The word "Skeptic" comes from a Greek verb meaning "to examine carefully". Sextus Empiricus was one of the skeptics - he looked into questions of philosophy, but suspended judgment because he was unable to resolve contrary attitudes, opinions and arguments of philosophy. Thus, being unable to arrive at a definitive position of his own on any of them. Instead of adhering to an existing standard of philosophy, the skeptic describes himself as someone who continues to investigate -- a zetetic.

Sextus describes Pyrrhonian skepticism's relationship with other ancient philosophers in his opening of Outlines of Pyrrhonism:

When people search for something, the likely outcome is that either they find it or, not finding it, they accept that it cannot be found, or they continue to search. So also in the case of what is sought in philosophy, I think, some people have claimed to have found the truth, others have asserted that it cannot be apprehended, and others are still searching. Those who think that they have found it are the Dogmatists, properly so called -- for example, the followers of Aristotle and Epicurus, the Stoics, and certain others. The followers of Clitomachus and Carneades, as well as other Academics, have asserted that it cannot be apprehended. The skeptikoi continues to search.

The admission of learned ignorance of Pyrrhoism is not the end of the journey, but rather a first step in honest inquiries of the truth. It is a dishonest peace of mind if it was not continually challenged and nourished by the search for truth.

There are two primary goals of classical skepticism: truth and peace of mind. True knowledge is the theoretical end of skepticism, and peace of mind is the practical end. Some Pyrrhoneans prefer failure (continued skepticism) to success (dogmaticism) in their inquiries, at least when peace of mind followed the confession of ignorance. Others admitted to a willingness to assent to a good argument when they saw one. Nescio is of the second type and Nesciam is of the first type.

Sextus also claims a third goal of skepticism: to cure dogmatists of their rashness and self-conceit. Skeptics seek this end because the skeptic is "a lover of his kind".

There has been the misconception that Pyrrho was an academic skeptic - doubting that knowledge can exist at all. This is incorrect. There are several branches of skepticism, Pyrrhonism being one of them. In Pyrrhonisim it is believed that absolute and universal knowledge can and does exist. The fact that two philosophers disagree about its nature does not mean that it is not knowable.

Please read the the description of Pyrrhonism by Sextus again:

... some people have claimed to have found the truth, others have asserted that it cannot be apprehended, and others are still searching.

This is a key point. The academic skeptic is of the second group, the Pyrrhonian skeptic is of the last group.

Sextus then goes on to give the names of the various schools of philosophy and their position on knowledge.

Those who think that they have found it are the Dogmatists, properly so called -- for example, the followers of Aristotle and Epicurus, the Stoics, and certain others. The followers of Clitomachus and Carneades, as well as other Academics, have asserted that it cannot be apprehended. The skeptikoi continues to search.
The Academic Skeptics are named precisely and as a clear and distinct group from that of the skeptoikoi of which Pyrrho is - one who continues to search for the truth.

If one was to compare skepticism with with religious faith, the Dogmatists would be those with undeniable faith in a diety. Granted, each group has a different deity or truth sought for, but faith remains the same. Great debates have been waged over who is right.

The Academics would be atheists - no truth is knowable, no higher power exists. With as with atheists, there are a number of proofs (though these much more interesting) about the non-existence of the subject at hand.

The followers of Pyrrhonism are a different sort of skeptic than the academics and could best be described as agnostics when it comes to the matter of knowledge. Knowledge does exist, and certain knowledge too. Just because others can't make up their mind about what that knowledge is, or which one is correct does not mean it does not exist. Admitting that one doesn't know is not the end of the search, but rather the start.

The admission of lack of knowledge is not a 'cannot be known' but rather 'I do not know now'. The pursuit of truth does not and cannot end with 'it is impossible to know'.

Contextual Note: This node is mainly comprised of the body of a paper I wrote for a graduate course on skepticism at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Its primary focus is a discussion of whether or not Pyrrhonism is a practical philosophy, and specifically how Myles Burnyeat's (a respected modern scholar of skepticism) investigation of that question is laid out. I have reformatted the text to remove parenthetical references, and made it slightly more readable in node format.

It has been pointed out that this is a difficult piece to read without a solid grounding in what Skepticism is, and Pyrrhonism especially. If you haven't already, spend some time reading m_turner's excellent writeups on those topics before coming here -- they are quite readable, and do a superb job of presenting the topic I'm analyzing.

If you wish to cite this piece in a formal paper and want to give me credit, feel free to send me a /msg.


"The argument that the Pyrrhonist cannot live his skepticism is not a modern invention", writes Alan Bailey, author of Sextus Empiricus and Pyrrhonian Scepticism. "This type of argument goes back at least as far Aristotle", and it was the principle criticism levied against the ancient Pyrrhonists by "the dogmatic philosophers" according to the account of Diogenes Laertius. This position "that the Sceptics do away with life itself, in that they reject all that life consists in...[persists] after nearly five centuries of intense philosophical controversy." Myles Burnyeat, in Can the Skeptic Live His Skepticism, focuses on David Hume's rendition of this tenacious challenge to Pyrrhonism: "a Pyrrhonian cannot expect, that his philosophy will have any constant influence on the mind: or if it had, that its influence would be beneficial to society. On the other hand, he must acknowledge, if he will acknowledge anything, that all human life must perish, were his principles universally and steadily to prevail."

