Martin Versfeld’s (1909–1995) interpretation and application of medieval philosophy at the University of Cape Town (1937–1972) – Part 1

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This two-part article explores South African philosopher Martin (Marthinus) Versfeld’s (1909–1995) interpretation (shown to belong within the discipline of the history of ideas) and application (indicated as modern-critical) of medieval philosophy during his uninterrupted career as a lecturer and professor of philosophy at the University of Cape Town (UCT) from 1937 to 1972. The study is done with reference to Versfeld’s publications as well as his unpublished manuscripts, typescripts and notes relating to medieval philosophy, as filed in the Martin Versfeld Archive at the JW Jagger Library at UCT. This evaluation is the first of its kind in the developing Versfeld scholarship and takes place against the backdrop of a recent and extensive overview of Versfeld’s intellectual legacy and the first monograph on the Capetonian by Leuven philosopher Ernst Wolff (Martin Versfeld: A South African philosopher in dark times, 2021). Importantly, Versfeld was the first South African university lecturer who expressly and consistently included medieval philosophy in his undergraduate curriculum and postgraduate supervision in philosophy. Five criteria are used to assess Versfeld’s engagement of medieval philosophy. These involve 1) an evaluation of his specialised outputs in the field, 2) his dating and internal periodisation of medieval intellectual history, 3) his engagement of the “canon” of medieval philosophy and subsequent willingness to engage the lesser known and completely unknown thinkers from the epoch, 4) his orientation towards the medieval Orient, especially with regard to the Arabic and Jewish thinkers, thereby advancing a single register in the field (instead of maintaining the traditionalist division between the Latin West and Arabic East), and 5) his treatment of the rigid separation of the scholastic and mystical trajectories in the central and later Middle Ages, including the reception of the female thinkers from those periods. By analysing his writings on medieval philosophy for the period 1937 to 1972 according to these criteria it is shown that although Versfeld’s work in several other philosophical disciplines could on justifiable grounds be considered profoundly original, this is not the case regarding his interpretation of the intellectual Middle Ages. On the one hand Versfeld’s exploration of medieval philosophy was determined by a conventional reception of the legacies of only a few mainstream medieval thinkers (Augustine and Aquinas in particular) and a limited selection of themes (notably medieval ethics, including political philosophy), reflecting a somewhat predictable approach to its study and interpretation. On the other hand, Versfeld consistently and efficiently applied medieval philosophy in his unique critique of modernity by employing unexpected or “against the grain” impulses from the Middle Ages – although he did not interpret the medieval thinkers (and their standardised reception in modern medieval scholarship) themselves, accordingly, with a distinctive approach. Versfeld was, in this sense, an erudite commentator and highly competent lecturer, rather than a specialist researcher, of medieval philosophy. His main contribution to medieval philosophy scholarship in the mid-20th century South African context was that, in the absence of any noteworthy South African network relating to the philosophical Middle Ages, he committed to the inclusion of medieval philosophy in academic tuition and utilised it as a discursive conductor in contemporary philosophy’s modern-critical reflections.

Keywords: Augustine of Hippo (354–430); Ernst Wolff; Herman Jean de Vleeschauwer (1899–1986); Kobus Krüger; Martin (Marthinus) Versfeld (1909–1995); medieval philosophy; Paul van Tongeren; Ruth Versfeld; Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274); University of Cape Town


  • The featured image by Cloete Breytenbach of this article was obtained from the Open Library publication of Ernst Wolff’s Martin Versfeld: A South African philosopher in dark times. Leuven, Leuven University Press. (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0) – available for personal and non-commercial use. Further details about Creative Commons licenses are available here.

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Martin Versfeld (1909–1995) se interpretasie en toepassing van Middeleeuse filosofie aan die Universiteit van Kaapstad (1937–1972) – Deel 1

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