philosophical tradition, as seen in Anselm and Aquinas, among others, view knowledge as a kind of refined sensing and especially seeing. Does one find in Dante a more theophanic level of divine manifestation in physical symbol and irradiated body, as for Eriugena (who was often read secretly), who follows the Christian East, whereas the West tends to lose this emphasis? Here, to know is to see also with the body, and to see integrally is to be transfigured, in such a way that the seer becomes herself performative manifestation.

The first meeting will be on 11 October 2016 from1.30-3.30pm in S2 in the Alison Richard Building at 7 West Road. This will be the regular venue for our seminar throughout Michaelmas Term 2016.

This series of seminars is open equally to graduate students, academics, and final year undergraduates in the University of Cambridge.

Please submit an application to attend the seminar via email to Dr Heather Webb  (MML) and Professor Catherine Pickstock (Divinity), with a few sentences addressing the following points:

■          a brief statement of your research and interests. In the case of doctoral students the statement should include the topic of the PhD dissertation and the name of the supervisor.

■          a brief statement of what you hope to get out of the seminar, including an indication of what the likely benefits to your research may be.

■          a brief statement of what you hope to be able to contribute to the seminar.

The deadline for applications is 1 October 2016.

Numbers will be limited to 15; therefore early registration for this course is highly recommended.  Unsuccessful applicants will be placed on a waiting list. Please contact Heather Webb and Catherine Pickstock with any queries about the course.