Blaise of Parma (c. 1347-1416), the Doctor Diabolicus, a posthuman, materialist resource


Doctor Devil. From Prize Comics #22.

Through Maaike van der Lugt’s wonderful Le ver, le démon, et la vierge : les théories médiévales de la génération extraordinaire [the worm, the demon, and the virgin: medieval theories of extraordinary generation], whose only failing is utter indifference to the humble oyster, I’ve just discovered a late Italian thinker, Blaise of Parma (c. 1347-1416), who should become a key resource for posthuman materialist medievalists.

Judging by the Wikipedia and other encyclopedia entries, Blaise, aka, Blasius of Parma, Biagio Pelacini da Parma, Biagio Pelacini, or Blaise de Parma, is chiefly discussed for his work on optics and weights (for example, from Brian Lawn, or this article), which, to be fair, is where most of his fame rests. None however mentions what van der Lugt does, that his contemporaries called him the DOCTOR DIABOLICUS.

His first diabolic act? To befuddle strong advocates for periodizationThe Cambridge History of Renaissance Philosophy anoints him as “the first Renaissance psychologist,” while Lawn, endorsing Vescovini’s 1945 Studi sulla Prospettiva Medievale, rather calls Blaise “one of the most mature thinkers in philosophy of the middle ages.” Given that the supposed renaissance break with medieval philosophy may be overstated (per this abstract), we can just suspend the question of whose thinker Blaise is.

Just kidding: he’s medieval. Definitely, totally medieval.

And even as a medieval thinker, he stands out. Here’s the Cambridge History paraphrasing one of Blaise’s key ideas:

If one analyses the process of intellection as analogous to sense-perception, it becomes clear that the soul requires an object, which is simultaneously present and appropriately distanced. Distance, however, implies extension, and extension, matter, so that the object of intellectual is necessarily a material one. But since this applies to both external and internal objects, which may be recalled, any concept of intellect has to be represented in matter. Consequently, there is no intellectual operation which is not also a natural process through which matter is formed according to its specific potentiality, the only specificity being that the natural process of intellectual is followed by the assent or dissent of the soul, in which truth or error consists. From this materialistic theory of knowledge Blasius infers a necessarily materialistic concept of the soul, according to which the entire soul, including the intellect, is just a particular form, drawn out of the potentiality of matter and passing away with the dissolution of the body. (487, emphasis mine)

Here’s the Latin: “ultima conclusio: quod anima intellectiva hominis sit educta de potentia materiae generabilis et corruptibilis, habet quilibet de plano concedere,” from the 1974 edition of his Quaestiones de anima.

In 1396, Blaise had to recant these and several other beliefs, but somehow lived a full life, and without, it seems, his bones being disinterred and burnt (like Pietro d’Abano; van der Lugt, 181). Apart from these materialist arguments on the soul, per van der Lugt, Blaise also argued, in his 1385 treatise on the soul, that the Flood was just an old wives’ tale, as all animals just reemerged after the flood receded, spontaneously, as — unlike Aristotle, but like Avicenna — he did not maintain any boundary that would reserve spontaneous generation only to the “imperfect” animals like gnats, bees, mice, eels, toads, and so forth; from this point, he argued as well that both humans and the rational soul could emerge spontaneously (and that therefore virgin births may be a natural rather than supernatural reality); and that — contra Avicenna even — there was no master creator in charge of things, as all forms emerge from the middle region of the air. While he finally endorses key Christian doctrine, he still does so reluctantly, observing that only doctrine and not reason lead him to orthodoxy.

Some key passages, then: “Nothing prevents this matter, so prepared by natural causes, from receiving a form which has the capacity to discern, to reason, which is commonly called the “intellective power” (nihil ergo prohibet quin materia illa, sic praeparata ex puris naturalibus, non recipiat formam quae habebit virtutem discernendi, sillogizandi etc., quae a vulgaribus intellectiva nominatur, qtd van der Lugt, 178 n206, trans based on van der Lugt’s french trans.); or, from van der Lugt, “Pour Avicenne, toutes les formes existent selon un état séparé dans les intelligences pour être ensuite imprimées dans la matière ; Blaise de Parme soutient au contraire qu’aucune forme ne vient du dehors…Au lieu d’envisager la naissance d’animaux dans la boue, sur la viande putréfiée ou dans l’eau, Blaise la localise in media regione, c’est-à-dire dans la zone intermédiare de l’air” (179; “For Avicenna, all the forms exist according to a separate state in the intelligence to be then imprinted in matter; Blaise of Parma maintains, on the contrary, that no form comes from outside [a perfectly Aristotelian viewpoint against Avicenna’s neoplatonism, as van der Lugt observes, but just wait] .. in place of envisioning the birth of animals in the mud, in rotting meat, or in the water, Blaise localizes the birth in the “middle region,” that is, in the intermediary zone of air”).

Van der Lugt says that his work remains mostly unedited (most importantly, his Questions on the Physics, at least per Joël Biard’s 2009 article), and the one manuscript of his works that she cites is from the Vatican, so, at present unavailable online; but when/if his full body of work is completely edited, I think we’ll discover –to put this very modestly–that he’s a particularly useful thinker for materialists, medievalist and otherwise.