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Ptolemy's Philosophy: Mathematics as a Way of Life

Author: Jacqueline Feke

Publisher: Princeton University Press

Year: 2018 (paperback: 2020)


The Greco-Roman mathematician Claudius Ptolemy is one of the most significant figures in the history of science. He is remembered today for his astronomy, but his philosophy is almost entirely lost to history. This groundbreaking book is the first to reconstruct Ptolemy’s general philosophical system—including his metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics—and to explore its relationship to astronomy, harmonics, element theory, astrology, cosmology, psychology, and theology.


In this stimulating intellectual history, Jacqueline Feke uncovers references to a complex and sophisticated philosophical agenda scattered among Ptolemy’s technical studies in the physical and mathematical sciences. She shows how he developed a philosophy that was radical and even subversive, appropriating ideas and turning them against the very philosophers from whom he drew influence. Feke reveals how Ptolemy’s unique system is at once a critique of prevailing philosophical trends and a conception of the world in which mathematics reigns supreme.


A compelling work of scholarship, Ptolemy’s Philosophy demonstrates how Ptolemy situated mathematics at the very foundation of all philosophy—theoretical and practical—and advanced the mathematical way of life as the true path to human perfection.


Shortlisted for the Pickstone Prize, British Society for the History of Science:


“This is an important and original intervention in the historiography, an impressive elaboration and interpretation of a philosopher who is constantly referenced in the history of science but never unpacked. Though technically demanding, it is clearly written. The book is original, ambitious, and logically structured (Ptolemy would have approved); a product of superb scholarship.” - Pickstone Prize Panel, British Society for the History of Science


“Feke’s book deserves a place on the shelves of historians of science, philosophers, and classicists alike.” - Marco Romani Mistretta, Bryn Mawr Classical Review


“This important study will significantly improve our historical understanding of the originality of Ptolemy’s position.” - Alain Bernard, Journal of the History of Astronomy


“Feke offers a wide-ranging analysis of Ptolemy’s entire philosophy—not only his philosophy of science but also his theory of the soul, the many applications of the doctrine of harmony, and his attempts to give his ethical theory a central place in the whole. It is a significant contribution.” - James Evans, author of The History and Practice of Ancient Astronomy


“This book provides the first systematic treatment of Ptolemy’s philosophy, shedding light on an aspect of his thought that until now has received very little attention. Feke makes the original and historically important argument that Ptolemy ascribed to mathematics the same role that philosophy had in the Hellenistic era—to show the way to the good life.” - Orna Harari, Tel Aviv University


“As a mathematician, I can only be warmed by a tingling ASMR experience while reading the conclusion that she arrived at in the quote formulated above. I am so pleased by Ptolemy’s tap on my shoulder reassuring me that it has not been a waste of time to have devoted the larger part of my life to mathematics.” - Adhemar Bultheel, European Mathematical Society


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