Robert Vinkesteijn

Galen, Ptolemy, Origen and Sextus; New Ways of Doing Philosophy in the Imperial Era

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In this project, I analyse the innovative ideas about philosophy and how philosophy should be done, of four figures who operated on the fringes of the philosophical tradition, outside the context of the schools: Galen of Pergamum, Claudius Ptolemaeus, Sextus Empiricus, and Origen.

This is a group of authors who are roughly contemporaries (all working in the 2nd and/or 3rd centuries CE), but who otherwise seem to form a somewhat motley crew, because of great differences in their basic outlook and orientation. However, these authors, I propose, have the following in common:
(1) they stand out because of their engagement with important developments in philosophy, science and religion that take place outside the context of the philosophical schools;
(2) they criticize contemporary philosophy inspired by this engagement;
(3) they successfully anchor their innovative insights in the previous philosophical tradition, and propose new forms of doing philosophy.

Each of these authors has received thorough philosophical training and is extensively familiar with the philosophical ‘cultural common ground’ and the doctrines of the various philosophical schools. But rather than choosing a particular school, they all criticized the ‘philosophers of the schools’ for not being able to deliver on their promises. However, despite their radical critiques of contemporary philosophy, none of these authors discards the philosophical tradition as such. On the contrary, each of them rather proposed a revision of the way philosophy should be practised, inspired by the developments in various other domains of knowledge or belief with which they particularly engaged: medicine (Galen, and arguably also Sextus), mathematics and astronomy (Ptolemy), the sceptical tradition (Sextus), and early Christianity (Origen). Moreover, presenting their alternatives as anchored in the preceding philosophical tradition, each of these authors became hugely successful in the later European and Arabic cultural traditions and had a lasting influence on the status and scope of philosophy and its relation to other, competing domains of knowledge.

Thus, my working hypothesis is that the fate of these authors in the later tradition benefited from the way they combined a critique of contemporary philosophy with the anchoring of their alternatives in the philosophical tradition – i.e. from their effective combination of ‘the new’ and ‘the old’. I propose to research the way they managed such a combination by making use of the cultural common ground of philosophy.