Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2016.02.25 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2016.02.25

Michael Boylan, The Origins of Ancient Greek Science: Blood—A Philosophical Study. Routledge Monographs in Classical Studies, 22.   New York; London:  Routledge, 2015.  Pp. xiii, 170.  ISBN 9780415843935.  $140.00.  

Reviewed by Daniel Bertoni, University of Miami (


Students’ reactions on first encountering ancient Greek science are often disbelief or derision: could people have been foolish enough to believe in Aristotle’s elements or the four humors? A typical response urges sensitivity, teaching that ancient science is best understood within its sociocultural context. Recent trends in scholarship take this view to its extreme and read science from literary perspectives.1 Boylan, while explicitly denying anachronism and positivist motives, heads in the other direction to discover how modern philosophy of science informs a study of its ancient counterpart. For him, “philosophy of science is a timeless realm such that what is good scientific methodology in the ancient world is also good methodology today—and vice versa” (ix). This aim is underlined by frequent comparisons of ancient and modern concepts: e.g., ichor is similar to a “genetic predisposition” (8), pneuma acts like stem cells (10).

The monograph is an augmented version of a 2007 article,2 and continues Boylan’s return to a subject he investigated in the 1980s. Additional insight comes from his more recent work on philosophy of science.3 The subtitle indicates that blood will be key, but it is not the exclusive focus. Rather Boylan performs a grand experiment to see if one can rewardingly analyze the practices and the philosophical sectarianism of ancient Greek medicine from a rigorous philosophical standpoint. The danger of an attempt of this sort is that modern jargon and conceptualization may do no more than reinforce existing scholarly consensus. This is occasionally true for Boylan, who shows that medical Empiricists were skeptics of a certain sort and that Galen attempted to marry clinical and philosophical approaches to medicine. Yet there is more to this book. The rigor and rigidity of Boylan’s framework forces difficult decisions and brings subtle differences into relief, yielding a novel and often productive way to look at difficult texts.

Boylan uses his first chapter (“Blood, Magic, and Science in Early Greek Thought”) to define three ways of looking at the natural world: phusis1, which is based on material causes; phusis2, which seeks divine explanations; and phusis3, which provides magical answers in an “explanatory vacuum” (2-4). These three concepts, central to Boylan’s subsequent analysis, are applied immediately to the questions of blood and ichor, to the debate over the seat of intelligence (brain or heart), and to the question of inheritance, themes that recur through the book. Boylan’s application of his well-defined concepts of phusis to fragmentary early texts can seem forced (e.g., Empedocles’ analogy between respiration and the functioning of a clepsydra [DK 31 B100] is an instance of phusis1, whereas his reference to Hephaestus and Cypris when giving the material composition of blood [B98] is labeled a phusis2 explanation, although the renaming of fire and Love seems similarly analogical). Yet, the strict categorization allows Boylan to determine that “blood and its accomplices (the heart, the blood vessels) have a physical phusis1 part (associated with haima) and a magical phusis2 or phusis3 part (associated with ichor, pneuma, or tuche” (13-14). The process can seem linguistically forced at times. The fact that the same word is used in the Agamemnon (νέος ἰχώρ, 1480) and the Hippocratic De capitis vulneribus (ἐξ αὐτοῦ [sc. ἕλκους] ἰχὼρ ῥεῖ σμικρός, VC 19 [III.252 Littré]) does not mean that both texts mean the same thing by ἰχώρ. As Boylan later notes (33), ἰχώρ comes to mean “serum,” an ordinary component of blood. His conclusion to the chapter—that material explanations (phusis1) gradually began to be preferred, at least when available—is imposed with historical hindsight and overlooks the simultaneous coexistence of multiple models of causation, despite his earlier declaration that Greeks did not share “the West’s post-Ockham obsession with simplicity” (14).

