Cohesive Causes in Ancient Greek Philosophy and Medicine

In Chiara Thumiger (ed.), Holism in Ancient Medicine and Its Reception. Leiden: pp. 237-267 (2020)
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This paper is about the history of a question in ancient Greek philosophy and medicine: what holds the parts of a whole together? The idea that there is a single cause responsible for cohesion is usually associated with the Stoics. They refer to it as the synectic cause (αἴτιον συνεκτικόν), a term variously translated as ‘cohesive cause,’ ‘containing cause’ or ‘sustaining cause.’ The Stoics, however, are neither the first nor the only thinkers to raise this question or to propose a single answer. Many earlier thinkers offer their own candidates for what actively binds parts together, with differing implications not only for why we are wholes rather than heaps, but also why our bodies inevitably become diseased and fall apart. This paper assembles, up to the time of the Stoics, one part of the history of such a cause: what is called ‘the synechon’ (τὸ συνέχον) – that which holds things together. Starting with our earliest evidence from Anaximenes (sixth century BCE), the paper looks at different candidates and especially the models and metaphors for thinking about causes of cohesion which were proposed by different philosophers and doctors including Empedocles, early Greek doctors, Diogenes of Apollonia, Plato and Aristotle. My goal is to explore why these candidates and models were proposed and how later philosophical objections to them led to changes in how causes of cohesion were understood.

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Sean Coughlin
Czech Academy of Sciences


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