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Alcmaeon of Croton was an early Greek medical writer and philosopher-scientist. He is likely to have written his book sometime between and BCE. The surviving fragments and testimonia focus primarily on issues of physiology, psychology, and epistemology and reveal Alcmaeon to be a thinker of considerable originality. He was the first to identify the brain as the seat of understanding and to distinguish understanding from perception. Alcmaeon thought that the sensory organs were connected to the brain by channels poroi and may have discovered the poroi connecting the eyes to the brain i.
He was the first to develop an argument for the immortality of the soul. He used a political metaphor to define health and disease: The equality isonomia of the opposing powers which make up the body e.
Alcmaeon discussed a wide range of topics in physiology including sleep, death, and the development of the embryo. It is unclear whether he also presented a cosmology in terms of opposing powers, but we do have some testimonia concerning his views on astronomy.
Alcmaeon had considerable impact on his successors in the Greek philosophical tradition. Aristotle wrote a treatise responding to him, Plato may have been influenced by his argument for the immortality of the soul, and both Plato and Philolaus accepted his view that the brain is the seat of intelligence.
Alcmaeon, son of Peirithous otherwise unknown , lived in the Greek city of Croton on the instep of the boot of Italy.
There is, however, little direct evidence for his work as a practicing physician. Later writers in the medical tradition, such as Galen DK A2 , treat him as a philosopher-scientist rather than as a physician, so that some scholars Mansfeld ; cf.
Perilli for a critique have concluded that he was not a doctor at all but rather a typical Presocratic physiologos writer on nature. The historian Herodotus tells us that, in the second half of the sixth century, the physicians of Croton were the best in the Greek world III. Thus, whether a practicing physician or not, Alcmaeon undoubtedly owes some of his interest in human physiology and psychology to the medical tradition in Croton.
Presocratic cosmologies of this period devoted some attention to questions of human physiology and medicine, and conversely the early treatises in the Hippocratic corpus often paid some attention to cosmology see Aristotle, Resp.
The earliest Presocratic cosmologies in Ionia e. Alcmaeon addressed his book to three men who may have been Pythagoreans:. Bro n tinus is identified as a Pythagorean from Croton in some places D. VP and from Metapontum in others VP , He is either the father or the husband of Theano, who is in turn either the wife or student of Pythagoras. Even if this is a dedication, it does not follow that Alcmaeon agreed with the views of his addressees.
Alcmaeon might be quite independent of these Pythagoreans and trying to persuade them of his distinct point of view. A majority of scholars up to the middle of the twentieth century followed this tradition.
In fact, the majority of ancient sources do not describe him as a Pythagorean e. However, certain parts of the catalogue are very unlikely go back to Aristoxenus and we cannot be certain that the inclusion of Alcmaeon was due to him Huffman , — Apart from this possibility regarding Aristoxenus, no one earlier than Diogenes Laertius ca. Aristotle wrote two books on the Pythagoreans but wrote a separate book on Alcmaeon. Aristotle and Theophrastus refer to him a number of times but never identify him as a Pythagorean, and this is the practice of the doxographical tradition see A4, 6, 8—10, 13—14, 17—18, in DK Simplicius 6 th AD reports that some have handed down the view that Alcmaeon is a Pythagorean but notes that Aristotle denies it De An.
He notes a similarity between Alcmaeon and a group of Pythagoreans in positing opposites as the principles of things but expresses uncertainty as to who influenced whom. Earlier scholars took this comparison of Alcmaeon to the Pythagoreans as confirmation that he was a Pythagorean.
Certainly most of the opposites which are mentioned as crucial to Alcmaeon do not appear in the Pythagorean table of opposites, and there is no trace of the crucial Pythagorean opposition between limit and unlimited in Alcmaeon. The overwhelming majority of scholars since have accordingly regarded Alcmaeon as a figure independent of the Pythagoreans e.
