06 June 2005

First Questions

I said that Geoffrey Lloyd began the May Week Seminar. He did so by first drawing a contrast with an Symposium Aristotelicum that had he had attended and which met almost exactly 30 years earlier to discuss the Parva Naturalia, and which was generally preoccupied with arguments about which 'strata' from periods in Aristotle's development were evident at different places in those works, with Nuyens' theory supplying the context of the discussion. Lloyd said that developmentalism in this area was out of fashion now, in part because the best theories, such as Nuyens', had all been exploded, and in part because it had since become clear (if it wasn't always so) that a philosophical understanding of the texts (for instance, whether there truly is a difference of outlook in different parts of the text, and, if so, what this amounts to, and what might be the reasons for someone's changing from the one outlook to the other) is properly prior to developmental considerations. He added, however, that perhaps the initial problems which motivated developmentalism have not been explained satisfactorily. (In fact, Menn in the seminar seemed to be suggesting that, since these problems were all very much alive, developmental considerations simply could not be put off until later, even if in some sense philosophical understanding is prior.)

Lloyd then posed two sets of questions. The first have to do with Aristotle's relationship in the De Somno, De Insomniis, and De Divinatione to what might be called the endoxa, and are as follows:

  • Why does Aristotle tackle questions in the way that he does? What is his approach?
  • What is Aristotle's relationship with antecedents as regards sleep and dreaming, for instance, the medical literature, or Plato?
  • Why does he omit certain subjects found in the 'lay' literature? What does he dismiss? Why does he select the order of discussion that he does?
The second have to do with the relationship between the doctrines in the three texts under consideration and other Aristotelian doctrines:
  • What is the role of the common sensorium in cognition and in vital functions generally?
  • What is the role of perception as opposed to nous as regards images?
  • How do we square the doctrine that thinking is not a faculty of an organ of the body with the doctrine that it is not without phantasmata or aisthesis?
  • How does physiology affect thought? The activities of the proton aistheterion are interrupted by sleep to preserve us, Aristotle says, but why can't we think continuously?
  • How does thinking involve waking?--since Aristotle believes that thinking can occur in beings who do not sleep at all.
  • Phantasmata are 'non-paradigmatic phenomena' (Schofield). But how come? What does this mean? Is it failed perception? Clearly not. Or is an analogy (perhaps) the way in which, according to Aristotle, a male parent produces a female child who resembles her mother?
  • There are illusions in phantasmata. But this seems to threaten Aristotle's notion of (what might be called) a 'cognitively friendly universe' for human beings.


Thornton said...


At the risk of showing my ignorance and youth, could you explain the structure of May Week a bit more? I understand that this past series of sessions were on writings in Aristotle's Parva Naturalia, but do different topics/authors get chosen in different years? Are these sessions annual? Are the sessions seminars where the identified person (on the program you listed below) serves as the expositor of the text? Are these public events with large groups of scholars or invitation only study groups? Are there records or proceedings from the meetings that account for the presentations or do the expositors (if that is the right term) circulate drafts or notes? Have these sessions been going on for a long period (years, decades, centuries)? I find the existence of a week-long seminar amidst all the Oxbridge folks a lovely thing to contemplate, but am just curious about more of the institutional structure and history of May Week.

Michael Pakaluk said...

Dear Thornton,

Thanks for writing in about this. Your question allows me to clarify what perhaps was made unclear by some previous posts of mine.

The May Week Seminar is a week-long study of a particular text (or, as in this case, a group of closely related texts) hosted by the Classics Faculty of Cambridge University. It's not a public event but something internal to the university. Scholars from outside the university, such as myself, attend or even give a presentation by invitation.

I don't know the history of it. I've heard it referred to as the Laurence Seminar, from which I've inferred that it is connected with the Laurence Chair in Ancient Philosophy, which David Sedley occupies.

It's basically a week-long, intensive reading group. The text under consideration gets translated from start to finish. Whoever is responsible for leading a session will translate some stretch of text and raise issues--philosophical, philological, textual--as appropriate. Naturally participants will have their own questions to raise as well.

The meetings are informal in the sense that there have are no minutes or proceedings; the discussions too tend to be unstructured in a good way.

My participation in the seminar stems from the happy accident that I spent a month of my sabbatical two years ago as a visitor in Cambridge, during the time when the seminar would be meeting, and was asked if I would participate. By some mistake-- which however I was quite happy to take advantage of!--I was invited to participate this year once more.

I have been wary of seeming to make a private event public by posting about it on a blog. I did not begin to post without first consulting with David Sedley and Malcolm Schofield. Also, I intend to be very cautious about using names and will avoid lifting up, for broad circulation, remarks that were formulated ex tempore and for use, so to speak, 'within the household'. I'll probably for that reason restrict myself largely to my own reflections and reactions, even at the risk of appearing to be as a consequence egoistic.

Travis Butler said...

I'd be interested to hear about the discussion of the role of images in thought. It strikes me that the recent literature is all over the place on this. There's a kind of minimalist view defended by David Charles (images as a kind of background necessary condition), and then there are views like Caston's and Modrak's according to which images are directly involved in giving the content to every token act of thinking. Maybe the text requires us to go beyond minimalism, but I'm not sure it gets us all the way to the super-strong views.

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