Monday, February 11, 2013

So you think you're a skeptic? Book Review: "Outlines of Pyrrhonism" by Sextus Empiricus

Are you skeptical about things? Is your instinct to disbelieve what others tell you, however trustworthy it seems and however often I've they've been right in the past? Well, let me tell you that you've got nothing -nothing- on the ancient Greek skeptics.

We all know that the major figures of ancient philosophy are Plato, Aristotle, and a bunch of others. (Maybe also Cicero, if you were educated prior to the 1950s.) The author of Outlines of Pyrrhonism, Sextus Empiricus, is one of those "others"- and not a particularly significant other at that. As even the publisher's intro to this book admits, he is more important for preserving these ideas -already old in his own day- than he is for any original thought or great philosophy himself. With that said, this book is still utterly fascinating, if a bit long at times.

The overarching goal of Skepticism ( = "Pyrrhonism") is "ataraxia", or peace within the soul--translated variously in my edition as either "tranquility" or "quietude." This is the goal of many (most?) philosophical systems both ancient and modern: how can I understand myself, God, and the world and consequently be at peace? In pursuit of this quietude, most of the Hellenistic philosophies turned to dogmatic declarations about their three primary categories of concern: logic, physics, and ethics. That is, by making absolute claims about reason (logic), the material about which we reason (physics), and how our lives should be shaped by reason and reality accordingly (ethics), the dogmatic philosophies all promised peace within the soul if only one would endorse and live according to these doctrines.

And a note on the "dogmatic" philosophies: "dogmatic" is the name Sextus gives pretty much any philosophy that makes an absolute truth claim. He mostly engages the Stoics (the dominant philosophy of the Roman era), but also is clearly aware of and responsive to the Epicureans, Cynics, Platonists, Pythagoreans, Sophists, and Aristotelians.

The Skeptic Argument:

In response to the absolutism of the dogmatists, Skeptics claimed a different path to peace. Rather than trying to walk through their beliefs, it's perhaps easiest to dive in with an example. A dogmatist will say something like this:

Absolute truth (A): Matter exists.

Which seems reasonable enough, until we realize that there is another dogmatist out there -sometimes even from a different branch of the same school- who can quite reasonably make the exact opposite claim:

Absolute truth (B): Matter is an illusion.

Both A and B are asserted by the dogmatists with the full backing of both reason and experience. What, in this case, are we to do? The dogmatists will say that we need to compare A and B and decide which is right. If we consult and use reason, we can arrive at the truth.

Here is where the skeptic will accuse the dogmatist of cheating. When we are asked to be the philosophical judge and choose which is right between A and B, the Skeptic will point out that we can only truly judge between the two if we already know the answer to begin with. That is, to declare with certainty that A is true, or that B is true, you have to already know which is the case. But the point of the argument is that we do not know already. "Reason" only works as a tool to discover the truth when it is already in possession of some truth upon which to build. When we question those foundational truths (and what is philosophy if not that?) reason -even rightly used reason- fails us and traps us in either infinite regress or circular reasoning.

Again, note that the Skeptic is being as generous as possible and assuming that the rationality and the use of evidence on the part of each dogmatic position are legitimate. Our temptation is of course simply to declare for the side we already agree with and then decree that the other position has made an error of judgment. But, the Skeptic claims, when we do that we haven't solved the problem, we've just shown our own bias as judge.

So what are we to do? First, Sextus argues, we have to put to death our own dogmatism and see the legitimate aspects of the other side of the argument. We do this by opposing "appearances to judgments." (17) That is, we need to realize the opposition that exists between what our sense-perception tells us about the world and what the various judgments of the dogmatic philosophical systems claim. When we see this opposition, we then need to stop taking the side of whichever dogmatic philosophy we are inclined toward and be willing to examine each position carefully. This willingness to admit the strengths of each argument is called the "suspension of judgment." Much of the text of the Outlines of Pyrrhonism is dedicate to walking through many different schools of thought and exposing their weaknesses and strengths (mostly weaknesses) not in order to establish a contrary dogmatic truth, but rather to lessen our reliance on any kind of dogmatic truth in the first place. In the fields of logic, ethics, and physics, Sextus systematically demolishes the claims of the dogmatists by revealing their inherent weaknesses.

There are a number of ways the Skeptic can do this. Sextus talks about the "ten", "five", "two", and "eight" modes of skepticism. These are the different branches of Skeptic thought which have developed through the centuries and been used variously against the dogmatists. The "ten modes" explore specific arguments that reveal the faults of human thinking, such as the "fact of relativity." Here, Sextus argues,
we are plainly left with the conclusion that we shall not be able to state what is the nature of each of the objects in its own real purity, but only what nature it appears to possess in its relative character. (57)
Two millennia before Hume and Einstein, there was Sextus!

