Transcript: 91 - James Wilberding on Nature and Neoplatonism

James Wilberding joins Peter to show that contrary to what is often claimed, Neoplatonists did make contributions to the philosophy of nature. Topics include Plotinus on the cosmos and Porphyry on embryology.
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Note: this transcription was produced by automatic voice recognition software. It has been corrected by hand, but may still contain errors. We are very grateful to Tim Wittenborg for his production of the automated transcripts and for the efforts of a team of volunteer listeners who corrected the texts.

Peter Adamson: Hi, I'm Peter Adamson and you're listening to the History of Philosophy podcast brought to you with the support of King's College London and the Leverhulme Trust, online at Today I'll be doing an interview with Professor James Wilberding of the University of Bochum. Hi James.

James Wilberding: Hello.

Peter Adamson: And today we're going to be talking about nature in Neoplatonism and especially in Plotinus and his student Porphyry. Maybe you could start by just talking a little bit about the issue in general because people have a tendency to think of the Neoplatonists as being not very interested in natural philosophy. Why do they think that and to what extent is that true?

James Wilberding: Well maybe we should start by defining what natural philosophy actually is and there's a lot to it but I think we can capture the nature of natural philosophy just by saying something like it's the science of explaining motion and change in the sensible world. So that's going to encompass all sorts of things like celestial motions, elemental motions and elemental change, biological motions and changes including embryology. And so this is something that you can see Aristotle doing, you can see Plato doing and the Neoplatonists are interested in this too but for them of course they have a special sort of approach to it, which is to explain these sensible motions and sensible changes as expressions of intelligible principles, so that these forms are actually at work in the sensible world. So you're right it's generally said that the Neoplatonists aren't interested in this sort of thing. In fact in the big history of philosophy by Zeller, this German academic, when you get to the section where he's describing Plotinus's natural philosophy, the subtitle is Plotinus doesn't have a natural philosophy and even I think at one point on the page it even says Plotinus isn't interested in nature.

Peter Adamson: Which is one of the shorter sections in the book.

James Wilberding: Yeah and it's outrageous really, but there's a reason people say this sort of thing and that is unlike, say Aristotle and Galen who was also a Platonist, these were people who were doing empirical research dissecting bodies, looking at the anatomy and drawing conclusions about that and bringing that into their philosophy. The Neoplatonists weren't doing any kind of comparable empirical research. And coupled with that is the fact that's often pointed to, the Neoplatonists were often very focused on text and on their textual tradition. So they're reading Plato, they're reading Aristotle. And by that I don't mean to suggest that they're just doing interpretation, because they were very concerned to show that Plato and to some extent Aristotle, what they were saying is true and that often caused them to take these texts as springboards one might say, to do their own philosophy but under the rubric of interpreting a text. So there's all sorts of new developments that they that they get into. And that could also lead one to think, well they're just sort of armchair philosophers who aren't interested in the sensible world at all and in addition to that one might say even though they're interested in texts and even though Aristotle wrote all of these biological texts, the Neoplatonists don't really spend much time on these biological texts. There's no commentary on his biological treatises and that's going to be another thing that drives people to this conclusion. But I would be quick to point out I think that Platinus and the Neoplatonists are very interested in the sensible world and you can see that for example in how they develop Plato's theory of forms.

Peter Adamson: Right so let's turn to Platinus who's usually credited with being the founder of Neoplatonism. What does he think about, first of all the natural world as a whole. I mean how is it set up according to him.

James Wilberding: Right so it's in many ways it's very similar to Aristotle's. So you have an everlasting universe which is a sphere with the earth at its center but it's very different from Aristotle's in several ways. So for one obviously Platinus as a Platonist is following Plato and thinking of the sensible world as a living thing, as a composite of body and soul and that's something that Aristotle never really says. Moreover although Aristotle and Platinus both think that the universe is everlasting they have very different approaches to arguing for this conclusion. So Aristotle says, you know he argues from the nature of the constitution of the heavens, and he says there's this fifth body that doesn't have any contrary properties and destruction is always caused by a contrary property therefore this fifth body of the heavens is never going to be destroyed.

Peter Adamson: This so-called ether right.

James Wilberding: Yeah this is the ether and so that's going to be one argument for the everlastiness of the heavens and thus of the universe. And the other would be say arguing that motion can have no beginning and no end so if there's motion at all which there obviously is, then the universe must be everlasting. So those are Aristotle's arguments, but Platinus has a different approach. He has these hypostases which I'm guessing you covered in a previous podcast.

Peter Adamson: Several previous.

James Wilberding: Oh right. Okay great so you have this metaphysics of procession and reversion starting from these principles which, and it's difficult to talk about this, but we might say these principles always exist have existed and always will exist. It's a bit more difficult than that as you've probably mentioned. But the idea is that the sensible cosmos is just a necessary product of these higher principles, so the sensible cosmos always has to exist. So that's it. Platinus' standard argument for the everlasting of the heavens.

