Invention and Discovery in Greek and Roman Thought
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Romani Mistretta, Marco
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CitationRomani Mistretta, Marco. 2018. Invention and Discovery in Greek and Roman Thought. Doctoral dissertation, Harvard University, Graduate School of Arts & Sciences.
AbstractStraddling the disciplinary boundaries between ancient philosophy, history of science, literary criticism, and intellectual history, this dissertation focuses on the idea of invention and discovery in Classical antiquity. My treatment of the topic is centered around the questions of what counts as an invention or a discovery in antiquity, and how technological and cultural innovations were viewed by Classical thinkers and writers.
Adopting a systematic approach, this study focuses on the representation of cultural, scientific, and technological discoveries in four major literary genres: early epic poetry, heurematography (i.e. records of inventors), technical prose (esp. belonging to the medical and the mechanical tradition), and philosophical prose. This dissertation argues that, through all four genres I explore, most authors who are concerned with ideas of invention and discovery treat innovation in a teleological perspective. In fact, they tend to construct narratives of progress in which a particular invention or set of inventions initiates a continuous line of development in which later innovations build upon previous ones in order to bring a society, a craft, or a discipline to perfection. Each single discovery is thus regarded as a stage in a continuum of evolution.
My methodology involves a contextual, historical reading of the ancient sources as well as a thematic, typological analysis of their conceptions of ‘discovery process’. I also examine recurring language (individual words, images, constructions, or even syntactic and narrative markers) that can be encountered throughout the body of texts on which I focus, in order to detect widely employed ways of expressing the abstract concepts and processes that permeate the intellectual sphere of invention and discovery.
Each chapter is specifically devoted to one of the four literary phenomena which I consider crucial to the topic. In the first chapter, my treatment of early Greek epic devotes close attention to the mythical status of technological, artistic, and cultural inventors who are featured in Homeric and Hesiodic poetry. It is my contention that divine and semi-divine figures are often treated as standard-bearers of a new conception of inventiveness and innovation. I then address two genres, i.e. heurematistic works (or invention catalogs) and technico-scientific treatises, such as medical and mechanical works. In my reconstruction of ancient heurematistic works as a literary phenomenon, I collect and discuss the extant fragments of a largely lost body of literature, starting from extant sources such as the invention catalogs of Pliny the Elder and Clement of Alexandria.
In the second and third chapters, I show that heurematistic works and technical treatises convey two fundamentally different points of view in outlining what is to be understood as an invention. As I argue, whereas heurematistic works are mostly found in the form of catalogs, whose primary interests lie in claims of primacy and genius, technical writers (such as the Hippocratic authors, Philo of Byzantium, Varro, Vitrvius) are more concerned with issues of methodology and discovery processes that can grant their craft a steady and uninterrupted development in the future. Unlike technico-scientific texts, extant invention catalogs are organized around a diffusionist model of cultural transfer and development.
Finally, I examine ancient philosophers’ treatment of the origins of philosophy in the fourth chapter, asking the question of whether philosophy itself can be construed, according to Greek and Roman thinkers (especially Plato, Aristotle, Lucretius, Seneca), as an ‘invention’ that can be attributed to a given ‘founder’. In this regard, I stress the importance of philosophical accounts of cultural origins for our understanding of ancient philosophers’ views on the birth of their own type of intellectual inquiry.
The overarching aim of this dissertation is to inquire how and to what extent notions of invention and discovery — and the narratives of progress connected with them — vary according to literary and ideological agendas. I show that, across genres, the idea of human creativity and socio-cultural (or technical) innovation is often opposed, on the one hand, to the concept of an inexorable decadence from a pristine Golden Age and, on the other hand, to the idea of humankind’s eternal immutability or to that of a predestined cycle that repeats itself indefinitely.
However, while poetic and heurematistic texts set no limits as to what counts as an invention and who can be credited with one, as is particularly apparent in Pliny’s invention catalog, technical notions of discovery are more specifically restricted to intellectual achievements and to the theoretical presuppositions necessary to reach them. Finally, philosophical writers seem to allow for any kind of practical or intellectual innovation to count as an invention, but conceive of philosophy itself as the single most vital and necessary of all discoveries, indeed the only one whose moral consequences must be salutary to the future of humankind.
Citable link to this pagehttp://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:HUL.InstRepos:41127188
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