Christina Thomsen Thörnqvist, professor i latin
In the programme Representation and Reality linguists and philosophers have collaborated in order to understand medieval interpretations of Aristotle. Christina Thomsen Thörnqvist, Professor of Latin, was project manager.
Photo: Johan Wingborg

The medieval Aristotle made available

How do our senses receive information from the outside world? What do memories and dreams consist of? And how can we know anything at all?
These were questions for which medieval scholars studied Aristotle in order to obtain answers.
Now, the research programme, Representation and Reality, has been concluded, where linguists and philosophers have collaborated in order to understand, translate and make available medieval interpretations of the great philosopher.

Aristotle lived from 384–322 BCE and was interested in more or less everything that is possible to ponder, such as logic, physics, zoology, language, ethics and poetics.
His original writings are not preserved but there are plenty of hand-written copies, which over the centuries after his death were copied, recopied and collected in libraries.

– However, the fall of the Western Roman Empire at the end of the fifth century meant that all this knowledge more or less disappeared. Schools were closed, libraries were scattered and from a situation where all educated Romans spoke Greek, the knowledge of that language was almost wiped from Western European memory, says Christina Thomsen Thörnqvist, Professor of Latin, and Project Manager of the research programme.

However, in the ninth century the interest in Aristotle’s natural philosophy was rekindled, but initially in a different place, in Baghdad.

– All known writings by Aristotle were soon translated into Arabic. Translations into Latin, however, were not made until several hundred years later, some of them via Arabic. It was only in 1275 that most of Aristotle’s work was available in Latin. Today, when hostilities between East and West are so prominent, it is both a fascinating and moving realisation that so much of western thought has come from the Muslim world, through exchanges over many hundreds of years that both parties benefited from. For example, it was the Arabs who realised that our sensory perceptions were interpreted in the brain, not the heart, as Aristotle thought. And it was the Persian Avicenna who solved the difficult philosophical problem of whether it is possible to say something about things that do not exist in reality, but still have a designation. The standard example of such an object in the Arabic tradition was the Simurgh, an ancient bird that according to Eastern mythology was the intellectual equal of man.  

Once Aristotle had been translated into Latin, his writings were studied at the cathedral schools and universities that were being established in the Middle Ages. At the universities, Artistotle’s natural philosophy was exhaustively discussed and commented on. The research programme has focused on comments concerning Aristotle’s On the Soul and his collection Parva Naturalia, explains Christina Thomsen Törnqvist.

– These works concern perception and cognition, that is, how we perceive and understand the world around us. For example, Aristotle pointed out that all living creatures have abilities that enable them to survive, at least until a reasonable number of them have managed to procreate. That is a concept that lives on in Darwinism. He also explained that there are three types of souls: Plants have a vegetative soul, which enables them to subsist, grow and procreate. Animals also have a sensitive soul that enables them to perceive information about their surroundings. Unique to humans is the rational soul, which we possess in addition to the other two types of souls.

Animated debate about plants

As plants lack a sensitive soul with which to perceive their surroundings, they can neither be awake or asleep, argued Aristotle.

– This was something that was the subject of animated debate in the Middle Ages, says Christina Thomsen Thörnqvist. Even medieval people could easily see that there was much to suggest that Aristotle was wrong: Certain flowers are able to close in the evening and open again the next day, and the leaves of trees wilt in the autumn in order to regain life when spring arrives. How plants derive information from their surroundings, and the boundary between animals and plants is a subject of interest for researchers to this day.

We obtain knowledge through our five senses, each of which has a special ability, Aristotle argued. For example, vision is able to perceive colour, and hearing perceives sound.
– Taste was more problematic because we also perceive food in our mouth through our sense of touch. Furthermore, Aristotle noted that certain organs act as supervisory organs over others: If, for example, we hear a parrot and then see a horse, we conclude that we have misheard, not that there is something wrong with our eyesight.

The foremost authority

Aristotle also argued that vision works through external impressions reaching the eyes. That may appear self-evident today, but many other philosophers in ancient Greece, such as Plato, thought the opposite, that we see objects when rays emitted from our eyes hit those objects.
Sensory perceptions constitute the very foundation of human knowledge; memory and dreams cannot, for example, include anything that has not, at least at some point, existed in the material world, according to Aristotle.

– But we are able to put things together in imaginative ways, such as dreaming of a mountain of gold; both mountains and gold exist in reality, but we combine the two things ourselves, using our imagination, phantasia.

But why do we believe our dreams while we are asleep, even though they can involve something that is patently untrue, and how can we sleepwalk, when all our senses have shut down? These were some of the questions to which medieval scholars looked for answers from Aristotle.
– Aristotle was the foremost authority and sometimes he would be reinterpreted to fit the worldview at the time, Christina Thomsen Thörnqvist tells us. Precognitive dreams constitute one such example; as these were generally accepted as true in the Middle Ages, they interpreted Aristotle as if he had also believed them somehow, which he very clearly did not.

The research programme Representation and Reality commenced in 2013, with funding from “Riksbankens Jubileumsfond” (RJ). Eightteen specialists in Greek, Latin and Arabic Aristotelianism, as well as modern philosophers, have been part of the programme.

– The fact that RJ invests in what nowadays is frequently called “slow research”, which in this case was allowed to take as much as seven years, is amazing, Christina Thomsen Thörnqvist points out.

The researchers faced several challenges throughout the course of the project, such as deciphering medieval manuscripts with a host of difficult-to-decipher abbreviations, and determining what the original manuscript might have looked like, when all you have access to are copies full of clerical errors, changes and additions. The endeavour has required considerable collaboration between specialists in philosophy and history of philosophy, and philologists with knowledge of Greek, Latin and Arabic, as well as textual criticism.

Three new books

The research programme has led to five major conferences and 23 workshops, attended by more than 130 researchers from 24 countries. The project has generated more than 100 publications. For example, the research team has jointly written three books that have been submitted to publishers. The programme has put the University of Gothenburg firmly on the map as a leading international environment within history of philosophy and classical languages – something that has also benefited our education programmes.

– The programme has resulted in a new master’s programme, Ancient and Medieval Philosophy and Classical Philology, and a completely new doctoral programme, as well as enriching the Liberal Arts bachelor’s programme, where researchers in philosophy and classical languages collaborate with neurophysiologists and cognition researchers. And the studies of the Middle Ages’ interpretation of Aristotle will continue. New research projects have started at the department that are spin-off projects from the research program. One is a collaboration with the University of Copenhagen on translation of Greek and Latin texts, funded by the Riksbanken's Jubilee Fund, and another on the Middle Ages’ theories in the Latin and Arabic tradition of different types of delusions.

By Eva Lundgren
The article was published in GU Journalen nr 3 2020

More about the research programme

The research programme, Representation and Reality: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives on the Aristotelian Tradition, commenced in 2013 and has recently been completed. The aim has been to use critical editions to make available previously unpublished medieval works on perception and cognition, based on Aristotle’s writings, as well as to investigate how the Greek, Latin and Arabic interpretations have influenced one another.

The programme was funded by RJ, 18 researchers participated and the project manager was Christina Thomsen Thörnqvist, Professor of Latin.

A popular science book about the project can be found at the Riksbank website: