Robert Pasnau is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Colorado Boulder. His research concentrates on the history of philosophy, particularly the end of the Middle Ages and the beginnings of the modern era. He is the editor of the Cambridge History of Medieval Philosophy and the founding editor of Oxford Studies in Medieval Philosophy. His most recent book, After Certainty: A History of Our Epistemic Ideals and Illusions (OUP 2017), is based on his Isaiah Berlin Lectures, delivered at Oxford University in 2014.
Voluntarism and the Unmaking of the Medieval World
My project is to understand the voluntarist movement of the later Middle Ages. The rise of voluntarism marks the start of an important transformation in Western culture. Although philosophers had long debated the nature of human freedom (since at least the Stoics and Epicureans), and long conceived of human beings as possessed of a faculty of will (at least since Augustine), the turn of the fourteenth century witnesses the development of a radically new way of thinking about these topics. The voluntarists insisted that the will is more than an internal impetus to pursue the perceived good. Rather, for the voluntarists, the will is the seat of our autonomous agency, which is to say that the will freely chooses what we pursue, and can do so either in line with the good we perceive, or else against that good. Hence when we fail to do the good that we know ought to be done, we can understand that as a failure of will. And it is this, precisely, that makes us free. My research seeks to understand voluntarism not just in the narrow context of scholastic philosophy, but much more widely, across theology, ethics, political theory, and literature.