Zhmud [a, —; , 97—] is the notable exception , although, as a fellow citizen of Croton, he will have been familiar with their thought. No issue concerning Alcmaeon has been more controversial than his date. Some have sought to date him on the basis of his address to Brotinus e. This suggests that Brotinus could have been the addressee of the book any time between and BCE.
The sentence in bold above is missing in one of the major manuscripts and Alexander makes no mention of it in his commentary on the Metaphysics. A number of scholars have regarded it as a remark by a later commentator, which has crept into the text e. It is a surprising remark for Aristotle to make, since he only refers to Pythagoras once elsewhere in all his extant writings and throughout this passage of the Metaphysics refers to the Pythagoreans or Italians in the plural.
Other scholars regard the remark as genuine e. Does it mean that Alcmaeon was born in the old age of Pythagoras, or that he lived flourished? Although Diels accepted the text as Aristotelian, others have seen the parallel with Iamblichus as evidence that it is a remark by a later commentator and have pointed out that the report in Iamblichus involves several chronological impossibilities e. Even if the remark is unlikely to go back to Aristotle, his doubts about who influenced whom suggest that Alcmaeon belonged to the late sixth or early fifth century Schofield , , which would argue against the late date of adopted by Mansfeld , 78, n.
Another group has him born around so that his book would have been published in or later Guthrie , [— BCE]; Lloyd , [— BCE]. In either case Alcmaeon probably wrote before Empedocles, Anaxagoras, and Philolaus. He is either the contemporary or the predecessor of Parmenides.
Attempts to date him on the basis of internal evidence alone, i. Edelstein says that he may have lived in the late fifth century , , while Lebedev makes him active in the late 6 th The ancient tradition assigns one book to Alcmaeon, which came to bear the traditional title of Presocratic treatises, On Nature DK, A2 , although this title probably does not go back to Alcmaeon himself.
It is unclear whether Alcmaeon wrote in the Doric dialect of Croton or in the Ionic Greek of the first Presocratics Burkert, , , n. The report that an Alcimon of Croton was the first to write animal fables might be a reference to a poet of a similar name. The three lines of Fragment 1, which probably began the book, and the half line in Fragment 2 are the only continuous texts of Alcmaeon.
There is also the possibility that Fr. Such skepticism about human knowledge is characteristic of one strand of early Greek thought. Most of the subjects that Alcmaeon went on to discuss in his book could not be settled by a direct appeal to sense perception e. Alcmaeon is decidedly not an extreme skeptic, however, in that he is willing to assign clear understanding about such things to the gods and by implication admits that even humans have clear understanding of what is directly perceptible.
Moreover, while humans cannot attain clarity about what cannot be perceived, Alcmaeon thinks that they can make reasonable judgments from the signs that are presented to them by sensation tekmairesthai. He thus takes the stance of the scientist who draws inferences from what can be perceived, and he implicitly rejects the claims of those who base their account of the world on the certainty of a divine revelation e.
There are difficulties with the text of Fr. Some scholars exclude the material in brackets above because it is hard to see how to connect it to what precedes e. Recently Gemelli Marciano , 18—22 has suggested that the material in brackets above should be kept but made dependent on the immediately preceding phrase rather than coordinated with it, so that the fragment would read:.
Passages in the Greek medical writings of the fifth century provide clear parallels for the difficulty of knowing about the interior of the body and invisible maladies Gemelli Marciano , 20— On this reading Fr. Parallels with medical treatises suggest that, after first raising difficulties about medical knowledge in these matters, Alcmaeon may have gone on to assert that these difficulties can be overcome with the proper teaching, the teaching that followed in his book.
If this is the correct context in which to read the fragment, it is not so much about the limits of understanding as the success of medical teaching in overcoming apparent limits. According to Theophrastus, Alcmaeon was the first Greek thinker to distinguish between sense perception and understanding and to use this distinction to separate animals, which only have sense perception, from humans, who have both sense perception and understanding DK, B1a, A5.
