Victor Caston

Victor Caston Professor of Philosophy & Classical Studies vcaston@umich.edu | homepage

My research focuses primarily on ancient philosophy of mind: how the soul is related to the body, whether it has any distinctive causal power of its own, and how its states can represent the world or have content. I have looked at these issues especially in the Aristotelian tradition; but my long term research has been directed at the last question, concerning content, throughout the whole of Greek philosophy, from Parmenides and the sophist Gorgias, through Plato and Aristotle, to Hellenistic philosophers like the Stoics and beyond, to early medieval philosophers such as Augustine.

My approach to ancient texts is resolutely philosophical: I am interested in whether ancient philosophers’ arguments, analyses, distinctions, and concepts are good ones, and whether they have the resources to respond to questions and objections which their contemporaries, or our own, could put to them. Only in this way, I believe, can we take the true measure of their claims. This approach requires close readings of the text that must be sensitive to its original language and informed by an understanding of the context in which it occurs, both in the author’s works as a whole and in the intellectual tradition of which it is a part. But my ultimate aim is philosophical: I want to recover a sense of the interest and power of these ancient ideas and to see how they bear on our own discussions today.

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At the moment, I am writing two articles on Aristotle (one on perceptual content and another on the unity of psychology), and a third on ancient discussions of the “veil of perception.” My current book project is on Alexander of Aphrodisias (2nd–3rd c. CE), the last great Peripatetic commentator on Aristotle, an Aristotelian of a stature comparable to Thomas Aquinas or Ibn Rushd (Averroes). I am close to finishing the first volume of a two volume translation and commentary of his On the Soul for the Ancient Commentators on Aristotle series (Duckworth/Cornell UP). Alexander’s On the Soul is a systematic treatise that reworks Aristotle’s views on the soul in an orderly way from their foundations in his metaphysics. Alexander takes psychology to be based on principles that can be found throughout the natural order, beginning with the four elements, and argues that the organization of these basic substances into new forms of ever-increasing complexity can explain the striking phenomena that characterise living things, from growth and reproduction, through perception, representation, and desire, to the highest forms of intellectual activity. The result is a highly nuanced form of naturalism, which aims to steer clear of the excesses of both Platonic dualism and Stoic materialism. As the last and greatest of the commentators who declared their primary allegiance to Aristotle and were largely untainted by Platonism, Alexander is the first to articulate an Aristotelianism remarkably congenial to contemporary Aristotelians and hence of great interest today.

Once the Alexander volumes are finished, I will return full time to my long term project on the problem of intentionality in ancient philosophy for Cambridge University Press. The first installment will be a monograph on Aristotle on intentionality, which I am currently mid-way through.

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