Bryn Mawr Classical Review 94.10.17


Paul Lettinck and J. O. Urmson (edd., trans.), Philoponus, On Aristotle's Physics 5-8, with Simplicius, On Aristotle on the Void. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1994. Pp. x + 267. $44.50. ISBN 0-8014-3005-4.


Reviewed by Lee T. Pearcy, The Episcopal Academy.

As the tenth century turned into the eleventh, several generations of scholars in Baghdad devoted their energies to understanding Aristotle's analysis of motion. They had texts of the Physics in Greek as well as translations into Arabic and Syriac, and they were able in addition to refer to commentaries, among them the work of a commentator they knew as Yahya an-Nahwi. Yahya an-Nahwi means "John the Grammarian," and we know him as John Philoponus, the Christian Neoplatonist of the sixth century. At some time before 1004 one of these scholars of Baghdad, Abul-Husayn al-Basri, prepared a variorum edition of the work of several commentators on the Physics. Al-Basri's collection included a condensed paraphrase of Yahya an-Nahwi's commentary on Physics 5 -8. That Arabic paraphrase here appears in English for the first time. Along with the Arabic Philoponus comes a work more accessible to classical philologists, Simplicius' commentary on Aristotle's idea of void, part of his vast commentary on Book 4 of the Physics.

Barbara Obrist, reviewing an earlier volume in this series of Ancient Commentators on Aristotle for BMCR, pointed to the richness of possibilities in these complex texts. They look back to ancient philosophy, for which the problems of motion, change, and identity were fundamental. They look ahead to medieval European philosophy and its concern with motion through a continuum or in a void, and thus to the beginnings of modern mechanics and physics. If Thomas Kuhn was correct in claiming that the shift from Aristotelian dynamics to the medieval theory of impetus constituted a paradigm shift, a scientific revolution, then Philoponus, because of his rejection of Aristotelian dynamics and advocacy of something very like the medieval European theory of impetus, becomes a crucial figure in the history of science. This particular volume will add only a little new evidence for antecedents of impetus-theory, but it will call attention to other aspects of Philoponus' wide-ranging dialogue with Aristotle. In commenting on Physics 227b-229a, for example, Philoponus raises questions about Aristotle's understanding of what constitutes a single event or a single, continuing state. As philosophers become increasingly suspicious of the Cartesian point-instant, Philoponus' contributions may begin to take a more prominent place in the history of philosophy.

The present volume is the nineteenth to appear in the series Ancient Commentators on Aristotle under the general editorship of Richard Sorabji. According to Sorabji, the series will eventually include most of the commentaries in H. Diels' Commentaria in Aristotelem Graeca (Berlin 1882-1909). The project's parerga include Philoponus and the Rejection of Aristotelian Science (1987), Aristotle Transformed: The Ancient Commentators and Their Influence (1990), and of course Sorabji's own important work on time, causation, and other Aristotelian topics. At the end of the last century Diels unlocked a doxographical treasure-house; at the end of this one, Sorabji and his contributors have moved the treasures into the open air. They deserve praise and gratitude from everyone with any interest at all in ancient and early medieval philosophy, the history of ideas, or the techniques and mentalities of ancient commentators, and these unglamorous, austere volumes in their plain dust-jackets should be hailed as one of the most important philological projects of our generation.