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Steve Hinnefeld
University Communications

Last modified: Monday, November 14, 2011

NEH award helps IU publish works by reclusive medieval philosopher

Nov. 14, 2011

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- Richard Rufus of Cornwall may be the most important figure in Western philosophy you've never heard of. A project based at Indiana University and funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities aims to change that.

The NEH has awarded a $315,000, three-year grant to Rega Wood, professor of philosophy in the IU Bloomington College of Arts and Sciences, to prepare for online and print publication of the 13th-century Scholastic's lectures on Aristotle's Metaphysics. As far as is known, Rufus was the first to teach the Metaphysics, one of the famous libri naturales that revolutionized higher education.

Wood said one reason few people have heard of Rufus is that "he didn't want you to hear of him." A Franciscan who embraced the ideal of humility, Rufus went out of his way to avoid being one of the learned friars St. Francis shamed for their pride. He wouldn't take credit for his work, even refusing to cite his own lectures by name. Although he was well known during his lifetime, his works were lost or misattributed for over 500 years but were rediscovered in libraries and collections in the 20th century.

"Still, if we want to learn how the Western university curriculum was shaped, we need to know the works of Richard Rufus, works that were entirely lost between 1350 and 1950 and which are just now beginning to be published," Wood said. "The importance of the project explains why the NEH has supported the project with modest funding for more than a decade."

The NEH grant will enable Wood to continue her production of critical editions of the works at the foundation of the Western scientific and philosophical traditions. In October, Oxford University Press published Wood's critical edition of Richard Rufus of Cornwall: In Aristotelis De Generatione et corruptione, another volume in the Rufus project, which NEH has funded since 2000.

Rufus manuscript

This detail is from a 13th-century manuscript by Richard Rufus, which IU professor Rega Wood discovered at a library in Erfurt, Germany, in 1983. It had previously been misattributed to a later philosopher, Walter Burley.

Print-Quality Photo

"Indiana University proudly partners with the National Endowment for the Humanities in support of basic research in the humanities," said Sarita Soni, IU Bloomington vice provost for research. "Without critical editions such as those that the NEH supports, higher-level interpretative scholarship and teaching would lack a solid foundation. We take special pride in the research accomplishments of our entire faculty, so we are particularly pleased when exceptional achievements such as Dr. Wood's are recognized nationally."

Rufus is the earliest Western philosopher whose commentaries on Aristotle's Metaphysics and natural sciences are known to have survived. He played a key role in the transformation of philosophy and theology as a university lecturer in Paris and Oxford between 1231 and 1255. When Rufus began lecturing, the university curriculum focused only on the liberal arts, and the teaching of Aristotle's Metaphysics or his natural philosophy was forbidden. Within two decades, the libri naturales were required reading, and all students were examined on them.

These works established the foundations of philosophy and were fundamental to Western science -- without the translations and commentaries in the 13th century, "not only would medieval science have failed to materialize, but the scientific revolution of the 17th century could hardly have occurred," wrote IU Distinguished Professor Emeritus Edward Grant.

Rufus not only restated Aristotle's arguments for his contemporaries, but he also frequently challenged them, Wood said. In so doing he influenced the great Scholastic philosophers who followed him. His influence can be seen in Roger Bacon and Bonaventure on cosmology, in Albert the Great's theory of universals, and in John Duns Scotus' account of individuation.

About the National Endowment for the Humanities

NEH is an independent grant-making agency of the United States government dedicated to supporting research, education, preservation and public programs in the humanities. At Indiana University, NEH supports research, teaching and community outreach projects including the preservation of endangered languages, online databases of music and philosophy, and summer seminars for high school teachers.

To speak with Rega Wood, please contact Steve Hinnefeld at University Communications, 812-856-3488 or