Thursday, May 22, 2008

Seeing yellow

I'm thinking about the Cyrenaics. I've thought a bit about their hedonism before, but it's high time I got properly to grips with their general epistemology. So I've been spending the last couple of days thinking about Sextus Empiricus Adversus Mathematicos (M) 7.190-200, at least the beginning of which (191-3) looks to me like it might contain the kernel of the original Cyrenaic argument for their slightly unusual epistemological view.

Lots of people before have been interested in these guys and in this text in particular, most recently because they might have been an example of a 'subjectivist' position and might even be the best example of a case of ancient 'external world scepticism'. I'm not sure about that. I think the latter is unlikely to be true and I need to get a proper handle first about exactly what 'subjectivism' is. (Like lots of isms, I suspect that it is regularly used to refer to slightly but crucially different views so comparing accounts becomes tricky.)

Here's the relevant bit of Sextus:

[191] (A) φασὶν οὖν οἱ Κυρηναϊκοὶ κριτήρια εἶναι τὰ πάθη καὶ μόνα καταλαμβάνεσθαι καὶ ἀδιάψευστα τυγχάνειν, τῶν δὲ πεποιηκότων τὰ πάθη μηδὲν εἶναι καταληπτὸν μηδὲ ἀδιάψευστον. ὅτι μὲν γὰρ λευκαινόμεθα, φασί, καὶ γλυκαζόμεθα, δυνατὸν λέγειν ἀδιαψεύστως καὶ ἀληθῶς καὶ βεβαίως <καὶ> ἀνεξελέγκτως• ὅτι δὲ τὸ ἐμποιητικὸν τοῦ πάθους [192] λευκόν ἐστιν ἢ γλυκύ ἐστιν, οὐχ οἷόν τ’ ἀποφαίνεσθαι. εἰκὸς γάρ ἐστι καὶ ὑπὸ μὴ λευκοῦ τινα λευκαντικῶς διατεθῆναι καὶ ὑπὸ μὴ γλυκέος γλυκανθῆναι. καθὰ γὰρ ὁ μὲν σκοτωθεὶς καὶ ἰκτεριῶν ὠχραντικῶς ὑπὸ πάντων κινεῖται, ὁ δὲ ὀφθαλμιῶν ἐρυθαίνεται, ὁ δὲ παραπιέσας τὸν ὀφθαλμὸν ὡς ὑπὸ δυεῖν κινεῖται, ὁ δὲ μεμηνὼς δισσὰς ὁρᾷ τὰς Θήβας καὶ δισσὸν φαντάζεται τὸν ἥλιον, [193] ἐπὶ πάντων δὲ τούτων τὸ μὲν ὅτι τόδε τι πάσχουσιν, οἷον ὠχραίνονται ἢ ἐρυθαίνονται ἢ δυάζονται, ἀληθές, τὸ δὲ ὅτι ὠχρόν ἐστι τὸ κινοῦν αὐτοὺς ἢ ἐνερευθὲς ἢ διπλοῦν ψεῦδος εἶναι νενόμισται, οὕτω καὶ ἡμᾶς εὐλογώτατόν ἐστι πλέον τῶν οἰκείων παθῶν μηδὲν λαμβάνειν δύνασθαι.

My translation is as follows:

[191] The Cyrenaics, then, say that the pathē are the criteria of truth and that only these are apprehended and met with without deceit, while none of the things which have caused the pathē is apprehended or without deceit. For, they say, it is possible to say that we are ‘whitened’ and ‘sweetened’ without deceit and truthfully and reliably and irrefutably. But that what is the cause of the pathos is [192] white or sweet is impossible to declare. For it is reasonable that someone is disposed ‘whitely’ by something not white and ‘sweetened’ by something not sweet. For in so far as a dizzy person and someone with jaundice are affected by everything in a yellow fashion, someone suffering from ophthalmia is ‘reddened’, someone who presses on his eye is affected by doubling, and someone in a mania sees two Thebes and imagines that the sun is double [193] so in all these cases the fact that they all undergo some pathos – e.g. they are being ‘yellowed’ or ‘reddened’ or ‘doubled’ – is true, but that what is affecting them is yellow or red or double is considered false, so it is also overwhelmingly reasonable that we are able to grasp nothing more that our own pathē.

I'll have to come back to this text and I might have more to say about it soon.

Anyway, for starters I thought it was about time I sorted out something you find regularly in ancient epistemology, and which features in the bit I've quoted, namely the claim that people with jaundice see everything as yellow. It seems that people with jaundice do get yellow eyes (see exhibit a above, taken from here). But I can't really see any modern confirmation of the confident ancient claim that a person with such a condition sees everything somehow tinged yellow. You'd think they'd ask someone if they could. Perhaps it's just one of those old chestnuts that becomes accepted truth. It's clear the sort of point the example is supposed to make, whether or not this particular example is strictly speaking true. This paper sounds promising, but my science isn't up to making much sense of the abstract.

Readers of this blog have been v. kind in the past in sharing their expertise on a variety of topics, including specs-buying and choosing ties. So I reckon I've a fair chance of sorting this out if I just send the question out into the interweb: Do people with jaundice see things as yellow?

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