Thursday, August 16, 2007

What was Sextus Empiricus up to?

Events at the end of the Symposium Hellenisticum cast (and will continue to cast) a long shadow over the entire proceedings. But it was a very engaging conference and I came away with a number of new questions which it seems to me are worth noting down here. My paper will require quite a lot of revision, so I will ponder these as I go about that job. My principal questions are about Sextus' method and background knowledge.
  1. How much did Sextus know about e.g. the Stoic philosophy he was attacking? Was he, for example, fully aware of the Stoic distinction between the sense in which the present exists and the past and future merely subsist?
  2. If he did know about these niceties did he care about them? If not, is this due to sheer sloppiness or does he simply think that such word-magic is of no philosophical use?
  3. Who was he writing for? Were M 9 and 10 written for people already tempted by Pyrrhonism, perhaps even practising Pyrrhonists? It's unlikely that any committed Stoic would be much moved by what he writes, for example, so does that make him a poor dialectician or is that all part of the Pyrrhonist stance?
  4. How much had Sextus read? In particular, how much did he know of any philosophical work (particularly in the dogmatic schools) after, say, Aenesidemus?
  5. What are we to make of the methodological introduction to M 9? Does Sextus carry through with this manifesto? If not, why not? If he does so more in some areas than others, why?
  6. Sextus seems both very taken by and also keen to distance himself from Diodorus Cronus although Diodorus produces plenty of useful material for the anti-physiologia project. Why? Does this have to do with methodological qualms, differences of aim, or something else?
The fact that I am left with such apparently basic questions is a virtue of the conference. I had not been made to think these issues through before, but they are all very basic to understanding the work.


Diego said...


Would you mind telling me about the papers on Pyrrhonism that were presented at the Symposium? I'd just like to know what subjects were discussed by whom.

Thank you in advance.



Riccardo said...

Let me raise another problem: Galen and (presumably) Sextus are active in the II century. For Galen and Sextus, Hellenistic philosophy is still a lively tradition. However, in a couple of generations the overall philosophical debate changes radically. Apparently, something happens between the second and the third century (this is aptly remarked in M. Frede’s Epilogue for the CHHPh) : Alexander, Plotinus and Porphyry are radically different authors. They are well aware of Hellenistic physics and epistemology; however, their philosophical interests apparently follow a different path; ontology and the theory of forms become prominent (Porphyry's chapter on the Criterion in his In Ptol Harm. is extremely instructive from this point of view). The transition from post-hellenistic to late-antique philosophy is done. My question is: why does it happen? Have you any idea about that?
Thank you
Best wishes