Sextus Empiricus

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(fl. ca. A.D. 200)

medicine skeptical philosophy.

The rediscovery of Sextus’ writings in the sixteenth century and the publication of his Pyrrhonian Hypotyposes (or Outlines of Pyrrhonism) in a Latin translation in 1562 led to an epistemological crisis at the time of the Reformation. About the man himself, almost nothing is known. The name Sextus in Latin, but he wrote in Greek; and in Against the Grammarians he used the first person plural: “We say .... whereas the Athenians and Coans say ....”1 The name Empiricus signifies that he was a member of the Empirical school of medicine, which claimed to understand and treat diseases without postulating theoretical causes like “humors” or “spirits” Presumably Estrus was a practicing physician of this school, although he observed that of the medical schools it was the Methodists rather than the Empiricists who were closest to skepticism.2 He also mentioned a work of his called Medical NotesІατριά υ˙πоμνήμαρα3 but is in the field of philosophy, not medicine.

Sextu’s surviving works include Pyrrhonian Hypotyposes, in three books, of which the first outlines the skeptical position and the second and third criticize other philosophical schools, subject by subject. The criticisms contained in these latter books are expanded in the rest of his work, which is usually grouped under the single title Пρòςμαθηματιĸоύς(Adversus mathematicos, or Arainst the Professors). There are eleven books, referred to by individual titles in the English edition by R. G. Bury (and in this article), as follows: I , Against the Grammarians; II , Against the Rhetoricians; III ,Against the Geomwetersl;IV , Against the Arithmeticians;V , Against the Astrologers; VI , Against the Musicians; VII-VIII , Against the Logicians, I-II ; IX-X , Against the Physicists, I-II ; and XI , Against the Ethicists.

Sextus probably derived most of his knowledge of earlier philosophers from handbook and compendia, rather than from original sources; but he is a valuable sources; but he is a valuable source of information nonetheless, Occasionally he transcribed verbatim; for example, the prologue of Parmenides’ great philosophical poem,4 some fragments of Empedocles,5 and Critias’ poem on the invention of the gods6 are known to us only from the the text of Sextus, More often he gave summaries, some of which are very important; his crtique og Pythagoreansim 7 gives details of that theory that are otherwise unknown, (P. Wilpert, Zwei aristotrlishe Fruöhschriften uöber die Ideenlehr [Regensbug, 1949], has claimed that much of this was devied rom Plato’s lectures, but the claim has not found much agreement.) Sectus gives the only surviving account of Diodorus Cronus’ “Aruguments agaisnt motion,” 8.

The Stico school, however, founded by Zeno of Citium in Athens about 300 B. C. and by Sextus’ time the most firmly established of all the philosphical schools, was his chief target, The division of philosophy into logic, physics, and ethics was Stoic, and he organized his own books according to this scheme. Logic, for him and also for the Stocs, included epistemology, and consequently was the most important division, Against the Logicians and the summary in book II of Pynhonian Hypotyposes the fullest source of information on Stoic logic and have been used extensively in the recent reconstruction of the logical theory of the Stoic.9.

Sextus’s own professed philosophy of skepticism is derived intimately f4rom Pyrrho of Elis, but more directly from Aenesidemus. In Pyrrhonian Hypotyposes10 Sextius enumerated the ten “tropes” fro bringing about suspension of judgement, which elsewhere 11 he attributed to Aensidemus. These tropes constitute a systematic exposition of arguments that throw doubt on the ability of the senses to give knowledge of the external world. They are followed by a critique of the notions of cause and sign, also dervied from Aenesidmus.

Sextus’ own position, which has to be collected from statements scattered over his works, amounts to an extreme form of skeopticism. He distinguished between the external object and the phenomenon, and asserted that our sense perceptions are of phenomena only, that the external object is unknowable, and that nothing is true. 12 To count as true statement must be verified and be about a real object; the first condition eliminates statements about the external world, and the second those about sense impressions. It follows that not even the statements of the skeptical philosopher are true. Sextus used the famous image of the ladder: just as a man can climb up to high place and then kick the ladder down, so the skeptical philosopher can use argument to reach his position and ultimately demolish his own argument. 13 The sult, according to Sextus, should be ataraxia, or peace.14


1.Against the Grammarians, 246

2.Phrrhonian Hypotyposes, bk I, 237–241

3.Against the Logicians, bk. I, 202

4.Ibid., 111

5.Ibid., 122–124: Against the Physicists, bk. 1, 127–129.

6.Against the Physicists, 1, 54.

7.Ibid., bk II, 248–309.

8.Against the Physicists, bk. I, 85–120.

9. See esp. B. Mates “Stoci Logic” and William and Martha Kneale, Development of Logic (Oxford, 1962), chap. 3.

10. Bk. I, 36–163.

11.Against the Logicians, I, 345.

12.Pyrrhonian Hypotyposes bk, II, 88 ff.

13.Against the Logicians. bk,II, 481; cf. L. Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-philosophicus (London, 1922).. prop., 6.54

14.Pyrrhonian Hypotyposes. bk. I,8.


I. Original Works. The main source is Sextus Empiricus, Operea, 4 vols. (Leipzig, 1912–1962), vols. I-II, H. Mutschmnann, ed,: vol III, J, Mau, ed; vol. IV, K Janáček, ed., is an index. See also Sextus Empriicus R. G. Bury. ed. and trans., 4 vols. (London-Cambridge 1933–1949); and Scepticism, Man God; Selections From the Major writings Sextus Empiricus P. Hale, ed., Sanford Etherdge, trans. (Middletown conn., 1964).

II. Secondary Literature. The most recent and best source is Charlotte Stough, Greek Scepticism; A Study in Epistemology (Berkely-Loss Angelses, 1969). See also V. Brochard, Les Sceptiques Grecs 2nd ed. (Paris, 1955); Roderick Chisholm “Sextus Empiricus and Modern Empiricism,” in Philosophy of science8 (1941), 371–384; A. Goedeckemeyer, Die Geschichte des griechischen Skeptizismus (Leipzig. 1905); K. Janáček, “Prolegomena to Sextus Empiricus,” in Acta Universitatis Palackianae Olomucensis, 4 (1948), "Sextus Empiricus en der Arbeit," in Philologus100 (1956). 100–107, and Sextus Empiricus’ Sceptical Methods Acta Universitais Carolinae Philogica, Monographi XXVII (prague, 1972); Benson Mates, “Stoic Logic and the Text of Sextus Empiricus”, in American Journal of Philology70 (1949), 290–298, and Stoci Logic (Berkely-Los Angeles, 1961); A. Philip McMahon, “Sextus Empiricus and the Arts, in Harvard Studies in Classical Philology42 (1931), 79–137: and Richard Popkin, History of Scepticism From Erasmus to Descartes (Assesn, 1960).

David J. Furely