The Epicurean

Notion of Epibolē

​   Prof. Voula Tsouna

   UC Santa Barbara 

May 27, 2021

Starts in New York 12.00 p.m. / Cambridge 5.00 p.m. / Budapest 6.00 p.m. / Athens 7.00 p.m.

The surviving writings of Epicurus and his followers contain several references to epibolê  - a puzzling notion that does not receive discussion in the extant Epicurean texts, even though it is known to have been debated within the Garden.  While the grammatical components of epibolê (epi + ballein) have commonly been taken to indicate that the term refers to projection or attention, there is no consensus about what epibolê is, what it is of, and what it operates on.  Even more importantly, the epistemological status and rôle of that notion is unclear.  On the one hand, Diogenes Laertius attests that some Epicureans treated the phantastikai epibolai tês dianoias (representational epibolai of the mind) as criteria of truth.  On the other, Epicurus explicitly states that the criteria of truth are, precisely, sensations, preconceptions, and feelings. Since overt disagreement with the Founder is not permissible in the context of the Garden, it is important to examine whether Epicurus’ surviving writings might permit or suggest that epibolê too has criterial status.  This and other related questions are crucial for the ethical theory as well as the epistemology and scientific methodology of the Garden.  For the criteria are supposed to ensure both access to truths and solid grounds for action.

            My aim, then, is to piece together Epicurus’ conception of epibolê partly in light of its reception and uses by later Epicurean authors.  In Part One, I discuss in turn the occurrences of epibolê and its cognates in the Letter to Herodotus and the Principal Doctrines and argue that some of the things that Epicurus says might plausibly be taken to imply that epibolê has criterial powers.  Notably, I dwell on a distinction between two different types or senses of epibolê that has received little or no attention in the secondary literature and, nonetheless, according to my analysis, is absolutely central for both Epicurus and his late followers.  In light of that distinction, in Part Two I consider the philosophical merits of the traditional interpretation of epibolê as projection and/or attention.  The latter, I suggest, gains or loses plausibility depending on the context and on the sort of epibolê that one is talking about.  In Part Three I pursue the aforementioned distinction in late Epicureanism, in particular Lucretius and Philodemus.  I try to show how, during that period, epibolê enjoys the status of a criterion and also acquires paramount moral importance.  I conclude with a few general remarks.