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

Project description

Codifying and transmitting medical knowledge in antiquity: the role of question-and-answer literature, from Aristotle to Caelius Aurelianus

Research topic

My research project for the programme ‘Medicine of Mind, Philosophy of the Body - Discourses of Health and Well-Being in the Ancient World’ studies question-and-answer literature as a medium for transmitting medical knowledge in Classical and imperial Greek and Roman antiquity. More specifically, I am interested in the role this form of writing played in Graeco-Roman antiquity’s scene of medical practice and education, as well as in the contribution it made to Graeco-Roman medicine’s broader cultural outreach. It is quite clear, from the amount of surviving texts and papyrical fragments that we possess, that the question-and-answer format was particularly popular both with doctors and with philosophers interested in medicine. Its versatility partly accounts for this, as it enabled the issuing of different types of enquiry, ranging from the investigation of causes for physiological phenomena and conditions (such as the why...?-type questions of collections such as the pseudo-Aristotelian Problems), to the composition of medical questionnaires that seek to elicit definitions. At the same time however, this formal diversity has stood in the way of a systematic study of question-and-answer as a genre of medical literature in its own right.  Similarly, we only possess a limited comprehension of the scope and sources of medical knowledge that is included in such works, the methods they use in order to organise and communicate it, and their intellectual and scientific goals. These are precisely the issues my research seeks to address. Its principal aim is firmly to place question-and-answer writing in the ancient scene of medical writing and medical knowledge transmission.

 

Research objectives and output

I am preparing a series of article-length studies on the function of the question-and-answer technique in ancient Greek and Latin collections of medical and naturalist content. The first part of my project studies the medical sections of the pseudo-Aristotelian collection of Problems: I examine their structure and content, and also consider their dialogue with the broader medical and scientific tradition. The second part of my research is devoted to two imperial collections of medical problems, namely, pseudo-Alexander of Aphrodisias’ Problems, and the anonymous collection of Supplementary Problems: I conduct a comparative study of their prefaces, and analyse their presentation of medical knowledge. Thirdly, I consider the function of the question-and-answer technique in later imperial medical texts, such as Caelius Aurelianus’ Medicinales Responsiones, and the pseudo-Galenic Definitiones Medicae. The common thread that underpins the different focal points of my work is that they seek to chart the variable formats of the question-and-answer technique, as well as assess its function and advantages as a medium of organizing medical knowledge. As a concluding goal of my project, I will seek to appraise question-and-answer as a genre of ancient medical writing.