Bob Sweetman

Professional headshot of Robert Sweetman

H. Evan Runner Chair in the History of Philosophy

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416-979-2331 x231

Something Worth Considering...

"The motive driving me to work especially on this subdivision within the history of philosophy was not the expectation of arriving at the originary source of my own systematic . . . Rather, I was moved by the simple conviction that in any historical process, what precedes will determine what comes afterwards, in large measure if not in its entirety."

— D.H.Th. Vollenhoven, "The Consequential Problem-Historical Method"

About My Work

I started out as a medievalist with an eye for odd stories that lay bare the religious impulses at play in the cultures of the Middle Ages. I have become over time an historian of philosophy. As I practice my new trade I find I continue to have an eye for stories, even odd stories, inherent within ancient and medieval thought. What has changed is that my eye is now formed as much by a philosophical agenda as by scholarly delight in telling stories. In fact I want to know all about stories and arguments. When do you best understand life via story and when are you better served by clever argument? That question turns out to be surprisingly complicated. I have traded odd stories for odd scholarly conjunctions. I need to know how thought and language are shaped. What shapes lead to persuasion, by which I mean falling in love with the world so articulated? What shapes trigger suspicion? In my need, I have become a student of figures: conceptual figures, narrative figures, linguistic, imaginative and literary figures. This study has directed me to theory: rhetorical and literary theory, as well as problem-based approaches to philosophical texts and the conceptual figures they mediate—historiographical theory, you might say. All of this philosophical interest, I bring to the study of medieval thought and its ancient sources: in particular, 1. the high scholasticism of the thirteenth century; 2. the “myth”-centred Platonism of the twelfth century; and 3. the mystical flowering among women and men religious in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. In my teaching and writing I illumine the ways thinkers, operating within each of these thought traditions, deployed narrative and argument in order to understand themselves, God and the world. The point of it all is to learn from as well as about women and men who, though very different from ourselves, are yet in our cultural DNA, and whose lives and texts were permeated by the active presence of faith.

Research Foci

  • Narrative in Ancient and Medieval Philosophy and Theology

  • Rhetoric in Ancient and Medieval Philosophy and Theology

  • Spiritual Exercise in Ancient and Medieval Philosophy and Theology

  • Medieval Dominican Life and Mission

  • High Medieval Cura mulierum

  • Thirteenth and Fourteenth Century Female and Male Mysticism

  • Philosophical Historiography of the History of Philosophy

  • The History of Reformational Philosophy


Robert Sweetman, PhD

H. Evan Runner Chair in the History of Philosophy

BA (Calvin College), MSL (The Pontifical Institute for Mediaeval Studies), PhD (University of Toronto)

Robert Sweetman is a trained medievalist specializing in Dominican thought (philosophical, theological, pastoral, mystical) in the thirteenth century. He is particularly interested in the interaction of these different discourses in the thought of Thomas Aquinas, Meister Eckhart, and others. He also is interested in the florescence of women’s contemplative thought and writing that Dominicans supported. He brings these interests and competencies into contact with the Reformational tradition of Christian thought by using them to examine D.H.Th. Vollenhoven’s “problem-historical” historiography of the history of philosophy. Bob is currently finishing a book-length manuscript on the relationship between narrative and argument in thirteenth-century Dominican thought.


My Books

Select Articles, Book Chapters, and Other Works


  • “Exemplary Care: Storytelling and the 'Art of Arts' among Thirteenth-Century Dominicans.” Learning to Love: Schools, Law, and Pastoral Care in the Middle Ages. Esssays in Honour of Joseph W. Goering. Ed. Tristan Sharp, Isabelle Cochelin, Greti Dinkova-Bruun, Abigail Firey, and Giulio Silano. Toronto, ON: The Pontifical Institute for Mediaeval Studies Publications, 2017. 628-646.

  • “Foreword.” Louis Mackey. Faith Order Understanding: Natural Theology in the Augustinian Tradition. Toronto, ON: The Pontifical Institute for Mediaeval Studies, 2011. xi-xxiii.

