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Neoplatonism

DOI
10.4324/9780415249126-A073-1
DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-A073-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved May 23, 2019, from https://www.rep.routledge.com/articles/thematic/neoplatonism/v-1

4. Philosophy of science

The Neoplatonists taught the mathematical quadrivium of arithmetic, geometry, astronomy and harmonics, and the physics of Aristotle and Plato: Plato’s Timaeus belonged to the highest section of the curriculum. In the sixth century we also see Galen’s medicine appearing at the Alexandrian school, and we have a certain Stephanus of Athens writing as a philosopher-physician.

The programme of mathematization can be traced to Iamblichus’ reform (with the influence of Neo-Pythagoreans), although Pythagorizing mathematics is found in Plato himself. Part of the enterprise was the mathematization of physics and matter. Proclus and Simplicius declared that ‘quantity’ is more fundamental than ‘quality’. Iamblichus and later Neoplatonists were excited about mathematics because mathematical knowledge alone proceeds by the ‘solidity of scientific demonstration’ (Elias, On Porphyry’s Introduction 28.24–9). Religious speculation and the physicist’s empiricism do not, and therefore need mathematics to support them. Mathematics thus became a pillar of Neoplatonic metaphysics and epistemology. Proclus pointed out that mathematical proofs rely on indemonstrable axioms, and so philosophy has to turn to a higher science – Platonic dialectic.

In ancient philosophy the concept of time related to change, movement and the psychological experience of events. Place was associated with the container where change happens and so with theories of matter. Neoplatonists stayed true to the Platonic outline, that time is the ‘moving image of eternity’, but in fleshing it out they arrived at startling conclusions. For Plotinus, time is the product of psychological movement. It is the life of the soul as it moves from one activity to another ‘restlessly’. Since soul is not confined to individuals but is what gives life and movement to the universe, there is a cosmic time. By this account, eternity is the timelessness ‘of that quiet life…which belongs to that which exists and is in being, all together and full, completely without extension or interval’ (Enneads III.7.3). The later Neoplatonists rejected Plotinus and followed Iamblichus in giving time its own reality. In this way they finally broke with Greek tradition. The time of ordinary experience is not true time but the ‘flowing’ appearance of it. Even the cosmic clocks, the stars and planets and the revolution of the universe as a whole, do not reveal what time is. Like the ‘centre of a rotating wheel’ (Proclus, Commentary on Plato’s Timaeus 3.27), primary time is singular and motionless, and abides before creation. Damascius took Neoplatonic innovation further by proposing that ordinary time flows not by atomic instants but as a series of ‘strides’ or ‘leaps’ (each of which is a temporal part).

Neoplatonists rejected Aristotle’s view of place as a boundary. In developing instead Plato’s ‘receptacle’ of creation, they arrived at the full identification of place with three-dimensional space (see Space). Proclus equated space with massless body, and contemplated universal space as the absolute frame of cosmic motion. Others saw space as incorporeal. For the Christian Neoplatonist Philoponus, pure space is more fundamental than matter, and is a void. Iamblichus elevated place to the realm of Forms, and made space the instrument by which the world-soul binds things in their proper positions. For Damascius place really was the power that keeps the members of the universe in their arrangement. Simplicius returned to space as extension, and distinguished relative from absolute space, the latter being indistinguishable from essence. In examining the relationship of ‘when’ and ‘where’, he concluded that the two are ‘siblings’, thereby anticipating the modern equal ranking of time and space.

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Citing this article:
Siorvanes, Lucas. Philosophy of science. Neoplatonism, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-A073-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis, https://www.rep.routledge.com/articles/thematic/neoplatonism/v-1/sections/philosophy-of-science-7.
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