Christina Thomsen Thörnqvist

Representation and Reality. Historical and Contemporary Perspectives on the Aristotelian Tradition.

The ancient and medieval Aristotelians were as interdisciplinary as contemporary cognitive scientists. They distinguished carefully between psychology and logic but relied on both disciplines for a full picture of human thought. Modern history of philosophy is highly specialized. There are plenty of brilliant studies on psychological and logical themes, but many are hemmed in by the disciplinary boundaries and miss the full picture. In addition, the fact that numerous texts have received little if any attention makes it hard to follow the development of premodern cognitive theory through all its stages and to see to what extent it actually survived the 17th-century onset of modern philosophy. "Representation and Reality" aims at a fuller picture of premodern cognitive theory in the area from sense-perception to conceptualization. Modern philosophers will collaborate with scholars of Greek, Arabic and Latin Aristotelianism in editing unpublished texts, studying relevant themes across the boundaries and composing three volumes in which their results will be synthesized and brought to bear on contemporary theory. Ancient and medieval philosophy has long been a neglected field in Sweden, but the last decade has seen new expertise emerge. This is put to use by the programme, provided with powerful international backing in the form of academic partnerships and an extended advisory board, and harnessed to an enterprise that will break new ground for the history of Aristotelianism.
Final report

Representation and Reality. Historical and Contemporary Perspectives on the Aristotelian Tradition

Purpose and implementation

Aristotle (384–322 BC) presented his theories on human perception and cognition in his "On the Soul" (De anima) and developed them further in a collection of minor works which circulated under the title "Shorter Works on Nature" (Parva naturalia). Several of these minor works treat a philosophical problem that is still intensely studied by researchers today: when our senses perceive an object in the external world and we think of it, remember it, and perhaps even dream about it, the object is somehow represented in our minds. But how does this come about? The question is important, because it is linked to so many key aspects of how our minds work: how we acquire knowledge, how our imaginations and our intellects work, how we turn sense impressions into linguistic expressions, how we distinguish truth from falsehood, dream from reality, etc. Between Aristotle and our time, the medieval philosophers in the Latin West, Byzantine Greece, and the Islamic world struggled to solve this problem. The main task of "Representation and Reality" has been to analyze this development.

18 researchers, specialists in philosophy, history of philosophy, and classical philology, participated in "Representation and Reality". At the start of the programme, the research group included Sten Ebbesen, Börje Bydén, Katerina Ierodiakonou, Filip Radovic, Ana María Mora-Márquez, Jakob Leth Fink, Taneli Kukkonen, Heine Hansen and Christina Thomsen Thörnqvist. In 2014, Seyed Mousavian and David Bennett were recruited. In the course of the programme, Mora-Márquez, Kukkonen and Hansen left the programme for permanent positions, replaced by Véronique Decaix, Juhana Toivanen and (for shorter periods) Rotraud Hansberger, Pavel Gregoric, Hamid Taieb, Alexander Greenberg, Ahmed Alwishah and Mika Perälä. Additional external funding made it possible also to add Michael Stenskjær Christensen to the group as a PhD candidate.

In addition to regular internal work meetings, a series of workshops with invited guest researchers has been an invaluable engine for collaboration in the group. 23 workshops and six major conferences were organized over the course of the programme. These activities are all listed in the programme publication. In accordance with the proposal, a series of 16 video-recorded lectures by members of the research group and guest speakers was also produced; it is now freely available via the University of Gothenburg video management service GU Play.

The programme's international dimensions and dissemination of the research results

More than 130 researchers from 24 countries collaborated with the research group in the activities mentioned above. Several of the activities were also organized in collaboration with institutions outside Sweden. In addition, an advisory board of 16 leading international scholars regularly contributed to the quality assurance of the programme. The members of the board are listed in appendix A.

The research results generated by the programme have been disseminated through presentations at workshops, conferences and recorded lectures, as well as in publications: see the bibliography in appendix B. With very few exceptions (for output aimed at an audience outside academia), all publications have appeared in English and in peer-reviewed, internationally prominent publication channels and with open access in accordande with the funder's requirements. In accordance with the project proposal, the research group has produced a three-volume collaborative anthology; see appendix B.2.

The programme's most important results

The research results generated by the programme fall into two main categories:
(1) critical editions of medieval commentaries on Aristotle's works on perception, memory, dreams, and concept formation;
(2) studies on the treatment of these topics in Greek, Latin, and Arabic source texts.

