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Aileen Das

Aileen Das Professor of Classical Studies ardas@umich.edu | homepage

My work draws attention to the relationship between medicine and philosophy in the classical and medieval Islamicate worlds. In particular, it examines the writings of Galen of Pergamum (AD 129–c. 216), who argued for a mutually beneficial relationship between the two disciplines. A doctor to Roman elite, Galen maintained that the body could be the studied as a way of accessing broader cosmic truths, such as the nature of the soul and God’s providence. In so doing, Galen repeatedly invokes Plato’s Timaeus (in addition to the works of Hippocrates) as a sort of foundational text for his medical approach to physical and metaphysical problems, because the dialogue connects the very workings of the body with those of the heavens.

I am currently preparing a monograph, based on the findings of my doctoral dissertation, that explores how Galen engages with Plato’s Timaeus as part of a project of redefining medicine vis-à-vis philosophy. It also highlights criticisms of this Galenic project in the medieval Islamicate world. Influenced by late-antique conceptions of disciplinarity expounded in isagogic texts by Olympiodorus, pseudo-Elias, and Paul the Persian, thinkers such as Ibn Sīnā (Avicenna), Maimonides, and Ibn Rushd (Averroes) asserted a distinction between medical and philosophical knowledge. Accordingly, these authors variously took issue with Galen’s medical approach to questions concerning, for example, the soul and the nature of sensation-although they too were trained in medicine as well as philosophy. As part of their disciplinary polemic with Galen, the above thinkers argued against his interpretation of the Timaeus, especially the dialogue’s account of the physiology of the soul, to show that only philosophy was informative on these sorts of issues.

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I am also more broadly interested in the transfer of Greek philosophical knowledge into Arabic. My research considers not only how the transmission of certain texts shaped the development of ‘Arabic Platonism and Aristotelianism’, but also how the translators of these texts, who were working in the Sinai, Palestine, and Baghdad, adapted the sources for their monotheistic readership. I have written articles on Galen’s role in the transmission of the Timaeus into Arabic, and knowledge of Plutarch in the medieval Islamicate world. In the latter paper, a colleague (Pauline Koetschet) and I show that medieval authors writing in Arabic had no familiarity with the writings of Plutarch of Chaeronea, but drew extensively on the pseudonymous Placita Philosophorum (Opinions of the Philosophers) in philosophical and even alchemical contexts.

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