Sextus Empiricus

From Academic Kids

Sextus Empiricus (writing some time in the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD), physician and philosopher, and probably lived at Alexandria and at Athens. Many of his sceptic arguments bear resemblance to the arguments used by the 1st century CE philosopher Nagarjuna.

In his medical work he belonged to the "methodical" school (see Asclepiades), as a philosopher, he is the greatest of the later Greek Sceptics. He studied under one Herotodus, a doctor in Rome. His claim to eminence rests on the fact that he developed and formulated the doctrines of the older Sceptics, and that he handed down a full and, on the whole, an impartial, account of the members of his school. There are five known works by Sextus, the Outlines of Pyrrhonism (Πυῤῥώνειοι ὑποτύπωσεις), Against the Logicians, Against the Physicists, Against the Ethicists and Against the Professors (See Bury, 1933-49).

He argued that to reach the state of ataraxia (approximately 'peace of mind'), philosophers must first learn to 'suspend judgement', that is, to believe to an equal degree any claim and its denial. Unlike the skeptics of Plato's Academy, Pyrrhoneans did not think that nothing is knowable. The claim that nothing is knowable struck them as a sort of dogmatism. Instead, they suspended judgement about whether or not anything is knowable. Sextus also differentiated between the ways in which the philosopher could approach knowledge. Only actual experience of a phenomenon could contribute to knowledge. Specifically, he did not deny that sense impressions existed, but disputed the possibility that they could be objectively evaluated. For him, honey may appear to be sweet, but whether it is sweet in essence is doubtful, as the claim that honey is sweet is a judgement regarding its appearance.

Sextus's "Outlines" were widely read in Europe during 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, and had a profound impact on David Hume, among many others. The legacy of Pyrrhonism is lucidly described in Richard Popkin: The History of Skepticism from Erasmus to Descartes and High Road to Pyrrhonism. His philosophy is today often mistaken for a skepticism of the sort considered and rejected by Rene Descartes.

See also


  • Brochard, Les Sceptiques grecs (1887)
  • Pappenheim, Lebensverholtnisse des Sextus Empiricus (Berlin, 1875)
  • Jourdain, Sextus Empiricus (Paris, 1858)
  • Patrick, Sextus Empiricus and the Greek Sceptics (1899). (The last English translation of the complete works was Bury, R.G. Sextus Empiricus, in four volumes (Loeb Classical Library: London and Cambridge, Mass., Vol.I 1933, II 1935, III 1936, IV 1949).
  • Benson Mates The skeptic way : Sextus Empiricus's Outlines of Pyrrhonism, (trans.) (Oxford : University Press, 1996).de:Sextus Empiricus

fr:Sextus Empiricus pl:Sekstus Empiryk ru:Секст Эмпирик fi:Sekstos Empeirikos


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