Johannes Gutenberg-Universität Mainz
Project title: Concepts of visual perception in Greek scientific thought from the 5th century BC to the 2nd century AD
Supervisor: Prof. Dr. Jochen Althoff, Prof. Dr. Tanja Pommerening
The connection between humans and nature is filled with concepts never fully explored. Using their senses, humans have always sought to quench the thirst of understanding as many aspects of the surrounding nature as possible. The sense of sight has long been perceived as one of the dominant senses, and as such, it was a rather common topic of interest for early Greek thinkers. The scope of this interest is documented in both philosophical and medical writings from the 5th century BC onwards. In order to gain a more comprehensive notion of the human body in this context, one must, with equal diligence, turn to both philosophical and medical sources. The former offer theories of how the human body functions, while the latter describe ailments that hinder such functioning, as well as their consequences.
It is precisely these theories that form the main subject of the present study, focusing on different textual accounts of the visual organ, together with its functions and the overall process of visual perception. After looking into main source materials many questions arise, and they can be divided into three main inquiries: How did philosophers and physicians describe the structure of the visual organ, how did they illustrate its mechanisms, and how did they explain the overall process of seeing?
Answers to these questions are to be found in various philosophical and medical sources from the 5th century BC to the 2nd century AD, marking two crucial periods in the history of science – the early philosophers of nature and medical literature of the Roman physician Galen. Between them, significant material can be examined in the works of Plato, Aristotle and Theophrastus, as well as in certain treatises of the Corpus Hippocraticum.
In order to gain a deeper insight, lexical analysis of other literary genres will be included as a form of contrast. It will be significant to see how vision-based terminology differs among genres. These sources will be both diachronically and synchronically analysed in the light of my research questions and their respective contexts.
Taking into account different doctrines during a time span of several centuries, as well as correlations with other cultures (as much as such task is possible) the aim of this study is to offer a comprehensive examination of visual perception theories, and moreover attempt to reconstruct concepts on which these theories are based, as well as to investigate which of those concepts are universal, specific or interchanged among different cultures.