Nous thurathen: between Theophrastus and Alexander of Aphrodisias

British Journal for the History of Philosophy:1-22 (forthcoming)
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Abstract

The idea that nous comes from without, deriving from Aristotle’s Generation of Animals II.3, became a key element in late ancient and Medieval accounts of human rationality drawing on Aristotle’s De Anima. But two very different understandings of the concept were around (often occurring next to each other): either it was taken to refer to the human capacity for thought and its origin outside the natural ontogenetic process; or it was taken to stand for the most perfect act of thought, existing separately as the supreme divinity, and becoming, hopefully, ours at the very climax of human development. This paper shows how these two influential conceptions derive from the work of the two greatest scholars of Aristotle’s school, Theophrastus and Alexander of Aphrodisias, respectively. More to the point: it shows that (i) there is an intriguing philosophical story to be told of how the notion developed from one understanding to the other, this being the core of a larger story of nous from without in Western thought; and that (ii) this story sheds new light on what was at stake in the early – genuinely Peripatetic – reception of Aristotle’s account of nous (as contrasted with later, heavily Platonized, interpretations).

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