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Compiled by Anthony Harrison-Barbet


(c. 1170 — 1253)



Robert Grosseteste was born in Stradbroke, Suffolk and studied at Oxford and Paris. From about 1198 he taught at Oxford, subsequently becoming Chancellor of the University and later the first lecturer to the Franciscans. In 1235 he was appointed Bishop of Lincoln. A friend of Simon de Montfort, he was often involved in disputes with both the Church and King Henry III. He translated a number of works from the Greek, including the Nicomachean Ethics; and his own writings encompass not only original philosophical works but also a wide range of other subjects including mathematics and agriculture.



[1] The central concept in Grosseteste's philosophy is that of original light (lux) [see On Light]. He understands this to have been created by God, together with unextended finely divided prime matter, as a dimensionless point. Light is temporal and the first 'corporeal form', that is, it unites with matter to produce a non-dimensional simple substance [a] which then, by virtue of its property of diffusion, multiplies itself and spreads out in all directions to produce the extended outermost sphere, the firmament. Diffusion of reflected light (lumen) from the firmament back towards the centre then occurs, giving rise to nine unchanging celestial spheres [b] and within these the four perishable infra-celestial spheres — fire, air, water, and lastly earth. God Himself can be identified with Light, but in this case it is pure and eternal, and is the exemplary form of individual things [c] which He has created as existing in time [c] [On the Unique Form of all Things] . All things thus share the same corporeal form of prime matter, but each is individual by virtue of its possession of its own hierarchy of forms added to its body. Grosseteste therefore accepts the doctrine of a plurality of forms and also that of universal hylomorphism [d]. Light is held to account for colour ("light embedded through transparency"), whiteness (as abundance in "pure transparency"), and blackness ("scarcity in impure transparency") [see On Colour]; and also motion ("the multiplied force of light") [On Corporeal Motion and Light]. It is light which enables to soul to act on the body [e].



[2] [See On the Truth of First Principles.] Sense experience of itself cannot provide knowledge in a strict sense; it has to be corrected by reason, to eliminate any imperfections or distortions introduced through the imagination. But as a result of sensory stimuli the intellect, the higher aspect of the soul, is illuminated by divine spiritual light and is thereby enabled to acquire knowledge of individual essences or things and their conformity to the eternal Word, that is, knowledge of truth [a]. The mind, however, does not perceive God directly and need not even be aware that is the divine illumination that makes knowledge possible [b].



[3] [See especially Commentaries on Aristotle's Physics and Posterior Analytics.] Grosseteste was perhaps the first philosopher to describe scientific method in terms of an 'analytic-synthetic' (resolutio-compositio) process. A scientific problem is first broken down into its simplest aspects (the 'analysis'). A hypothesis is then constructed to show how these basics might be combined to account for the phenomenon (this is 'synthesis'). Experiments can be conducted, both to help in the framing of the hypothesis and to test its truth or falsity. By controlling observations it might be possible to show a particular cause always produces a given effect [a]. The scientist then is not just an empirical observer; reason has a major role to play in the construction of deductive systems and in the apprehension of first principles and the laws of nature. And mathematics — which for Grosseteste deals not with real or objective entities but with abstract concepts [b] — could be used to describe local motion.



With his combination of an Augustinian Neoplatonic philosophy with an empirico-mathematical view of science Grosseteste epitomized the influential Oxford school of thought in the thirteenth century. And he also represented one of several significant, and more positive responses to the encroaching Aristotelianism seen by many as posing a threat to Christian orthodoxy. His original use of the concept of light is a key feature of his thought, as is his advocacy of the analytic-synthetic method in the natural sciences. However, it can be argued that if his science and metaphysics are complementary and mutually consistent this has been achieved at the cost of subordinating the former to the latter. Likewise one may be critical of his limitation of the role given to sense-experience in his account of knowledge and truth as the counterpart of his appeal to divine illumination.



Grosseteste: De luce (On Light); De motu corporali et luce (On Corporeal Motion and Light); De unica forma omnium (On the Unique Form of all Things); Commentaries on Aristotle's Physics and Posterior Analytics. Selections in McKeon, op. cit., vol. I, ch. 7.


S. P. Marrone, William Auvergne and Robert Grosseteste: New Ideas of Truth in the Early Thirteenth Century.

J. McEvoy, The Philosophy of Robert Grosseteste.

Collection of Essays

D. A. Callus (ed.), Robert Grosseteste, Scholar and Bishop.






[1a] Light temporal and the first corporeal form — unites with matter




[4d e]


[1b] Celestial spheres    Aristotle [12d]


[1c] God: eternal Light and exemplary form of created things



[2a 4b c]

[2a 4d]


[1c; cf. 1a] World created in/ with time






[1d] Form and matter; plurality of forms; individuation by forms; universal hylomorphism


Wm of Auvergne


Bacon (Roger)




[1f 3e]

[1b c]

[4a c g]


[1e 2a] Light and action of soul on body: knowledge — sense-perception, reason, illumination; knowledge of essences and eternal truth (conformity to Word)




Bacon (Roger)



[1b g 2a c]

[5a b]


[4e 6c]


[2b] Indirect knowledge of God


Bacon (Roger)

[1h 2c]



[3a] Scientific method: 'analysis' and 'synthesis'; hypotheses, experiments; observation and causation


Bacon (Roger)






[3b] Mathematics and abstract concepts Bacon (Roger) [2b]