Donnerstag, 16. Juni 2016

Arabic Commentaries on Hippocratic Aphorisms: An example for exchange of medical and philosophical knowledge transfer

A weblog entry by Shahrzad Irannejad.

On May 19, 2016, the Research Training Group 1876 hosted a presentation (in German) by Prof. Dr. Peter E. Pormann, who gave us material for methodological reflections on how ideas and concepts are borrowed across languages and cultures. Prof. Pormann is the director of the John Rylands Research Institute and Professor of Classics and Graeco-Arabic Studies at the University of Manchester. Through his research, he has so far investigated the many contacts between Muslims, Jews, and Christians writing in Greek, Latin, Hebrew, Syriac and Arabic. Prof. Pormann provided us with a glimpse into his team's major research project entitled 'Arabic Commentaries on the Hippocratic Aphorisms' (Fn. 1). The project examines the entire Arabic commentary tradition on the Aphorisms (from the ninth to the sixteenth century), approaches the available evidence as a corpus, constitutes them electronically, and makes them available for further interdisciplinary analysis. The case of the transmission tradition of this single important medical text throughout centuries can shed light on the extent of innovation in the Arabic commentary tradition. The Hippocratic Aphorisms project shows the potentials in digital humanities and computer-aided text analysis that are implemented towards this end.

What are the Aphorisms?

The Hippocratic Aphorisms is a collection of one liners like "Phthisical persons, the hairs of whose head fall off, die if diarrhea set in", compiled in the fifth century BC and organized in seven books. The thematic structuring of the text is not always self-evident. Medical wisdom of the day was crystalized in these oracular words of the Father of Medicine. These sentences were easy to remember, practical and somewhat vague, and therefore, invited interpretation. This single text generated a strong tradition of commentaries, beginning in antiquity. One of the earliest most important of which was by no other than Galen of Pergamon. The text invited about twelve commentaries in Arabic only, transmitted in about 100 manuscripts. The transmission tradition of this text, thus, consists of the transmission of the text itself, the text as lemmas and the commentaries.

The collection famously opens thus: "Life is short, and art long; the crisis fleeting; experience perilous, and decision difficult." Prof. Pormann drew attention to the attribute "perilous" to hint to an innovative reading of the text by Arabic commentators, to which we shall turn shortly. He further mentioned that part of the importance of studying the Arabic tradition is that some Greek commentaries are lost to us, while their Arabic translation is extant. He then went on to give some details about the ongoing project in Manchester: that the project examines a textual corpus of about one million words long. His team has employed tools of digital humanities to address a set of interdisciplinary problems: textual criticism of the Greek sources, Greco-Arabic translation techniques, methods of source citation, hermeneutic procedures, development of medical theory, and social history of medicine. Through the project undertaken under his supervision, we now have the possibility to compare the original Ancient Greek text, Sergius of Rešʿainā’s Syriac translation and Ibn al-Biṭrīq’s and Ḥunayn ibn ’Isḥāq’s Arabic translations. 
Regarding the Arabic tradition, Prof. Pormann gave us a glimpse into the philological methods that make use of scribal mistakes to delineate the chronology and hierarchy of manuscripts. He then gave examples of mistakes and misunderstandings in the Arabic translations, and how Arabic commentators tried to justify these newly-introduced mistakes by way of innovative interpretations. Further on, two detailed examples were given to demonstrate what is meant by "innovation" in the Arabic commentary tradition. The first example demonstrated how Arabic commentators drew on other sources within the Hellenic heritage to understand the aphorisms. Regarding the aphorism "If a fright or despondency lasts for a long time, it is a melancholic affection", several commentators were introduced who drew on the works of Galen, Aristotle and Rufus to explain what is meant by melancholic in this context.
The second example dealt with an epistemological question in medicine: How can one know if a remedy works? Galen conveys how three different sects in his time dealt with the question: The Methodists, The Dogmatics and The Empiricists. Galen indicates that he himself agrees with the second and the third group, namely, that he deems valid both logical thinking and empirical practice in the medicinal arts (Fn. 2). Prof. Pormann elaborated how the ninth century physician ar-Rāzī, although a devoted adherent of Galen, took Hippocrates as his witness to warn against mere reliance on experience, referring to the opening sentence of the Aphorisms which reads that experience is perilous. There are also numerous occasions where Avicenna discusses the same epistemological question. 
After a brief mention of lexicographical projects in Greco-Arabic studies, and such tools as sketch engine, concordance, context and collocation analysis, which his team makes use of to analyze the commentary corpus, Prof. Pormann ended the presentation by emphasizing on the potentials of digital humanities and open source, open access operation for the various disciplines involved in textual scholarship and interdisciplinary research (Fn. 3). 

[2] For the detailed account see: Galen, "On the Sects for Beginners" in: Walzer, Richard, and Michael Frede. Three treatises on the nature of science. Vol. 592. Hackett Publishing, 1985: 3-20.

[3] For instance, see the Digital Corpus for Graeco-Arabic Studies, supported by Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, Harvard University, Tufts University:


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