  • "Univocity, Analogy and the Mystery of Being According to John Duns Scotus." Creation, Covenant and Participation: Radical Orthodoxy and the Reformed Tradition. Ed. James K.A. Smith and James H. Olthuis. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2005. 73-87.

  • "John Paul II's Account of the Unity of Christian Scholarship in Fides et Ratio." That the World May Believe: Essays on Mission and Unity in Honour of George Vandervelde. Ed. Margaret O’Gara and Michael Goheen. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 2006. 203-214.

  • "Haunting Conceptual Boundaries: Miracle in the Summa theologiae of Thomas Aquinas." Limina: Thresholds and Boundaries. Ed. J. Goering, F. Guardini and G. Silano New York: Legas, 2005. 63-72.

  • "Plotting the Margins: An Historical Episode in the Management of Social Plurality." Towards an Ethics of Community: Negotiations of Difference in a Pluralist Age. Ed. James H. Olthuis. Waterloo ON: Wildred Laurier University Press, 2001. 11-35.

  • "When Popular Piety and Theological Learning Conjoin: St. Bonaventure on Demonic Powers and the Christian Soul." Fides et Historia 23 (1991): 4-18.

"Mythologizing" Platonism

  • "Love, Understanding, and the Mystical Knowledge of God." Mystics, Visions and Miracles. Ed. J. Goering, F. Guardiani, G. Silano. New York: Legas, 2002. 173-183.


  • “Sin Has Its Place, but All Shall Be Well: The Universalism of Hope in Julian of Norwich (c. 1342-c. 1416).” “All Shall Be Well:” Explorations in Universalism and Christian Theology, from Origen to Moltmann. Ed. Gregory MacDonald. Eugene: Cascade Books, 2011. 66-92.

  • "Exempla and the Promotion of Religious Identity: Gerard of Frachet’s Vitae fratrum." Weapons of Mass Instruction: Secular and Religious Institutions Teaching the World. ed. Joseph Goering, Francesco Guardiani, Giulio Silano. Ottawa: Legas, 2008. 41-50.

  • "Nisi necessitate et utilitate: Catherine of Sienna’s Dominican Confessors and the Principles of a Licit Pastoral 'Irregularity'." Rule Makers and Rule Breakers. Ed. Joseph Goering, Francesco Guardiani, Giulio Silano. Ottawa: Legas, 2006. 199-210.

  • "Christine the Astonishing." Women and Gender in Medieval Europe: An Encyclopedia. Ed. Margaret Schmauss. New York: Routledge, 2006.

  • "Talking Dirty, Analogically Speaking." Pro Rege 32 (2004): 16-19.

  • "Thomas of Cantimpré and the Performative Reading of Scripture: A Study in Two Exempla," With Reverance for the Word: Medieval Exegesis in Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Ed. J. MacAuliffe, Barry Walfish and Joseph Goering. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003. 256-275.

  • "Love, Understanding, and the Mystical Knowledge of God." Mystics, Visions and Miracles. Ed. J. Goering, F. Guardiani, G. Silano. New York: Legas, 2002. 173-183.

  • "Of Women, Ire and Other Dangerous Things." Fides et Historia 32 (2000): 127-133.

  • "Thomas of Cantimpré, Performative Reading and Pastoral Care." Performance and Transformation: New Approaches to Late Medieval Spirituality. Ed. Mary Suydam and Joanna Ziegler. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999. 134-163.

  • "Thomas of Cantimpré, Mulieres Religiosae and Purgatorial Piety: Hagiographical Vitae and the Beguine 'Voice'." In a Distinct Voice: Medieval Studies in Honor of Leonard E. Boyle O.P. ed. Jacqueline Brown and William Stoneman. Notre Dame IN: University of Notre Dame, 1997. 606-626.

