Epicurus on Truth and Falsehood

in Phronesis
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Sextus Empiricus ascribes to Epicurus a curious account of truth and falsehood, according to which these characteristics belong to things in the world about which one speaks, not to what one says about them. I propose an interpretation that takes this account seriously and explains the connection between truth and existence that the Epicureans also seem to recognise. I then examine a second Epicurean account of truth and falsehood and show how it is related to the first.

Epicurus on Truth and Falsehood

in Phronesis



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See Matthen 1983who finds predicative complexes in both Plato and Aristotle. Entities like these have also been called ‘accidental unities’ and ‘kooky objects’. For further discussions of whether (and if so how) Aristotle makes use of predicative complexes or accidental unities see Matthews 1982 and Cohen 2008. Some contemporary philosophers have discussed entities that bear similarities to predicative complexes using expressions like ‘Theaetetus qua seated’ to pick them out rather than ‘seated Theaetetus’: see Fine 1982 and Lewis 2003.


Sedley 1999370-1 analyses T2 in a broadly similar way albeit speaking of facts instead of predicative complexes. But see Warren 2006 for a more detailed discussion that arrives at quite a different conclusion.


Long and Sedley 1987ii. 85 suggest that this occurrence of φάντασµα (‘phantom’) is due not to Epicurus but rather to Diogenes who has introduced it in its Stoic sense of ‘figment’. An alternative possibility is that the expression does have its usual more general Epicurean sense here—according to which it can apply to the object of any kind of sense-impression—but that the qualifier ‘of madmen and those in dreams’ singles out the relevant sub-class of these objects. At any rate it seems clear that this passage is discussing the objects of hallucinations and other misleading presentations items which one would usually take not to exist.


All of DeWitt 1943Furley 1971 Long 1971 Rist 1972 ch. 2 Taylor 1980 Everson 1990 and O’Keefe 2010 ch. 10 for example think it possible that Epicurus at least sometimes uses ‘true’ in something like this way. They disagree however on the question of precisely which of the Epicurean claims that contain a truth-predicate involve this use.


However Everson 1990168 disagrees writing: ‘Thus the perception that something is red will be true if and only if both the perception and the object are red.’ He does not explain how a perception can itself be red.


Along these lines Taylor 1980115 glosses (ii) as: ‘the things which stimulate aisthēsis are real physical things . . . and they are represented in aisthēsis exactly as they are.’ See also Long and Sedley 1987 i. 85.


See for exampleM 7.207: describing the perception of the colour of a body seen from a distance Sextus writes that it ‘gives rise to a presentation that is of such a kind such as however it itself exists in truth’ (τοιαύτην ἀναδίδωσι φαντασίαν ὁποῖον καὶ αὐτὸ κατ᾽ ἀλήθειαν ὑπόκειται). This can be understood in much the same way as claim (ii). The body’s colour—which is implicitly introduced at the beginning of the section as one of ‘the visibles’ (τῶν ὁρατῶν)—can plausibly be taken to be a predicative complex which ‘itself exists’; this part of the report mirrors (ii)(a). The presentation is ‘of such a kind as’ the colour; this part of the report mirrors (ii)(b). Since the presentation is of a kind that matches the colour which exists and is hence true-as-combined it itself is true-as-correct. The precise role of the occurrence of ‘in truth’ in this report is unclear. Perhaps it introduces the notion of truth-as-combination in order to indicate that the colour being existent is true-as-combined; or perhaps it introduces a general notion of truth in order to indicate that it is with respect to truth that the presentation has something in common with the colour.


See the introduction of Puglia 1988.


See Gigante 1981175.


I argue this at length in Bown 2016.

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