The project intends to provide a comprehensive interpretation of Galen´s De usu partium, with a detailed discussion of the exegetic problems that present themselves on close reading.


One of the ways in which the soul-body relationship was understood in ancient philosophy and medicine was instrumentalism, the idea that the soul uses the body and its parts as instruments or tools in order to carry out its functions. In order for this to happen, the body needs to be suitably equipped by nature and well maintained by a healthy life style. This idea invited teleological theorising about the nature and structure of the bodily parts, detailed demonstration of their usefulness for the functions they were believed to serve, and elaborate medical advice about the body’s maintenance and the optimisation of its performance. One of the most impressive developments of this theory can be found in the ideas of the doctor-philosopher Galen of Pergamum (129-c.216 CE), especially in his work “On the Function of the Parts [of the Body]” (De usu partium), which is his major treatise on functional anatomy. In it, Galen uses his extensive knowledge of anatomy (gained through systematic dissection of animal bodies) in order to set out in immense detail the structure of the human body and its components and to show their suitability for the psychological functions they are meant to serve; and he does so against the background of ancient natural philosophy and teleology as expounded particularly in Plato’s Timaeus and Aristotle’s Parts of Animals. But the work is not just a treatise on natural and medical science: it is also a hymn to the craftsmanship of Nature as well as a moral exhortation to the reader to respond to Nature’s providential design by means of a healthy and virtuous life style; and it criticises as blasphemy the views of those who deny purpose and design in the natural world.

The work is generally considered one of Galen’s most important writings; it was very influential in later times, not only in medicine but also in philosophy and in Christian and Islamic theology (e.g. Nemesius, Philoponus, Al Razi). The work has recently attracted much scholarly attention as part of the revival of interest in Galen’s medical philosophy, and it has been – and is being – translated into various modern languages (French, English, German, Russian, Japanese); yet a detailed commentary is still lacking. 

This is the gap that the proposed project aims to fill, and is being undertaken by Julius Rocca. It intends to provide a comprehensive interpretation of De usu partium, with a detailed discussion of the exegetic problems that present themselves on close reading. It also intends to address the following overarching research questions: How does Galen substantiate in detail his general claim about the body’s suitability as instrument for the soul? What is Galen’s methodology in the work, how does he go about examining and describing the places in the body that he is dealing with? How does he justify his assumptions and knowledge claims, and how does he present his discoveries? How does he relate place, shape and function of bodily parts to each other? How does Galen deal with the tension that arises, both within De usu partium and between De usu partium and other works, between instrumentalism and the Platonic tripartition of the soul that he embraces elsewhere (e.g. in The Doctrines of Hipocrates and Plato) or with the materialism that he appears to advocate in his treatise That the Capacities of the Soul Follow the Mixtures of the Body?

The project builds on the research already carried out in research group (D-2) Mapping Body and Soul over the last few years, in which Galen has played a major role; but it will add substantially to it in that it will give us a much more detailed picture of Galen’s views on the spatial mapping of the soul in the body.