The "five modes" are broader in scope and involve showing that all dogmatic claims ultimately can be traced back to infinite regress, circular reasoning, or other such fallacies (discrepancy, relativity, and hypothesis, if you care). The "two" and the "eight" modes of Skepticism have to do with the uncertainty of our perceptions and the difficulties of establishing causation, though Sextus thinks that these last two sets of modes aren't really as useful as (and may even be variants of) the "five." By all of these modes, the dogmatic arguments are shown not to be so authoritative as they appear at first glance.

What Skeptics "Believe"

So, if skeptics reject all dogmatic claims, what truths do they hold to? How do they even express themselves? Of course, the skeptic will claim to hold to no truth, not even the truth that they hold to no truth (Sextus was very familiar with that particular challenge). They do, however, have certain expressions they draw upon to help others understand. Sextus goes through a number of these, but the two that (I think) he uses most often are:

  • "I determine nothing." But, we would ask, isn't this in itself a determination? Sextus goes on: "The skeptic determines nothing, not even the very proposition 'I determine nothing'; for this is not a dogmatic assumption, that is to say assent to something nonevident, but an expression indicative of our own mental condition. So whenever the skeptic says 'I determine nothing,' what he means is 'I am now in such a state of mind as neither to affirm dogmatically nor deny any of the matters now in question.' And this he says simply by way of announcing undogmatically what appears to himself regarding the matters presented, not making any confident declaration, but just explaining his own state of mind." (74-75)
  • "I suspend judgment." This is the most common formula in the book, and the one Sextus repeatedly calls us to. 
Again, these are not intended to be dogmatic assertions, but rather expressions of the soul who has released dogma and is standing apart with suspended judgment from the issues being raised. And what we find when we have suspended judgment and withdrawn our soul from deep commitment to dogmatic claims and all the stress and fighting that attend such claims is that we are at peace. The act of suspension of judgment results in the very ataraxia which was being sought to begin with. (I sense some Buddhist overtones here, though I am not familiar enough with Eastern thought to speak further to that.) True peace within comes not from clinging to uncertain truth, but from release from clinging to anything certain at all. 

And, I think there is some appeal to this kind of thought, even if the problems with it are obvious. We all at times want to step back and throw up our hands and announce with relish "I don't know!" There is a sense of peace to be had from not stepping into the fray or taking a side when there are relative strengths to be seen in both parties. And of course there can even be an element of humility to confessing ignorance in the face of the deepest philosophical problems. 

For all those strengths, however, the problems with Skepticism are many, too many to go into here. I'll just note that as a Christian I simultaneously believe that there is an absolute truth (contra-Skepticism) and that I am not capable of knowing it completely in my own faculties (pro-Skepticism), but that I can be made capable of knowing enough of the Person who is Truth by grace (no idea what Sextus would have thought of that). 

A Note on Practice

One question that immediately springs to mind when we hear the claims of the Skeptics -especially in the context of the example I used about matter above- is that of practice. If they really doubt both the existence and illusion of matter, if they didn't go around occasionally bumping into walls and falling off cliffs doesn't that mean that they are really dogmatic at heart? If they conform in practice to the claims of those that say "matter exists," aren't they refuting their own ideology? Such arguments can be made across the board- if they say "I suspend judgment" as to whether or not cannibalism is bad but they never eat human flesh, well, their actions seem to have revealed their true beliefs. 

Sextus has a reply to this as well. Several times throughout the text he mentions what he calls the "ordinary rules of life." (e.g. 267) That is, in general the Skeptic obeys the dominant custom of his land. In his opinion and thoughts he remains skeptical, of course, but in his soul he does everything with the understanding that he is simply obeying convention. As a result, even these conventional actions take on a tinge of the peaceful life as his souls expresses itself in action. This sounds kind-of like a cheat (we think one thing, but we do another just to get along), but on reflection it does work. If we really can't be certain about good or evil, then we might as well go along with the crowd- we don't know that it will hurt us any. So long as we remember that neither virtue nor vice is in question, we'll keep our state of ataraxia and enjoy the state of soul that our skepticism has brought about.

For those one or two of you who 1) are still reading and 2) actually might read this book someday, you don't have to read the whole Outlines of Pyrrhonism- much of it is repetitive analysis and application of Skeptical principles to strains of thought or ideas of the day. All of which would be interesting by themselves, but taken together it gets a bit tedious. I recommend that you read only the following sections and save yourself a bit of headache:

I. 1-177, 197-209
II. 1-22, 48-87, 193-228 (for a taste of application), 244-246 (day-to-day life), 251-259 (on sophistry)
III. 1-37, 168-187 (ethics), 188-242 (virtue and the 'art of living'), 250-279 (education), 280-281 (the Skeptic method and goal)
Recommended for those interested in ancient philosophy. If nothing else, Sextus provides a good compendium of some of the later Hellenistic and Roman philosophies, since he walks through a number of them in his quest to show how little absolute truth they actually contain.


  1. Do you know if there's an online copy of this book available?

  2. There's an abridged version here:

    And a full version in Greek here:

    Otherwise, I think you're stuck with the paper version.

    Thanks for reading!