Sextus Empiricus

Dafato Team | May 21, 2022

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Sextus Empiricus (Greek Σέξτος ὁ Ἐμπειρικός, 2nd half of the 2nd century AD) was an ancient Greek physician and philosopher, a representative of classical antique skepticism.

The time of life of Sextus Empiricus is not precisely established. Thus, F. Cudlin thought that Sextus lived about A.D. 100; Wolgraff, that Sextus was head of the school about A.D. 115-135. The most common view is that the flowering of the philosophy of Sextus Empiricus at the end of the second century A.D. This view was held by M. Haas, E. Zeller, and A. Gedekemeyer. This view is based on the fact that in the third century A.D. Stoicism ceased to be so influential a philosophical current as to cause such a fierce polemic with Sextus. The latter skeptic is supposed to have criticized Stoicism as the basic dogmatic doctrine of his time. However, it is not known whether Sextus was in actual dispute with his Stoic contemporaries or simply criticizing Stoicism as a type of dogmatism. In addition, the skeptic criticizes not only the Stoics, and the late Greek philosophers, D.A. Gusev points out, considered it correct to avoid mentioning their contemporaries regardless of their attitude to them.

Galen of Pergamum repeatedly mentions a certain Herodotus, whom some scholars identify as the teacher of Sextus Empiricus. But Galen never mentions Sextus, although he discusses medical currents at length and names all the famous physicians. He also speaks at length about the skeptics, but never once mentions Empiricus in either respect.

The place of birth is also unknown. Sextus himself describes in detail the many lands he may have visited, but all in a detached, non-personal way. The Judgment mentions Sextus of Libya and Sextus of Cheronia, both skeptics, with Sextus of Cheronia being called the author of the works of Sextus Empiricus. However, Suda is considered unreliable by many scholars, and, for example, E. Zeller and W. Brochard do not consider this source. Others (e.g., M. Haas and W. Wolgraff) believe that the reference is quite accurate and consistent with other data. At the same time Sextus Empiricus himself has only one reference to Heronea (Sext. Emp. Adv. math. I. 295), and that in passing.

He probably lived in Alexandria, Athens and Rome; exact information has not been preserved. From the reports of Diogenes of Laertes and Galen it appears that Sextus Empiricus was a pupil of Herodotus of Tarsus and, in his turn, had a pupil in the person of Saturninus. The nickname "Empiricus" was given to him, in all probability, because he belonged for a time to the school of empirical physicians before he became a skeptic.

Sextus Empiricus clearly shows that skepticism does not interfere with an active position in life: "the skeptic out of humanity (διὰ τὸ φιλάνθρωπος εἶναι) wishes, if possible, to cure by reason the conceit and hastyness of dogmatists" and offers his reasoning as medicine for dogmatic thinking (Pyrrh III, 280).

His works Pyrrhon's Positions (Πυῤῥώνειοι ὑποτυπώσεις) and Against Scholars (Πρὸς μαθηματικούς) are major sources on the philosophy of ancient skepticism.

In this work Sextus Empiricus systematizes the basic concepts and methods of skeptical philosophy, such as the position of equal validity of contrary judgments (isosthenia), ataraxia (ἀταραξία) - equanimity, epoch (ἐποχή) - abstention from judgment, apathy (ἀπάθεια) - impassivity. The tropes of skepticism, the ten of Aenesidemus and the later five of Agrippa, are then given, as well as selected skeptical points in philosophers who are not skeptics. Books II and III take the skeptic's view of the dogmatists' teachings on logic, physics (as he understood it today, including religion), and ethics. Many testimonies and excerpts from the teachings of philosophers whose works have not survived are cited. This argumentation is then elaborated in the treatise Against the Scholars.

Sextus Empiricus defines his understanding of skepticism as a "skeptical faculty" (οὕναμις) that confronts phenomena and noomen in every possible way. He also described the changing state of the dogmatist as the philosopher forms as a skeptic: first there is a conflict (διαφωνία) of understanding that leads to indecision, then to an understanding of the equality of theses (ἰσοσθένεια), abstention from judgment (ἐποχή) and, finally, to serenity (ἀταραξία).

Sextus Empiricus also sometimes refers to his writings on medicine and the soul, which have not reached us.

