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‘Aristotle is like the cuttlefish who obscures himself in his own ink when he feels himself about to be grasped’ (Charles B. Schmitt)

Course description

In the Greek dictionary of Liddell-Scott-Jones, the term problema refers to an “obstacle,” but its etymology also suggests “throwing forward” an idea for discussion. By confronting this second sense, the present seminar takes a fresh approach to a segment of Aristotelian natural philosophy, from its origins to 1600 and beyond, which is both impressively long-lived and curiously neglected in current investigations. These intriguing “problem texts” are perhaps better understood as an ‘archive’ of research ideas and interests, or a kind of question-and-answer, encyclopedic literature that simultaneously (but not at random) promulgated a learned and popular version of itself. We will question the epistemological unity of this tradition by considering different collections—from Greek commentators such as Alexander of Aphrodisias to humanists like Pietro d’Abano and Politian. And we will explore the relatively unfamiliar version of a versatile, question-oriented Aristotle by moving from background theory on how, and in which format, ancient philosophical ideas were communicated to the contribution of early modern actors and the sites of knowledge where they could display a new curiosity for the natural world.

As we do so, it will become apparent that a hyperbolic rupture typically attributed to Copernican cosmology and the traditional division into epochs of intellectual history have little validity in this singular terrain. Rather, it is a remarkable capacity of Aristotelianism to be falsifiable and to absorb counter-examples that gave impulse to the practice of “problem texts” and their protracted debate. Seen in this light, our readings, primary or secondary, culminate in a plea for collapsing the boundaries that we tend to erect between antiquarian, philological tools on the one hand, and proper empirical activity on the other. Interdisciplinarity is a fact of life especially when working with Galileo’s new science and the erudite, 17th-century households in Padua or Venice that sustained his viewpoint and research agenda; ultimately, and in its final part, this course should take you some way towards an understanding of how people in the Galileian entourage read, thought, and wrote, as well as how did they imagine their classical counterparts doing the same.

Knowledge of the core texts (i) is assumed prior to each meeting (they are translated and deliberately shortened or excerpted into easily digestible chunks), but their analysis proceeds primarily on a lecture-based system. You will not be expected to have read the entirety of secondary studies (ii), but you should bring your own notes and reflections on at least the ones marked by the asterisk symbol* and come to class prepared to share your interests and input during the available discussion periods in our time together. Do not hesitate to contact me ( if you have any questions


Plan of lectures and readings

Part I. Structures and Strategies of the Aristotelian Corpus

1. Getting to the Roots of Genres with the Violent Scholiasts

(i) Texts:

  • Aristotle, De caelo, ed. T. Kouremenos (Stuttgart, 2013), I, 10; trans. W.K.C. Guthrie (Cambridge, 1939), distributed with a small appendix of commentaries by Simplicius and Pomponazzi.
  • ——, De generatione animalium, ed. H.J. Dressaart Lulofs (Oxford, 1965), 16-18; trans. A.L. Peck (Cambridge, 1942).
  • ——, Topics, edited by R. Smith (Oxford, 1997), 105a-b; along with Fr. 112 Rose = Alex. Aphr., In Ar. Top. 62, 30-63; trans. J.M. Van Ophuijsen (London, 2001).
  • Plutarch, Quaestiones naturales [Causes of natural phenomena]; trans. L. Pearson and F.H. Sandbach (Cambridge, 1965), Moralia, vol. XI.

(ii) Studies:

  • Stefano Perfetti, Aristotle’s Zoology and Its Renaissance Commentators, 1521-1601 (Leuven, 2000), pp. 29-121
  • David Merry, “The Philosopher and the Dialectician in Aristotle’s Topics,” History and Philosophy of Logic 37 (2016): 78-100.
  • Markus Asper, ed., Writing Science: Medical and Mathematical Authorship in Ancient Greece (Berlin, 2013), pp. 111-175 (essays by Heinrich von Staden and Philip van der Eijk). *
  • Liba Taub, Science Writing in Greco-Roman Antiquity (Cambridge, 2017), pp. 63-123. *
  • Mario Untersteiner, Problemi di filologia filosofica (Milan, 1980), pp. 51-103.
  • Andrea Wilson Nightingale, Genres in dialogue: Plato and the construct of philosophy (Cambridge, 1995), pp. 93-171.


2. Constructing [Aristotle]: a new House of Knowledge between Doxography, Ethnography, and Medicine

(i) Texts:

  • Ps. Aristotle, Problems, ed. P. Louis (Paris, 1991), nos. 10, 14, 22, and 29; trans. R. Mayhew (Cambridge, 2011).
  • Domenico Massaria, “Letter to the readers,” from Pietro d’Abano’s commentary on the Problemata (Venice, 1501).
  • Francesco Patrizi, Discussiones peripateticae (Peripatetic Discussions; 1571-1581), distributed in translation with an appendix from Ludovico Settala’s commentary on the Aristotelian Problems (Frankfurt, 1602).

