Pyrrhonian Skepticism

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Robert J. Fogelin

Thirdly, these results are applied to life in general. Since nothing can be known, the only proper attitude is ataraxia, or "freedom from worry. The proper course of the sage, said Pyrrho, is to ask himself three questions. Firstly one must ask what things are and how they are constituted. Secondly, one must ask how he is related to these things. Thirdly, one asks what ought to be her attitude towards them. Pyrrho's answer was that things are indistinguishable, immeasurable, and undecidable and no more this than that, or both this and that, and neither this nor that.

Therefore, he said, the senses neither tell truths nor do they lie. One only knows how things appear to him, but of their inner substance people remain ignorant. The impossibility of knowing, even in regard to one's own ignorance or doubt, should lead the wise one to withdraw into himself.

He should avoid the stress and the emotions that naturally accompany vain imagination. This theory of the impossibility of knowledge is the first and the most thorough exposition of agnosticism in the history of thought. Its ethical results may be compared with the ideal tranquility proposed by the Stoics and the Epicureans.

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  • Pyrrho and pyrrhonism - New World Encyclopedia.

An alternate interpretation is that Pyrrho was not strictly speaking a skeptic according to the skeptic's own standards—even though he was considered to be a skeptic in antiquity—but that he rather was a negative dogmatist. Having a view of how things are in the world makes Pyrrho a dogmatist; denying the possibility of knowledge makes his dogma negative. Pyrrho is said to have been so seriously bound to skepticism that it led to his own unfortunate and sudden death around B. According to the legend, he was demonstrating skepticism while blindfolded when his disciples tried to warn him of a dangerous cliff he was headed toward.

He refused to believe them, and thus, his life ended abruptly. The historical accuracy of this claim is, however, doubtful.

Pyrrhonism - RationalWiki

Pyrrhonism, or Pyrrhonian skepticism , was a school of skepticism founded by Aenesidemus in the first century B. It was named after Pyrrho , although the relationship between the philosophy of the school and of the historical figure is murky. Pyrrhonism became influential during the past few centuries when the modern scientific worldview was born. Whereas "academic" skepticism, with as its most famous adherent Carneades , claims that "nothing can be known, not even this," Pyrrhonian skeptics withhold any assent with regard to non-evident propositions and remain in a state of perpetual inquiry.

According to them, even the statement that nothing can be known is dogmatic.

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For example, Pyrrhonians might assert that a lack of proof cannot constitute disproof, and that a lack of belief is vastly different from a state of active disbelief. Rather than disbelieving psychic powers, for instance, based on the lack of evidence of such things, Pyrrhonians recognize that one cannot be certain that new evidence won't turn up in the future, and so they intentionally remain tentative and continue their inquiry. Pyrrhonians also question accepted knowledge, and view dogmatism as a disease of the mind.

A brief period in western history, during the birth of modernity, is referred to by philosophers as the "Pyrrhonic crisis. However, as this view lost its legitimacy, there was a brief lag in the seventeenth century before the Enlightenment produced science and the nation-state as the new sources of absolute truth. During this period, relativist views similar to those held in Pyrrhonism were popular among thinkers of the time.

Pyrrhonian skepticism is similar to the form of skepticism called Zeteticism promoted by contemporary thinker Marcello Truzzi. Pyrrho and Pyrrhonism belong to the post-Socratic tradition of Greek philosophy that mainly focuses on questions related to the self and its moral dilemmas, rather than on cosmological questions as was the case for the pre-Socratics. More generally, philosophia stands for the love of wisdom. Hence, even the most theoretical philosophical quest starts and ends with some moral or existential interest: Where do I come from, who am I, where am I going?

Moving to Rome later in his career, he develops a markedly different position. He argues only narrowly against the Stoic criterion and their conception of cognition. One can apprehend things and so come to know them—one just cannot apprehend them in the way in which the Stoics construe cognition PH 1. The fact that there is no apprehension in the sense of the Stoics does not mean that there is no knowledge Acad.

This move shifts the discussion in several important ways. First, Philo can be interpreted as a kind of externalist: one can know something without knowing that one knows it. Second, this proposal is a step toward modern skepticism, which is not concerned with criteria of truth, but with knowledge.

Theory of knowledge

In line with his notions of what is probable probabile or likely to be true veri simile , Cicero often examines a range of philosophical positions, aiming to find out which of them is most rationally defensible. He thinks it is better for us to adopt a view that is likely to be true, rather than remain unconvinced by either side Thorsrud , 84— Cicero is of the greatest importance for the transition between ancient and early modern skepticism. In transposing philosophical ideas into the language of a different culture, the ideas change.

Cicero sometimes speaks of doubting, dubitari e.

