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Scepticism versus dogmatism: an internal analysis of Sextus Empiricus’ Against mathematicians, book VII Oberti, Margherita


Scepticism, as depicted by Sextus Empiricus, presents itself as a philosophy whose ultimate justification rests on the conviction that truth is unattainable and that consequently the only chance left to man is that of suspending judgement (epoche). From epoche derives that state of mental quietitude (ataraxia) which alone allows man to lead a happy life. Thus, Scepticism is inevitably a polemic against all those philosophers who assert truth to be apprehensible and to whom Sextus refers by the term "Dogmatists". This study of Book VII of Against Mathematicians seeks to analyze the epistemological premises of Sextus' Scepticism as well as the Sextian arguments directed against the Dogmatists, and particularly those against the Stoics. Truth is unattainable because no such a thing as a criterion of truth exists. This is Sextus' conclusion to his criticism of the Dogmatists' doctrines. Although Sextus' Scepticism is shaped against the background of the doctrines he intends to combat, I intend to isolate his methodology as well as the the theoretical aspects of his philosophy from the polemical ones. Chapter II outlines Sextus' philosophical background as well as his skeptical terminology. Chapter III examines Sextus' methodology and explains why the criticism of the criterion of truth provides him with the necessary theoretical justification for his Scepticism. Sextus1 attack against the Dogmatists is preceded by a lengthy and fairly accurate account of his opponents' views. These views and particularly the Stoic doctrine of phantasia kataleptike are examined in Chapters IV and V. In Chapters VI to VIII, I examine Sextus' response to the Dogmatists. In Chapter VI I argue that Sextus1 criticism of man as criterion, and of the definition of man, are biased by his failure to understand some Dogmatic terms such as "universal concept" and "essence". Chapter VII investigates Sextus' criticism of senses and intellect as criteria of truth, and it is maintained that the arguments used by Sextus to deny the possibility of self-apprehension establish an epistemological principle whose value is dogmatically confined by Sextus to the particular instance he criticizes. Had Sextus been consistent in his use of such a principle, he ought to have declared himself a nihilist rather than a Sceptic. Chapter VIII deals with Sextus' criticism of the notion of phantasia and particularly with his attack against the Stoic doctrine of phantasia kataleptike as criterion of truth. Special attention is paid to the accusation of circular reasoning made by Sextus against the Stoic criterion and in the discussion in Chapter IX. There I argue that Sextus and with him most students of ancient philosophy, misrepresent the meaning of the Stoic doctrine because they identify the term to hyparchon (a key element in the Stoic definition of phantasia kataleptike) with the real (external) object. I oppose this view and offer a tentative re-interpretation of the Stoic criterion, which, if correct, may both free the Stoics from the Sextian accusation of circular reasoning and, at the same time, avoid some of the philological and philosophical difficulties involved in the Sextian and standard interpretation of the Stoic definition of phantasia kataleptike.

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