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Personal Knowledge in Porphyry’s Thought: The Epistemological Role of Experience”

Aaron Johnson

Lee University

In spite of the fact that Porphyry is reported to have loathed the body (Eunapius at 1T.44-45 Smith), he was certainly a polymath in wide range of suspect areas of knowledge. In the midst of his exhibition of wide reading and study in an impressive spectrum of investigative traditions (in areas as diverse as music, medicine, history, ethnographic or geographic literature, astrology and astronomy, oracular literature, philology and literary criticism, and the philosophical tradition) there are several passages scattered throughout his corpus in which his personal (experiential) knowledge plays a significant role in his philosophical argument. While a person’s true self is the soul, the experiences of embodied life could have profound significance for the condition and movement of the soul. Porphyry’s descriptions of his own tactile, aural, and visual experiences are relatively rare in what survives of his writings. Yet, because of the unexpected importance that experiential knowledge was allowed to have in Porphyry’s philosophical system (unexpected, because Eunapius’ testimony can readily be supported by appeal to several remarks made by Porphyry himself, such as the assertion that intelligence thinks better by separating from the body; Sent. 41), the allusions to his embodied experience remain worthy of consideration in their own right: first, as instances of his personal biography; second, as contributing to his formulation of the epistemological status of corporeal data; and third, as expressive of interesting problems within his conception of the relation of souls to bodies.

The paper proposed here focuses on the second issue raised above (though it is ultimately inseparable from the third) in order to highlight the ways in which embodied, perceptual knowledge is at least partly constitutive of what later readers saw as the philosopher’s polymathy. It seeks to place personal embodied experience (his own or others’) within the range of other forms of learning with which Porphyry’s corpus engages. For instance, his relationship with a pet bird in Carthage (Abst. 3.4.7) was combined with his presentation of historical and ethnographic knowledge in the On Abstinence from Eating Meat. His description of an astrolabe (which he may or may not have personally inspected; fr. 245.12-14 Smith) was interwoven with his reading of Alcmaeon of Crotona (fr. 243 Smith) and others in

his Against Boëthus, on the Immortality of the Soul. One wonders whether his personal investigations of the volcanic craters of Mt. Etna was preliminary or consequent to his scholarly investigations of fiery or icy rivers in the books of Apollodorus (fr. 373 Smith) and Bardisan (fr. 376 Smith) in his On the Styx. In any case, his exploration of Etna exemplified both his “love of wisdom and love of inspection (philetheamona),” according to Elias (= 29T.6-7 Smith).

The paper proposed here seeks to provide an exhaustive list of Porphyry’s reports or allusions to his own personal experiences or investigations throughout his corpus (both the fully surviving and fragmentary writings) and identify the ways in which they cohere with his more scholarly, bookish research (from astrology to philology). His descriptions of experiential knowledge, occurring in a wide variety of Porphyry’s works, are seen to play an important epistemological role even for the philosopher who recognized that his soul was only on vacation in the body. This becomes better appreciated by consideration of some key remarks in his Sentences (in particular, the claim that soul is prompted to thought or action by exterior objects, at Sent. 16 Lamberz; and the allowance for “another kind of intelligence” than pure intelligence, which is discursive, in the soul, and in time, at Sent. 44 Lamberz). I hope to show that, in spite of the problems inherent in the soul’s embodied state, experiential knowledge (dia peiras) could achieve a positive epistemological status for the philosopher in the soul’s ascent to higher and purer ontological levels.

Session/Panel Title

Porphyry the Polymath

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