(1) 18 critical editions of medieval commentaries on Aristotle have been produced by the members of the research group (see appendix B.3). The majority of these are Latin commentaries (Ebbesen, Stenskjær Christensen, Thomsen Thörnqvist, Toivanen), but also a Byzantine paraphrase of Aristotle's "De anima" (Bydén). Several additional editions are in progress, such as, for instance one of a Byzantine paraphrase of "Parva naturalia" (Bydén).

An inventory of the contents of a number of Latin question commentaries ("quaestiones"; Ebbesen, Thomsen Thörnqvist, Decaix) and a catalogue of Latin commentaries on the third book of "De anima" (c. 1200–c. 1400) have also been published.

(2) The members of the research group have studied the Greek reception of Aristotle's theories on the mechanisms of visual perception, colour vision, and the nature of colours (Ierodiakonou). We have also studied the problem of the number and individuation of our senses in the Greek (Ierodiakonou) and Arabic traditions (Bennett), as well as its influence upon the much later German philosopher Brentano (Taieb). A study of the interrelation of imagination (phantasia), the intellect, and moral character resulted in a volume on phantasia in the Greek, Hebrew, Arabic, and Latin reception of Aristotle's ethics.

The inventory of the contents of medieval commentaries on "Parva naturalia" produced within the programme formed the basis for further research on the development of the Latin tradition. Particularly complex problems were selected for in-depth studies: we have studied the medieval discussion of plant perception (Thomsen Thörnqvist) and debates on the problem of simultaneous perception—that is, for instance, how several sense impressions are combined in such a way that we can perceive different qualities in the same object simultaneously (Toivanen).

Our studies on the Arabic tradition demonstrated how the process of translation strongly shaped the Arabic adoption of Aristotle's theories on human psychology (Bennett). Research by members of the group also showed that theories on various types of delusion were systematized and developed significantly in medieval traditions, not least in the Arabic (Alwishah). A comparative study analyzed the Greek, Latin, and Arabic receptions of what seems to be the earliest surviving description of autoscopy (Radovic and Bennett, including a critical edition and translation by Ebbesen).

The reception of Aristotle's theories on memory was not part of the group's original task, but evolved as a spin-off project, resulting in a volume on the Greek, Latin, and Arabic reception of Aristotle's "De memoria et reminiscentia" ("On Memory and Recollection," with contributions by Decaix, Ebbesen and Thomsen Thörnqvist).

The question why we usually cannot distinguish our dreams from reality when we are dreaming fascinated not only Aristotle but also his successors. "Representation and Reality" has generated new knowledge of how the Byzantine commentators explained this phenomenon (Gregoric) and of traces of Aristotelianism in contemporary philosophical debates on the topic (Radovic). Members of the group have also demonstrated that the Arabic philosophers provided the Latin scholastics with an explanation of the mechanisms of dream formation, sparking the further development of the medieval theories (Thomsen Thörnqvist). Related work included analyses of the development of theories on the phenomenon of sleepwalking (Thomsen Thörnqvist) and of the purportedly prophetic nature of dreams (in Aristotle: Radovic; in the Latin tradition: Ebbesen; in the Arabic: Hansberger).

As with perception and dreams, the research group studied the topic of concept formation across all three linguistic traditions. The three collaborative volumes include an analysis of the attempts of late ancient and medieval philosophers to untangle a difficult but important passage in "De anima" where Aristotle compares the so-called active intellect to light (Bydén). Another study focused on the medieval discussions in the Latin tradition on whether human language is innate or conventional (Ebbesen). Extensive research has been carried out by members of the group on Arabic theories on concept formation (Mousavian and Bennett), including, for instance, an analysis of the Arabic theories of the semantic function of so-called empty names. Further studies have investigated how ancient and medieval theories on concept formation are related to contemporary ones (Mousavian and Greenberg).

The above account of the research results of the programme is by necessity highly selective; for a full overview of the publications by each member of the research group, see the bibliography in appendix B.

New research questions generated through the programme

The philological element of "Representation and Reality" has resulted in a substantial text corpus that is now for the first time accessible for further research. Critical editions of any of the countless medieval works that still remain unedited, particularly of Latin commentaries on "De anima" and of important Arabic sources, would further significantly contribute to improving the conditions for future research within the field. In addition, the majority of the philosophical studies that have been carried out within the framework of the programme have by necessity been limited to one or two of the three major linguistic traditions. In almost all these cases, it would be worthwhile to broaden the investigation to include the traditions that have so far not been considered. In a similar vein, the programme has established the parameters by which these topics may fruitfully be pursued in Aristotle's works in other scientific areas. In other words, the research results of "Representation and Reality" should be seen as a starting point for further studies of how theories of human perception, cognition, and description of the world around us developed from Antiquity to today.

Grant administrator
University of Gothenburg
Reference number
SEK 32,700,000.00
RJ Programmes