The whole cycle "Against Scientists" is divided by many into two parts, of which one is called "Against Dogmatists" and the other "Against Individual Sciences". The books "Against the Dogmatists", combined with the other cycle "Against the Scientists", are usually referred to in science by these numbers: "Against the Logicians" is referred to as VII and VIII (as this treatise contains two books), "Against the Physicists" as IX and X (for the same reason), and "Against the Ethicists" as XI (this treatise contains only one book). As for the books directed against individual scholars, they are respectively designated by Roman numerals I-VI: "Against the Grammatics" (Πρὸς γραμματικού) - I, "Against the Rhetoricians" (Πρὸς ῥητορικούς) - II, "Against the Geometers" (Πρὸς γεωμετρικούς) - III, "Against Arithmeticians" (Πρὸς ἀριθμητικούς) - IV, "Against Astrologers" (Πρὸς ἀστρολόγους) - V, "Against Musicians" (Πρὸς μουσικούς) - VI. Usually, however, the books Against the Dogmatists, because of their philosophical principle, are printed before the books against the individual sciences. Therefore the first and most principled books of the whole cycle "Against the Scholars" are designated by numbers VII-XI, and the books against the individual sciences are designated by numbers I-VI.

Sextus Empiricus finally shaped skepticism, giving it its completeness. Before him, skeptics had been essentially engaged only in criticizing dogmatic philosophies, pointing out the groundlessness of their assertions, but they had not questioned skepticism itself. In modern terms, it was more like agnosticism: the belief that the world cannot be fully understood. Skepticism became precisely skepticism thanks to Sextus Empiricus, who applied the principles of doubt to skepticism itself: it is the only philosophical position that doubts itself. In this way, all possible "ambushes" of dogma and faith were removed from skepticism (something many of its critics still fail to realize). Skepticism is a philosophy paradigmatically different from other philosophies because it carries no positive content in principle.

The method of reasoning "from the opponent's position" was used even by Socrates and Plato, who in their dialogues often showed the falsity of the opponent's point of view, and not always stated "as it should", confining themselves to criticism. Sextus Empiricus adopted this method, probably through Arxelius, and in his reasoning he also uses the dogmatists' assumptions against themselves, pointing out their internal inconsistencies. The skeptic does not construct his own theory, but merely points out his own rightness in criticizing the dogmatic philosophers.

D.K. Maslov points out that, unlike his predecessors, Sextus Empiricus has an additional premise for the strategy of refutation in dialogue: opposing arguments, judgments on all the issues under investigation. As Sextus Empiricus points out, the skeptical capacity consists in contrasting a phenomenon to a thought (Sext. Emp. Pyrrh. I 8), and as a result the skeptic asserts nothing more than another (Sext. Emp. Pyrrh. I 188-191). Usually people, in the case of opposing something, begin their search for the truth by trying to establish where the truth is and where the lie is. Skeptics, on the other hand, counter theses with opposite, equal proofs, not recognizing anything as true and false. Skeptics do not refute opponents by proving their theses false; they point out that it is impossible to prove them true. Nor are the arguments of the skeptic more provable, and skeptical argumentation itself is self-refuting when applied autoreferentially.

Thus, the strategy of Sextus Empiricus' reasoning boils down to the two theses first highlighted by R. La Sala, and the third thesis mentioned:

The main method of the skeptic is the use of the principle of non-contradiction: "In any case, however, it is impossible that one and the same thing be both existing and non-existent" (Sext. Emp. Adv. math. I. 295), "One and the same thing by nature cannot combine opposites" (Sext. Emp. Adv. math. XI 74). The principle of non-contradiction is extremely important: if it is not necessarily accepted, then any research and reasoning makes no sense. D. Machuca points out:

"Sextus appears to be relying consciously or unconsciously on the law of non-contradiction for a twofold purpose: that his negative arguments not be interpreted dogmatically, and that his argumentative therapy be clearly understood, for without contradiction we would have no distinction, which, in turn, would make rational discussion impossible."

However, however, Machuca believes, unlike other scholars, that Sextus does not consider the law of inconsistency to be true, just that he is "in a sense forced to follow its psychological version" in his reasoning.

