Dr. Meelis Friedenthal

Friedenthal 2

Project: Reception of new philosophical ideas in university disputations (especially regarding religious tolerance and libertas philosophandi)


During Early Modern Period several intellectually relevant changes took place. These changes were not only philosophical or theological but also observable in the organization of institutions and in print culture. A gradual transformation from manuscript culture to print culture took place which did involve not only technical aspects, but also trust in the printed text, stronger self-censorship, new attitudes towards layout and ways of illustrating texts and larger spread of ideas. All this permitted for new intellectual currents to spread firstly outside of universities and secondly to initiate new debates outside the boundaries of academia. Indeed many of the central figures of the change during the 17th century operated outside of academy (eg. Descartes, Hobbes, Spinoza). However, at the end of the 17th century university curricula remained predominantly Aristotelian and only gradually opened up to “modern” philosophy. Universities reacted to the surrounding philosophical debates with different levels of suspicion, sometimes adopting new ideas wholeheartedly and sometimes mentioning them only with condemning attitudes.

Evidence for this process is first of all available from university disputations that offer valuable insight into the reception of new ideas and help to understand the dynamic of the dissemination of ideas. Disputations were the primary method of both instruction and examination in Early Modern universities and thus give insight into the mentality of students and professors, reflecting also the intellectual currents of the time. Such disputations indicate the intellectual situation in given time and area in certain respect better than “great thinkers”, or exceptional individuals.

One of the topics that is usually connected with the Enlightenment is the question about religious tolerance and libertas philosophandi or the freedom of philosophizing. Also the question of “atheism” is strongly associated with the same subject, as it was used as an unspecific accusation against all sorts of heterodox, radical or deviant (antisocial) ideas at that time (also against republicanism, apocalyptic ideas and witchcraft). The debate about atheism and religious tolerance in general rose from philosophical systems that took mechanics, mathematics, and geometry as their basis and thus made it possible to separate the treatment of spirit and matter.

The dissertations and other minor writings are a valuable source for studying the transmission of ideas if we use an active concept of reception. Earlier historiography tended to view the reception of ideas as a rather passive process of becoming aware of and accepting ready-made ideas and theories. However the reception should be rather viewed as an active process, in the course of which new ideas were assimilated and transformed according to the local ideological-cultural and social-political circumstances.

Selected Publications

  • “Kääbustest ja hiiglastest [Of Giants and Dwarfs],” Keel Ja Kirjandus 56, no. 7 (2013): 481-489
  • With Atko Remmel, “Religiooni ja ateismi ajaloost Eestis [On the History of Religion and Atheism in Estonia],” Ajalooline Ajakiri 141/142, no. 3/4 (2012): 203-220
  • “Ateism Varauusajal kui ebakindluse väljendus ja kindluse otsimine [Early Modern Atheism as an Expression of Uncertainty and the Search for Certainty],” Ajalooline Ajakiri 141/142, no. 3/4 (2012): 221-238
  • “Senses and Perception in the Disputations of Academia Gustaviana and Gustavo-Carolina,” Ajalooline Ajakiri 133/134, no. 3/4 (2010): 323-346
  • With Richard G. Newhauser and Tiina Kala, “The Work of an English Scribe in a Manuscript in Estonia,” Scriptorium 62, no. 1 (2008): 139-148.