Donnerstag, 3. Mai 2018

Aleksandar Milenković: Concepts of visual perception in Greek scientific thought from the 5th century BC to the 2nd century AD

A weblog entry by Aimee Miles.

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’s survey begins with pre-Socratic theorists and philosophers such as Alcmaeon of Croton, who lived in southern Italy ca. 500-450 BC. A distinguished medical writer, naturalist, and philosopher, Alcmaeon had a notable influence on the writings of Aristotle and Aristotle’s pupil, Theophrastus – although texts directly attributed to Alcmaeon survive in only fragmentary condition.
In Metaphysics (A 5 986 a 31ff) Aristotle cites Alcmaeon’s dualist doctrine, which posits that most natural phenomena occur in pairs such as sweet and bitter, or good and evil. Alcmaeon’s theory of visual perception, preserved in the writings of Theophrastus, represents the first recorded concept of visual perception in Greek scientific thought, Milenković notes.
In De Sensu (25-26), Theophrastus cites Alcmaeon’s study of the human body when he distinguishes sense from thought and understanding. He also identifies the brain as the seat of thought and denotes “passages” (póroi) as pathways for the senses. Alcmaeon regarded the eye as a binary structure containing water (the “transparent part”) and fire (“the glittering part”); the former constituting a surrounding entity and the latter evinced by the “sparking” effect produced when the eye sustains a blow. This dualism infuses Alcmaeon’s conceptualization of health and disease, which he conceived as an equality or an imbalance of powers, respectively.
Milenković also takes an interest in Plato’s dialogues Timaeus, which speculates on the order of the universe and the creation of human beings, and Theatetus, on the nature of knowledge, both authored in the 4th century BC. Plato was ostensibly influenced by early philosophers including Alcmaeon, Diogenes and Democritus. Aristotle later drew from his mentor’s works in composing Physika, a treatise on nature and the motion of natural entities, and Parva naturalia, on the body and soul. His pupil Theophrastus critiqued the ideas of earlier philosophers on the psychology of sense perception in De Sensu

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. 
The survey is bookended by the Greek physician and philosopher Galen, who advanced the Hippocratic philosophy of medicine in the second century AD. Galen wrote prolifically on subjects including the physiology and anatomy of parts of the body in De usu partium, pathology in Ars medica, and pharmacology in De simplicium medicamentorum temperamentis et facultatibus; as well as commentaries on the doctrines of Plato and Hippocrates in De placitis Hippocratis et Platonis.

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.

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