(ii) Studies:

  • J. Mansfeld and D.T. Runia, Aëtiana: The Method and Intellectual Context of a Doxographer (Leiden, 2009), vol. II, pp. 3-26.
  • Robert Mayhew, ed., The Aristotelian Problemata Physica: Philosophical and Scientific Investigations (Leiden, 2015), pp. 1-78. *
  • P. De Leemans and M. Goyens, eds., Aristotle’s Problemata in Different Times and Tongues (Leuven, 2006), pp. 1-20; 113-144 (essays by Joan Cadden and Iolanda Ventura). *
  • Richard Sorabji, ed., Aristotle Re-Interpreted: New Findings on Seven Hundred Years of the Ancient Commentators (London, 2016), pp. 1-79.
  • Brian Lawn, The Salernitan Questions: An Introduction to the History of Medieval and Renaissance Problem Literature (Oxford, 1963).
  • Ann Moss, Printed Commonplace-Books and the Structure of Renaissance Thought (Oxford 1996).
  • Ian MacLean, “The Market for Scholarly Books and Conceptions of Genre in Northern Europe, 1570-1630,” in Id., Learning and the Market Place (Leiden, 2009), pp. 9-24. *


Part II. Skins to Streets, Materia Medica to Weather: The Case-Studies

3. Montage and Metamorphosis of the Bodily: from Historia to Natural History

(i) Texts:

  • Ps. Aristotle, On Marvelous Things Heard, 1-50; Situations and Names of Winds; trans. W.S. Hett (Cambridge, 1936).
  • ——, Problems, ed. P. Louis (Paris, 1991), nos. 11, 12-13, and 19; trans. R. Mayhew (Cambridge, 2011).
  • Angelo Poliziano, Miscellaneorum centuria secunda, II, 53-55; ed. V. Branca and M. Pastore Stocchi (Florence, 1978).

(ii) Studies:

  • Hellmut Flashar, Aristoteles: Problemata physica (Berlin, 1962), introduction.
  • Pierre Louis, Aristote: Problèmes (Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 1991), introduction.
  • Gianna Pomata, “Praxis Historialis: The Uses of Historia in Early Modern Medicine,” in Gianna Pomata and Nancy Siraisi, eds., Historia: Empiricism and Erudition in Early Modern Europe (Cambridge, 2005), pp. 105-146. *
  • Ann Blair, “The Problemata as a Natural Philosophical Genre,” in Anthony Grafton and Nancy Siraisi, eds., Natural Particulars: Nature and the Disciplines in Renaissance Europe (Cambridge, 1999), pp. 171-204. *
  • Jean Céard, “L’encyclopédisme à la Renaissance,” in L’encyclopédisme: Actes du colloque de Caen, ed. Annie Becq (Paris, 1991), pp. 57-67.
  • Lorraine Daston and Katharine Park, Wonders and the Order of Nature, 1150-1750 (New York, 1998).


4. Before the 1755 Lisbon Earthquake: the meteorological debate

(i) Texts:

  • Ps. Aristotle, Problems, ed. P. Louis (Paris, 1991), nos. 23 and 26; trans. R. Mayhew (Cambridge, 2011).
  • Seneca, Naturales Quaestiones, ed. P. Parroni (Milan, 2002), book V; trans. W. Heinemann (Cambridge, 1971).
  • Francis Bacon, Historia ventorum, ed. Graham Rees (OFB, vol. XII).
  • Vitale Zuccolo, Dialogo delle cose meteorologiche (Dialogue on meteorological things; Venice, 1590).

(ii) Studies:

  • Malcolm Wilson, Structure and Method in Aristotle’s Meteorologica: A More Disorderly Nature (Cambridge, 2013), pp. 19-113. *
  • Gareth Williams, The Cosmic Viewpoint: A Study of Seneca’s Natural Questions (Oxford, 2012), especially pp. 171-257.
  • Guido Giglioni, “From the woods of experience to the open fields of metaphysics: Bacon’s notion of silva,” Renaissance Studies 28 (2014): 242-261. *
  • Doina-Cristina Rusu, “Francis Bacon: Constructing Natural Histories of the Invisible,” Early Science and Medicine 17 (2012): 112-133.
  • Rienk Vermij, “A Science of Signs. Aristotelian Meteorology in Reformation Germany,” Early Science and Medicine 15 (2010): 648-674.
  • Craig Martin, Renaissance Meteorology. Pomponazzi to Descartes (Baltimore, 2011), pp. 60-105. *
  • Sean Cocco, Watching Vesuvius: A History of Science and Culture in Early Modern Italy (Chicago, 2013).


Part III. Mapping an Early Modern Peripatetic Community in the Veneto

5. Looking at Problems with Galileo’s People: Workshops and Information Management

(i) Texts:

  • Gian Vincenzo Pinelli, fragments from the Ambrosiana Library, 1590s: R 121 sup (metal wheels and Turkish Empire), S 105 inf (naval operations), and S 94 sup (Moleti’s mathematical instruments)
  • Guidobaldo del Monte, Problemata (Venice, 1609).
  • Galileo Galilei, “Annotations” to Kepler’s De stella nova in pede Serpentarii (Prague, 1606), now in Florence, Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale, Gal. MS 47.
  • ——, Sidereus nuncius (Venice, 1610).
  • Gianfrancesco Sagredo to Galileo, August 24, 1613 (EN, XI: 552-556).
  • Galileo Galilei, Systema cosmicum (Leiden, 1635), bound with a letter by Antonio Foscarini.

(ii) Studies:

  • Matteo Valleriani, Galileo Engineer (Berlin, 2010), pp. 3-20; 117-154. *
  • Filippo De Vivo, “How to Read Venetian Relazioni,” Renaissance and Reformation 34 (2011): 25-59.
  • Daniel Stolzenberg, “A Spanner and His Works: Books, Letters, and Scholarly Communication Networks in Early Modern Europe,” in Ann Blair and Anja-Silvia Goeing, eds., For the Sake of Learning: Essays in Honor of Anthony Grafton (Leiden, 2016), pp. 157-172.
  • M.J. Henninger-Voss, “How the New Science of Cannons Shook Up the Aristotelian Cosmos,” Journal of the History of Ideas 63 (2002): 371-397.
  • Dana Jalobeanu, “Elements of Natural History in Sidereus nuncius,” Rev. Roum. Philosophie 58 (2014): 55-77. *
  • Richard Yeo, Notebooks, English Virtuosi, and Early Modern Science (Chicago, 2014).