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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.

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.


I am preparing (for CAGB) two volumes of critical editions: (1) Theodore Metochites’ paraphrase of Aristotle’s De anima; (2) Theodore Metochites’ paraphrases of Aristotle’s De sensu, De memoria, De somno et vigilia, De insomniis and De divinatione per somnum. All editions come with an English translation and a source apparatus.

Simultaneously, I am working on four articles on various topics related to late antique/Byzantine discussions of Aristotle’s theory of intellect: (1) “Aristotle’s Light Analogy in the Greek Tradition”, (2) “Alexander of Aphrodisias on Concept Formation”, (3) “Themistius on Concept Formation”, (4) “Plutarch of Athens, Ammonius, Philoponus and Ps.-Philoponus on Aristotle’s ‘tabula rasa’”.

My publications so far include an outline of the study and reception of Aristotle’s Parva naturalia from antiquity to the 21st century (2018) and a more detailed account of the Byzantine fortuna of the only late antique commentary on any of these treatises, namely Alexander of Aphrodisias’ In De sensu (2019).

Page Manager: Andreas Ott|Last update: 3/4/2019

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