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Durham University

Institute of Advanced Study

Dr Barbara Sattler

“Given the narrow focus one’s own discipline often requires one to have, I found it very liberating simply to deal with a whole range of different fields and perspectives on a regular basis in the seminars and lectures. ”

Dr Barbara Sattler, University of St Andrews

IAS Fellow at St John's College, Durham University (January - March 2017)

Dr Barbara Sattler works in the philosophy department at the University of St. Andrews. The main area of her research is metaphysics and natural philosophy in the ancient Greek world. She studied German literature, mathematics, and philosophy at the University of Vienna, and got her doctorate from the FU-Berlin – spending time also at the University of St. Andrews and Oxford. She also completed the diplomatic academy in Vienna. Before joining the philosophy department at St. Andrews she held tenure-track jobs at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and at Yale University.

The main focus of her research to date has been the philosophical process through which central concepts of metaphysics and natural philosophy, such as time or speed, arise in Greek antiquity. By showing that such concepts were originally spelt out in ways significantly different from the way they are today, she aims to make us aware both of the rich conceptual basis we often take for granted in such a way as to have difficulty imagining alternatives, as well as to sketch out possible alternative understandings. On the one hand, her concern is to show that and how such notions result from a long process of conceptual development. This is the focus of her first book, on the development of ancient natural philosophy, the manuscript for which she has just finished. On the other hand, she shows what may have been lost in the course of such development. This is the focus of her projected second book.

The first book, Natural Philosophy in Ancient Greece, concerns the history of the establishment of natural philosophy as a proper scientific endeavor in philosophers from Parmenides to Aristotle. The modern understanding of motion as a distance traveled in a certain period of time is not just a given, but depended on logical, ontological, and methodological developments, as well as on the integration of important mathematical notions into philosophical discussion. By tracing the development of this conceptualization, she shows how antiquity prepared the path for the conception of motion we have today.

The projected second book, Ancient Notions of Time from Homer to Plato, will show how the understanding of time changed dramatically in the thought of writers at the very beginning of the Western tradition. Early Greek literature – philosophical and non-philosophical – offers an unusually rich collection of philosophically interesting temporal structures. In the book she excavates this diverse array of temporal notions and their explanatory power for everyday temporal experiences and shows how certain demands from historians and philosophers led, in the end, to the formation of a unified notion of time.

In addition, Dr Sattler has written papers on the philosophy of the Eleatics, on Plato’s Timaeus and Symposium, on the philosophy of Robert Musil, and on metaphysical assumptions in contemporary metaphysics and philosophy of science that are grounded in Presocratic thinking.

During her time at Durham, Dr Sattler will reconstruct Aristotle’s account of measurement. Aristotle is the first thinker in the Western tradition who explicitly discusses measurement and scales within the context of natural philosophy. His account of measurement is, nevertheless, very much an underexplored topic and Dr. Sattler wants to show in how far he prepared the grounds for modern measurement theories.

IAS Fellow's Public Lecture - Measurement Problems in Ancient Greece – Time and Speed


We usually assume that we can measure all happenings with the same temporal units (seconds, hours, etc.) and can put them in the same calendar. And we take it for granted that we can also measure the speed of processes. From the perspective of the ancient Greeks, however, both points are inconceivable. In this lecture Dr Barbara Sattler will talk about some of the reasons why such a unified account of measurement is unknown in ancient Greece and some of its philosophical consequences by looking at the following three points:

1. The lack of a unified calendar throughout the early Greek world:

Calendars differed from one city-state to the next, even within one polis more than one calendar may be used simultaneously, and they did not provide an easy way for a sequential ordering of years. This reflects a special understanding of the relationship between past, present, and future that she will analyse.

2. The lack of a single temporal framework:

The very idea that all occurrences can be put in a temporal relation to each other (they are either before, after, or simultaneous with each other) is foreign to the ancient Greeks. Dr Sattler will analyse the effect this lack has on the quality of temporal experiences.

3. Conceptual and mathematical problems for complex measures:

Finally, Dr Sattler will analyse some of the reasons why early Greek mathematics and philosophy would not allow for complex measures, that is, for measures that combine two kinds of magnitudes, as speed combines time and space.

IAS Insights Paper


This paper aims to show that Aristotle’s treatise on measurement can be seen as the first text handed down to us in Western tradition in which a difference of scales is explicitly discussed. Aristotle divides all magnitudes we can measure into two kinds: magnitudes that require units indivisible in quantity and magnitudes that require units indivisible in quality for measurement. Barbara Sattler tries to show that this distinction can be best understood as a predecessor to our distinction between ratio scales and absolute scales.


Vol 10 Article 16