Sunday, September 29, 2013


Richard Bett, Sextus Empiricus: Against the Physicists. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012. Pp. xxxiii, 178. ISBN 9780521513913. $95.00.

Reviewed by Clifford Roberts, Cornell University (

Version at BMCR home site

This English translation of Sextus Empiricus' Against the Physicists (AP), the first in more than 75 years, has much to recommend it quite apart from its novelty. R. G. Bury's previous translation, which appeared in 1935, is old-fashioned, misleading, insensitive, and often includes more in the translation than the Greek source text justifies. Bett corrects all these infelicities and supplements his excellent translation with helpful secondary materials, including a valuable and rich provision of footnotes (over 300) discussing philological and textual as well as philosophical and substantive issues. The result is not only a translation of great fidelity and precision – sure to become the standard – but an edition of Sextus' work that will benefit both students and scholars interested in Ancient physics and skepticism.

The Pyrrhonist skeptic Sextus Empiricus (c. late-2nd cent. CE) is an important source both for Ancient skepticism and Hellenistic philosophy more generally; AP manifests both aspects of Sextus' legacy. By a misleading scholarly convention – which Bett laudably works to undo – the two books of AP are referred to as Against the Mathematicians (M) books IX-X; they do not, however, belong to M but to a second incomplete production. Both (M) and the incomplete work share the same abstract argumentative structure and subserve the same purpose in Sextus' skepticism: the communication of a method for achieving tranquility through suspension of judgment (ἐποχή). The method is to balance an argument for the claim that p with an argument of equal force against that claim (either for the negation of p or for an incompatible claim); having no further rational recourse, the skeptic suspends judgment. Various philosophical topics are addressed thus, each of which forms the focus of one or more books in M. The focus of AP is physics: the domain of knowledge concerned with the principles and constituents structuring and composing the natural world. The topics discussed include: cause/affection, whole/part, corporeal/incorporeal, place, time, genesis/destruction, number, and God.

The arguments for and against various claims that Sextus considers are generally not original to him; indeed, Sextus offers a dizzying number of citations to other thinkers, which is what makes AP such an important doxographical source. At length, Sextus addresses doctrines of the major Hellenistic schools (Stoicism, Epicureanism, Aristotelianism, Platonism, Academic Skepticism), but also those of the Pre-Socratics, Plato and Aristotle; to say nothing of the myriad lesser-known figures mentioned. In navigating these rich and varied doxographical waters, the footnotes and other secondary materials of Bett's edition are of no small help; even a weathered scholar will benefit from the occasional reminder, while the novice will thank Bett for illumination.

In his translation, Bett has sought fidelity above all and achieves this through a determined and praiseworthy literal-mindedness, most apparent in his decision to translate even obvious technical terms (e.g., ἕξις, φαντασία, ἀκολουθία) in literal ways ('holding', 'appearance', 'following') so as to indicate their connection to cognate forms and ordinary non-technical notions. The approach can generate sublime results as when Bett translates τελέως ἀπερρωγός as 'completely unhinged' (IX 262) and ὑπερβολὴν ἐμβροντησίας as 'extreme craziness' (IX 40-1). If Bett's translation is thereby sometimes inelegant, it is nevertheless precise, faithful, and readable.

Bett's approach sometimes requires translation of clearly confused or corrupt bits of text without intervention; but his footnotes provide context and explanation for this. The footnotes also record departures from Mutschmann's canonical Teubner edition of AP (1914), which Bett largely follows, and only occasionally incorporate emendations from Werner Heintz (1932) and Jerker Blomqvist (1968). In general, Bett is far less interventionist and more conservative than previous scholars, preferring to follow the manuscripts unless they deliver syntactically or semantically impossible results. One great advantage of Bett's decision to confine his interventions to footnotes is that it allows him to indicate to the reader controversial or confusing passages and to suggest potential remedies or merely synopsize the discussion. In a sense, Bett's approach means he can have his cake and eat it: he can translate the Greek as is and survey potential resolutions, whether his own or another's. This approach is invaluable, since the reader is not only alerted to controversy, but is provided the relevant data (the literal text), so that she might come to her own conclusions. The Greekless reader is thus given an opportunity to engage in the sort of textual haggling usually unavailable to her, while the Greek reader is provided a good sense of content and structure without being forced to continually consult the source text.

The secondary materials attached to Bett's translation include: an introduction, outline of the argument of the text, indices nominum (equipped with biographical information) and topical, Greek-English/English-Greek glossaries, and a helpful list of parallel passages in Sextus' opera. The introduction helpfully presents such information as we have about Sextus' life, a brief overview of his skeptical outlook, and more involved discussion of Sextus' work, with particular emphasis on AP. Two of the secondary materials seem especially valuable and important. First, Bett provides an outline of the whole argument of the text prior to his own translation, an outline which is also used to structure the translation itself with the various headings in the outline reappearing in the text. The outline – in both guises – is immensely helpful: it allows one to orient oneself within the larger abstract structure of the argument and gives one a clear sense of the text's structure at various levels of abstraction. Second, Bett's footnotes serve as a sort of selective commentary on the translation, particularly those footnotes pertaining to the philosophical force of the text's claims and arguments. Bett indicates the presence of technical terms and provides helpful explanation of the meaning of such terms in the context of the relevant philosophical view. Where his choice of English translation of some term is controversial, he's almost always careful to note this and to adumbrate the sources of controversy. Passages that are substantively rather than formally obscure (though the two are not entirely separable) are marked; in cases where the arguments or claims are unclear or the trains of thought confused, potential remedies are suggested and the reader helpfully directed to the current literature on the topic, a selection of which is provided by Bett in an impressively up-to-date bibliography.