The second chapter (“The Hippocratic Period—Medicine Versus Clinical Biomedicine”) introduces the token/type distinction and the logical operators □ (necessity) and ◊ (contingency). Boylan uses these symbols to construct a continuum of explanation from an aspirational D-□ (type-based deductive explanation) through D-◊ (deductive-leaning contingency) to E-◊ (token-based and anti-scientific) with gradations of a, b, c, d, and e. Regrettably, the continuum is underdetermined, as Boylan never specifies which characteristics of a medical explanation make it closer or further from one of the poles, instead assigning rankings to various excerpts from the Hippocratic Corpus. For instance, a case study from Epidemics II is plotted at toward the E-◊ extreme “between ‘c’ and ‘d’” (29), whereas a description of the humoral theory from Nature of the Human Being is an “example of ambivalence in the ‘b’ to ‘c’ range (29). Throughout the rest of the chapter, Boylan uses this model to develop a contrast between a philosophical medicine that focuses on types and seeks material explanations, exemplified by Plato’s Timaeus and the Hippocratic Fleshes and Ancient Medicine, and a “clinical biomedicine” that relies on trial and error to treat each case or token individually. Diseases I provides an example of this second approach.

Aristotle is the subject of the third chapter (“Aristotle—The Origin and Function of Blood and Body Parts”). For Boylan, the biological works are Aristotle’s most significant writings, showing an alteration from D-□ to D-◊ with their reliance on explanations that work ἐπὶ τὸ πολύ (49). Drawing on previous work, Boylan reduces the doctrine of four causes to a pair: materially-based causation (material and efficient) and teleologically-based causation (formal and final) (53).4 This recharacterization empowers Boylan to determine to what extent Aristotle lives up to his empirical ideals in various topics: how nutrition takes place in bloodless animals, how blood is created, and the vexed theory of conception. For this last issue, Boylan teases out the various material and teleological causes that lead Aristotle to ignore the mother’s contribution to inheritance (65-9). When Boylan turns to the perplexing status of blood as a homoeomerous part (PA 647b10-14) that has parts (one of which is ἰχώρ, now properly translated “serum”) a linguistic difficulty gets in the way of a clear explanation. Boylan connects Aristotle’s ἰχώρ with intelligence (59), though Aristotle’s view is that ἰχώρ is watery because it is either unconcocted or corrupted blood (διὰ τὸ μήπω πεπέφθαι διεφθάρθαι, PA 651a17-19; cf. HA 521b2-3).5 Despite being led astray by the verbal similarity, Boylan gives an excellent discussion of the contradictions in Aristotle’s views on the relationships between blood and intelligence (60-61). While the overall assessment of Aristotle as an empirical biologist occasionally led astray by teleological concerns is a conventional one,6 Boylan’s detailed studies are valuable additions.

In the fourth chapter (“Hellenistic, Alexandrian, and Roman Methodological Battles”), Boylan engages the traditional medical sects: Dogmatists (his preferred term), Empiricists, and Methodists, explicitly omitting Pneumatists (99 n. 6). Over half of the chapter discusses the various Dogmatist theories, focusing particularly on Erasistratus’ famous pulse experiment (described in Galen, Art. Sang. 8.4 [iv.733-4 Kühn] and AA 7.16 [ii.646-8 Kühn]). This experiment, in which a tube is inserted into an incised artery to observe the effect on the pulse below the incision, is criticized as a “single perturbation account” that could prove various theories via post hoc, ergo propter hoc justifications. The meat of the chapter, however, is in the second part, where the varieties of medical skepticism are systematized. Boylan again develops a threefold division: skepticism1, the radical doubt of a Parmenides (D-□); skepticism2, the critical questioning of dogmatic philosophers (D-◊); and skepticism3, the method of Pyrrhonian philosophers and Empiricist physicians (E-◊). A helpful table lays out these distinctions and their relationships with Boylan’s three kinds of phusis. Boylan’s application of this framework to the Empiricists and Methodists is brief and to the point: the token-based ontology of Empiricists caused them to reject theories from anatomy, and the pragmatism of the Methodists led them to adopt an intermediary position (skepticism2.5).7 As with Aristotle, the picture is not new, but the ontological and therapeutic differences among these groups come into sharper focus through the use of more formalized language.