Peter Adamson: So just to make sure we get that point across; so the idea is that the physical cosmos necessarily flows forth from these higher principles the way light does from a light source or water from a fountain so you can't have them without a physical cosmos. So it's basically nothing about the cosmos in its own right that would keep it in existence. It's the fact that it's caused by something that's always exercising causality.

James Wilberding: I think that's right and that's maybe distinct from some of the things that happens with the hypostasis because if we say well the soul is a necessary emanation of the intellect that's not quite right because there's this moment of reversion where the soul is in some sense creating itself. But you don't really get that with the sensible cosmos but that depends on how one thinks of nature and nature's relation to the sensible cosmos which I guess will probably have time to get to eventually I would think.

Peter Adamson: But before we get to what he thinks about nature as a principle, I know that he wrote a treatise actually on this question about whether the cosmos is eternal and you've written a translation and commentary on this treatise.

James Wilberding: Yes

Peter Adamson: So you would be the ideal person to tell us about it. So tell us about it.

James Wilberding: Perhaps yeah. We'll see. Right, so like I said Plotinus has these arguments that he provides in all sorts of treatises so throughout his career for the everlastingness of the heavens. But to his credit he kind of puzzles over this fact, over this question, of whether the sensible universe is always numerically identical so whether it's the same sensible universe or whether it's more like Theseus' ship that parts are being replaced and ultimately maybe we have a different sensible universe. And it's interesting that he puzzles over this question because you could think he's already committed to this idea that the sensible universe is a composite of body and soul. So this question about the diachronic identities, the identity through time of the sensible universe, is very similar to our concerns about personal identity through time and often people just are willing to say well the soul is identical through time. And that suffices so why isn't Plotinus worried about them? Why isn't Plotinus satisfied by just saying that the soul is identical through time?

Peter Adamson: The idea then would be that someone might worry, well why am I the same person now as I was when I was five years old because there's none of the same stuff in my body.

James Wilberding: Exactly.

Peter Adamson: And then you might expect Plotinus to say, Plotinus of all people should be the guy to say well you have the same soul so who cares if your body has changed, and you're saying that that's not his answer at least in the case of the cosmos.

James Wilberding: That's right. Yeah, so he acknowledges that there's this fundamental thing about the sensible world which is that everything's in flux and just as in the case of you and me, you know we're losing parts, we consume food to regain these parts, but what we see is you know there isn't quite the harmony that we need to live forever, for the body and the soul to be joined forever. So Plotinus's concern seems to be that anytime there's flux, that shows that the body and the soul aren't really having the kind of harmony that can last forever. So for him it's not sufficient to just appeal to the soul, because as long as there's flux he's concerned that maybe the body and soul will come apart in which case maybe we would have cycles of a universe. You know something like the Stoics; perhaps that it's there and then it ceases and then starts again.

Peter Adamson: And in fact that is what happens to humans, right, so they lose a body then their soul goes into a new body later on.

James Wilberding: Exactly. So we have this reincarnation or transmigration theory.

Peter Adamson: Why doesn't that happen to the cosmos then ?

James Wilberding: Yeah, well he argues that similar to Aristotle, that the heavens are the thing that aren't subject to flux. And he's a bit of two minds about Aristotle's solution, because Aristotle as he sees it just posited this fifth body that solved all of these problems and he didn't really think that that was well supported. And this is interesting because this is also that the constitution of the heavens question is one of the questions where Plato and Aristotle seriously disagree. Aristotle says the fifth body. Plato says it's mostly fire but all four elements are there. And so this is an interesting sort of test to see how Neoplatonists deal with this sort of question, because generally they like to bring them together. But in this particular case Plotinus, for example, says well Aristotle isn't justified, I'm going to follow Plato. And indeed, you know, one might say he has good reasons for doing so because Aristotle maybe hasn't really proven that there's this fifth body.

Peter Adamson: Okay but that still seems like it doesn't answer the question, because now if he said that the heavens don't consist of a fifth element which is indestructible but rather of the four sublunary elements, it seems like the heavens too should be destroyed just like our bodies are destroyed.

James Wilberding: Right, so the easy answer is off the table, namely Aristotle's. So he sticks to Plato's idea that all four elements are there. But again he uses this as an opportunity to really investigate the constitution of the heavens and he pushes Plato's answer in Aristotle's direction and he ends up saying, well yeah it's mostly fire, but there's a very different kind of fire in the heavens, and this fire is almost immaterial which means it's going to allow itself to create a kind of, to engage in a kind of harmonious relationship with soul such that there won't be any flux, which is actually, he's in a good position; he's on good footing anyway because it doesn't look like there's flux from the heavens unlike in the sensible world, so really he's just trying to support that through some kind of theory of the material of the heavens.

