Francisco Sanches

For other people with the same name, see Francisco Sanchez (disambiguation).
Francisco Sanches

Francisco Sanches
Born c. 1550
Died November 16,[1] 1623
Era Renaissance philosophy
Region Western Philosophy
School Renaissance skepticism[2]

Francisco Sanches (c. 1550 November 16, 1623) was a Portuguese[3] skeptic philosopher and physician of Sephardi Jewish origin.

Early life and academic career

Although he was born in Tui, in Galicia, Spain, Sanches was baptised in Braga, Portugal, on July 25, 1551, and spent his childhood there.[3] His parents were António Sanches, also a physician, and Filipa de Sousa.[4] Being of Jewish origin, even if converted, he was legally considered a New Christian.

He studied in Braga until he was 12 years old, when he moved to Bordeaux with his parents, escaping the surveillance of the Portuguese Inquisition. There he resumed his studies at the College de Guyenne. He went on to study medicine in Rome in 1569, and, back in France, in Montpellier and Toulouse. He ended up, after 1575, as a professor of philosophy and medicine at the University of Toulouse.

His house in Toulouse

Main work and thought

In his Quod nihil scitur (That Nothing Is Known), written in 1576 and published in 1581, he used the classical skeptical arguments to show that science, in the Aristotelian sense of giving necessary reasons or causes for the behavior of nature, cannot be attained: the search for causes quickly descends into an infinite regress and so cannot give certitude. He also attacked demonstrations in the forms of syllogisms, arguing that the particular (the conclusion) is needed to have a conception of the general (the premises) and thus that syllogisms were circular and did not add to knowledge.[5]

Statue of Francisco Sanches, by Salvador Barata Feyo in Braga.

Perfect knowledge, if attainable, is the intuitive apprehension of each individual thing. But, he then argued, even his own notion of science — perfect knowledge of an individual thing — is beyond human capabilities because of the nature of objects and the nature of man. The interrelation of objects, their unlimited number, and their ever-changing character prevent their being known. The limitations and variability of man's senses restrict him to knowledge of appearances, never of real substances. In forming these last argument he drew on his experience of Medicine to show how unreliable our sense experience is.[5]

Sanches' first conclusion was the usual fideistic one of the time, that truth can be gained by faith. His second conclusion was to play an important role in later thought: just because nothing can be known in an ultimate sense, we should not abandon all attempts at knowledge but should try to gain what knowledge we can, namely, limited, imperfect knowledge of some of those things with which we become acquainted through observation, experience, and judgment. The realization that nihil scitur ("nothing is known") thus can yield some constructive results. This early formulation of "constructive" or "mitigated" skepticism was to be developed into an important explication of the new science by Marin Mersenne, Pierre Gassendi, and the leaders of the Royal Society.

Reproduction of Francisco Sanches' signature as found in his diploma from the University of Montpellier. It reads, in Latin, Franciscus Sanches Bracharensis, or Francisco Sanches of Braga. From the statue by Salvador Barata Feyo.



  1. João-Maria Nabais, A diáspora de Francisco Sanches, na busca da consciência do Eu. Assistente Hospitalar Graduado; Universidade de Lisboa, p. 359, online.
  2. Notably, Sanchez does not belong to les nouveaux pyrrhoniens of the Renaissance. Contrary to what has been conjectured, there is no evidence that his skepticism was the result of the then-new influence of Sextus Empiricus; see: Gianni Paganini, José R. M. Neto (ed.), Renaissance Scepticisms, Springer, 2008, p. 52.
  3. 1 2 Elaine Limbrick and Douglas Thomson (ed), Quod nihil scitur, Cambridge University Press, 1988, pp. 4-5
  4. Francisco Sanchez (ca 1551-1623) Filósofo, matemático e médico - Biblioteca Nacional de Portugal (in Portuguese)
  5. 1 2 Popkin, Richard H., The History of Scepticism, from Erasmus to Spinoza, University of California Press: Berkeley, 1979, ISBN 0-520-03876-2




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