Baylor Philosopher Receives NEH Grant to Translate Important Medieval Treatise

January 19, 2022

Jan. 19, 2022

By Randy Fiedler, Director of Marketing and Communications, College of Arts & Sciences, Baylor University

WACO, Texas (Jan. 19, 2022) – A Baylor University faculty member will use a prestigious grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) to make the ideas of one of the greatest medieval philosophers more accessible and understandable to modern readers.

Thomas Ward, Ph.D., associate professor of philosophy in the College of Arts & Sciences, has received a $40,000 NEH research fellowship to prepare a scholarly translation from Latin to English of De Primo Principio (Treatise on the First Principle), a work by John Dun Scotus (1266-1308), a Scottish Catholic priest and Franciscan friar. Ward’s translation will also include his commentary on the treatise.

“The need for a new translation comes from the fact that older translations are out of print, and because the currently authoritative Latin text was published only recently –– in the 21st century,” Ward said. “But the commentary will be as important a part of the project as the English translation. My commentary will help readers to get a deep understanding of Scotus’s complicated reasoning. My hope is that by making Scotus a little less intimidating, through an approachable commentary, more people will be eager to learn all they can from this great master of natural theology.”

Ward said that Scotus and other philosophers and theologians over the centuries have agreed with the Apostle Paul, who said that God’s “invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world (Romans 1:20).” Ward said that Scotus’s De Primo Principio is the best attempt in all of medieval philosophy to try and make the case that there is a “First Cause” of everything, and that because this First Cause has the attributes of divinity, it points to God’s existence.

“Ultimately, I don’t think Christians need philosophical arguments to be good Christians,” Ward said. “As Scotus himself would readily admit, Christian doctrine is first and foremost meant to be lived out in practice rather than understood theoretically. Nevertheless, good philosophical reasoning about divine things is a way for us to use the minds God has given us to ascend the heights of what we can achieve intellectually — not to solve practical problems, but to contemplate the beauty of divinity.”

Other philosophers and thinkers over time have admired Scotus’s work. Thomas Merton, the famous 20th century monk and popular mystical writer, once said of Scotus’s argument for God’s existence that, “for accuracy and depth and scope [it is] the most perfect and complete and thorough proof for the existence of God that has ever been worked out by any man.” British poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, meanwhile, said Scotus was the one “who of all men most sways my spirits to peace.”

Ward, who joined the Baylor faculty in 2017, was inspired to do a new translation of De Primo Principio after he was preparing to teach parts of it in a graduate seminar on Scotus, but discovered that even the most recent translations were out of print, and existing commentaries on the work weren’t very useful to modern students.

“From the beginning I’ve had students in mind as I planned out this project,” Ward said. “I want to get advanced undergraduates and graduate students in philosophy and theology to read more Scotus, and De Primo is a great place to begin.”

Ward’s grant was one of 208 announced in January 2022 by the NEH totaling $24.7 million to support humanities projects nationwide.

“The National Endowment for the Humanities will support humanities research and curricular innovations on campuses across the country,” said Stephen Kidd, NEH executive director. “We are immensely proud of the NEH’s impact across the U.S. and will continue advocating for increased federal support for future grants in 2022 and beyond.”

Todd Buras, Ph.D., chair and associate professor of philosophy, said he believes that the NEH grant received by Ward is a first for his department.

“The National Endowment for the Humanities is among the very most prestigious funding sources for advanced scholarly work in a discipline like philosophy,” Buras said. “It’s a testament to the quality of Dr. Ward’s research, and a credit to Baylor, that he secured one of these research fellowships.”

For his part, Ward said that he is honored to have his research supported in this way.

“Specialists in medieval philosophy don’t get a lot of recognition for their work,” he said. “Many philosophy majors never learn about all the great philosophy done in the Middle Ages, and the vast majority of philosophy departments in the United States have no medievalists. So, despite my great love for medieval philosophy, and Scotus in particular, I’ve slowly come to realize that I inhabit a backwater of the philosophical landscape. That’s why it’s very encouraging to have this recognition.”