Sextus Empiricus and skepticism in general were forgotten for nearly a millennium and a half, until the treatises Pyrrhonian Foundations and Against Scholars were published in the 1570s in Latin translation and were unexpectedly very much in demand. Michel Montaigne was the first to apply the skeptical method in his essay "The Apologia of Raymond of Sabunda," which was clearly influenced by Pyrrhonism, then the works of Sextus Empiricus were inspired by Gassendi, Descartes, Pascal, etc.:211

Sextus Empiricus pointed out that as phenomena we should perceive not only sense sensations, but also objects of thought (Sext. Emp. Pyrrh. VIII, 362), reason (Sext. Emp. Pyrrh. VIII, 141) and reason (Sext. Emp. Pyrrh. VII, 25). And even philosophical statements such as "I refrain from judging." The skeptic describes all such phenomena as a chronicler: "what seems to me at the moment" - figuratively speaking, separating the "I-thinking" from the "I-feeling".

In his texts, the philosopher often uses the word "seem" in the sense of "apparently," rather than in the direct sense of the phenomenon, which indicates the commonality of meanings: in either case, we are talking about what seems or is to the skeptic. It is important to understand that the skeptic always takes into account what he himself perceives, feels, and reasons, but it is incorrect to equate skeptical perception with total subjectivism (phenomenalism). Subjectivism is dogmatism, while the skeptic declares his states and experiences as something that does not depend on him, but is experienced by him directly.

Sextus Empiricus contrasts phenomena--that which is available to man for perception and comprehension--with the "hidden," the "non-obvious," and the concept of representation is close to affect. Sextus often uses the terminology of the Stoics, equating phenomenon and representation: "The criterion of the skeptical way of life, we thus call phenomenon (being contained in feelings and involuntary affects (πάθος), it lies beyond all exploration" (Sext. Emp. Pyrrh I, 22). Thus, the philosopher uses the terms "phenomenon," "representation," and "affect" practically as synonyms, just in different contexts: "phenomenon" for "hidden," "thing in itself," for phenomena of reality, "representation," and "affect" when we want to emphasize that the phenomenon does not exist in itself, but in our perception:215

Sextus Empiricus uses the concept of phenomena in several senses. A phenomenon is something that cannot be questioned, that is, something that is perceived by man involuntarily, regardless of his desire. These are our perceptions, perceptions, and affects. He also includes to phenomena the ordinary life as it is, without the application of dogmatic speculation interpretations.

In this way the philosopher moves from pure epistemology to psychology. The phenomenon is no longer the basis of knowledge, but of life as such, and skepticism is not a theoretical doctrine detached from reality, but a natural capacity of man. This is why the skeptic can live actively without contradicting skepticism, rather than inactively, which Pyrrone and other extreme skeptics claimed as an unattainable ideal.

В.  P. Lega points out that Sextus Empiricus developed skepticism not as an abstract "wicked wisdom," but because he considered it natural, corresponding to human nature. If we read carefully, it is significant that Sextus' texts do not speak of skepticism as an abstract theory, but of the natural skeptical faculty of man: "The skeptical faculty (δύναμις) is that which contrasts in whatever way possible the phenomenon (φαινόμενον) with the thought (νοούμενον)" (Sext. Emp. Pyrrh. I. 8). Sextus uses the term "faculty" in relation to healing, memory, judgment, mind, soul, and craft - that is, precisely to denote the natural faculties of man. "Dogmatic faculty" is not mentioned: it can only be a position. Thus everyone has a skeptical capacity, so everyone can abandon dogmatism and attain ataraxia (Sext. Emp. Pyrrh. I, 21-24).

Sextus Empiricus describes what he relies on in his life as a fourfold scheme (Sext. Emp. Pyrrh. I, 23-24):

At the same time, the skeptic understands that traditions are conditional and unprovable in terms of truth, and in medicine (Sextus and many other ancient skeptics were doctors) he does not reason about the hidden causes of disease, but is guided by symptoms (phenomena), from which he draws conclusions about the necessary treatment.

Pyrrhon wrote: "Human actions are guided only by law and custom" (Diog.L. IX 61). Thus, refusing to express a dogmatic opinion, the skeptic is not in the position of Buridan's donkey: there is no prohibition of "practical life," only a refusal to be presumptuous about the truth.