Peter Adamson: It's almost like he thinks the heavens are some kind of intermediary or compromise between intelligible things and physical things, right ? They're permanent and almost immaterial, but they're physical and are visible for example the way that sublunary bodies are.

James Wilberding: Yeah, that's right. And I think that's actually maybe more true than a lot of people want to admit. I mean what we saw for instance in Aristotle is you have this sensible world and then you have these heavens which are always moving and in some sense you know divine. And then beyond that, beyond the heavens, you get this unmoved mover. And it's the same with Platinus actually. You have this sensible world which is subject to flux, and then you have the heavens which are divine in some sense and just beyond that you seem to get something like the intellect.

Peter Adamson: Okay so he has a good kind of physical story, we might say, about why the world is everlasting. On the other hand he does have this world soul, and yet he also invokes nature as a principle. And in fact he wrote a whole treatise about nature. What's then the relationship between the world soul and nature ?

James Wilberding: Right, so the world soul is distinct from the hypostasis soul, in so far as the hypostasis soul is completely in the intelligible world we might say. But the world soul is engaged in the sensible world. And what Plotinus does is basically say, well the world soul similar to, say, human souls, consists of two parts we might say. And there's going to be the part that is actively at work in the sensible world and in matter, and that's nature, the lower part. But he also reserves an upper part of the world soul that remains in the intelligible world. So in some sense nature is just the lower part of the world soul.

Peter Adamson: It's almost like another bridging principle then from the intelligible to the physical realm right because it has a foot in both realms as it were.

James Wilberding: That's right yeah.

Peter Adamson: That's interesting. So what kinds of things does he use nature to explain, as opposed to the world soul.

James Wilberding: I mean that's a question, to what extent the world soul is responsible for explaining anything directly and not by means of nature. It seems that nature is the one that's really doing the work in the natural world and I think it's pretty much explaining almost everything one might say. I mean, again I mentioned at the start, that there's this interesting biological development in the theory of forms so for example, well it's actually not even clear in Plato whether there's a form of human being. You know young Socrates in the Parmenides seems to have his doubts. Maybe in the Timaeus there is one. But even in the Timaeus, Plato describes how these generated gods construct the human body, and it's not clear that they're doing this because they have knowledge of the form of human being for example. They just seem to be troubleshooting and trying to come up with a good plan for a human being. In Plotinus, the theory of forms takes a decidedly biological turn. So there are forms for all sorts of living things, humans, dogs, oxen, presumably even even snakes, even plants, there are forms of. And what happens with these forms is, as they're handed down, so they start an intellect, they're handed down to soul and ultimately they're handed down to nature which is at work in the sensible world. And at each each time they're handed, down they become more pluralized and more particularized, such that by the time you get to the level of nature you don't have the form of human being, you have a whole variety of forms corresponding to all, so for example in the case of a human being, all of the parts of the human body. And these are going to be the things that actually do the work in the sensible world and create the human body. a

Peter Adamson: And it's almost like all the humans who ever exist are kind of unfolding of the possible content of the form of man.

James Wilberding: That's right yes. So at one point Plotinus investigates this idea of whether there are forms of individuals and this is of course a very controversial question that he engages with. But I think the soundest reading of his response to that question is to say, at the level of nature there is this form of Socrates say, insofar as at the level of nature you're going to have a principle of his snub nose, and his bulging eyes and all these other features. But then all of these, even if we count all of these principles together as the form of Socrates, this is just one possibility within the form of human being. So the idea is, well how many human beings would it take to instantiate the form of human beings, and his answer seems to be a you know a lot. So as many as fit into the great year is what he says.

Peter Adamson: The great year being how long it takes for all the heavenly bodies to realign to their starting position.

James Wilberding: Exactly.

Peter Adamson: Okay, I guess one thing that's become very clear from all this then is that the Neoplatonists, or at least Plotinus, he is interested in the physical world, but he always approaches these questions about natural philosophy with the principles of his general philosophy in mind. For example the idea that there are intermediaries between higher things and lower things and that you have a kind of gradual emanation of multiplicity from a more unified set of principles. I want to turn now to his student Porphyry and talk about one other text, which again you've worked on, and this is a text about embryology, in other words the nature and generation of the human fetus. I guess this is a rather surprising thing to find a Neoplatonist working on. Can you tell us a little bit about the pre-history of this and maybe why he would have been interested in it ?

