Workshop in Ancient Philosophy (Week 4, HT18)

Ancient Philosophy

The School of Athens

Speaker: Phillip Horky (Durham)

Title: 'Xenophanes of Colophon on Truth and Predication'


In this paper, which is part of a larger project on the philosophy of language prior to Aristotle (entitled Prelude to the Categories), I argue that the first category theorist in the western tradition is the Presocratic poet Xenophanes of Colophon (ca. 560-478 BCE).  Xenophanes is well known among scholars both ancient and modern for advancing a novel sceptical epistemology, in which he reflects carefully upon the limits of knowledge (as fruitfully explored in Hussey 1990, Schofield 1997, and, more recently, Tor 2017). But scholars have not sufficiently interrogated how language plays a role in ascertaining these limits, and in establishing the criteria by which one can judge whether something is true, or truly spoken, of a subject.  Approaching Xenophanes' fragments through Donald Davidson's work on truth and predication (2005), I aim to demonstrate that Xenophanes describes a recognizable theory of truth, in which he specifies the conditions under which the utterance of a sentence would be true if uttered (i.e. true statements are complete, immutable, and adhere to logical consistency).  Moreover, I will argue that Xenophanes' fragments demonstrate an original concern with proper, or 'fitting', modes of linguistic and ontological predication, especially in reference to predication of mortal and immortal classes of things.  In this way, Xenophanes' ideas about the limits of predication represent a watershed moment in the history of metaphysics, which will culminate in Aristotle's own taxonomy of the genera of beings in the Categories.


Select Bibliography:

Davidson, D., Truth and Predication (Cambridge, MA, 2005).

Hussey, E., ‘The Beginnings of Epistemology: from Homer to Philolaus’, in S. Everson, ed., Epistemology (Cambridge, 1990), 11-38.

Schofield, M., ‘The Ionians’, in C.C.W. Taylor, ed., Routledge History of Philosophy Vol. 1: From the Beginning to Plato (London, 1997), 47-87.

Tor, S., Mortal and Divine in Early Greek Epistemology (Cambridge, 2017).



Convenors: Dr Karen Margrethe Nielsen, Prof Ursula Coope, and Dr Luca Castagnoli

Webpage: Workshop in Ancient Philosophy