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Situating the Problemata Genre in the Context of Hellenistic Exegesis

Kenneth Yu

University of Chicago

“Question-and-answer” texts, variously called problemata, zetemata, and aporemata, have long been a source of scholarly frustration, especially as to their purpose and methodology (Mayhew 2015). In an attempt to clarify certain central features of the problemata genre, as well as its relationship to other ancient technical literature, I compare specific examples from the pseudo-Aristotelian Problemata to the Homeric D-Scholia, arguing that they evince remarkably similar modes of inquiry. Both implicitly exemplify Aristotle’s idea that philosophical inquiry results from encounters with the wondrous (Met. 982b17-20), and they share the Aristotelian or Peripatetic conception that philosophical knowledge is predominantly causal in nature (APo. 89b25-31).

My paper proceeds in two steps. First, I highlight four methodological similarities of the Problemata and the scholia that reveal certain assumptions about the nature of knowledge: 1) a versatile, quasi-encyclopedic form in which solutions to difficulties can be added or subtracted anonymously over time; 2) a basic pattern in which questions focus on “why” (dia ti) something odd occurs, thus characterizing knowledge as primarily causal in form; 3) a particular epistemic in which truth pertains more to the dialectic mode than to demonstrative reasoning, that is, they adhere to endoxa (“reputable opinions,” Top. 100a18-21; 104a5-7; EN 1145b2-6) and hōs epi to polu statements (“as a general rule,” Met. 1027a20-21; APo 87b19-22) rather than first principles as starting points for inquiry; and 4) the overwhelming focus on subjects for which there is little to no possibility of empirical verification or observation.

In the second part of my paper, I argue that the generic and formal qualities shared by the Problemata and the scholia are partly due to the influence of the Aristotelian conflation of realia (that is, physical, anthropological, and religious phenomena) and poetic representations (cf. Poetics book 25). In other words, Aristotle seemed to have approached textual problems and puzzling phenomena with a similar hermeneutic, effectively merging the art of poetics with his inquiry into the physical and human sciences. This conflation evidently influenced other technical genres that centered on human conduct and religious behavior (e.g., ancient paradoxography and periegesis). In short, I would like to propose that question-and-answer texts, and a significant portion of related Hellenistic and Imperial Greek technical compendia of various sorts, bear traces of this Aristotelian method of interpreting phenomena like textual difficulties to be resolved. 

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