Skip to main content

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.


  1. If you want your ex-girlfriend or ex-boyfriend to come crawling back to you on their knees (no matter why you broke up) you have to watch this video
    right away...

    (VIDEO) Want your ex CRAWLING back to you...?


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

A Story About Coleridge

This is a quote from a memoir by Dorothy Wordsworth, reflecting on a trip she took with two famous poets, her brother, William Wordsworth, and their similarly gifted companion, Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

We sat upon a bench, placed for the sake of one of these views, whence we looked down upon the waterfall, and over the open country ... A lady and gentleman, more expeditious tourists than ourselves, came to the spot; they left us at the seat, and we found them again at another station above the Falls. Coleridge, who is always good-natured enough to enter into conversation with anybody whom he meets in his way, began to talk with the gentleman, who observed that it was a majestic waterfall. Coleridge was delighted with the accuracy of the epithet, particularly as he had been settling in his own mind the precise meaning of the words grand, majestic, sublime, etc., and had discussed the subject with William at some length the day before. “Yes, sir,” says Coleridge, “it is a majestic wate…

Cancer Breakthrough

Hopeful news in recent days about an old and dear desideratum: a cure for cancer. Or at least for a cancer, and a nasty one at that.

The news comes about because investors in GlaxoSmithKline are greedy for profits, and has already inspired a bit of deregulation to boot. 

The FDA has paved the road for a speedy review of a new BCMA drug for multiple myeloma, essentially cancer of the bone marrow. This means that the US govt has removed some of the hurdles that would otherwise (by decision of the same govt) face a company trying to proceed with these trials expeditiously. 

This has been done because the Phase I clinical trial results have been very promising. The report I've seen indicates that details of these results will be shared with the world on Dec. 11 at the annual meeting of the American Society of Hematology. 

The European Medicines Agency has also given priority treatment to the drug in question. 

GSK's website identifies the drug at issue as "GSK2857916," althou…

Hume's Cutlery

David Hume is renowned for two pieces of cutlery, the guillotine and the fork.

Hume's guillotine is the sharp cut he makes between "is" statements and "ought" statements, to make the point that the former never ground the latter.

His "fork" is the division between what later came to be called "analytic" and "synthetic" statements, with the ominous observation that any books containing statements that cannot be assigned to one or the other prong should be burnt.

Actually, I should acknowledge that there is some dispute as to how well or poorly the dichotomy Hume outlines really maps onto the analytic/synthetic dichotomy. Some writers maintain that Hume meant something quite different and has been hijacked. Personally, I've never seen the alleged difference however hard they've worked to point it out to me.

The guillotine makes for a more dramatic graphic than a mere fork, hence the bit of clip art above.

I'm curious whe…