Classics Philoponus
by
Miira Tuominen
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 July 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389661-0350

Introduction

John of Alexandria or John the Grammarian, known as John Philoponus (c. 490s–570s), was a philosopher and theologian in 6th-century Alexandria. He first wrote on language, for example on words the meaning of which changes by accent alone, and studied philosophy with Ammonius, son of Hermias and a student of Proclus (411–485). The nickname “lover of toil” might refer to Philoponus’ industriousness, but the epithet was also used of the members of a Christian guild or brotherhood. While Philoponus’ early studies on language are considered as philosophically unimportant, his commentaries and critical treatises show independence and critical acumen, and some of his central contributions have even been taken to anticipate Galileo’s and Descartes’s views. Philoponus started his philosophical career as a commentator on Aristotle, often writing on the basis of the lectures of his teacher Ammonius. However, he grew increasingly independent and took distance from Aristotle and from the Neoplatonism of Ammonius and Proclus. Philoponus’ most famous innovations in philosophy include the arguments for the creation of the universe ex nihilo, the new analysis of prime matter as three-dimensional extension, the explanation of projectile motion by impressed force (later to be called impetus), and the rejection of the fifth element as the matter of celestial bodies that allowed him to use a unified model for explaining both celestial and sublunary motion. As a Christian theologian, Philoponus understood the central notions of the Trinitarian controversy in agreement with the philosophical tradition. He combined this analysis with what has been called his “particularist ontology” according to which universal natures are abstractions and exist only in thought and the Monophysite interpretation of Christ having one nature that is a composite of humanity and divinity. Although Philoponus managed to produce a consistent solution to the problem of the Trinity, his view was interpreted as tritheistic, i.e., as introducing three Godheads to the Trinity, and condemned as heretic in Constantinople (680–681). While the anathema probably decreased Philoponus’ impact in the Christian West in the centuries after his death, his arguments about creation and eternity were influential in the Islamic world, and many Renaissance thinkers recognized his effect on them. In general, it is perhaps somewhat ironic that Philoponus is celebrated as a forerunner of modern natural science while his central innovations are in agreement with Christian doctrine.

Overviews

In the articles Wildberg 2018 and Sorabji 2010a, Philoponus is introduced as the independent thinker that he is nowadays taken to be: an innovator and one who critiques the Aristotelian analysis of time, place, and matter; an opponent of the eternalist cosmology of both Aristotle and Proclus; and even a forerunner of the scientific revolution in the Renaissance. Verrycken 2010 considers Philoponus from the point of view of the chronology he proposed in an article (Verrycken 1990, cited under The Development of Philoponus’ Thought). Given the complexities related to Philoponus’ works as well as his involvement in the theological controversies of his time, he is not a simple figure to introduce. With respect to his commentaries on Aristotle based on Ammonius’ seminars, it is debated as to what extent he is expressing his own views or those of Ammonius. Other questions addressed are how and when Philoponus arrived at his own views and to what extent his Christianity influenced his philosophy; see Christianity and Philosophy. Sorabji 2010b reflects on new research published between 1987 and 2008, when the second edition was completed. Sorabji 2016 introduces new research on the commentators that has been published since 2008. It includes a section on Philoponus and a brief account of the research on his influence. Tuominen 2009 is a book-length introduction to the commentators on Aristotle, and sections on Philoponus can be found in all chapters except the one on ethics. Watts 2006 offers a rich historical introduction to the environment in which Philoponus worked and the background of the religious controversies within the Platonic schools of Athens and Alexandria. Introductions to particular commentaries as well as Philoponus’ critical philosophical works can be found in the English translations in the Ancient Commentators on Aristotle series, for which see Philoponus’ Main Works.

  • Sorabji, Richard. 2010a. John Philoponus. In Philoponus and the rejection of Aristotelian science. Edited by Richard Sorabji, 41–81. London: Institute of Classical Studies.

    E-mail Citation »

    A more detailed introduction to Philoponus as a philosopher and a theologian. Sorabji focuses on Philoponus’ central innovations. On pages 74–77 he argues that although we can find antecedents for Philoponus’ contributions, he developed earlier ideas in an original manner. First edition, 1987.

  • Sorabji, Richard. 2010b. New findings on Philoponus part 2: Recent studies. In Philoponus and the rejection of Aristotelian science. Edited by Richard Sorabji, 11–40. London: Institute of Classical Studies.

    E-mail Citation »

    In this article, Richard Sorabji introduces research published on Philoponus between the publication of the first edition of the collection in 1987 and 2008, when the second edition was completed. The article provides references to the scholarly literature and includes summaries of the central debates.

  • Sorabji, Richard. 2016. Introduction: Seven hundred years of commentary and the sixth century diffusion to other cultures. In Aristotle re-interpreted: New findings on seven hundred years of commentaries. Edited by Richard Sorabji, 1–80. London: Bloomsbury.

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    The most updated general introduction to research on the ancient commentators on Plato and Aristotle up until 2016. The section on Philoponus includes a brief description of recent scholarly arguments. Sorabji also refers to Philoponus’ influence and points out that he was especially important in the Islamic world from early on, largely because of the parallel debates about the creation of the world.

  • Tuominen, Miira. 2009. The Ancient commentators on Plato and Aristotle. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

    E-mail Citation »

    A book-length introduction to the ancient commentaries on Aristotle. The book is organized thematically, and most thematic chapters contain a section on Philoponus. It is suitable for undergraduates and discusses Philoponus among others in the context of the activity of writing commentaries in Late Antiquity.

  • Verrycken, Koenraad. 2010. John Philoponus. In The Cambridge history of philosophy in late antiquity. Vol. 2. Edited by Lloyd Gerson, 733–755. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    E-mail Citation »

    An overview of Philoponus restating Verrycken’s position in the 1990 article referred to in the section of The Development of Philoponus’ Thought. Verrycken claims that Philoponus abandoned his Christianity when studying with Ammonius and became a faithful Ammonian Neoplatonist harmonizing Plato and Aristotle. However, in about 529 CE, he radically changed his mind and started to defend Christian positions.

  • Watts, Edward. 2006. City and school in late antique Athens and Alexandria. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

    DOI: 10.1525/california/9780520244214.001.0001E-mail Citation »

    Watts studies the historical environment of the Alexandrian philosophical school and its exchange with the Neoplatonic school in Athens after Hypatia’s murder and the century before Philoponus’ time. The book provides information about the background for the conditions in which Philoponus studied and worked and about the religious debates that surrounded and permeated the pagan schools.

  • Wildberg, Christian. 2018. John Philoponus. In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edited by Edward N. Zalta. Stanford, CA: Stanford University.

    E-mail Citation »

    A concise and informative introduction to Philoponus suitable for undergraduates. Wildberg situates Philoponus within the commentary tradition and the theological debates of his time and offers an account of his most important contributions and influence as well as a chronology of Philoponus’ career.

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