  • "Christianity, Women and the Medieval Family." Religion, Feminism and the Family. The Family, Religion and Culture. Ed. Anne Carr and Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen. Louisville: John Knox/Westminster Press, 1996. 127-147.

  • "Visions of Purgatory and Their Role in the Bonum universale de apibus of Thomas of Cantimpré." Ons Geestelijk Erf 67 (1993): 20-33.

  • "Christine of St. Trond and Her Preaching Apostolate: Thomas of Cantimpré's Hagiographical Method Revisited." Vox Benedictina 7 (1992): 67-97.

I have been attempting to bring these disparate studies together for a number of years into a book-length synthesis entitled Exemplary Care: Stoic Therapy, Dominican Pastoral Literature and the Transformation of the Human Person, 1225-1275 in which I articulate what I am coming to see as the proper spheres of narrative and argumentative understanding in interaction with these medieval interlocutors.

In addition, I have taken responsibility for thinking about and using stories to understand the Reformational tradition of Christian scholarship that continues to animate the teaching and writing of ICS faculty. This has taken the form of two book-length studies. I edited and contributed to a study, entitled In the Phrygian Mode: Antiquity, Neo-Calvinism and the Lamentations of Reformational Philosophy (Lanham MD: University Press of America, 2007), examining the Reformational tradition in its relation to Antiquity, both as a source of philosophical and theological thought but also as a perduring cultural ideal. A second book-length study entitled Tracing the Lines: Spiritual Exercise and the Gesture of Christian Scholarship (Currents in Reformational Thought series, Wipf and Stock, 2016) attempts to relate the Reformational tradition to sister traditions within the Christian academy and to the sources it shares with them. The point is to suggest ways of thinking that serve to foster renewed communication and cross-fertilization among the traditions around the Christian integrity of scholarship and that serve as well to invite thought about faith and scholarship among groups of Christian scholars not presently attracted to the enterprise.

More of my projects can be found listed on the ICS Research Portal.



Courses and Syllabi

Theses Supervised at ICS


      • Theo Avram S.J., "The Nature of Belief in the Philosophical Thought of Bernard Lonergan and Alvin Plantinga: A Propaedeutic for an Extended Synthesis," Defended June 2019.

      • Julia Rosalinda de Boer, "The Allusivity of Grammar: Developing Theory and Pedagogy for Linguistic Aesthetics," Defended January 2018.

      • Jonathan Emil Polce S.J., "Unwrapping the Gift: Empty Notion or Valuable Concept?" Defended June 2016.

      • Dean Dettloff, "From Cynical Reason to Spiritual Creativity: An Exercise in Religious Anthropodicy," Defended December 2015.

      • Stefan Knibbe, "A Different Conversion of a Different C.S. Lewis: An Analysis of Surprised By Joy," Defended May 2015.

      • Carolyn Mackie, "'Two things at the Same Time': Fordobelse in Kierkegaard's Writings," Defended November 2014.

      • Andrew R. Van’t Land, "The Rhetorical Roots of Radical Orthodoxy: Augustinian Oratory and Ontology in Milbank’s Theopo(e/li)tics," Defended August 2013.

      • Richard Greydanus, "'All that Man Has and Is:' A Study of the Historiographical Concerns Guiding the Work of Christopher Dawson," Defended October 2008.

      • Carlos Bovell, "Rhetoric More Geometrico in Proclus' Elements of Theology and Boethius' De Hebdomadibus," Defended November 2007.

      • Michael Mols, "Bernard of Clairvaux on the Song of Songs: A Contemporary Encounter with Contemplative Aspirations," Defended November 2007.

      • Yvana Mols, "Weil, Truth and Life: Simone Weil and Ancient Pedagogy as a Way of Life," Defended August 2007.

      • Stephan Zylstra, "Teleology in the Thought of William of Ockham," Defended July 2007.

      • Jon Zeyl, "Michel Foucault's Ascesis and the Christian Epistemologization of the Subject in Foucault’s Genealogical Technique de soi ," Defended August 2006.