Even an excellent translation – which Bett's surely is – must decide among competing formulations, each of which has an equal claim to felicity, and thereby opens itself to criticism. Some points of criticism arising in AP have appeared already in this journal; see, for instance, Diego Machuca's incisive criticism of Bett's translations of ἀπορία and πάθος in Sextus' Against the Logicians (BMCR 2008.01.11). In what follows, I would like to discuss five cases where Bett's choice of translation seems to mislead the reader and obscure the force of the text.

1. Bett translates ἐνάργεια/ἐναργές as 'plain experience'/ 'plain (thing)'; this choice seems problematic for several reasons. First, ἐνάργεια is the abstract noun corresponding to ἐναργές and in ordinary discourse the term simply denotes that property (apparentness, evidentness/evidence, clearness) in virtue of which things are ἐναργή (evident, clear, apparent). Bett's translation fails to register this semantic connection: both plain experience and plain things are ἐναργή (and so possess ἐνάργεια), but 'plain experience' does not denote the property in virtue of which things are plain. For the sake of consistency and his policy of 'literal' translation, Bett ought to translate ἐνάργεια as 'plainness.' Second, while it is true that the noun ἐνάργεια is sometimes used elliptically to denote things that are ἐναργή, candidate 'things' are not only psychological states like experiences; in certain cases, they are better seen as objective facts, e.g., the fact that there is motion (IX 62). Moreover, there is often occasion for dispute about the denotation of ἐνάργεια in a given bit of Greek text, which if possible a translation ought to preserve. Bett's choice, however, fails to capture the range of the term and artificially restricts it to psychological states, thereby forcing a specific interpretation of the text. A translation like 'plainness' (or 'evidence'/'evidentness') would leave open the possibility of any one of these different meanings and would better reflect the text. Third, in philosophical contexts especially, 'experience' is usually a translation ἐμπειρία, about which the Hellenistic schools (and Sextus himself) had their own views. To choose experience as part of the translation of seems to invite confusion. Finally, Bett is obliged to translate 'ἐναργή' (and related forms) as 'plain things' (e.g., IX 393-4, 397) and this sounds strange or at least awkward in twenty-first-century English. What's worse, of course, is that it's ambiguous: it could mean 'obvious things', but I think it's more commonly used to mean something like 'ordinary/humble things' except in special locutions, like 'plain fact.'

2. At IX 270-6, Sextus deploys several arguments that rely on the close connection in Greek between τὸ (μὴ) ὂν and (μὴ) ὂν. The arguments in question depend crucially on conceiving of τὸ (μὴ) ὂν ἐφ' ὅσον (μὴ) ὄν ἐστι, which Bett translates as 'what is (not) insofar as it is a (non-)being'; but 'what is' and 'what is a being' are not synonymous expressions: the former seems to denote a larger class of things than the latter. Indeed, the latter considerations are presumably what motivated Bury to translate the two expressions as 'the (non-)existent' and '(non-)existent', so that the crucial phrase could be translated as 'the (non-)existent insofar as it is (non-)existent,' thereby showing the connection between the two expressions. Bett's translation, however, risks misleading the reader about the force of the argument by obscuring the connection between the expressions.

3. Sextus' arguments often take the form of a reductio ad absurdum which deduces a consequence of some commitment in order to show that it must be rejected. In such arguments the consequence is typically either inconsistent with other claims deriving from the same commitment or inconsistent with something ἐναργές. The word Sextus uses to express this inconsistency is ἀπεμφαῖνον (IX 424; X 28, 34, 135, 187) which Bett translates as 'counter-intuitive.' Something ἀπεμφαῖνον, however, is not merely counterintuitive, but more strongly inconsistent. Bett's translation doesn't capture the force and character of the charge; 'inconsistent' or 'incongruous', by contrast, makes precise the criticism Sextus is pressing.

4. Bett's translation the virtue-term φρόνησις by 'insight' seems oddly unmotivated and certainly misleading. The term – at least when it marks the virtue (which it may not at IX 77) – is usually translated as either 'practical wisdom' or 'prudence.' The former has the benefit of bringing out its connection with systematic knowledge of practical ethical matters, a connection which becomes especially important in the two arguments involving φρόνησις at IX 162-170. By contrast, 'insight' has but little connection to knowledge and seems to connote something more on the order of a talent or unique ability.

5. Bett translates three expressions – φαντασία, φάντασμα, and φαινόμενον – by 'appearance.' As a translation of φαντασία, this seems unproblematic since Bett is careful to supply a footnote explaining its character in Hellenistic philosophy of mind; similarly with φάντασμα, which is often a mere synonym for φαντασία, although I would quibble about Bett's failure to note when 'appearance' translates φάντασμα, which would better communicate the details of the text. More problematic, however, is φαινόμενον. In general, Bett insists on translating the term sensibly as 'apparent', but on two occasions (X 45, 49) he departs from this practice and uses 'appearance'; perhaps this is a mere misstep, but the importance of the term for Sextus' skepticism and its divergence in significance from φαντασία (well-recognized by Sextus) mean it cannot be ignored.

These small inadequacies do not detract from the overall quality of the translation and the value of the edition. Bett has combined a readable yet faithful translation with a conscientious, erudite and intelligent commentary. His edition approaches asymptotically the experience of a philosophically informed encounter with the source text; certainly an ambition of many, but an achievement of few.

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