372. Strong, Silent Type: the Printing Press

Posted on 9 May 2021

The impact of the printing press on the history of philosophy, and its role in helping to trigger the Reformation.

Further Reading

• A.N. Burnett, Debating the Sacraments: Print and Authority in the Early Reformation (Oxford: 2019).

• A. Coroleu, Printing and Reading Italian Latin Humanism in Renaissance Europe (ca. 1470-ca. 1540) (Newcastle: 2014).

• M.U. Edwards Jr., Printing, Propaganda, and Martin Luther (Berkeley: 1994).

• E.L. Eisenstein, The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe (Cambridge: 2005). Revised edition of E.L. Eisenstein, The Printing Press as an Agent of Change (Cambridge: 1979).

• L. Febvre and H.-J. Martin, Coming of the Book, trans. D. Gerard (London: 1976).

• J.D. Fudge, Commerce and Print in the Early Reformation (Leiden: 2007).

• J.-F. Gilmont and K. Maag (eds), The Reformation and the Book (Aldershot: 1998).

• A. Pettegree, The Book in the Renaissance (New Haven: 2010).


Luke 21 May 2021

Well Peter it's been 11 years now. I'm only 27, so: this podcast has been a fixture through a couple of my formative years, some of my first jobs, and for the last three years my married life.

I always wanted to be an academic and struggled with mental illness issues in school and college, spent a lot of time in special ed and left high school when I was 16. Then I went straight to working full time and going to college which was dismal as I failed just the same in that setting. Being an academic felt like a pipe dream, all I've ever wanted to do is research epistemology and philosophy of science and write on those subjects, and read, listen to and watch anything else academic that I can no matter what it is.

Maybe I'll never be that person. I don't know if it'll pan out just studying and hopefully someday writing good research.

If it doesn't and I can't write that's okay it's enough for me to simply enjoy this kind of stuff. And my god you've been a big part of that, I've heard entire segments, e.g. Aristotle, Indian philosophy, Byzantine philosophy, at least 10-15 times at work. When you work with your hands and it's painful and the hours are long this kind of material is a life saver it makes the day go by and makes you feel like maybe your life isn't just being some faceless thing's monkey.

So I guess that's a roundabout way of trying to express how thankful I've felt over the last 11 years. If you kept at this for another decade I'd still listen to and sometimes relisten every minute of it. And please for god's sake Peter get Oliver back on the show someday, lol, it's absurd that you got to interview one of the foremost experts today on Byzantine manuscripts.

Wow, that's an amazing story - thanks so much for your enthusiasm for the podcast. I'm glad it has given you a way to stay in touch with philosophy, one of my aims has always been to help people engage with this material if they are passionate about it, whether or not they are in the academic world.

Luke 22 May 2021

In reply to by Peter Adamson

Oh even if I contribute very little I most decidedly will attempt to publish some of my work, regardless of whether it's read or if the publisher is literally just academia.edu it's still worth doing something merely for the pleasure of it.

That aside I've been pretty eager the last couple years to see if in the future you plan to do a series on the scientific revolution specifically or just go into the Enlightenment. And I wonder if you'll weigh in on the question of just what science is and how philosophy relates to it.

Zachary 9 June 2021

I'm surprised to hear that even Catholics used Luther's bible. You would think they would try to avoid it, but I suppose it was the only major translation in German at the time.

Yes, amazing right? Actually there was a new version produced not long after Luther's by a rival theologian, from a Catholic perspective; but upon closer inspection it turns out to be basically his translation but edited so as to eliminate distinctively Lutheran elements.

It's interesting you should bring up copyright because copyright as we understand it, if I'm not mistaken (anyone reading this who knows better than me please correct me if I err), basically began with the US constitution. They took the idea from the UK's laws and made it more like what if is today. 


Before then there was copyright... kind of. And it wasn't exactly enforced. So when you're talking about a time roughly three centuries before that, at the time the printing press was popularized, and not in the UK, either, one has to wonder if there was really any legal sense of intellectual property at all.


What's clear enough though is that part of the "culture" of producing literature, since time immemorial, was having pretty much no qualms about mimicry, borderline plagiarism and even full monty plagiarism. Pseudonyms were normal, in a way it wasn't too dissimilar to the internet today, a lack of real accountability in the form of anyone having any control over authors or a way to confirm if they are who they say they are or they aren't fabricating something out or thin air, I mean if we really think about it we should be all too familiar with the way that the idea of intellectual property developed. 


This kind of thing may been so typical that no one really thought anything of the fact that there was a translation made which was little more than an RCC paint job on a Lutheran translation. Would we even have a lot of the bible and other Axial age religious texts if not fit the rampant plagiarism and pseudonymous authors?

Yes, I am not by any means an expert on this but my sense from what I have read about the 16th century situation is the same as what you say here. I think basically we have the emergence of a desire for copyright, or something like it, without any corresponding mechanisms to enforce it (except maybe within one city, if the local ruler(s) is sufficiently motivated). This certainly helped texts spread around like wildfire.

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