      • Eric Kamphof, "The Tri-unity of Life: On the Unity of the Vollenhovian Project," Defended October 2004.

      • Yorick Schultz-Wackerbarth, "Discovering Connection: The Dynamic Tension and a 'More-Than' in an Eckhartian Conception of the Soul," Defended April 2004.

      • Michael De Moor, "Not Ideas About the Thing but the Thing Itself: Thomas Reid's Epistemology in the Light of Aristotle's De Anima," Defended October 2003.

      • Yana Filippenko, "The Metaphor of Language in St. Augustine's Philosophy of Imago Dei," Defended November 2000.

      • Chris Cuthill, "Mutilated Music: Towards an After Auschwitz Aesthetic," Defended November 1999.


      • Joshua Harris, "Neither Solitary Nor Diverse: Transcendental Multiplicity in Thomas Aquinas," (VU/ICS), Defended September 2019.

      • Benjamin Groenewold, "Beyond Contempt: Interpreting Technology with Hugh of St. Victor," (ICS), Defended October 2018.

      • Rachel McGuire, "The Dangerously Divine Gift: A Biblical Theology of Power," (ICS), Defended February 2015.

      • Allyson Ann Carr, "Fiction as Philosophy: Reading the Work of Christine de Pizan and Luce Irigaray to Write a Hermeneutics of Socially Transformative Fiction-mediated Philosophy," (ICS), Defended June 2011.

      • Daniel Napier, "From the Circular Soul to the Cracked Self: A History of Augustine’s Anthropology from Cassiciacum to the Confessiones," (VU—Theology), Defended October 2010.

      • Adam Barkman, "The Philosophical Christianity of C.S. Lewis: Its Sources, Content and Formation," (VU/ICS), Defended June 2009.

Theses Supervised at TST


      • Andrea Budgey, "Diversity as Religious Good in Late Medieval England: Uthred of Bolden's Diversitas vivendi in Context," (Trinity), Approved 2006.

      • Pauline Head, "'I would be One of Them and Suffer With Him': Relationship, Sin and Redemption in Julian of Norwich’s Theology of the Trinity," (Trinity), Approved 2004.

      • Henry MacErlain OESA, "Presuppositions to Education According to St. Augustine on Religious Education," (St. Michael's), Approved 2004

      • Colin Kerr, "The Human Author in the Exegesis of St. Augustine's Early Episcopate," (St. Michael's), Approved October 2002.

      • Jeremy Bergen, "The Politics of History in John Milbank's Use of Augustine's City of God," (St. Michael's), Approved October 2002.


      • Ann M.T. Sirek Eperjesi, "The Problem With Solutions: Thomistic Narratives of Suffering as an Alternate Foundation for Medical Ethics," (St. Michael's), Defended August 2018.

      • Eric Mabry, "Inquantum est temporaliter Homo factum: Background, Reception, Meaning and Relevance of the Hypothesis of esse secundarium in the Christology of Thomas Aquinas," (St. Michael's), Defended May 2018.

      • Jean-Pierre Fortin (co-supervision) "Grace in Auschwitz: A Glimpse of Light in Utter Darkness," (St. Michael's), Defended April 2014.

      • Jennifer Constantine Jackson, "Redeemed Conversation: Selected Medieval Contributions to a Theology of Discourse," (Regis), Defended September 2012.

      • Ella Johnson, "Liturgical Exercise as a Theological Anthropology in Gertrud the Great of Helfta’s Documenta spiritualium exercitionum," (St. Michael’s), Defended September 2010.

      • Kevin Vaughan, "Thomas Aquinas' Mystical Interpretation of the Fourth Gospel in the Lectura Super Ioannem," (St. Michael's), Defended January 2009.

      • Michael Dempsey, "Fully Human, Fully Divine: The Mystery of Divine Providence in the Theology of Thomas Aquinas and Karl Barth" (St. Michael's), Defended September 2003.