It is clear from the title that Boylan intends his final chapter (“Galen—The Grand Synthesis”) to be the capstone of his work. To that end, Galen is made to represent a coming together of Boylan’s philosophical strands into a “synthetic, systematic philosopher” (109). For Boylan, Galen represents the best of an Aristotelian tradition of empirical inquiry merged with a dogmatist ontology. Boylan demonstrates his Galen at work on the subjects of blood and pneuma, the pulse, and the arteries. Most of the chapter is a reworking of his 2007 article, with updated bibliography and application of the technical vocabulary developed in the previous chapters. New sections on the anastomôseis in the heart, to demonstrate Galen’s D-□ tendency (121-2), and on bloodletting (126-8) have been added. Boylan’s decision to end his account with Galen, “the terminus of biomedical practice in the ancient Western world” (129), is understandable, if all too common. The remainder of the medical tradition is left to subsequent scholars to interpret through judicious use of Boylan’s tools and language.

In unfortunate contrast to its content, the book’s presentation is substandard and has been underserved by editors. I append here a selective list of errors. Those which can be ascribed to carelessness or haste include: a tripartite list of (1), (2), (c) (at 13); Dodds 1952 for 1951 (23 n. 84); “homo sapiens” [sic] and “it is doubtful that few” for “it is doubtful that many” or simply “few” (27); a for α (28); Potter’s translation of Nat. Puer. is quoted incorrectly: “a little blood flows to the mother” rather than “from the mother” (42); the title of Aristotle’s work is uncapitalized: peri psuche (57); “activities on the left side of the body are not as arête [sic] as those on the right side” (60); “on their being any connection” (71 n. 25); empeira for empeiria (93). Formatting mistakes include: on pp. 14 and 15, introductions to quoted passages are printed as part of the block quotation; p. 22 n. 59 has “XXX” in place of a volume number of Littré; on p. 112, sentences describing Aristotle’s causation are identical to those in Chapter 3. Inconsistencies include methods of citation, specifically if citations are given parenthetically or in endnotes and where and whether translators are specified; Iliad XXI is just above Iliad 5 (8); CMG 5.9.1 is cited, but the text is not named (31); Kuhn [sic] XIX, 321, but no text (48 n. 78); p. 48 n. 82 cites an odd-numbered (French translation) page of Littré, an interpolated citation; the bibliography lacks Demont 2005 (cited 45 n. 31) and Demont 1978. Greek text (used almost exclusively in endnotes) has numerous errors: τῶς for τῶν (23 n. 97); τρέφὠ (39); περίττομ (63); ναπνοή (with space), ὁτε (without accent), νάγκη ἐστιν, ἂέρα, ταιαῦτα (70 n. 21); ἔσιτν, ιδον (unaccented) (71 n. 36). The audience for the text is not necessarily Greek-reading, but these last oversights are particularly regrettable.

In sum, if the book has limitations, it tends to transcend them. Boylan does not give us an entirely new history of Greek science, but rather one expressed in a new language, reliant on strong tripartite divisions. The book is intended to be accessible to historians of medicine and philosophers of science (pp. ix-x), and a glossary of philosophical terms provides a handy reference for terms and symbols. Most readers will find something worthwhile—be it technical analyses of scientific viewpoints or detailed philosophical frameworks—in its pages. ​


1.   For instance, A. Doody and L. Taub, eds., Authorial Voices in Greco-Roman Technical Writing (Trier 2009) and M. Asper, ed., Writing Science: Mathematical and Medical Authorship in Ancient Greece (Berlin 2013).
2.   M. Boylan, “Galen on the Blood, Pulse, and Arteries”, Journal of the History of Biology 40 (2007): 207-30.
3.   Boylan’s earlier work includes Method and Practice in Aristotle’s Biology (Lanham, MD; London 1981) and “Galen’s Conception Theory”, Journal of the History of Biology 19 (1986), 44-77. His more recent efforts can be exemplified by The Good, The True, and The Beautiful (London 2008).
4.   This recategorization of causes is present in M. Boylan, “Aristotle’s Biology” The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy: (2004).
5.   See Peck’s note ad. HA 489a24 in the Loeb edition of Aristotle.
6.   See for instance G. E. R. Lloyd’s classic assessment in Aristotle: The Growth and Structure of his Thought (Cambridge 1968), especially 69-93.
7.   Boylan follows the reconstruction of Methodism in V. Nutton, Ancient Medicine, 2nd edition (London; New York 2013), especially 191-206.

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