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Ars Brevis: Temporal and Exegetical Compressions in Greco-Roman and Islamicate Medicine

Citation with persistent identifier: Das, Aileen. “Ars Brevis: Temporal and Exegetical Compressions in Greco-Roman and Islamicate Medicine.” CHS Research Bulletin 8 (2020). http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:hlnc.essay:DasA.Ars_Brevis.2020

My previous work on the medieval Islamicate reception of Plato’s Timaeus, which circulated in Arabic through the Greek physician Galen’s (d. c. 217 CE) summary of the dialogue, has led to an interest in the role of brevity in medical discourse, which is the subject of my second monograph, Ars Brevis: Temporal and Exegetical Compressions in Greco-Roman and Islamicate Medicine. As the manuals prescribed to STEM undergraduates on scientific writing indicate, ‘science’ constructs its authority through the brevity of its communication. In alleging that they do not have the time to delay information and that their texts get at the truth more quickly, modern scientists often distinguish their discourse from the ‘affective’ and ‘verbose’ style of the humanities. This second book will interrogate the rhetorical work of brevity in science by studying how pre-modern ‘brief forms’ – aphorisms, short exegeses, and summaries from the Hippocratics to Arabic composers of Qānūnǧa (‘little commentaries on Avicenna’s Canon of Medicine’) – enhance their authors’ authority through the suggestion that their comprehensive grasp of the subject material allows them to select what is worth knowing. Furthermore, I will propose that the special temporality of brief texts, which gives the impression that data is being given straightaway, empirically, and sensorially, is one way in which doctors attempted to overcome what the theorist Harald Weinrich recognized as the main problematic of medicine, first outlined by Hippocratic Aphorisms 1.1: how to lengthen all too short a life, or shorten all too long an art.

I am still in the initial phases of this second monograph project. Over the next year, I will begin to read in detail the primary sources that will form the core of the book, in addition to familiarizing myself with scholarship on scientific discourse and brevity. As most of the secondary literature with which I will engage comes from sociology and anthropology, I intend to apply for a Mellon New Directions Fellowship next academic year, so I can take courses to become more conversant with these fields with the goal of making my work more theoretically sophisticated as well as appealing to wider range of scholars. My aim is to approach a University Press with strengths in Science, Technology, and Society Studies, such as Chicago or Princeton, with a book proposal and sample in three years, with a view to publishing the book in 2024–5.

About Aileen Das

Aileen Das is currently an Assistant Professor of Classical Studies at the University of Michigan. As an intellectual historian with training in Classics, she is interested in how Greco-Roman and medieval Islamicate authors articulate categories of knowledge such as ‘medicine’, ‘philosophy’, and ‘science’. Her first book, Galen and the Arabic Reception of Plato’s Timaeus (Cambridge University Press, under contract) examines the concept of disciplinarity, especially the ways in which boundaries are drawn between disciplines in contests for epistemic authority. In particular, it considers the polemical use of Plato’s cosmological dialogue by the Greek doctor Galen of Pergamum (d. c. 217) to contest philosophy’s exclusive right to define, describe, and explain the different domains of reality. She argues that, in so doing, Galen sets out to establish medicine as a reliable authority on not only the body but also the soul and the wider cosmos. Finally, this study shows that Galen’s engagement with the Timaeus became a touchstone for Islamicate thinkers’ own disciplinary agendas. Her second project (The Art in Brief: Time and Exegesis in Greco-Roman and Islamicate Medicine), to which she will turn her attention during her stay at the CHS, looks at the role of brevity in scientific discourse, particularly how Greek and Arabic epitomatory writings claim to compress all of the art of medicine into a few set truths.

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