Against the Use of Empty Words

One must rely on sharpness of perception to separate the notions of nature from those that are designed with difficulty or obscurity … Pay full attention to the power of the empirical reasoning. – Epicurus, On Nature, Book 18

I would like to share here the transcript of the latest video published in the Society of Epicurus YouTube page. Please like, share, and subscribe! The video is titled Epicurus: Against the Use of Empty Words. The script is based on a lecture given by Epicurus, which was later documented in his 18th book “On Nature”. Oscar Starschild kindly offered his voice for this video.

In its battle against the errors of Platonic philosophy, Epicurean philosophy invites us to call things by their proper name and to avoid empty words.

The first Epicureans often changed the names or definitions of things with empirical justification, so that the words were in line with the things signified and with their own descriptions. The idea is that every word that is used must have a clear correspondence in nature, in reality, as is evident to our faculties.

The practice of clearly establishing the definitions before starting an investigation, debate, or philosophical speech originates from this idea, which helps us to philosophize with our feet on the ground and to avoid pointlessly building castles in the air.

This was such an important issue that Polyaenus, one of the founders of Epicurean philosophy, devoted a treatise to Definitions. In the treatise, the distinction is also discussed between the knowable and the unknowable (i.e., what can and cannot be known through the senses and faculties). When the mind clearly focuses on an impression received from a perceived object, the mind acquires a clear concept of the object and is able to assign a category or definition to it. This is known as an attestation or testimony. Epicureans greatly value enargeia, which is the clear immediacy of an attestation.

In the absence of an immediate or direct apprehension of the object, the mind is able to carry out a conceptual process by which an opinion concerning a being or imperceivable phenomenon undergoes the conceivability test. This typically involves reasoning about that which is non-evident by using an analogy from that which is evident and similar, that which has already been perceived and conceived clearly. The notion of the inconceivable is derived from this process because in order to refer to something, we must first clearly conceive it.

As we can see, all these terms attach importance to evidence and things perceived. But what methods are used to reason about actions and theories? Epicurus says that we think empirically concerning actions based on the results observed from any course of action.

If we have the intellectual rigor to follow these guidelines, we can easily dismiss false opinions, theoretical arguments, and judgments if they are based on false testimony, or if when we establish a link with action, it proves to be disadvantageous.

People in ancient Greece were often confronted by rhetors , sophists, and logicians who liked to play with words and confuse people.

For instance, when asked whether it is possible to know and not know something at the same time, a man was presented with his father wearing a veil. This supposedly proves that it is possible to know and to not know the same thing (because the man knows his father, but does not recognize him when veiled). Epicurus makes use of this example to show that one can not conclude a universal based on a particular example — in this case, that it is possible to know and to not know something at the same time

To reach a satisfactory conclusion to a universal proposition, its truth must be based on empirical grounds, and translated into practical behavior by the person who admits it.

Epicurus not only forces us to consider the evidence provided, but establishes a relationship between practice and theory.

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.
This entry was posted in epistemology and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Against the Use of Empty Words

  1. Pingback: Epicurean Philosophy is a Humanism | The Autarkist

  2. Pingback: On Isms | Society of Friends of Epicurus

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s