Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2006.07.66

William Charlton (trans.), Philoponus, On Aristotle's On the Soul 2. 7-12.   Ithaca:  Cornell University Press, 2005.  Pp. x, 213.  ISBN 0-8014-4337-7.  $75.00.  

Reviewed by John Dillon, Trinity College, Dublin (
Word count: 782 words

The present volume of the Ancient Commentators on Aristotle series is a distinguished addition to that collection. It covers John Philoponus' commentary on that segment of Aristotle's De Anima that is concerned with the nature and operation of the various senses. John takes 126 CAG pages to cover around six Bekker pages of Aristotle (418a24 - 424b18), which gives some idea of the scale and intensity of his analysis of the text. The text is rendered into English with admirable clarity by William Charlton, who has made many distinguished contributions to Aristotelian studies over the years. The notes provide all of the necessary background, and the volume is rounded off, as usual, with useful indices (English-Greek, Greek-English, and Subject, including a list of references to other works of Aristotle)

Philoponus in fact devotes rather differing amounts of attention to the different senses. Pride of place, not unnaturally, goes to the sense of sight, dealt with from pp. 319-354, covering Aristotle's Ch. 7. This includes quite a lengthy excursus on the nature of light, arguing for its immateriality, and discussing its role in sight (324, 25-341, 9). The commentary on Ch. 8, on sound and hearing, is also fairly substantial, covering 30 pages (354, 19-384, 33.). Those on Chapters 9 (Smell) 10 (Taste), and 11 (Touch), are somewhat shorter, covering 12, 10 (with an interesting little supplement occurring only in ms. Vat. 268, on flavours), and 28, respectively, with Ch. 11 including, like Ch. 7, one considerable excursus, this time on the complexities of the sense of touch (pp. 407, 18-422, 10); this excursus in fact takes up over half the commentary on the chapter. The final chapter, 12, dealing with characteristics of the senses in general, is given a commentary of just eight pages.

Again and again, throughout the commentary, we are given evidence not only of Philoponus' wide learning--he is the heir to a long tradition of 'scientific' discussion of the nature of sense-perception in general and in particular--but also of his powers of observation and willingness to conduct experiments himself.

À propos the possibility of hearing under water, for example (384, 8ff.), we learn of the habit of "those in our part of the world [presumably Alexandria and environs] who go after fish in the marshes" and "are accustomed to bang on the panels of their little boats in order to drive the fish into the nets." Philoponus also notes that, if one dives under water oneself, one can still hear shouts from up above.

Then, a little further on, we seem to find Philoponus conducting scientific experiments at his (presumably moderate) potations (355, 34ff.): "What happens with drinking cups is also an indication of the things just said. If we move a moist finger round the brim, a ringing occurs because the air, forced out by the finger, falls into the hollow of the drinking cup and by its blow accomplishes the ringing. If you pour water in the cup, you will see during the movement of the finger round the brim a tremor produced in the water below, clearly because air, falling into it with the rubbing by the finger, is making the movement in the water. And if the cup is nearly full, many drops are continuously thrown out." At which point Charlton comments: "It seems rather that the water picks up the movement of the finger and is thrown out by centrifugal force; too bad that Philoponus did not ask relative to what the water rotates."

However that may be, one is grateful for these little evidences of personal initiative, to enliven what could otherwise be a rather tedious commentary. The other characteristic of Philoponus' commentaries is an impressive command of previous scholarship. In this case, apart from adducing many other works of Aristotle--there are, remarkably, more references to the Meteorologica than to any other work, but fully eleven other of his works are referred to--Philoponus makes good use of the commentaries of Alexander and of Themistius. In particular, in the excursus on touch (which is actually a protracted comment on the whole passage 422b17-423b26), he bases himself on the commentary on Themistius, towards which he directs a well-judged critique, in particular on the two questions raised by Aristotle at the outset, whether touch is in fact one single sense, and whether it is flesh that is its organ, or something else inside the organism.

The topic of the senses is one on which no ideological issue arises as far as Philoponus is concerned, so that what we have here is a straightforwardly sympathetic, but also acutely analytic, commentary on the text of Aristotle. It is very good to have it now available in Charlton's excellent translation.

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