Sanchez (or Sanches), Francisco

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(b. diocese of Braga, Portugal, 1550 or 1551: d. Toulouse, France, November 1623)

philosophy, medicine.

An exponent of an extreme nominalist skepticism, Sanchez was probably born near Valença, Portugal, and was probably of Jewish descent. In 1562 his family immigrated to Bordeaux, a frequent refuge for fleeing conversos. In Bordeaux, Sanchez studied at the reformist Collège de Guyenne: but in 1569 he departed for Rome to study anatomy. In 1574 he completed his doctorate in medicine at the University of Montpellier. The following year, in order to avoid religious strife in heavily Protestant Montpellier, he settled in Toulouse.

In Toulouse, Sanchez held a variety of posts: professor of philosophy from 1585 and of medicine from 1612: rector of the university: and, for thirty years, director of the Hospital of Saint Jacques, where he is said to have sequestered himself at night in order to study cadavers. His first writings were nevertheless on mathematics. In 1575 he wrote a letter to Clavius, who the previous year had published an edition of Euclid’s Elements, questioning the certainty of geometrical proofs. In Sanchez’ view, mathematics deals with ideal, rather than real, objects and therefore can say nothing certain about actual experience.

In 1576, at the age of twenty-six, Sanchez composed his major philosophical work, Quod nihil scitur. Beginning with a rigorously nominalist critique of Scholastic epistrmology, Sanchez attacked, first, the Aristotelian concept of science as concentrating too much on abstract categories rather than on real objects, and second, the syllogistic method of doing science as self-fulfilling: anything can be proved by starting with the correct premises. He concluded that Aristotelian science was not science at all, since one cannot reach certitude through definitions nor in the endless search for causes. True science, according to Sanchez, must be the study of particulars, but is in fact, even with this limitation, beyond man’s reach because of the imperfection of his sense. In order to replace scholastic methodology, Sanchez proposed a commonsensical, empirical approach, which would not seek vainly to gain knowledge, but would entertain the more circumscribed aim of dealing realistically with experience.

The very next year (1577) Sanchez extended his skeptical critique into the realm of astrology, in a long, versified comment on the hysterical reactions to the comet of that year. In the poem he ridiculed the beliefs of astrologers such as Francesco Giuntini, who asserted that all comets must be evaluated as the source of prognostication. Sanchez wrote that such beliefs were untenable philosophically because they seemed to limit man’s free will and practically because such predications were based on inconsistent correlations between the appearance of comets and human events. (In a later treatise he condemned, in a similar vein, the practice of divination through dreams.)

The practice of medicine was Sanchez’ lifelong occupation and primary source of income. He was a shrewd clinical observer in the Hippocratic tradition, although he was careful to point out errors in the works of past medical writers. In his anatomical works, the influence of Colombo, Vesalius, and Falloppio is explicit. Moreover, his diagnostic experience, convincing him of the limitations of the human senses, played an important role in the formulation of his skeptical philosophy.


I. Original Works. See Quod nihil scitur (Lyons, 1581: 2nd ed., Frankfurt. 1618); Spanish trans., Quenada se sabe, with an intro. by Marcelino Menéndez y Pelyo (Buenos Aires, 1944). This major work, along with three shorter treatises (De longitudine et brevitate vitae, In lib. Aristotelis physiognomicon commentarius and De divinatione per somnum and Aristotelem), is also included in Sanchez’ collected works: Opera medica (see below) and Tractatus philosophici (Rotterdam, 1649). Modern eds. are Opera philosophica, Joaquim de Carvalho, ed. (Coimbra, 1955); and Tratados filosóficos, A. Moreira de Sá, ed., 2 vols. (Lisbon, 1955).

The Carmen de cometa was originally published in Lyons (1578): a recent ed. is O Cometa do ano de 1577, A. Moreira de Sá, ed. (Lisbon, 1950). The letter to Clavius, which originally circulated in MS, was first published by J. Iriarte, “Francisco Sánchez el Escéptico disfrazado de Carneades en discusión epistolar con Christóbal Clavio,” in Gregorianum, 21 (1940), 413–451; for a Portuguese trans., see Revista portuguesa de filósofia, 1 (1945), 295–305.

His medical works are in Opera medica (Toulouse, 1636), a posthumous compilation of his classroom notes. The most representative treatises are De morbis internis, Observationes in praxi, and a Summa anatomica.

II. Secondary Literature. For Sanchez’ contributions to the philosophy of science, see Joāo Cruz Costa, Ensaio sôbre a vida e a obra do filósofo Francisco Sanchez (Sāo Paulo, 1942): J. Iriarte, “Francisco Sanchez ...a la luz de muy recientes estudios,” in Razón y Fe, 110 (1936), 23–42, 157–181: Evaristo de Moraes Filho, Francisco Sanches na renasença portuguesa (Rio de Janeiro. 1953); Artur Moreira de Sá. Francisco Sanchez. filósofo e matemático, 2 vols. (Lisbon, 1947): and Emilien Senchet, Essai sur la méthode de Francisco Sanchez (Paris, 1904).

General works setting Sanchez in historical perspective are John Owen. The Skeptics of the French Renaissance (London, 1893). and Richard H. Popkin, The History of Scepticism From Erasmus to Descartes, 2nd ed. (Assen. Netherlands–New York. 1963).

On the medical of Sanchez, see Luis de Pina, “Francisco Sanches, médico,” in Revista portuguesa de filósofia, 7 (1951), 156–191.

Thomas F. Glick

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