The big humanities research programme Representation and Reality sheds new light on how knowledge about our consciousness has evolved from antiquity through to the present day. For seven years, 18 researchers have studied how Aristotle’s theories about human perception and cognition were developed during the Middle Ages and right up until the present day. They have concluded this collaboration with a final report and concluding conference, held in February 2020 in Gothenburg.
This wide-reaching programme, funded by Riksbankens Jubileumsfond (the Bank of Sweden Tercentenary Foundation) in the amount of SEK 32.7 million, is interdisciplinary while also being deeply rooted in the core humanities disciplines of philosophy and classical languages.
“We are a group of 19 researchers in philosophy, Greek, Latin and Arabic who have studied how Aristotle’s theories of perception and cognition were interpreted and explained during the Middle Ages. We’ve studied scholarly problems that were studied more or less as intensely then as today: the mechanisms behind our sensory perceptions, how we perceive and interpret – or misinterpret – the world around us, and how our sensory impressions give rise to ideas, memories, dreams and concepts. We have long known that medieval philosophers were very much interested in these matters, but until now knowledge about what they learned and how their conclusions came to influence the broader development has been very limited,” says project leaderChristina Thomsen Thörnqvist, professor of Latin at the Department of Philosophy, Linguistics and Theory of Science.
Aristotle advanced his theories about how human consciousness functions in his major treatiseOn the Soul. But he also wrote a collection of shorter treatises on closely related phenomena such as perception, memory, sleep and dreams, which he believed concerned both the body and the soul. Students at medieval universities developed Aristotelian philosophy, including Aristotle’s theories in these shorter treatises known as theParva naturalia(short treatises on nature). Their work came to lay the foundations for our knowledge today in the area.
“To us, it might seem unoriginal but during the Middle Ages, just like today, research was based on previous theories and conclusions within the area that you were studying. So writing a commentary on Aristotle in which you built on his theories was for centuries the main way in which research was conducted in many areas of scholarship. That is why Aristotle also came to be the philosopher who has incomparably been the most influential in the development of ideas down the centuries – directly and indirectly,” says Christina Thomsen Thörnqvist.
This development was in many languages in parallel, and first and foremost in Greek in ancient Byzantium, in Latin in Western Europe and in Arabic in the Arabic-speaking world. To study these medieval texts, which are mostly accessible in the form of medieval manuscripts, you need skills in languages as well as philology. The many editions of key medieval texts that the research group produced are one of the important results from the programme, which now even researchers in adjacent fields can use for further study.
During these seven years, more than 130 researchers from 24 countries have been guests of the University of Gothenburg to participate in work-in-progress seminars and conferences organised within the programme.
The programme was concluded with an international conference including a panel discussion where invited researchers discussed the findings. In connection with this, a popular science book summarising the programme’s results was published in Swedish.Representation och verklighet: Historiska och nutida perspektiv på den aristoteliska traditionen. Slutrapport från ett forskningsprogram
by Christina Thomsen Thörnqvist and Sten Ebbesen
(Riksbankens Jubileumsfond and Makadam förlag)