372. Strong, Silent Type: the Printing Press

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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 on 21 May 2021

Some sincere thanks from a working stiff

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.

In reply to by Luke

Peter Adamson on 21 May 2021


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.

In reply to by Peter Adamson

Luke on 22 May 2021

With regard to the podcast

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.

In reply to by Luke

James on 12 February 2023

Reply to an older comment

Luke, I'm a bit younger than you, but a lot of the details in your story are startlingly close to some in my own. I too left high school at 16 (for somewhat different reasons, but mental health stuff was present as well), made a mess of college initially, and still wistfully dream of high-level academic studying (and teaching). Epistemology and phil of science are also strong interests. I've only recently discovered the podcast, and have only been "reading around" philosophy on and off for a few years now (Russell's A History of Western Philosophy was my introduction) so I've a ways to go before I'm as widely read as you'd have to be after 11 years (now 13 actually!) with this podcast. I'm kind of curious about what sort of personality-type things could underlie random people having strangely similar interests and experiences (it can be tough to find people who I connect with in terms of interests and attitude/outlook). The little experience I've had poking around Myers–Briggs stuff was subjectively striking, but I'm also aware of how easy it is to notice what you're looking for and not the things that you aren't, and that those sorts of classification systems tend to be pretty shaky in general.


What sort of writing were you thinking of doing?

Zachary on 9 June 2021

Luther's Bible

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.

In reply to by Zachary

Peter Adamson on 9 June 2021

Luther's Bible

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.

In reply to by Peter Adamson

Zachary on 12 June 2021

That's not surprising. I'm…

That's not surprising. I'm guessing copyright laws were pretty lax at the time.

In reply to by Zachary

Luke on 3 December 2021

About copyright

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?

In reply to by Luke

Peter Adamson on 3 December 2021


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.

In reply to by Zachary

Matěj Cepl on 13 February 2023

Czech situation was similar

The same situation happened for us, Czechs (hi, Peter, from Prague to Munich!). Czech Protestants are very proud that we were the fifth nation with the quality humanist (i.e., from original languages) translation of the Holy Bible with the Bible of Kralice, but unfortunately success of Protestants was short-lived. Not that many years after its publication (1593-1620) Czech aristocratic republican government lost the Battle of White Mountain and the forced recatholization begun. Czech Catholics got themselves into an unhappy situation: on the one hand, tradition of Czech translations of Bible (there were more of them, others from Latin) was so strong, that they looked like ignorants for not having a quality one, but they couldn’t admit that the Bible of Kralice was much better than whatever they could create in short time. So, they slightly revised Bible of Kralice to fit better into their theology and published it as the very original Catholic translation called the Saint Wenceslaus Bible, which was for centuries the basic Czech Bible.

Matěj Cepl on 29 September 2022

Not only printing press, but also paper

Everybody celebrates the invention of printing press, but I would consider how incredibly revolutionary was wide introduction of paper. Until that moment (and it was probably slightly earlier than the Gutenberg times, but he still printed some of his Bibles on parchment) every few sheets of parchment required one sheep, so every other book required small flock of sheep, so it couldn't be affordable widely.

In reply to by Matěj Cepl

Peter Adamson on 2 October 2022


That is absolutely true but I didn’t emphasize it so much here because I actually already discussed it in an earlier episode, the one on Byzantine manuscripts. Still, worth repeating!

Ira Gorelick on 2 October 2022

Impact of the Printing Press


You suggested that If you wanted to divide the history of Philosophy into just two periods, it would make a lot of sense to draw the line in the late 15th century dividing the Preprint and post print eras.

I completely agree.  

Do you think it makes sense to say that you could extend this to the study of History in General? That it is not just the History of Philosophy that was changed, but the history of the Military, Education, Religion, Science, Government, etc?

Similar perhaps to the invention of writing?



In reply to by Ira Gorelick

Peter Adamson on 2 October 2022

Impact of printing

Oh absolutely. Actually the secondary literature I drew on for this episode was not mostly about history of philosophy, I kind of extracted from it a story about how printing impacted our subject. But in general I’d say that the most frequent discussions about the impact of printing are about politics and religion, like, the impact of things like cheaply printed pamphlets, newspapers, etc. We’ll continue to follow this story as we go through the 16th and 17th centuries.

Ira Gorelick on 5 October 2022

The Internet is the New Printing Press

Peter, thank you for your reply.

May I add that I think the Internet is the New Printing Press.

I think it is having similar impacts on philosophy, economics, politics, and social networks.

And getting similar push back from the "Powers that Be."

With the Internet everyone is a publisher and can spread that content at the speed of light all over the world.

Additionally, in your podcast you mention how because of writing and printing we don't have to remember as much. With the Internet because of digitization we can "store" and "search" that content in ways Gutenberg, Luther, and Calvin couldn't imagine.  

The Internet has taken the "Index" that made a printed book so much better and put it on super steroids.

The future will be a continuous effort to improve on the "networks" and "algorithms" we use to filter and focus all that content in ways most useful to the community.

The combination of more content, better storage, and super fast search systems will improve the communities ability to find the best solutions to the problems facing that community.  And I believe those communities that embrace this new future will outperform communities that don't.

Just saying.

Thank you for your time. I hope this is not a inappropriate use of this comment section.

I love your podcasts. I listen often. And have been for years.

Ira Gorelick

In reply to by Ira Gorelick

Peter Adamson on 6 October 2022


Yes, that is definitely a persuasive parallel. Of course podcasts would be another illustration of your point!

Ira Gorelick on 11 October 2022

Yes, Podcasts are an…

Yes, Podcasts are an excellent illustration of my point.

Now, we can consume not just text of a page, but audio and video content as well.

And "Learners" can consume learning content at their own pace, in their own time, and in the order they want to consume it in.

It will be interesting to see what kinds of communities take advance of this 21st Century version of the Printing Press. And it will be interesting to see what they do with.

Again thank you for your teaching. It is perfect for our 21st Century hyper-connected digital world.


Ira Gorelick

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