Describing, Without Answering, An Important Issue – the Nature of “Anticipations” and “Present Impressions of the Mind”

We have many new readers and participants on the Facebook Epicurean Philosophy group, so now is a good time to post again on a topic that I think is very important yet poorly understood – that of the nature and relationship of “Anticipations” and “present impressions of the mind.”  Under any view these are closely related, and thus we have a puzzle to unwind.

On the Epicurus Wiki there is an entry for Preconceptions which reads as follows:

Epicurean prolepsis is a collective, summary, abstracted comprehension of things that follows repeated exposure to real things, e.g. one gradually develops such a prolepsis for the concept of “dog” having first seen real dogs on several occasions.

One of the few emphatic statements that I intend to make in this post is that I believe this description to be very insufficient.

We can immediately link this to the English translation of Laertius’ “Life of Epicurus” at, which includes in part:

By preconception they mean a sort of apprehension or a right opinion or notion, or universal idea stored in the mind; that is, a recollection of an external object often presented, e.g. Such and such a thing is a man: for no sooner is the word “man” uttered than we think of his shape by an act of preconception, in which the senses take the lead. Thus, the object primarily denoted by every term is then plain and clear. And we should never have started an investigation, unless we had known what it was that we were in search of.  For example: The object standing yonder is a horse or a cow. Before making this judgment, we must at some time or other have known by preconception the shape of a horse or a cow. We should not have given anything a name, if we had not first learnt its form by way of preconception. It follows, then, that preconceptions are clear.

The definition is a straightforward adaption of this, and seems eminently fair enough.  Easy, right?

Not so fast, and apparently there was a dispute about Anticipations and the Canon that was known to Diogenes Laertius, who also wrote:

Now in The Canon Epicurus affirms that our sensations and preconceptions and our feelings are the standards of truth; the Epicureans generally make perceptions of mental presentations to be also standards. His own statements are also to be found in the Summary addressed to Herodotus and in the Principal Doctrines.

Is this a distinction without a difference, a minor difference in terminology that should mean nothing to us today?  Or is it a hint that the nature of Anticipations has been in dispute almost since the death of Epicurus (if not beforehand)?  Can this apparent dispute provide us important information about Anticipations and the Canon itself?

There are at least two schools of thought on this, which I will represent here as that of Norman DeWitt and Cyril Bailey.  Both of these men were eminent twentieth-century commentators on Epicurus, and they learned more Greek and Latin over two lifetimes of study than most of us will ever dream of knowing.  In truth, however, it might be better to state this as Norman Dewitt against the world, for the Bailey position is the “accepted” view of most scholars.  (As you might expect from the fact that I am writing this article at all, I believe DeWitt’s view has unappreciated merit.)

Let’s drop back to the Epicurus wiki definition of Anticipations, which is probably a derivative of the Bailey view.  Its apparent simplicity, however, appears insufficient (at least to me) even under the Bailey view, because Bailey devotes sixteen very dense pages to an explanation and detailed development of the term “present impressions of the mind.” Laertius states that “other Epicureans” added these to the canon in addition to anticipations, but under the Bailey view the issue is mainly a matter of words and not an indication of a doctrinal dispute.  (These pages are found here, in Bailey’s “Epicurus, the Extant Remains.”)

The DeWitt view is contained primarily in chapters seven and eight of his “Epicurus and His Philosophy.”  You need to have the full book to get the footnotes and cites, but I have excerpted portions of those chapters here (Chapter 7, Chapter 8) for comparison with Bailey.  At hazard of gross oversimplification, Dewitt argues that it was very clear that Epicurus refused to admit “present impressions of the mind” into the canon because they are not, in his view, the sort of tools of truth which would qualify them for admission within the canon.

I want to thank Βραίνος Νόχος Αἵρος  for his extended patience with me in discussing this subject in depth with me, on and off, for several years now.  We have made some progress, I think, but as neither of us are professional philosophers much remains to be clarified.  In particular, in my view it is essential to understand Anticipations in light of the background of Platonic and Aristotelian views against which Epicurus was in substantial rebellion.  As we continue forward in time, we then have to consider the militant Stoic views on this subject, and the effect of their arguments on later generations of Epicurean scholars. We also have to consider that the words and concepts we are discussing are complex and have multiple shades of meaning in all languages.  For example, one of the issues in this question is the meaning of “true,” such as is used in the phrase “all sensations are true.”  As DeWitt points out exhaustively, “true” can mean “true to the facts” as in giving a complete picture of the matter being observed.  “True” can also mean “honest,” in the sense that a witness may testify truly, but not know all the facts.  Thus the eyes can report to us “truly” (honestly) that the tower at a distance appears round, but in fact, as we walk closer, we see that the “truth” is that the tower is square.  The eyes testified “honestly” when we were at a distance, but they were not of sufficient power to comprehend the full picture.

