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  • Divination and Human Nature. A Cognitive History of Intuition in Classical Antiquity by Peter T. Struck
  • Michiel van Veldhuizen
Divination and Human Nature. A Cognitive History of Intuition in Classical Antiquity. By Peter T. Struck. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2016. 304 pp. isbn 978-0691169392.

“Intuitions are not to be ignored, John. They represent data too fast for the conscious mind to be processed.”

—Sherlock Holmes in Sherlock (#4.1)

The study of ancient divination has enjoyed increased scholarly interest over the last few decades, and two interpretive fault lines have appeared. Most studies focus on divination either as a component of social and political history or as a subset of the study of magic. In this welcome addition to a growing field, Peter Struck contends that these two approaches proceed from a premise of irrationality, namely, the idea that divination, as a form of human behavior, makes little or no sense and needs to be explained away with functionalist principles such as social manipulation or primitive superstition. To counter what he sees as an overly functionalized field of study, Struck raises the question: why did divination seem like a reasonable activity to nearly all ancient people? Rather than revisiting the same literary sources—such as Homer, Sophocles, and Herodotus—and slay the slain anew, Struck takes this question to the Greek intellectual tradition, where philosophical reflection on [End Page 126] divination is remarkably well represented. From Plato and Aristotle to the Stoics and Neoplatonists, all took divination seriously enough to devote writings to it. A thorough discussion of these philosophical texts does not always make for light reading, but Struck is a master at contextualizing and guides his readers with exemplary clarity through the more obscure passages.

One of the book’s main virtues is Struck’s insistence on moving beyond the sterile binary of rationality/irrationality, which is a breath of fresh air in the scholarship on divination. Instead, he appeals to the contemporary category of cognition as a neutral way to describe the modes of thinking that the philosophers illustrate under the rubric of divination. The analogy for ancient divination, he argues, is not horoscopes or tarot cards but the modern concept of intuition: a nondiscursive, noninferential mode of knowing at the moment of observation. One recent example is the experience of the American army, menaced by hidden explosives during the Iraq War: some of the soldiers seemed “to have preternatural abilities to sense the presence of these bombs” (31). When cognitive scientists confirmed this ability, the soldiers described it as a hunch, a gut feeling. For Struck, this amounts to what he calls surplus knowledge, and this knowledge—intuitive, involuntary, and inexplicable—is expressed by the ancient Greeks through divinatory language. The main insight of this book is that, in ancient philosophy, divination emerges as an intuitive mode to access surplus knowledge, specifically through bodily functions. While Greek thought tends to define the human condition by separating our corporeal, animate natures and our sentient, cerebral selves, this study shows that the cognitive mode of divination is not only intimately connected to, but in fact emerges from, the psychophysiological systems of our bodily selves.

The book’s four chapters deal with Plato, Aristotle, Posidonius, and Iamblichus, covering a timespan from the fifth century BCE to the fourth century CE. Chapter 1 takes up Platonic epistemology and psychology. Struck shows that Plato is keen to co-opt the authoritative language of divination, even as its shaky epistemological foundation functions as a foil for the comparison with philosophy, a superior source of knowledge. For Plato, argues Struck, divination stands for a nondiscursive form of cognition that cannot be fully accounted for. Cross-examination (the Socratic elenchus) may show the knowledge to be valid, but its origins remain inexplicable. On this interpretation, Socrates’s famous daimonion (the divine voice telling him what not to do) is neither a literary construction nor an actual form of divination; it is intuition, the cognitive awareness of a gut feeling that the Greeks express in divinatory language. The chapter culminates in a discussion of the Timaeus (70a–72e), the dialogue that [End Page 127] lays out Plato’s cosmology and theory...


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pp. 126-131
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