Workshop in Ancient Philosophy (Thursday - Week 5, TT21)

Workshop in Ancient Philosophy

In recent years, the cognition of the World Soul in the Timaeus, described at Ti. 37a2-c3, has been discussed in detail by Corcilius (2018) and by Betegh (2021); my paper offers a novel interpretation of the World Soul’s cognitive activity which departs from theirs in two main respects. Firstly, I attempt to interpret this difficult passage by setting it in the broader context of the cosmic psychology of the Timaeus, and I claim that focussing on the connection between the World Soul’s motion and its cognition is key for understanding it. Instead, both Corcilius’ and Betegh’s interpretations revolve rather on sameness and difference, the former construing the World Soul’s ‘Great Comparison’ in isolation from its other activities, the latter appealing to the doctrine of true and false statements in the Sophist. Moreover, I aim to meet an important desideratumthat I believe should be fulfilled by any reading of Ti. 37a2-c3: to explain why the World Soul’s cognitive activity is indicated as a model that our souls should imitate (cf. Ti. 47a-c and 90a-d). Corcilius ascribes to the World Soul a very idiosyncratic form of cognition that is difficult to relate to what human beings could ever aim to achieve, whereas Betegh explains the cognitive activity of the World Soul in a way that doesn’t fully account for the major differences between it and human cognition.  

The paper is divided into five sections: in the introduction (§1), I give an overview of the main interpretative options and I offer my translation of the passage. In the second section (§2), I consider the cosmological and psychological background against which I address the question of why the World Soul thinks as it does. Focusing on the relationship between the World Soul’s motion and its cognition, I suggest a reading of their connection according to which the World Soul’s kinetic activity cannot be understood independently from its cognitive activity nor vice versa. Building upon that, I will analyse the two main functions performed by the moving World Soul as a ruler of its body: an astronomical one and one that I call –following Betegh (2020)– ‘metabolic’ (which consists in preserving the right proportions among the fundamental polyhedra composing the universe). In the third section (§3), I challenge the widespread assumption that the World Soul is omniscient. I show that Ti. 37a2-c3 presents enough evidence in favour of an appropriate restriction of both the sensible and the intelligible domains over which the World Soul’s cognition ranges. In order to qualify this restriction, I turn to the two functions discussed in §2 and argue that the only two sets of sensible objects grasped by the World Soul are celestial bodies and fundamental polyhedra, and that its intelligible objects of cognition should be restricted accordingly. Next (§ 4), in order to make sense of the implications of such a view for our understanding of how the World Soul’s cognition works, I offer specific examples of the sort of judgments (involving sameness and difference) that are ascribed to the World Soul. In so doing, I challenge Corcilius’ ‘Great Comparison’ account of 37a2-c3 and instead make a plea for a ‘smaller comparison’, which more accurately portrays the World Soul’s cognitive activity in the context of the overall cosmic psychology of the Timaeus. In the conclusion (§5), I clarify how my interpretation better explains the paradigmatic role of the World Soul’s cognition with respect to human cognitive activity than rival views, and thus meets the desideratum outlined above.  

The Seminar will take place via Microsoft Teams. By clicking this link you will be redirected to a page in which you will be prompted to sign in with your Oxford SSO.

Workshop in Ancient Philosophy Convenors: Ursula Coope, Simon Shogry and Luca Castagnoli