Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2018.04.60 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2018.04.60

Beatrix Freibert, Die aristotelische Logik – erklärt von ihren antiken Interpreten. Studien zu Literatur und Erkenntnis, 10​.   Heidelberg:  Universitätsverlag WINTER​, 2017.  Pp. 393.  ISBN 9783825367275.  €48.00.  

Reviewed by Luca Gili, Université du Québec à Montréal​ (

This book is the revised version of a PhD dissertation defended at the University of Marburg in 2015. Unlike most dissertations, this book makes bold claims and adopts a rather uncommon method. Freibert deserves credit for that. I am not entirely persuaded of the validity of her method, but if one accepts her historical and philosophical approach, her results are compelling.

Freibert intends to offer a systematic reconstruction of the concept of logic shared by the Platonic and Aristotelian commentators on Aristotle’s Organon (p. 14). More specifically, Freibert asks why the works collected in the Organon are an “instrument” (organon, in Greek) for the sciences and for mathematics. She surveys a vast timeframe: from Alexander of Aphrodisias (third century A.D.) to Eustratius of Nicaea (died 1120 A.D.), she considers all the main Greek commentators, as well as Boethius, who is included because his translations were highly influential (cf. p. 15). 1 Freibert anticipates an obvious objection at this point: why consider so many different authors almost as if they were agreeing on anything substantial? Here Freibert’s reply is bold. In her estimation, all these authors shared common ground, despite their many differences, insofar as they were all part of the same tradition (cf. p. 15). To support the validity of her approach, Freibert implicitly presents John Philoponus’ oeuvre as paradigmatic for her own work (p. 15 n. 8): like Philoponus, Freibert admits that Platonic and Aristotelian commentators disagree on a number of issues, but there is among them a fundamental agreement (“eine grundlegende Übereinstimmung”, p. 15) concerning the didactic value of Aristotle’s logic and its role in the scientific context.

Freibert is certainly right in stating that all commentators share some ideas. Presumably, they all thought that Aristotle was a decent logician and that the study of the Organon was not a waste of time. It is doubtful, however, that these common features have any philosophical value. It is not that it is never philosophically fruitful to look into common features of the late antique commentary tradition. S. Aerts and J. Opsomer, for example, have proposed an intriguing model for epistemic authority in the context of the commentary tradition as a whole. 2 And Freibert’s enterprise could in principle have been fruitful too, and it turns out that her inquiry into the common features of the logic of the commentators also yields potentially intriguing conclusions. But her philosophical analysis is often too shallow. For example, after detailed analysis of several texts concerning language (ch. 2), Freibert concludes that language is not the mere connection of words and reality, but rather “what is known of the thing” (“jeweils das, was von einer Sache erkannt ist”, p. 44, Freibert’s emphasis). Hence language is primarily aimed at the transmission of knowledge (“Erkenntnisübermittlung”) and only secondarily at communication among people. Even though this point potentially has philosophical value, Freibert does not analyse it. Furthermore, the textual evidence from which it is inferred seems to be limited to a remark by Ammonius (In de Int. 5, 17-19, quoted on p. 43) and a line of Dexippus (In Cat. 6, 33-4, quoted on p. 24) which simply state that the spoken word refers to the mental concept and this latter to the extra-mental thing. In other words, the texts analysed by Freibert do not seem to allude to a form of “mentalese”, as her marks imply (and see further below); they simply restate the traditional doctrine of the semiotic triangle outlined by Aristotle in De Int. 1. 3

After ch. 2, Freibert’s book deals with propositions (ch. 3: “Der Aussagesatz als Träger von Wahreit und Falschheit”, pp. 69-100), the nature of syllogistic (ch. 4, “Was is Syllogistik?”, pp. 101-56), some special features of the syllogism, such as the so-called dici de omni (ch. 5, “Die Unterschiede innerhalb der Syllogistik”, pp. 157-90), the goal and the usage of syllogistic (ch. 6, “Ziel und Nutzen der Logik und Syllogistik”, pp. 191-208), previous knowledge in the context of a demonstrative syllogism (ch. 7, “Vorwissen in einem apodeiktischen Syllogismus”, pp. 209-352) and the scientific and didactic role of syllogistic (ch. 8, “Die aristotelische Logik in ihrer wissenschaftstheoretischen und didaktischen Stellung”, pp. 353-66). The book includes a rich bibliography and a useful index locorum.

As is clear from the content itself, Freibert conceives of the commentators’ corpora as parts of a unified system known as “Aristotelian logic”. Historical narrative is replaced by a unified system that looks like a puzzle with as many pieces as there are commentaries on the Organon. I would not be against such an approach a priori, but Freibert’s criterion for the inclusion of a text in this patchwork is not its intrinsic philosophical value, but the mere fact that it is part of the commentary tradition. Hence, Freibert’s research seems to be presupposing that (1) philosophy is done in the context of a (living?) tradition and that (2) all of those who identified themselves with this tradition are worthy of consideration, regardless of the actual philosophical value of their contribution.