This quite-possibly boring detail is of vital importance in discussing the Canon and Anticipations.  As I understand it, everyone agrees that Epicurus held that in regard to the five senses, “all sensations are true.”  This does NOT mean that he considered all sensations to be “true to the facts” as some commentators want to claim.  All it means is that Epicurus held that the senses report “honestly” and they do not intentionally or negligently deceive us.  They simply report to us what they observe, without comment or opinion.

DeWitt’s argument is essentially that this factor of reporting honestly is an essential aspect of every aspect of the canon, which applies not only to pain and pleasure in addition to the five senses, but applies also to the faculty of Anticipations.  Dewitt insists that as a ground rule of discussing Anticipations, Epicurus held, and we must allow no deviation from this in our understanding, that “all anticipations are true” just as all other data received through the canon are true.  (Do I need to repeat here that true means “reported honestly” and not “true to the facts“?)

As Βραίνος Νόχος Αἵρος and I have discussed, I perceive that the potential point of reconciliation is that under the Bailey view, present impressions of the mind are also “always true” because they are tightly tied to the evidence of the senses in their formation and use.  In other words, “other Epicureans” could safely hold that “present impressions of the mind” were just as reliable as data received through our eyes and ears, because they are formed without injection of any opinion or prejudice whatsoever, and thus can be considered a subset of what Epicurus referred to as anticipations.

Bailey has a complicated set of textual references to which he cites, but it is my understanding of his theory that this process of thought can be considered always true because it is built up, step by step, on direct and clear sensations.  For example, Bailey states: “The all-important matter for scientific investigation in the region of perception is the pure sensation, and in particular the observation of phenomena in the close view,which will give us certainty that the sense-image corresponds to objective reality.” (p264)  These sense-images, once formed, are then used to create new ones:  “I suggest that in Epicurus’ view the concepts of science are built up step by step by the juxtaposition of previous concepts, each in their turn grasped as “clear” or self-evident by the immediate apprehension of the mind.” (p269)

This is certainly a logical explanation of how concepts could be defined as something that are built up so tightly in relation to the senses and to each other that they can also be considered (like the senses) as “always true.”

The first question with which I struggle, however, is whether this sort of “concept” or “conceptual process” can be safely used in modern discussions.  Is it remotely close to what most people think of when they think of “concepts” or “conceptual reasoning?”  If not, we will need to be very precise in our discussions in order to convey helpful information.

That concern is what I gather is at the root of DeWitt’s objection to the Bailey formulation.  I will not quote DeWitt extensively here, and will leave the reader to consult DeWitt’s  Chapter 7 and Chapter 8 at leisure.  I believe it is fair to say, however, that DeWitt believes that a proper understanding of this process requires us to acknowledge that what Bailey is describing – the use of “present impressions of the mind” – should not be equated, and must not be confused with, “conceptual reasoning” as we think of it in common discussion today.

As usual, DeWitt is concerned to show us the place of Epicurus in the context of other classic philosophies.  DeWitt thinks (if I understand him) that the term “present impressions of the mind” necessarily incorporates some degree of opinion.  It should go without saying at this point that, under most any view of Epicurean canonics, “opinion” and all the hasty judgment, prejudice, and other many other forms of error of which men are capable are outside the function of any part of the canon.

Perhaps what we have here is purely a matter of terminology, but I agree with DeWitt that – terminology issues or not – it is vital to maintain the distinction that opinion has no part in the Canon of Truth.  What I sense DeWitt is concerned about is that “conceptual reasoning” as we understand it today necessarilymeans a process that involves opinion, “logical reasoning,” and many other forms of judgment.   This goes to the heart of many other disputes, and modern terminology goes against what appears to be the Epicurean method under either the Bailey or Dewitt view.  The issue here is that Epicurus held that Nature has provided the Canonical faculties as guides that are reliable – if we study them and learn to use them properly.  These guides can be counted on as a source of information that is not filtered by the conventions of culture and other corrupting influences of society, but only by virtue of the fact that they do not incorporate opinion.

I believe I will stop here.  I have far too little expertise in the languages or the history of philosophy to argue beyond what I have stated so far, and I already may have exceeded my limits.  My main objective here is to alert new students of Epicurus that there is an issue here of great interest, and in my view, of vital importance.

It is possible that DeWitt and Bailey are seeing two sides of the same coin, and that their views are reconcilable. What I think is NOT possible — what is inconceivable– is that opinion be admitted to the Canon by an improper or loose definition of “present impressions of the mind.”

Post Script:  There are many issues and implications of this topic that I have not addressed in this post.  For those, I strongly recommend DeWitt’s Chapter 7 and Chapter 8, in which he argues that misunderstanding of this issue is a key reason the philosophy of Epicurus is so poorly understood in the modern world.




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