University of Cambridge > > Departmental Seminars in History and Philosophy of Science > Rolling up the history of a science: Greek musical theorists on their predecessors

Rolling up the history of a science: Greek musical theorists on their predecessors

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Like other ancient scientists and philosophers, Greek musical theorists comment from time to time on the work of earlier writers. This paper is an attempt to explore some aspects of their treatment of them, and in particular the extent to which we can credit them with a recognisably ‘historical’ perspective. I shall first sketch in outline the approaches taken by a few individual theorists, treating them as representative of different schools of thought and different periods. I shall conclude that they show very little sign of interest in the ways in which the discipline has developed over time, in the relative chronology of the predecessors they mention, or in the ways in which their ideas and approaches differ; and they rarely quote directly from their writings. I shall suggest some broad-brush explanations of why they proceed as they do. Then I shall look in rather more detail at one exceptional case. There is one writer who mentions the work of earlier ‘authorities’ very much more frequently than most, and adorns his presentation with a lavish selection of quotations from them; the writer is Porphyry, in his commentary on Ptolemy’s Harmonics. Aside from his habit of frequent quotation, however, we shall find very similar symptoms even in Porphyry, and we shall find reasons for pressing the question why he incorporates such a rich harvest of quotations into his text, as others do not. The reasons he offers himself are thoroughly unconvincing.

This talk is part of the Departmental Seminars in History and Philosophy of Science series.

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