Anticipations: An Introduction

One of the least understood (and most difficult to understand and explain) concepts in Epicurean epistemology is the idea of anticipations, an innate and (most of us believe) pre-cognitive faculty that helps us to identify natural and necessary information within our environment.

Together with the five senses and the pleasure-aversion principle, anticipations form the Canon, or measuring stick for reality, which is compared to a tripod because it stands on these three legs. The Canon, our masters teach, is our connection to reality. If we consider what three components are included in it, two things become immediately clear:

  1. The Canon is pre-cognitive (although some argue against this, see Dialogue Concerning Innate Principles by Jackson Barwis, or better yet you may read On Three Legs We Stand, which is’s excellent introduction to the Canon. NE has another piece explaining anticipations here)
  2. There is a clear connection between the Darwinian theory of evolution through natural selection and the Canon. In other words, we believe that our ancestors developed exactly the faculties that they needed to survive and thrive in their environment.

No other (ancient or perhaps modern) system of epistemology (theory of the proper way to think) is as rooted in biology as the Epicurean Canon. It is fully based on the premise that we are animals, natural beings who evolved with the precise tools needed to gather natural and necessary knowledge from their environment. With the Canon, we start the process of philosophy from where we are, from who we are, within nature.

Having established that, I wish to elaborate on anticipations with a curious example that became available to me when I was translating Epicurus’ Epistle to Herodotus for the Spanish-language Epitome.

There, the master seems to be saying that time is discerned through our anticipations and that it does not “exist independently, apart from bodies”, which leads us to think that time is only real and experienced as it’s made available to us through our faculty to attune to the circadian (night-and-day) rhythms of Earth:

It is important to grasp firmly that “time” neither has a material existence, nor does it exist independently, apart from bodies. Nor must we think of “time” as a general conception, such as those conceptions which are formed by reasoning in our minds. Instead, we must think of time by referring to our intuitions, our mental apprehensions formed by anticipations, and it is in this context that we speak of a “long time,” or a “short time,” applying our intuitions to time as we do to other incidental qualities.

In evaluating time as an incidental quality, we must not search for expressions that we may think are better than those which are in common use, and we must not believe that time has any properties other than being an incident to bodies. We must evaluate time only in accord with our intuitions or anticipations.

For indeed, we need no demonstration, but only to reflect, to see that we associate time with days and nights, and with our internal feelings, and with our state of rest. These perceptions of incidental qualities are the root of what we call “time.”

Epicurus’ Letter to Herodotus, Section 7

Incidental qualities are properties that are not innate to things in themselves, but that result from interaction with other bodies or phenomena. They’re also known as relational properties in some instances (as in the case of Polystratus’ use of the concept). What Epicurus was pointing the finger to was a proto-theory of relativism, which says that time and space are both properties of nature woven into each other.

What Epicurus is saying here is that time, to us as natural beings, is perceivable as the planetary rotation which produces day and night cycles in our experience. There are many mechanisms in the human person by which we are attuned to these circadian rhythms, which affect our sleep cycle, our hormonal output, our alertness, and our moods.

Other creatures (like many birds) are attuned to the magnetic field, which they need in order to navigate and migrate. We seem to tune into the circadian rhythms through our exposure to daylight, which then governs our sense of time.

Studies show that humans are uniquely receptive to blue and white light, and that “blues are the most important wavelengths for entraining the circadian system”

Researchers have shown in humans that light influences hormone secretion, heart rate, alertness, sleep propensity, body temperature, and gene expression. Moreover, in such studies, blue wavelengths have been found to exert more powerful effects than green wavelengths.

In experiments published in the September 2003 issue of The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism, Brainard, Czeisler, and Steven Lockley, an assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, compared suppression of melatonin in humans during 6.5 hours of nighttime exposure by monochromatic light at 460 nm, the peak sensitivity of melanopsin cells, with 555 nm, the peak sensitivity of the visual system. The blue wavelength suppressed melatonin for about twice as long as the green.

… blue also proved more powerful in elevating body temperature and heart rate and in reducing sleepiness, according to Gilles Vandewalle, of the Center for the Study of Sleep and of Biological Rhythms at the University of Montréal.

And so when Epicurus discusses anticipations as part of the canon, he is talking about extremely important sets of faculties and inherited instincts that regulate many key aspects of human behavior. In the past, I’ve used the infant’s recognition of faces and of the mother’s nipple as examples of anticipations.

A future blog will expand on the Canon by discussing the pleasure and aversion faculties.

About hiramcrespo

Hiram Crespo is the author of 'Tending the Epicurean Garden' (Humanist Press, 2014), 'How to Live a Good Life' (Penguin Random House, 2020), and Epicurus of Samos – His Philosophy and Life: All the principal Classical texts Compiled and Introduced by Hiram Crespo (Ukemi Audiobooks, 2020). He's the founder of, and has written for The Humanist, Eidolon, Occupy, The New Humanism, The Secular Web, Europa Laica, AteístasPR, and many other outlets.
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3 Responses to Anticipations: An Introduction

  1. Pingback: The Pleasure-Aversion Faculty: An Introduction | The Autarkist

  2. Pingback: About Hiram Crespo | Society of Friends of Epicurus

  3. Pingback: Various Articles, Blogs and Blog Series | Society of Friends of Epicurus

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