Friday, April 25, 2008

Reading Sextus Empiricus

Apologies for not saying very much recently about ancient philosophy. This is mostly because I have been stuck doing various sorts of administrative nonsense over the first few days of term or have been tidying up things for publication so they're not the right sort of stuff to be thrown into the ether. But something I've gone back to in the last couple of days has got me wondering, and it's just possible somebody reading this might be able to help.

I am trying to think about Sextus Empiricus and about various ways of reading his work. People are interested in and have written a lot about his sources and also about the structure of PH and M. People have also sometimes been interested in the strength of the various arguments he offers and about how to account for the fact that some of them are pretty crummy, indeed so evidently crummy it's worth thinking about why they are there at all. (Sometimes, people point to the last chapters of PH (PH 3.280-81) and the idea that sometimes only a weak dose is needed to cure someone of a dogmatic ill. I think this is a bit odd, by the way: a weak dose is still an effective dose, even if its effectiveness is limited; it can tackle only mild (e.g.) fevers. I don't really see how someone with a weak commitment to a dogmatic position would be served by a bad argument while someone heavily committed to a view will need a better argument... It's rather good to think that the level of commitment to some dogmatic view or other does not vary in direct relation to one's ability to spot a decent argument.)

Anyway, what I can't find much discussion of is how we are supposed to read the text. I mean: Is it supposed that we just start at the beginning and move through to the end? Is it the sort of thing you go to to 'look up' a particular counter-argument? Are you supposed to flick backwards and forwards, adding to and supplementing the gappy arguments? (How possible was it to find particular bits of text, in any case?) Indeed, I am beginning to lament the lack in Sextan studies of the (perhaps sometimes excessive) sort of discussion you find of Platonic works. Find what looks for all the world like a crap argument in Plato and people get terrible exercised over how it is in fact pedagogical, or proleptic, or an invitation to further reflection, or some such. It's all to be made right by thinking about the interaction between the text and an active, thinking, reader. Why not try some of that with Sextus? A Pyrrhonist, after all, is supposed to be in some sense an active thinker, open to new arguments and only ever provisionally suspending judgement. In that case, I wonder if we should grant the reader a more active role in engaging with Sextus and, in turn, grant Sextus a more sophisticated notion of how his text might be read and used. I can't see much of this sort of thing in the literature on Sextus, but if there is some out there I'd be very glad to hear of it.

Now, this is all a bit up in the air at the moment and Sextus himself is not overly forthcoming with handy pointers about what we should do with him. But I'm going to see how far these thoughts take me.


DEM said...

James, two quick remarks:

(i) It seems to me that the kind of approach you propose is not entirely lacking in the literature on Sextus.

(ii) I think that, at PH III 280-1, "weak" argument does not mean "bad" argument. I finished a paper on argumentative persuasiveness in Pyrrhonism (which I must now correct) in which I deal with that issue. If you happened to be interested I could send you a version once I make the necessary changes.


JIW said...

That's very useful. I'd be v. grateful for a copy of the paper and for more help with your comment (i).

DEM said...

With regard to (i), don't you think that, e.g., some of the papers by Barnes suggest that we should be active, thinking, readers and search the texts for the arguments that might work for us? I think that in general specialists in Sextus do grant him a sophisticated notion of how his writings are to be read. Otherwise, the current attitude towards Sextus would have been similar to that most scholars adopted before the late 70s or early 80s, namely, "though a key source for other ancient philosophies, he is an unoriginal thinker who puts forward unsound arguments and, hence, we shouldn't take him seriously".