Alcmaeon is also the first to argue that the brain is the central organ of sensation and thought DK, A5, A8, A There is no explicit evidence, however, as to what Alcmaeon meant by understanding.
Animals have brains too, however, and thus might appear to be able to carry out the simple correlation of the evidence from the various senses, whereas the human ability to make inferences and judgments DK, B1 appears to be a more plausible candidate for the distinctive activity of human intelligence.
He also reports the view that it is the brain that furnishes the sensations of hearing, sight, and smell. Socrates connects this view of the brain with an empiricist epistemology, which Aristotle will later adopt Posterior Analytics a3 ff. This epistemology involves three steps: first, the brain provides the sensations of hearing, sight and smell, then, memory and opinion arise from these, and finally, when memory and opinion achieve fixity, knowledge arises.
He has also been hailed as the first to use dissection, but this is based on a hasty reading of the evidence. Most of what Calcidius goes on to describe, however, are the discoveries of Herophilus some two centuries after Alcmaeon Lloyd , Mansfeld , Solmsen The only conclusions we can reasonably draw about Alcmaeon from the passage are that he excised the eyeball of an animal and observed poroi channels, i. There is no evidence, however, that Alcmaeon dissected the eye itself or that he dissected the skull in order to trace the optic nerve all the way to the brain.
It is striking in this regard that Alcmaeon gave no account of touch DK, A5 , which is the only sense not specifically tied to the head. It would be a serious mistake then to say that Alcmaeon discovered dissection or that he was the father of anatomy, since there is no evidence that he used dissection systematically or even that he did more than excise a single eyeball.
Theophrastus says that Alcmaeon did not explain sensation by the principle of like to like i. Unfortunately he gives no general account of how Alcmaeon did think sensation worked DK, A5. Alcmaeon explained each of the individual senses with the exception of touch, but these accounts are fairly rudimentary. He regarded the eye as composed of water and fire and vision as taking place when what is seen is reflected in the gleaming and translucent part of the eye.
Hearing arises when an external sound is first transmitted to the outer ear and then picked up by the empty space kenon in the inner ear, which transmits it to the brain. Taste occurs through the tongue, which being warm and soft dissolves things with its heat and, because of its loose texture, receives and transmits the sensation.
Smell is the simplest of all. Barnes , — and Hankinson , 30—3 provide the most insightful analysis. Alcmaeon appears to have started from the assumption that the soul is always in motion. At one extreme we might suppose that Alcmaeon only developed the simple argument from analogy, which Aristotle assigns to him De An. The soul is like the heavenly bodies, which Alcmaeon regarded as divine and immortal DK, A1, A12 , in being always in motion, so it is also like them in being immortal.
This is clearly fallacious, since it assumes that things that are alike in one respect will be alike in all others. The version in the doxographical tradition is more sophisticated DK, A Alcmaeon thought that the soul moved itself in continual motion and was therefore immortal and like to the divine. The similarity to the divine is not part of the inference here but simply an illustrative comparison. Examination of the context in Aetius shows that the self-motion of the soul, which is attested independently for Plato and Xenocrates, was projected back on Pythagoras and Thales, who are very unlikely to have held such a view.
The core of the simpler argument is the necessary truth that what is always in motion must be immortal.
Alcmaeon of Croton
He has been referred to as "a thinker of considerable originality and one of the greatest philosophers, naturalists, and neuroscientists of all time. Because of difficulties dating Alcmaeon's birth, his importance has been neglected. Alcmaeon was born in Croton and was the son of Peirithous. He also practiced astrology and meteorology. Nothing more is known of the events of his life. During Alcmaeon's time, the medical school in Magna Graecia was regarded as the most famous; illnesses were studied in a scientific and experimental manner. His celebrated discoveries in the field of dissection were noted in antiquity, but whether his knowledge in this branch of science was derived from the dissection of animals or of human bodies is disputed.