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The negative dialectic of Lorenzo Valla: a study in the pathology of opposition

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Lorenzo Valla's humanistic and philosophical works are characterized by a great deal of innovation and dissent, and the essay seeks to define Valla as an opposition intellectual. Drawing initially on evidence from Valla's correspondence with other humanists, the essay demonstrates that Valla's works were perceived as both revolutionary and oppositional by his contemporaries. Two of the more controversial moments in Valla's biography are then examined closely – his dismissal from his teaching position at the university of Pavia in 1433 and his examination before the Inquisition at Naples in 1444. Features of his personality that may have contributed to Valla's tendency towards provocation are also considered, and Valla emerges as an exemplary instance of the theory of negative dialectic, of a thinker who was more comfortable in defining himself against existing doctrines and theories than in fashioning new ones. Such a posture aided Valla in promoting the notion of intellectual freedom as a revival of ancient notions of philosophical liberty, but it also aided him in constructing a conception of modern scholarship as capable of independently evaluating texts, theories, and authors apart from their received or canonical status. Valla's endorsement of a competitive notion of cultural contestation thus marks him as an early instance of a truly modern thinker.

Document Type: Original Article


Publication date: 2000-06-01

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