Historical story

Spinoza Prize to philosopher Lodi Nauta for cross-curricular research into the history of philosophy

For the first time, a Spinoza Prize goes to philosophy. Lodi Nauta of the University of Groningen will win a premium of 2.5 million euros this year from the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research (NWO). He conducts research into the history of philosophy. “Sparring with philosophers from the past:that is our laboratory”, says Nauta.

“A mixture of disbelief, pride and immense gratitude.” That was Nauta's first reaction when he was told that he had won one of the Spinoza Prizes. “It is the main prize in Dutch science after all. If that happens to you, it will leave you speechless for a while. You kind of think:'why me?' But I also see it as a collective prize for the field.”

Lodi Nauta is professor of the History of Philosophy at the University of Groningen. The committee that distributes the Spinoza Prizes praises him for the 'innovative way in which he combines linguistic, historical and philosophical insights'. The transition period from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance is his main area of ​​research. The main theme from that period – how far can you theorize without losing sight of reality – is of all times.

Pot Latin

Language that is too technical and too abstract. That was the main criticism of the humanists of the scholastics of the Middle Ages. Because by using jargon and technical language you lose sight of reality, they thought. That is why they preferred to use ordinary language for philosophizing.

Nauta:“The medieval people saw language as a philosophical object of study. They actually designed as linguists avant la lettre a theory of meaning in a fairly abstract way. The problem was that they had to do it in the language that was the direct object of study, namely Latin. That was no longer the beautiful Latin from classical antiquity, but a very technical potty Latin.”

Common sense

“The humanists said to the scholastics:you create your own philosophical problems with this potty Latin, it colors your view of reality. By entering all kinds of technical terms you will see the world in a different way. This criticism has been important in the formation of the new image of man that gradually emerged in the Renaissance and early modern times. My work on this transition has – I suspect – been one of the key elements in the awarding of this award.”

This tension between the scholastics and the humanists is also topical today, says the Spinoza winner:“On the one hand, theorizing and abstracting – which we naturally like to do in science and philosophy – and on the other hand, appealing to everyday language. and common sense. You see jargon everywhere:with civil servants, lawyers or doctors. Of course, every profession has its own jargon and there is nothing wrong with that. As long as it doesn't obstruct your view of reality, and it doesn't become an instrument to shield you from a critical outsider.”

Ordinary language

Thus, the great thinkers of the Renaissance argued for the use of common language in philosophy. But what did they consider to be 'ordinary language', was that the vernacular?

Nauta:“No, you might expect that, but for the first generation of humanists it was Classical Latin. That may be strange to us, because it is a difficult language that you only learn in grammar school. But at the time of the revival of classical antiquity, it had great prestige and was propagated as a language by the humanists.”

“Dutch does not come until later in the seventeenth century. Then you get philosophers who start writing in the vernacular, such as Descartes, who is also called the founder of modern philosophy. He also wrote regularly in French. And the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes wrote wonderful English. Only then will there be a shift to the vernacular, but Latin has long been the scientific language.”

Thinking experiments

Incidentally, the way of thinking in the Middle Ages was not that different from our way of thinking now, says Nauta:“We often see the Middle Ages as a period in which God and faith were central. But that's really a caricature. At that time they were often dealing with God and angels and those kinds of themes, but they used that to think about really philosophical issues:conceptual questions about time, space, causation, good and evil, the relationship between language and thought. ”

“Take the relationship between language and thought. You can well question them on the basis of angels:they have no language, they can read each other's thoughts, was the thought. The Christian themes were the testing laboratory for thinking about philosophical problems. Medieval people were very rational.”

“They tried to understand all kinds of dogmas rationally. They had developed a very technical conceptual apparatus for this. Even things of which we would now say:you cannot rationally straighten that out, god as a trinity and one at the same time, or the virgin Mary who can have a child anyway. In the renaissance they tended to say:you should not try to understand it, but accept it as it is. That is a completely different way of thinking.”


It shows the importance of the history of philosophy, says Nauta:“We don't have a laboratory with microscopes or other technical equipment. But we do it with our thinking. Sparring with philosophers from the past is itself the laboratory. The same questions keep coming back. That is why it is essential to be inspired by past thinkers.”

One last important question:how will the professor spend the Spinoza prize money? “What I want to do is further map those lines of continuity and discontinuity at the interface between the medieval worldview and the modern worldview. There is still an incredible amount to do and many sources have not yet been properly studied or mapped out at all, so you need a lot of people for that. I also want to collaborate more with Dutch and foreign colleagues. But it doesn't have to be all at once fortunately. I still have some time.”

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