Epicurean Preconceptions

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This paper provides a comprehensive study of the Epicurean theory of ‘preconception’. It addresses what a preconception is; how our preconception of the gods can be called innata, innate; the role played by epibolai (active mental focusing); and how preconceptions play a semantic role different from that of ‘sayables’ in Stoicism. The paper highlights the conceptual connections between these issues, and also shows how later Epicureans develop Epicurus’ doctrine of preconceptions while remaining orthodox about the core of that doctrine.


A Journal for Ancient Philosophy



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So Morel 2008, 41-2. Both Morel 2008 and Konstan 2008 make important advances in our understanding of Epicurean preconception Although I disagree with certain aspects of Morel’s analysis (see Section 4 below), I am greatly indebted to both these authors.


See e.g. the analysis in Long and Sedley 1987, 100-1.


See Long and Sedley 1987, 89, who emphasise, however, that, although the ultimate justification of the trustworthiness of preconception lies in its empirical origin, nonetheless the more general ground offered to justify the criterial role of preconception is ‘its indispensability as a starting-point in philosophy’ (cf. Epicurus, ad Herod. 37-8 and below, p. 172).


See Morel 2008, 32-3. Morel’s interpretation of the self-evidence of preconception bears on his view that a preconception is not merely a representation but also an active movement of the mind, a ‘focusing’ (epibolē). See below, Section 4.


Goldschmidt 1978; Morel 2008. See also Section 4 below.


See Sedley 2011, 46. Other interpreters too defend similar positions.


See McKirahan 1993. The point holds, I think, even though Velleius is not a spokesman for the Presocratics, but for Epicurus and his system.


On this issue see especially Mansfeld 1993.


So, for instance, Long and Sedley 1987, 89-90.


So Goldschmidt 1978; also Glidden 1985. Goldschmidt indicates that his interpretation is inspired by Kant insofar as it implies that, for Epicurus as for Kant, our perception and conceptualisation of the world is always mediated by the mind. Berkeley’s repeated criticisms against Locke are pertinent to this matter: the ideas cannot play the role that Locke wishes to ascribe to them, if they are determined in the way in which Locke determines them, i.e. as inert images in the mind.


Morel 2008, 30, and others, make a similar claim about aisthēsis: it is contended that aisthēsis too is not just the passive reception of a physical imprint from the outside, but also an active movement by which the mind grasps the content of that imprint and relates to it.


See the reply to Morel 2008 by Konstan 2008.


Long and Sedley 1987, 101 state, with admirable caution, the following: ‘If, then, [sc. preconceptions] can be taken to serve as the meanings of words in the Epicurean theory, Plutarch’s criticism (which looks Stoic-inspired) will prove to be ill-founded.’


See e.g. the analysis in Long and Sedley 1987, 100-1.


See the remarks of Long 1973.


See the incisive comment of Verlinsky 2005, 69 with n. 34.


A notable exception is Epictetus, Diss. 1.22.1-3.9-10 (= ls 40S).


See Janko 2000, 419 with n. 6. I use Janko’s text and translation of On Poems 1, and I am also indebted to his commentary and notes.


Cf. Janko 2000, 421 with n. 1.


See Tsouna 2007, 394-5.


See Barnes 1993, 201.


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