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Sextus Empiricus on Xenophanes’ Scepticism

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Sextus’ interpretation of Xenophanes’ scepticism in M 7.49–52 is often cited but has never been subject to detailed analysis. Such analysis reveals that Sextus’ interpretation raises far more complex problems than has been recognised. Scholars invariably assume one of two ways of construing his account of Xenophanes B34, without observing that the choice between these two alternatives poses an interpretive dilemma. Some scholars take it that Sextus ascribes to Xenophanes (i) the view that one may have knowledge without knowing that one has knowledge. Others take it that he ascribes to Xenophanes (ii) the view that one may have true belief without knowing that one has true belief. A close examination of Sextus’ paraphrase exposes a crucial but overlooked complication. Sextus elides Xenophanes’ pivotal distinction between knowing “the clear and certain” (to saphes) and believing “what has been fulfilled” (tetelesmenon). He eliminates altogether tetelesmenon from his analysis of B34, and expands the role of to saphes. I demonstrate that, as a result, Xenophanes B34, as interpreted by Sextus, does not consistently and straightforwardly express either view (i) or view (ii). Sextus, I argue, in fact develops a fundamentally incoherent interpretation of Xenophanes B34. On Sextus’ interpretation, Xenophanes justifies the proposition “No human knows” by arguing that, even if a human does, in fact, know, he does not know that he knows. Finally, I argue that Sextus’ incoherent account reflects not unthinking negligence, but a sophisticated if ultimately doomed attempt to interpret the logical structure of Xenophanes B34 in line with later models of second-order scepticism.

Affiliations: 1: King’s College London,


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