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Philosophy and the Chain of Custody

Yesterday in this space I quoted a fragment conventionally attributed to the pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus and, in essence, free associated from that.

That doesn't advance the cause of scholarship one tiny bit but, heck, it's a hobby blog.

Somewhat more interesting than my personal train of association chugging along its tracks might be the question: how did fragments like that get from Heraclitus to us?

Fortunately, the tradition whereby philosophers write the history of the issues with which they deal goes back a long way. Setting Plato aside (because of the dramatic/literary demands of the dialog form), Aristotle started the practice of setting one's own table historically.

A less well known later fellow named Sextus Empiricus seems to have played a big role. SE lived in the second or third century of the Christian era. He was a skeptic, that is, he believed that no firm beliefs are rational, and that by accepting our ignorance we can achieve tranquility.

Image result for sextus empiricus adversus mathematicos

Yes, one feels compelled to interject that the skeptic here implies a firm belief system of his own: that tranquility is a valuable condition, and that the acceptance of ignorance gets us there, are both beliefs he chooses not to suspend. Still, I'm uninterested in arguing with him now.

Guided by that goal, Sextus aided the world's tranquility by writing a book the title of which is generally and confusingly translated "Against the Mathematicians." "Against the Theorizers" might be a better rendering. The point was to catalog various claims to knowledge that had been made throughout the ages, and to show how each had failed.

In cataloging them, he preserved them. Much of what is called a "fragment" of philosopher X is just a piece that SE saw fit to quote, because X made it into his list of "mathematicians."

One of the components of "Against the Mathematicians" is "Against the Physicists," which is where we find discussion of pre-Socratic  dogmas about the physical cosmos. Here's a link to a book with further information about this process of "doxographic transmission" through skepticism.


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