David Creese – The highest and most marvellous of the senses

Date(s) - Thursday, February 19, 2015
12:45 pm - 2:00 pm


6 people are going

Seminar Room 3


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‘The highest and most marvellous of the senses’: Ptolemy on sight, hearing and scientific instruments’
David Creese (Newcastle University) 


Abstract: Near the end of his treatise on harmonics, Claudius Ptolemy draws special attention to the privileged character of sight and hearing: these two senses are the ‘instruments and servants’ of mathematics, because only they can grasp beauty, and they cooperate in doing this for the rational part of the soul. In Ptolemy’s scheme, the most rational of the sciences (mathematical sciences, whose objectives include a theoretical grasp of beauty) depend on the most rational of the senses. But the authority of these senses as criteria in the mathematical sciences which rely on them, like astronomy and harmonics, can easily be doubted when one considers how unreliable the ear and eye can sometimes be. As Ptolemy points out in the first chapter of his Harmonics, a circle drawn by eye alone may appear accurate until it is shown to be uneven, and something similar can happen when the ear assesses musical intervals, too. The pursuit of these sciences therefore requires specialised instruments, designed, built and utilised for the purpose of allowing the senses to communicate accurately with the reasoning part of the soul.

Ptolemy’s comments about the kinship of harmonics and astronomy in Harmonics III.3 naturally invite comparison between his use of instruments in these two sciences. But for several reasons, Ptolemy’s Harmonics can be compared more fruitfully with his Optics than with the Almagest in this regard. Because the questions of scientific authority Ptolemy’s harmonic instruments are designed to address often highlight jarring discords between his own conclusions and those of his prdecessors, personal and instrumental authority are frequently opposed in a way that is helpfully answered by comparison with his treatment of optics. Not only do these two sciences depend in some similar ways on what Ptolemy calls ‘the highest and most marvellous of the senses’ without requiring observational data from other sources (as astronomy does), but in both treatises Ptolemy’s arguments about the reliability of sensory evidence also depend heavily on purpose-built instruments.


The talk will explore the ways in which Ptolemy constructs scientific authority through instrumental procedures in the Harmonics and Optics, and will include demonstrations on instruments reconstructed from Ptolemy’s text.


Dr David Creese is a Lecturer in Classics and Graduate Chair at Newcastle University. He is a founding member of MOISA, the International Society for the Study of Greek and Roman Music and its Cultural Heritage. He is the author of The Monochord in Ancient Greek Harmonic Sciences (Cambridge UP, 2012).


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