Happy Twentieth! On Anticipations and Other Updates

Happy Twentieth of September! Here are some literary updates:

  • Epicurean Preconceptions, by Voula Tsouna, was published in academia.edu. Below is a quote from it. The word enargeia means immediacy, and denotes the quality of an unmediated insight which requires no arguments to establish itself as true.

Broadly speaking, there are two alternatives on the table. According to one, preconceptions derive their enargeia from their unmediated link to aisthēseis, sensations: because of their origin in sensation, they take on, as it were, the self-evidence and trustworthiness of sensation itself. (I call this the ‘Lockean view’.)

According to the other, the self-evidence of preconception lies, not so much in a natural continuity between preconception and sensation, as in the spontaneity of the association between the preconception and the corresponding object as well as the word that denotes that object. For example, as soon as we hear the word ‘horse’, the preconception of a horse comes automatically to mind, and it is precisely in virtue of this association that the preconception captures ‘both the unmediated nature of an experience and its direct connection with reality’. (I call this the ‘Kantian view’.)

Recall that Epicurus and his followers argue for the veridicality of all (sensations) partly by pointing out that they are alogoi, non-rational: the mind plays no role in sensations, whose trustworthiness depends, precisely, on the fact that they are non-rational events involving no interpretation at all (Diogenes Laertius 10.31-2).

Diogenes Laertius (10.33)–cited in the work–introduces preconceptions in this manner:

Before making this judgement, we must at some time or other have known by preconception the shape of a horse or a cow. We should not have given anything a name, if we had not first learnt its form by way of preconception. It follows, then, that preconceptions are clear. The object of a judgement is derived from something previously clear, by reference to which we frame the proposition, e.g. “How do we know that this is a man?”

In section five of the essay, which is about the length of a short book, the author explains the controversy surrounding whether anticipations are ontologically a separate thing, a third entity separate from the word and the thing meant. This controversy is summarized as the three-tiered interpretation (which accepts anticipations as a third, distinct thing and is influenced by the Stoic doctrine of lekta) versus the two-tiered interpretation, which says that only names and name-bearers (objects referred to by names) may exist. I may be wrong, but it seems to me that this last interpretation is truer to Epicurean teaching. The anticipations appear to be related to our brain’s pre-cognitive faculty of memorizing meanings and easily recalling them, as if unconsciously. If names are accurate, it’s because the named objects correspond to them, not because meaning somehow asserts itself independently of the named objects. We have no reason whatsoever, in my view, to suppose that they exist as de-contextualized Platonic ideas on their own, or to imagine that they emerge as phenomena in any way independent from the names or the things named. The author says:

Both the implicit denunciation of investigations of ‘mere utterance’ and the Epicurean rejection of dialectic are warnings against concentrating on language but losing connection with reality. And although Epicurus makes clear elsewhere that attending to prolepsis ensures, precisely, that we remain grounded in reality, nevertheless, in the present instance as well as in others, he chooses to highlight only words and things.

Furthermore, the view that meanings exist as separate things from names and things named is a useful nursery for superstitions of all sorts. Ancient Egyptians believed that words (written or spoken) had magical powers, and that a person’s name contained part of their essence. One could curse, influence or enchant a person by the use of their names, which is why the Pharaoh had numerous secret names, and why descendants had to continue repeating the names of their ancestors in the belief that, if the names were forgotten, their souls would no longer be efficient or would “die” on Earth.

This view of meanings as a separate thing from names and things named also lends itself to the superstition that meanings existed apart from, and even prior to, the things that are named–and so we have problems like “in the beginning was the Word“, where a complex cognitive process is believed to have preceded nature itself. The study of nature demonstrates that nature obviously existed prior to language, and that language is an emergent property of social sentient beings. Nature must not only provide a mind that has the ability to think, but also contents for it to think about, prior to the formation of thoughts and words.

Here Lucretius points out that, even if it existed, the centre (of the universe), being a place and hence incorporeal, would not be able to affect bodies in the way the anonymous rivals want it to.

… which seems to get close to the rationale behind the theory of gravity, which posits that it is bodies that attract other bodies towards a center, and that there is no absolute center. This kind of thinking would have likely been on Isaac Newton’s mind when he formulated his own ideas.

Indeed, Farrington … cites Gassendi: “In the seventeenth century it was evident that Epicurus had taught a singularly pure religion, if a defective one. Drawing a distinction between the filial and servile elements in religion, the servile being those concerned with the interchange of services between men and gods, the filial with pure devotion, Gassendi emphasised the fact that it is only the servile elements of religion that are lacking in Epicurus.”

Therefore, according to Gassendi at least, Epicureanism was a religion, a religion of pure devotion once all servile elements had been stripped away.

The belief that epitomes could function as independent vehicles of education, allowing the individual to pursue philosophy is, perhaps again, a surprisingly concession. This independent streak also stands in contrast to the common presentation of the necessity of communal and dialectical practice of ancient philosophy, and this is a contrast that is only sharpened when the background is the Epicurean School, which placed so much value on community, and on the corrective nature of communal life and learning. Again this is a further indication that the Epicurean School was more flexible in its character and outlook than scholars have been previously willing to consider. The old adages which still inform our discussion of the School and its character must be re-examined.

For example, this expressed acknowledgement of independent learning, emancipated from a classroom setting should challenge the unfounded assumption that the Epicureans sought to keep a firm, and intractable control over their students- requiring the continual supervision of an instructor to safeguard against error or misunderstanding.

The Letter to Herodotus was considered the Little Epitome, which was studied initially by students prior to graduating to the more advanced Larger Epitome. It is therefore an appropriate foundation to the understanding of the entire system of Epicurean philosophy, just as the Letter to Menoeceus is an appropriate foundation to the understanding of only its summarized ethics.

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 societyofepicurus.com, 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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