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The Greek Commentators on Phantasia, Nous and Concept Formation

Project leader: B. Bydén

The Problem

Aristotle was no admirer of Plato’s theory of recollection. In the last chapter of the Posterior Analytics he dismissed the idea of innate knowledge of scientific principles as absurd and proceeded to outline his own theory of concept formation through sense-perception, memory and experience. This theory being apparently intended as a more reasonable alternative to Plato’s, it is hardly surprising that Platonic philosophers in Late Antiquity saw fit to call attention to its weaknesses. How, for instance, can the repeated perception of more or less imperfect sense-objects by itself engender the precise concepts of mathematics etc.? And then there is the problem of induction and others.

What is perhaps more intriguing is that many Platonic philosophers in Late Antiquity also interpreted the two theories as perfectly compatible, either because they considered them as dealing with different kinds of concept or else because they saw Platonic principles silently at work at the heart of Aristotle’s theory. Their interpretations were probably facilitated by the fact that the account in the last chapter of the Posterior Analytics leaves a lot to be filled in by the reader. To supplement this account the Platonic philosophers turned primarily to the discussions of phantasia (or imagination) and nous (or intellect) in Aristotle’s De anima 3.3–8. In their commentaries on these chapters they give abundant proof of their capacity for reorganizing Aristotle’s trains of thought in creative and (to themselves) meaningful ways. They ascribe crucial roles in the process(es) of concept formation both to phantasia, sometimes identified with the ‘passive’ nous, in which perceptible forms are stored as potential objects of intellection, and to the ‘active’ or ‘productive’ nous, which makes the potential objects of intellection into actual ones. The exact nature of these two faculties as well as the details of the relevant process(es) were the subject of much debate.

Byzantine commentators on the Posterior Analytics and the De anima are heavily dependent on the Platonic philosophers of Late Antiquity. But an additional problem presented itself. The theory of recollection seemed to entail the pre-existence of the soul, and this conflicted with Christian doctrine. On the other hand, it was widely believed that souls were created perfect by God, which counted in favour of some sort of innate concepts. This is why we find, for instance, Eustratius of Nicaea (in the early 12th century) and others struggling to articulate a theory that steers clear of both reincarnation and the infamous tabula rasa. In spite of their anti-Platonic intentions, these attempts end up in what is substantially very close to a Neoplatonic interpretation of Aristotle already put forward in the 6th century by another Christian, John Philoponus.

It seems to be a common view these days that the positions of the 17th-century empiricists and rationalists owe more to Hellenistic philosophy than to Plato and Aristotle. My suspicion is that once it is taken into full account that Plato and Aristotle were read by the early modern thinkers through the lenses of the late antique and medieval commentators, this view will have to be considerably modified. By the same token, I think a fuller appreciation of the continuity of the reception of Aristotle across these period boundaries will serve to bring into relief the truly revolutionary nature of 19th- and 20th-century scholarship.

Main Questions

It is only recently that the late antique criticism of Aristotle’s theory of concept formation, on the one hand, and the harmonization of this theory with the Neoplatonic epistemological and ontological frameworks, on the other, have begun to be studied in depth. Many problems remain to be solved, not least as to how the criticism and the harmonization are related: they are parallel strands in the same school of thought, and at least occasionally in the same individual thinkers. I would like to examine to what extent these strands can be systematically integrated and to what extent we have to think of them as the expressions of situationally (or contextually) determined attitudes. This problem is even more pressing for Byzantine authors, some of whom seem to commit themselves to rather strong versions of both empiricism and innatism in different contexts (Nikephoros Gregoras, Barlaam of Calabria). The Byzantine texts on concept formation have been very little studied. Some preliminary forays into the field were made in my dissertation (2003), where I especially discussed the ontology and epistemology of mathematics in some late Byzantine texts and their ancient sources.


2013: I am currently preparing (for CAGB) a critical edition of Metochites’ paraphrase/commentary on Aristotle’s De Anima, with an English translation and a source apparatus. My first task would be to finish this edition, which would take about a year.

2014–15: My second task would be to make a full systematic comparison of the content of the four surviving late antique and the four late Byzantine commentaries (two of which are still unedited) on De anima 3.3, on the basis of the source studies carried out for (1). In connection with this I would also examine the five Byzantine commentaries on the De Memoria (one of which is still unedited). This would take about 18 months; the results would be published as part one of a monograph on ‘The Greek Commentators on Phantasia’.

2015–16: My third task would be to repeat the procedure of (2) for the commentaries on De Anima 3.4–8. Again, the duration would be about 18 months and the results would be published as part two of the abovementioned monograph.

2017–19: Fourthly, I would bring the results of (2) and (3) to bear on a detailed analysis of the discussions of concept formation in the late antique and Byzantine commentaries on Posterior Analytics 2.19 as well as other relevant texts (from Antiquity, e.g. Porphyry, On Ptolemy’s Harmonics, Proclus, On Plato’s Parmenides and On Euclid 1; Syrianus, On Metaphysics 13–14; from Byzantium, e.g. texts by Nikephoros Choumnos, Joseph Rhakendytes, Nikephoros Gregoras and Barlaam of Calabria). This is the core part of my project; I estimate that it will take me three years. The results would best be published as a monograph.

Relation to Other Sub-Projects

My sub-project connects in particular with Ierodiakonou in its first phase (1) and more generally with Mora-Márquez and Fink. My investigation of phantasia and phantasmata leads directly to questions concerning concept formation. Further, Hansen will need my results especially concerning nous. It is still to be investigated to what extent Byzantine ideas influenced Arabic and Latin Aristotelians

Page Manager: Andreas Ott|Last update: 3/18/2013

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