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But doubt has no place in Greek skepticism see section 1. When comparing Pyrrhonian and Academic skepticism, two topics stand out: Pyrrhonism aims at tranquility; and it assigns pride of place to appearances. This kind of ideal—a tranquil state of mind—is not part of Academic skepticism, but is essential to Pyrrhonism Striker ; for a different view, cf. Machuca ; for a general account of early Pyrrhonism, cf.

Castagnoli ; on Democritean influences on tranquility in Pyrrho and Timon, cf. Svavarsson In other respects, the anecdotes may not be trustworthy.

Pyrrho and the Academics (Types of Skepticism)

They portray Pyrrho as a strikingly unconventional figure, unaffected not just by emotion and belief, but also by perception—to the extent that friends had to pull him off the street when a wagon approached DL 9. Another anecdote makes Pyrrho appear not only unusual, but arguably a not so sympathetic character. Passing by a drowning man, he was so unmoved that he simply walked on DL 9. This is in rather stark contrast with Stoic notions of unaffectedness, where the idea would be that, not being disturbed by emotions like fear and panic, the passerby is ideally equipped to help effectively.

At the same time, Pyrrho seems to have said that the skeptic adheres to appearances phainomena DL 9.

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Barney This might suggest that he would not cross the street when a wagon is approaching, and so appears to him. Even though he discussed tranquility and adherence to appearances, Pyrrho was arguably no Pyrrhonian skeptic Bett , 14— That is, it is likely that he put forward a dogmatic position, in the sense that he had positive philosophical views about the character of reality.

Pyrrho wrote nothing. Burnyeat b and Clayman The most important piece of testimony is a passage reporting an account by Timon:.


In response to the first question, how things are in their nature, Pyrrho makes a metaphysical claim: they are indeterminate Bett , 14— There are no stable items, or no items with stable properties. Scholars sometimes hesitate to ascribe such a position to Pyrrho, because it is undoubtedly dogmatic. Perhaps the text can be given an epistemological reading: things are indifferentiable and unmeasurable and undecidable, because we fail in differentiating, measuring, and determining how they are Thorsrud , Svavarsson Pyrrho infers that our perceptions and beliefs are neither true nor false.

They are not truth-evaluable, presumably because there are no facts which could be correctly captured. Third, if we understand these things, speechlessness aphasia follows, and then tranquility ataraxia.

Ancient Skepticism

Pyrrho does not say that we should cease to speak. Aenesidemus first century BCE was discontented with the views discussed in the Academy at his time, of which he began as an adherent. Aenesidemus aimed to revive a more radical skepticism, and left the Academy for this purpose. Arguably, he is the first Pyrrhonian skeptic. However, we do not know much detail of his views on these matters. Instead, Aenesidemus is famous for having developed Ten Modes or Tropes—forms of argument by which the sceptic puts appearances and thoughts into opposition.

The Ten Modes are preserved in Diogenes Laertius 9. Sextus gives extensive illustrations, and integrates the Ten Modes into his general account of Pyrrhonism PH 1. Annas-Barnes and Hankinson , ; the sequence below follows Sextus. Here is the first of the Ten Modes, interpreted in two ways. We cannot judge how X really is, because we are a party to the dispute. But different constitutions of different animals cause different impressions of the same thing. The focus here is on the idea that every kind of animal, perceiver, sensory faculty, thinker, or judger depending on which mode we consider is only one of several animals, perceivers, sensory faculties, thinkers, or judgers.

The object is perceived or considered from a particular point of view. The Causal Invariance Interpretation, on the other hand, suggests that the focus on decidability is introduced by Sextus. Aenesidemus may implicitly or explicitly have endorsed the following idea: if X were F by nature, X would affect everyone as F. If X affects different people living beings, sensory faculties, etc.

For example, if X is harmful to A and beneficial to B , it is neither harmful nor beneficial in its nature Woodruff , Bett The Ten Modes can generally be construed as engaging either with conflicts between appearances or with causal invariance:. Consider first the relationship between skepticism and relativism cf. Bett ; Vogt a, ch. Things appear different to different kinds of animals; to different people; and so on. Relativism embraces the intuition that there is as we would say today faultless disagreement.

That is, you and I disagree, but neither of us is wrong. Accordingly, metaphysical relativism claims we must give up the intuition that we both refer to the same thing. In the Theaetetus , the world dissolves into radical flux: there are no stable items with stable properties that we both refer to.

Walter Sinnott-Armstrong

The Ten Modes, according to Conflicting Appearances, differ from relativism by turning precisely the other way Annas-Barnes , 97—8; Pellegrin , —3. They implicitly rely on the intuition that there are stable items with stable properties. Of course, the skeptic is not committed to the thesis that opposites cannot hold of the same thing, and that therefore no two conflicting appearances can be true.

Pyrrhonian Skepticism Pyrrhonian Skepticism
Pyrrhonian Skepticism Pyrrhonian Skepticism
Pyrrhonian Skepticism Pyrrhonian Skepticism
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