Mining Ancient Thought

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Science is a continual march forward. The past is a mass of ignorance and superstition. Looking back is a mistake. Right? Well, maybe not completely.

It turns out some thinkers of the past still have things to say. On this page I'm collecting examples of researchers who are using modern techniques to reexamine the work of past scientists and scholars.

Feel free to suggest other examples in the comments.



Robert Grosseteste (c. 1170-1253)

  • About the Ordered Universe - Ordered Universe - "Bringing together a unique configuration of natural scientists, social scientists and arts and humanities scholars, the project integrates the conceptual tools of modern science with the textual methods of the humanities to explore the richness of Grosseteste’s thought. ... We have challenged academic and public preconceptions regarding the value of past science as ‘irrelevant’. To the contrary: the team has published new science (on rainbows, colour and cosmology) inspired by engaging with another thinker from eight centuries ago."
  • Medieval multiverse heralded modern cosmic conundrums - New Scientist - An example of the Ordered Universe project's work. "When physicists translated a 13th-century Latin text into modern equations, they discovered that the English theologian who wrote it had unwittingly predicted the idea of the multiverse in 1225. While the work probably won’t advance current models, it does show that some of the philosophical conundrums posed by cosmology are surprisingly pervasive."



  • Lawrence Principe - Chemical & Engineering News - "Principe, a professor of both organic chemistry and the history of science at Johns Hopkins University, researches and reconstructs the lab work of late-medieval and early-modern alchemists with the goal of understanding their motives, what they actually knew, and how they helped shape modern-day chemistry."
  • Reconstructing Alchemical Experiments - Chemical & Engineering News - An example of Principe's work, discovering the conditions for reproducing George Starkey's "tree" of gold. These studies are on the edge of my definition of ancient thought mining. Principe's purpose is primarily historical, but along the way he makes some surprising finds that could add some knowledge to modern chemistry.


Medieval medicine

  • Ancientbiotics: Medieval Medicines for Modern Infections - The Recipes Project - The Ancientbiotics project surveys and tests remedies from past centuries in order to combat antimicrobial resistance. "As a truly interdisciplinary effort between the Arts and Sciences, the Ancientbiotics project has opened new and significant pathways to antimicrobial drug discovery, but it has also challenged the popular categorization of the medieval period as a ‘Dark Age,’ and the centuries-long pattern of dismissing medieval medical texts as ‘unenlightened’ by reason and scientific discovery."


The seven deadly sins tradition

  • Dennis Okholm, Dangerous Passions, Deadly Sins: Learning from the Psychology of Ancient Monks - "My contention is that ascetic theologians and monastics of the fourth through seventh centuries (particularly Evagrius, Cassian, and Gregory) provide the church with a psychology which is not only specifically Christian in its orientation, but relevant to modern people if taken seriously. At the same time, quite often the claims ascetic theologians and monastics make about life issues are borne out by the empirical observations of contemporary psychology." (8)


Drawing from the past is fairly common in the humanities. Some scholars, though, are especially purposeful about it.


Natural law theory

  • Alejandra Mancilla, The Right of Necessity: Moral Cosmopolitanism and Global Poverty (Rowman and Littlefield 2016) - New Books in Global Ethics and Politics - Mancilla draws from the work of older thinkers such as Grotius and Samuel von Pufendorf to examine the rights of the poor in meeting their own needs. "Grotius's project nowadays has been rescued and ... some people have tried to separate his ideas from this theological background ... [I]f you take Pufendorf's discourse, it's quite easy to cache it out in contemporary terms in the language of human rights. For Grotius that is not such an easy step to take. So ... contra Alisdair MacIntyre, for example, who would be totally opposed to taking old concepts and reapplying them to contemporary contexts, ... I think that so long as you keep in mind the different contexts and the different discussions, it is very useful, and it is very illuminating to bring old concepts back and see what they can do for us." (28:01)
  • What the Old Right of Necessity Can Do for the Contemporary Global Poor - Journal of Applied Philosophy - An article summarizing Mancilla's book. "Some may point out that one need not go all the way back to the medieval and early modern accounts of the right of necessity, considering that this right is already recognised in most penal codes around the world ... On the contrary, as I said above, the point of reviving the medieval and early modern conception of the right of necessity is that it expands both the origin and kind of need that make its exercise permissible."


Retrieval theology

  • W. David Buschart and Kent Eilers, Theology as Retrieval: Receiving the Past, Renewing the Church - "As we use the term, 'retrieval' names a mode or style of theological discernment that looks back in order to move forward. ... Thus, while the moment at hand faces the theologian with challenges and opportunities, her response is generated by unembarrassed recourse to the doctrinal, liturgical, and spiritual assets of the Christian tradition. Such recourse is many times not uncritical, but it is nonetheless caused by the theologian's mindfulness of her place in the middle of a tradition of faith from which forgotten, lost or unappreciated resources wait to be recruited. ... In this way, theologies of retrieval are not doing anything fundamentally novel; rather they intensify an element of Christian theological method present from its inception." (12, 13, 21)
  • Thomas H. McCall, An Invitation to Analytic Christian Theology - "[A]nalytic theology signifies a commitment to employ the conceptual tools of analytic philosophy where those tools might be helpful in the work of constructive Christian theology. ... [While some analytic theology studies the work of past centuries using analytic tools,] [o]ther analytic theology listens closely and respectfully to the tradition but seeks to go beyond exposition and explanation. This work actively evaluates various theological proposals from the tradition, and does so critically as it tries to mine the riches of the tradition for theological materials that will be useful in constructive work. " (Kindle locations 128-129, 1288-1291)