Some philosophers believe that skepticism can, conventionally speaking, be practiced to varying degrees. J. Barnes in this regard points to the "therapeutic program" of skepticism: according to the expression of dogmatism in the interlocutor the skeptic uses arguments of varying strength (Sext. Emp. Pyrrh. III 280-281) and thereby abstention from judgment can be "narrower" or "wider".

However, this position is prejudiced: skepticism is assumed to be intrinsically contradictory, and the position of skeptics is disingenuous. Skepticism is presented as negative dogmatism, whereas the skeptic always leaves open the possibility of refuting skeptical tropes (Sext. Emp. Pyrrh. I 226): he does not deny the truth, but doubts what is presented as such. It is forgotten that Sextus Empiricus was arguing about the criteria of action (Sext. Emp. Pyrrh. I 21-24), not the knowledge of the "true essence" of things. For example, taking a bath does not require learning all the properties of water - it is only important that it be clean and of an acceptable temperature. Sextus' perception of skepticism solely as a criterion of truth is a distortion of the essence of his position.

М. Gabriel points out that the concept of "strong and weak" skepticism is meaningless because the goal of skepticism is a practical life without dogmas. What matters to the skeptic is the attainment of peace of mind, not the maximization of the number of beliefs questioned.

К. Vogt points out that a skeptic can have an opinion in the sense of an imposed perception that "proceeds from certain impressions which, without his will or assistance, lead him to agree. Imposed, passive impressions are not opinions in the literal sense - hence also dogmas.

It is important to understand what exactly was considered opinion at the time. At least the leading schools of philosophy--the Stoics and the academicians--understood opinion precisely as active judgment or approval, i.e., the mind's conscious acceptance of some notion. This judgment corresponded to Plato's understanding of opinion as described in Theaetetetes At the end of the process of thinking, the soul, "having grasped something, determines it and no longer hesitates, - then we consider it its opinion". Thus, opinion is always actively formed.

Sextus Empiricus speaks precisely about the process of opinion formation, and precisely about active agreement with certain notions, rather than about the notion of opinion as such and its distinction from non-dogmatic opinion. The use of the terms "δόγμα" and "δόξα" is also important: at the time of Sextus, "dogma" already denoted a kind of doctrine. It is logical to think that the philosopher meant by dogma precisely some doctrine and not just an opinion ("δόξα"). This distinction of words in Sextus is clearly expressed: for him dogma refers precisely to philosophy.

Sextus Empiricus criticized not only popular myths, but also the rational foundations of religion: the existence of gods is neither obvious nor provable (Sext. Emp. Adv. math. III. 9). He also questions the existence of providence, the existence of the soul, and so on. But at the same time he writes: "Following a life without dogma, we maintain that there are gods, and revere the gods, and ascribe to them the power of providence" (Sext. Emp. Adv. math. III. 2). This means that from his point of view there is a certain perspective in which skepticism is compatible with religion. Sextus' statement about reverence for the gods is not the only one of its kind. Diogenes Laertes mentions that the founder of ancient skepticism Pyrrhon himself was a high priest of Aelis (Diog. Laert. IX 64).

In addition, when discussing folk notions, Sextus Empiricus often cites obvious fictions (Sext. Emp. Pyrrh. I 81-84). V.A. Vasilchenko points out that such oddities are explained from the philological point of view by the compilative and eclectic character of his texts. The Czech philologist K. Janacek was the first to point this out. This approach of Sextus Empiricus - "everything will do" - is very similar to the methodological anarchism of P. Feyerabend, who also, not sharing faith in mythology, considered it possible to refer to it on a par with science in search of knowledge.

В. M. Boguslavsky was the first to point out the different zeal of Sextus Empiricus: his anti-religious position is much more thorough and convincing than his "pro-religious" one, and twice as voluminous. Atheistic views are criticized very sparingly, but he rejects astronomy categorically, without even mentioning abstention from judgment. Thus Sextus indirectly gives away where he has a sincere personal attitude to the concepts, and where he is essentially a formal adherence to skepticism.

V.A. Vasilchenko believes that these facts cause "the need to clarify the main characteristics of philosophical skepticism as a worldview close to atheism and agnosticism" in the sense that skepticism destroys the metaphysical foundations of religions, but leaves the everyday faith without attention. However, it is incorrect to call it fideism: the point is not faith, but simply following popular customs in practical life.

Russian translations:


  1. Sextus Empiricus
  2. Секст Эмпирик

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