James Wilberding: Right, so I don't actually think it's a very surprising thing for a Neoplatonist to be interested in. Embryology was always a top-off in ancient philosophy. And you can find the very earliest philosophers working on it and the very latest philosophers working on it. I suppose one of the issues which is, I mean there were a number of issues that were central, but one that maybe we could focus on is whether just the man provides a seed for the embryo or whether both parents are, so whether there's a female seed. And there are lots of arguments on both sides, but maybe one of the strongest arguments on each side would be for the two seed theory if you have two seeds you can easily explain why the the offspring sometimes resembles the mother because you have these formal principles provided by the seed. The problem with the two seed theory though is, if you say that the mother has a seed then the man seems superfluous and that's what, that among other things, is what led Aristotle to say that there's in fact only one seed. And it's interesting because if one follows this early tradition, one can find medical philosophers and physicians always sort of asserting the two seed theory. So Hippocrates and Galen are both on the two seed side, but Aristotle is a strong proponent of the one seed theory. And all of the Neoplatonists just follow Aristotle.

Peter Adamson: When you say that the man would be superfluous, do you mean the woman could literally get pregnant just by herself. Or do you mean that the man wouldn't do anything to explain the presence of a human being ?

James Wilberding: I think I meant, in some sense, the former. Of course all that really means is that more explanation is needed as to why this female seed is not sufficient to create an offspring all by itself. So what happens then is even with the two seed theorists, say Galen, you get this female seed, but it's still inferior in some sense to the male seed because it can't be self-sufficient.

Peter Adamson: And Porphyry goes for the one seed theory.

James Wilberding:Right. And this is interesting, and this maybe goes back to this question that we started with as to why people don't view Neoplatonists as actually being interested in the empirical tradition, because not only does Porphyry follow Aristotle's one seed theory, he doesn't even really think of this as a problem. He doesn't even investigate the two seed theory, unlike say Aristotle, who argues extensively for the one seed theory, and unlike Galen who argues extensively against Aristotle. Porphyry just assumes it as if it were obvious. And he doesn't, you know he doesn't really seem to engage with any texts of Galen. And he does sort of cite some Hypocrates but not much.

Peter Adamson: That's interesting. So these are very obvious things for him to have been looking at if he's thinking about embryology, and we just go straight back to Aristotle the whole time ?

James Wilberding: Yeah, although he's not really focusing on texts of Aristotle either. Like I said, it's not clear that they had access to all of the biological texts of Aristotle. But he does sort of take the starting point of the one seed theory, and thus he's confronted with this problem of explaining maternal resemblance, which all one seed theorists are.

Peter Adamson: So what does he think the woman contributes to the process of forming the embryo then ?

James Wilberding: Yeah exactly. So he needs to account for maternal resemblance in some other way. And he has an ingenious way of explaining this. So basically he sees embryology, as I would put it, a kind of empirical instantiation of procession and reversion. So the the emission of the seed is a form of procession and that the father is creating an image of himself and through these form principles that are contained in the seed. But as we see with reversion, something needs to, it needs to somehow come back to its source. And it can't go back to the male, because the male is no longer in the picture. So it has to basically revert to the female. So what Porphyry says is that there's no female seed but the seed reverts and as it were is actualized by the mother's soul and this is what's going to account for the maternal resemblance. And what's interesting here is he has another piece of evidence on his side which we wouldn't really, perhaps today, regard as a piece of evidence, but there's this phenomenon that's often called ideoplasty. Have you heard of this ?

Peter Adamson: Only from you.

James Wilberding: And so a famous, so basically the phenomenon of ideoplasty is this, and I should emphasize at the start this was widely agreed to obtain in antiquity and even way past antiquity.

Peter Adamson: And maybe we should also reassure listeners that this is not true. So the first prospect that you're about to hold out...

James Wilberding: Right, so don't don't try this at home basically. But the view was that whatever the mother, and curiously it's only just the mother, whatever the mother is looking at and in some cases thinking of at the moment of conception, this will have a very visible impact on the the appearance of the offspring. So Seramis (?) gives a very unfortunate example of a mother who looked at a monkey while having intercourse and ended up with a monkey like offspring.

Peter Adamson: Oh dear.

James Wilberding:  Yes, so this is, as I said, it's a phenomenon which is a very real explanandum in ancient embryology. And Porphyry seems uniquely positioned to explain it. And his explanation is, well, this just shows not only that the mother is influencing the the form, the appearance of the offspring, but that she's not doing it through seed she has to be doing it through her soul.

Peter Adamson: Right, and so actually you could almost say that he's got a more feminist take on embryology than Aristotle, because he actually has the woman doing quite a lot doesn't he ?

James Wilberding: Exactly, in fact he twice refers to the female as the demiurge of the offspring where Aristotle had reserved that term exclusively for the male.

Peter Adamson: And does he have in mind the divine craftsman of the Timaeus there, who's called the demiurge ? Or does he just mean that it has some kind of making function. Demiurge means craftsman.

James Wilberding: Exactly so demiurge means craftsman. I'm not sure he's explicitly trying to make a link to the Timaeus, but I think anytime you use that word, anytime a Neoplatonist used that word of course he's aware that the demiurge is in the picture.


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