Despite these worries, Freibert’s prose is engaging, and one could wish that her conclusions were grounded on a more historically reliable reconstruction. When she discusses propositions, she attributes to the commentators what I called “mentalese” above. In her opinion, all (apophantic) assertions are essentially either true or false, because they reproduce the very process of knowing. Assertion and reason have a similar structure insofar as they connect a predicate and a subject (cf. p. 98: “Aussagesatz und Vernunft (διάνοια) entsprechen dabei einander in ihrer diskursiven Struktur, die, in einem zeitlichen Nacheinander, jeweils ein Zugrundeliegendes (ὑποκείμενον) und ein darauf Bezogenes (sprachlich: κατηγορούμενον) zueinander in Beziehung setzen. Der apophantische Satz beschreibt die formale Struktur der Vernunft (διάνοια)”). Did the commentators really endorse the view that there is such a “mentalese”? Freibert’s argument seems to lead to this conclusion, but she avoids considering all the implications of her analysis.

Freibert correctly distinguishes syllogistic from logic. Syllogistic is a part of logic, one that deals with assertoric propositions, as expounded in the Analytics. According to Freibert, a syllogism represents the very process of learning a connection that was previously unknown (“Lernprozess”). She documents this claim very well with references to several texts (see e.g. pp. 109, 138). Syllogizing is thus learning and learning is an activity. Hence, only a faculty that can perform an activity is able to syllogize. This conclusion clearly follows from the presentation of syllogistic offered by the commentators considered by Freibert – although Aristotle did not address this issue, so that Freibert’s reconstruction helps us understand how the commentators reinterpreted Aristotle’s logic in an original way. While she focuses on the role of διάνοια (translated as “Vernunft”, p. 162) in the context of syllogistic, Freibert explains why Philoponus maintained that only διάνοια had a role in the activity of syllogizing (as Freibert puts it, διάνοια is “das eigentliche aktive Erkenntnisvermögen”, p. 188). According to Philoponus, the imagination is static in its operations, hence it cannot perform that “motion” that is the activity of syllogizing (pp. 162-3).

Freibert adds that a false opinion is the result of the association of a predicate and a subject that describe features of the world that are not connected to each other. She shows that most commentators (including Boethius, Ammonius and Philoponus, cf. pp. 178-81) maintain that the erroneous association is made at the level of the imagination. Philoponus adds, however, that not every image created by the imagination is false (In A.Pr. 3, 4-20, quoted at p. 181 n. 72). Interestingly, Ammonius observes that, among the objects that are formed by imagination, there are “empty concepts” (“leere Begriffe”), i.e. concepts without a reference in ipsa rerum natura. These concepts are terms of propositions that can figure as premises only in sophistical syllogisms (see Ammonius, In A.Pr. 3, 19-25, quoted at p. 178 n. 66). Freibert does not ask herself whether there is a history behind this doctrine, which seems to be endorsed by at least some earlier commentators (so who introduced it first?), nor does she analyse the logical implications of the doctrine. The lack of historical insight also emerges from the following chapter, dedicated to the goal of syllogistic (pp. 191-208). Freibert convincingly shows that many commentators (Philoponus, Ammonius, Boethius, Themistius) maintain that the goal of syllogistic is demonstration. Freibert does not state, however, that this doctrine was first expounded by Alexander, nor does she suggest that the commentators named are likely to draw – directly or indirectly – from Alexander. In fact Alexander only makes an appearance to add that demonstration, in being oriented towards the acquisition of wisdom, helps to make the wise man god-like, so that the ultimate goal of syllogistic is in fact to become god-like (cf. p. 207). This shows how Freibert looks at her texts from a systematic, rather than a historical, standpoint: Alexander is referred to only in order to “complete” a doctrine that she finds in Ammonius and in Philoponus.

In conclusion, this book appears to be a missed opportunity. The author is talented and the finely-produced monograph is well written and scattered with enlightening observations on a wide number of texts. But these texts are not presented in a coherent way and the analyses that accompany them do not make any substantial contribution to our knowledge of the history of ancient logic. It is reasonable to hope that the author will build on her insightful intuitions in future publications. ​


1.   Freibert’s approach may seem weak from the standpoint of a reader interested in the historical reconstruction of the development of logic in late antiquity, and I will not hide the fact that my criticism of her book is the consequence of my preference for this latter type of enquiry. But I should add that Freibert also does an excellent job when she does deal with history: her succinct presentation of the main commentaries on the Organon (ch. 2.6, pp. 44-68) is to be commended for its clarity and its accuracy.
2.   S. Aerts and J. Opsomer, “Teksten bekleed met autoriteit. Een model voor de analyse van epistemische autoriteit in commentaartradities”, Tijdschrift voor Filosofie, 2017, 79/2, pp. 277-94.
3.   I am aware of heterodox interpretations of De int. 1 that do not attribute any “semiotic triangle” to Aristotle (see e.g. Franco Lo Piparo, Aristotele e il linguaggio. Cosa fa di una lingua una lingua, Roma-Bari, Laterza, 2003). According to Lo Piparo, spoken words refer to things as much as thoughts do in De int., on the basis of a new interpretation of the Greek symbola; Lo Piparo’s claim has been regrettably ignored by Aristotle scholars (and Freibert does not include this book in her bibliography). It goes without saying that, were Lo Piparo to be right, Ammonius, Dexippus and all those who attributed the “semiotic triangle” to Aristotle would have said something original. But if Lo Piparo is wrong and Aristotle really did introduce the semiotic triangle, as almost everybody is ready to maintain, it is hard to see why the texts quoted by Freibert would have any philosophical value. ​

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