Published online by Cambridge University Press: 28 September 2009
Is there such a thing as 'Epicurean philosophy of language'? There was, of course, no division or discipline so labelled within the Epicurean system. But that is a merely superficial objection: almost since there have been philosophers at all, they have been reflecting on many of the phenomena and problems now staked out as their territory by today's philosophers of language, although what earlier philosophers thought was worth investigating about language will not necessarily chime with modern priorities. Thus when we ask of any classical text the sorts of questions pursued by today's philosophers of language - such as how we manage to talk about the world, and to say true and false things about it; how language is related to thought; what a theory of meaning should look like - what we do not find may be at least as significant as what we do, just as what their contemporaries may have thought valuable or vulnerable in Epicurean theorizing need not coincide with our judgements. The deep problem may be that Epicurean contributions derived importance from their role in some other enterprise than that of pursuing an interest in language per se. Epicureans, like Stoics, could be powerful arguers, resourceful, subtle, dogged (cf. Cic. Fin. 1.63) - but the school's insistence on keeping one's eyes on the prize was more powerful still.