Aleksandar Milenković, a first-year doctoral candidate in the Department of Classical Philology, presented the aims and scope of his doctoral dissertation at the first Plenumssitzung of the summer semester on April 19, 2018.
The study of human visual perception elucidates the relationship between ocular physiology, inherited cognitive systems, and the external structures that give shape to conscious understanding. Some of the earliest recorded interpretations of this complex phenomenon date to classical antiquity. These ancient interpretations are the focus of Aleksandar Milenković’s dissertation, which probes concepts of visual perception in Greek scientific thought from the fifth century BC to the second century AD.
By exploring past understandings of a sensory process conditioned by cultural experience, Milenković’s work contributes to one of the core objectives of the Research Training Group 1876: to distinguish innately human concepts, which transcend cultural boundaries, from those that are culturally circumscribed and those that have been transmitted between (or adapted by) distinct cultural groups.
Investigating medical and philosophical texts from a number of ancient Greek sources, Milenković aims to reconstruct a holistic understanding of how Greek thinkers perceived the structure of the visual organ, how they understood the mechanisms of the eye, and how they explained the phenomenon of sight itself.
A notable peculiarity he calls attention to is the limited range of color terms identified in ancient Greek. There is no word corresponding to the color blue, as exemplified in the works of Homer, where the sea is alternately described as black, white, grey, purple, or most memorably, “wine-like” (Hom. Il. 5, 771), he points out.
Nineteenth century scholars puzzled over the visual capacities of the Greeks of the Homeric age. The classicist William Gladstone, a former prime minister of Britain, believed that the “organ of colour and its impressions were but partially developed” in their time (1858), while philosopher and philologist Lazarus Geiger questioned whether it was simply the nomenclature of color that separated us from the ancient Greeks, or whether their perception was indeed fundamentally different from ours (1871).
To further investigate past understandings of vision, Milenković will consult a number of works that reflect the historical development of scientific thought in ancient Greece. He attempts to discern how medical sources, which deal with the pathology of the eye, compare with the treatment of anatomy, physiology, and the process of image transfer and visual perception in philosophical works; as well as how these sources may have influenced one another. Ancient literary works will provide additional comparative material in his study of the terminology of vision.
Fig 1. Aleksandar Milenković presents his dissertation project at the Plenumsitzung on April 19, 2018.
(Photo by Shahrzad Irannejad)
Milenković will also examine a number of documents in the Hippocratic corpus, a collection of some 60 medical texts dating from the ca. fifth century BC to the ca. second century AD, and attributed to different authors with various purposes in mind. These include Prognosticon, a treatise on the interpretation of symptoms in medical practice; Epidemiae, on identifying the symptoms of diseases and tracing their progression; and De locis in homine, which comments on clinical instruction, anatomy, physiology, and pathology.
Through a close contextual reading of sources spanning the Pre-Socratics to Galen, Milenković intends to trace the lineage of scientific thought on the visual apparatus as well as philosophical views on the nature and process of vision. Employing lexical and rhetorical analysis, his work will also contribute to a more nuanced understanding of the origins of Greek scientific writing and the relationships between ancient scientific authors and their intended audiences.