This project investigated the epistemic networks that served as a background for the transmission and transformation of Aristotelian knowledge in the ancient world.


The Aristotelian doctrines as a whole represent a fundamental body of knowledge that throughout the history of knowledge has given rise to new scientific impulses and broadened the horizons of the knowledge society. Aristotelian knowledge was able to assume this role because it was passed down persistently if not uninterruptedly from antiquity onwards. It has undergone a transformation process which varied in intensity and emphasis depending on the sociopolitical conditions and on the various contexts in which it was received and applied. From a historical perspective, Aristotelian knowledge is perhaps most clearly distinguished from other bodies of knowledge, e.g. other philosophical traditions, by its reception history.

The project traced linguistic and cultural processes of translation as well as phases of distribution and institutionalization in the Ancient World. How was Aristotelian knowledge appropriated, transformed, innovated and stabilized? How did systemic properties of Aristotle’s work and complex modes of representation motivate later readers in very different cultural contexts to take over methodological positions into different, often contrary knowledge structures? What were the conditions for reinterpretation or exclusion of theoretical or practical components of the Aristotelian system? In what ways did this open new avenues for understanding, integrating, transforming and applying his ideas and claims?

The project investigated these questions from four perspectives:

1) From corpus to Weltanschauung

The starting question here was how the development of a corpus could lead to the emergence of a secular Weltanschauung.

Discussions in four workshops organized by Department 1 of the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science and the systematic exploration of research resources and current secondary literature encouraged the formulation of a thesis, which needs further reflection:

The acceptance of Aristotle’s philosophy in its systemic Gestalt by new, mostly monotheistic scholarly communities in the Middle East, North Africa and Europe was prepared and introduced by its incorporation into the Neoplatonic school practices and Neoplatonic religious doctrines and rituals. This theologization of philosophy focused primarily on metaphysics, cosmology and psychology. This means that Aristotelism as a secular Weltanschauung arose on monotheistic re-interpretations of Neoplatonic foundations.

2) Aristotelian tools in epistemological struggles

Epistemological struggles surrounding the distribution, institutionalization and transformation of Aristotelian philosophy focused, as is well known, on the theses of the eternity of the world, causality, continuity versus atomism and the role of matter.

In the new monotheistic environments among Syriac and Armenian Christians or Arabic and Persian Muslims all four topics were heavily contested and lead to the formation of controversial and at times also inimical religious or philosophical schools. More recent research has shown that despite these conflicts or, in specific cases even because of these conflicts, the four domains of epistemological struggles found adherents of individual Aristotelian doctrines and methods across the different communities.

3) Aristotelian auxiliary means in social or political struggles

Struggles over positions of power or social rank often included debates about specific scholarly or worldly issues. Here, Aristotelian logic, ethics, psychology, metaphysics or cosmology in tandem with or in opposition to religious doctrines and their interpretation offered means to form social cohesion or encourage cooperation between scholars, rulers and administrators against other scholars or members of other faith communities.

Narratives of legitimation were part and parcel of these processes and permeated both historical chronicles as well as poetry and prose literature.

4) Disciplinary transformations

Disciplinary transformations took place in three major forms:

a) as normal scholarly work dealing with specific issues;

b) as path-breaking, innovative systematization;

c) as instances of paradigm shifts due to the accumulation of critical problems.

Such processes can be studied in particular for scholars in Islamicate, Catholic and Protestant societies between the ninth and the sixteenth centuries. They led to the extension of Aristotelian logic for instance in the thirteenth century (al-Afdal al-Khunaji), the diversification of mathematical tools, physical theories and epistemological positions (Stephen of Antioch, Mu’ayyad al-Urdi, Nasir al-Din al-Tusi, ‘Ali Qushji, Copernicus, Kepler, Newton) in astronomy and the replacement of different forms of Aristotelism by either closely related philosophical systems (Ibn SIna) or fundamentally different types of philosophy (Descartes and others).