Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin - Faculty of Language, Literature and Humanities - Alexander von Humboldt Professorship

Research project synopsis

The localization of intellectual faculties within the body in materialistic theories of soul-body relation: Stoa / Pneumatists

This project, part of Excellence Cluster Topoi Area D-2, “Mapping Body and Soul,” is a study of the relationship between the early Stoics and the “Pneumatist” medical school. Its aims are to trace the development of materialist theories of mind and body, and to determine how those theories influenced the localization of intellectual faculties. To do this, the project will focus on the conception of mental processes, mental illness and the psycho-physiology of mental events in the work of the physician, Athenaeus of Attaleia (first century BC/AD), said by later sources to have been the founder of the “Pneumatist” school and a student of the Stoic philosopher, Posidonius.

There are three sets of research questions guiding the project:

  1. The first concerns the influence of medical inquiry on theoretical discussions concerning intellectual faculties: how did the ‘facts’ established by empirical medical research influence theoretical discussions of the nature and localization of the intellectual faculties of soul?
  2. The second concerns the justification for different theories of soul-body relations: what epistemological and methodological assumptions are behind conceptions of soul and its location in the body? What arguments, and what diagnostic and therapeutic practices, were used to justify them? What problems with these assumptions, arguments and practices did they identify and how did they try to resolve them?
  3. The third concerns the role of tradition, authority and school on the development of these theories. Were these schools dogmatic or eclectic? And how reliable are our sources for determining answers to this question?

In addition to these research questions, the project is also divided into two phases: (1) collecting the sources, and (2) analysis.


Stage One: Collecting the Sources (2014)

Later medical writers like Galen attest Athenaeus’ influence and importance, but evidence for Athenaeus’ writings is scanty; what does survive comes down to us mostly through excerpts in Oribasius’ collections and paraphrases in Galen’s works. And while one of the difficulties for understanding the relationship between the “Pneumatists” and the Stoics is the fragmentary nature of our sources, this difficulty is compounded by the lack of a modern collection of fragments and testimonia attributed to Athenaeus of Attaleia. The first stage of the project, therefore, is to produce a collection, translation, and commentary of fragments of Athenaeus of Attaleia. This collection will be invaluable, not only for this project, but for the further study of the relationship between Hellenistic and Roman medicine and philosophy.


Stage Two: Analysis (2015)

Using the source-material gathered in Stage One, the second part of this project looks at the mutual influences of the Peripatetics, Stoics, and Hellenistic and Roman physicians on the development of corporealist theories of mind. There are two studies that will be carried out in this stage. The first is an analysis of Athenaeus’ understanding of the causation of mental events and disease, in order to trace its influence on later philosophers and physicians. The second is a historical study of Athenaeus’ antecedents among the Stoics and Peripatetics. The aim of this study is to understand the motivations behind Athenaeus’ theory of mental causation, his reasons for assigning a mediating role to pneuma in his psycho-physiology, and why this might have led later authors to attribute to him a unique medical school, the “Pneumatists.”