Learning more about Aristotle from medieval texts

What were Aristotle’s views on language? As a Wallenberg Academy Fellow, Ana María Mora-Márquez will be studying his work the Topics through the eyes of medieval philosophers. The aim is to paint a more complete picture of the philosopher.

Ana María Mora-Márquez

Associate Professor of Theoretical Philosophy

Wallenberg Academy Fellow 2014

University of Gothenburg

Research field:
Philosophy, history of philosophy, Aristotelian logic, dialectics

Around 300 B.C. the Greek philosopher and scientist Aristotle set the stage for the development of Western philosophy. Among other things, he has been called the father of formal logic, and he produced a significant body of work on the philosophy of language.

Aristotle’s original manuscripts have not been preserved, but there is ample documentation of his ideas and lectures. Many of the works have been thoroughly analyzed, but one of them has been somewhat neglected in current research – perhaps even misinterpreted. This is the view held by Mora-Márquez, researcher in philosophy at the University of Gothenburg. She is analyzing the Topics, a treatise on the art of dialectic. The Topics is often described as an immature work, but that view is now starting to be questioned. Mora-Márquez is one of those who does not regard the Topics as immature; on the contrary, she considers it to be of central importance in understanding Aristotle’s ideas on language.

“Instead of seeing it as an immature work, we need to find a way to read it which gives it the importance it has. We must see how the Topics fits in with the rest of Aristotle’s work,” Mora-Márquez explains.

Noting ambiguities and differences

Her research is based on analyses written down more than a thousand years after Aristotle’s death. Many of the most influential interpretations of his work were made at that time. When the first European universities were founded in the 13th century Aristotle’s work was a cornerstone in the education they provided. All students began their university education with several years’ study of Aristotelian philosophy.

“It was during this period that Aristotle was studied most systematically, although many medieval analyses remain understudied,” says Mora-Márquez.

In the Middle Ages written teaching materials consisted primarily of handwritten lecture notes. Someone wrote down everything that was said during a lecture, and the teacher later corrected the text. Handwritten copies were made for those wishing to read the material. It is this material that Mora-Márquez is now studying.

She has access to five copies of the same lecture on the Topics, comprising nearly 300,000 words of handwritten Latin. The text has been scanned so she can read it on her computer. She transcribes everything and enters a footnote for every ambiguity or difference between the documents – and there are plenty of those. The copyist who transcribed the original document may have misunderstood; perhaps the handwriting was semi-legible or the light poor. None of the five versions she has is the original. All are from after 1300; whereas the lecturer taught in the previous century.

“Becoming a Wallenberg Academy Fellow is a luxury. It gives me resources, freedom and independence. I must present my findings in a well-structured way, but I have great freedom in my choice of field. In funding my project the Foundation has displayed a truly open mind.”

Counterarguments essential

While Mora-Márquez writes down the lecture, she reflects over the content, and her own analysis continues when documentation has been completed. She has recruited another researcher who does the same thing with another lecture. It will take them several years.

The main objective is to try to determine whether Aristotle’s philosophy of language was pragmatic or semantic. Simply put, semantics is about what language says; pragmatics concerns how it is used – for instance that what is meant must be construed not only from what is said, but also from the context. Many researchers have concluded that Aristotle made the first attempt to describe language semantically, and to build a kind of ideal language. Mora-Márquez’s goal is to show that his view of language was more pragmatic.

“I need to produce good evidence that my interpretation is consistent with Aristotle’s other works. I will be attending conferences to discuss how my views compare with interpretations made by researchers who have read other texts. When I publish the material I’m sure that counterarguments will surface, but that’s a part of research too – seeing who has the most persuasive arguments.”

Prefers the abstract to the concrete

Mora-Márquez’s mother is also a researcher – in financial economy. But when Ana María began her studies at the university in Colombia’s capital Bogotá, she wanted to be an engineer. She envisioned working “out in the real world”. But she soon found herself to be more interested in abstract questions and philosophy than in business and production. She changed tack, and a few years later moved to Paris, where she completed her master’s, specializing in Aristotelian medieval logic. She fell in love with a Dane and they moved together to Copenhagen, where the world’s foremost expert on medieval logic works. He became her supervisor when she worked on her doctoral thesis. It was his contacts in Sweden that led her to begin doing research here, a few years ago.

“I was part of someone else’s research project then. But all the while I had plans for a project on Aristotelian logic – something that was my thing. I’ve had these ideas for about twelve or thirteen years. And now finally I also have the resources to realize them.”

Text Lisa Kirsebom
Translation Maxwell Arding
Photo Magnus Bergström