Burnyeat's interpretation of the skeptic's position is based on the depiction of the Pyrrhonism which Sextus laid out in Outlines of Skepticism. Burnyeat is sympathetic to the claim that the Pyrrhonist can lead his life while remaining true to his skepticism. However, his final analysis is that "Hume and the ancient critics were right" in judging Pyrrhonism as an unworkable sort of life for man. I argue that Burnyeat's conclusion that the skeptic's "supposed life without belief is not...a possible life" deserves at the least a more in-depth explanation than that which Burnyeat gives it. I am especially interested in the reference to the passage in Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations that he cites in his footnotes as "instructive" in understand why the skeptic's life is supposedly impossibly. Burnyeat's case rests on the assertion that the skeptic cannot consistently say, "it appears that p is true, but I do not believe that p". However, according to his interpretation, the skeptic needs to be able to say something like this if he is going to defend his claim that he makes no epistemic statements about the world, but instead only ppearance-statements. I wish to investigate how one could in fact make such a claim rationally, and whether the sort of self-detachment which Wittgenstein seemingly dismisses could in fact be possible for the skeptic. Burnyeat's assertion that this is simply not attainable needs some defense, I think, if it is to be the reason why we should condemn the skeptical project as being infeasible.

Before coming to that passage, however, I want to look at Burnyeat lays out the skeptic's system of thought. His view is that Pyrrhonism represents "the only serious attempt in Western thought to carry skepticism to its furthest limits and to live by the result." With this statement in mind, the first part of this examination is a look at the account of skepticism which Burnyeat gives. In the second part, I turn my attention to the reasons for which he finds skepticism to be a nonviable system, and attempt to sketch out a possible interpretation of the skeptic's life which could be compatible with making statements such as, "It seems to me that my ego believes this, but it isn't true", which I take to be equivalent to "p, but I do not believe that p". I suggest that this interpretation, based on an attempt to make plausible the state of affairs Wittgenstein describes in which one takes notice of oneself as others do, could provide the groundwork for an argument proving the possibility of a practical life lived as a skeptic.

Burnyeat's Presentation of Sextus' Skepticism

Burnyeat begins by noting a common mistake in contemporary discussions of skepticism: the view that the skeptic's target is knowledge, rather than belief. "There are few interesting problems got at [by questioning the adequacy of the grounds on which we ordinarily claim to know about the external world] which are not problems for reasonable belief as well as for knowledge...the more serious the inadequacy exposed for a knowledge claim, the less reasonable it becomes to base belief on such grounds." He points out that "it takes rather special circumstances" to assent to a belief about something in the face of "a clear realization that it is unfounded." Hume, Burnyeat points out, realized this; his claim "is a double one: first, that what the skeptic invalidates when his arguments are successful...'is nothing less than reason and belief'; second, that what makes it impossible to sustain a radical skepticism in the ordinary business of life is that 'mankind...must act and reason and believe'." This focus on belief, however, is precisely what Sextus addresses; it is "out of [a] continuing resignation of belief", according to the Outlines, "that the skeptic proposes to make a way of life." Since Sextus does claim to make life with no belief possible, Burnyeat reasons, Hume cannot get away with assuming without argument that it is impossible to live thusly.

Hume, it seems, is basing his argument that skepticism is not successful on the dogmatic assertion that we simply cannot give up our reasons and beliefs -- the "contention that our nature constrains us to make inferences and hold beliefs which cannot be rationally defended against skeptical objections." If skepticism were successful, the argument continues, our reasons for holding beliefs and making inferences would be invalidated, and were that the case, we would abandon them. However, since we do not give up our beliefs and inferences ("he has particularly in mind the propensity for belief in external bodies and for causal inference", according to Burnyeat), skepticism is not successful.

The problem with this argument is with the initial assertion that we cannot live without reason and belief. Sextus states that the skeptic "can, should, and does" give up his reasons and beliefs, and offers a defense in the form of the Pyrrhonism, whereas Hume does not. Burnyeat's interest is therefore in "what the life without belief is really meant to be." He begins, "as the skeptic himself begins, with the arguments." Sextus' portrayal of skepticism is as a "highly developed practice or argument, formalized according to a number of modes or patterns of arguments", that supposedly end in epoche, or the suspension of judgment and belief. The essence of Sextus' arguments is the "capacity for bringing into opposition, in any way whatever, things that appear and things that are thought, so that, owing to the equal strength of the opposed items and rival claims, we come first to suspend judgment and after that to ataraxia (tranquility), freedom from disturbance". The skeptic will supposedly come to see over a period of time that for any given matter, he cannot discern what is actually true, because "things appear differently to different people according to one or another of a variety of circumstances" -- circumstances which Sextus presents as the Ten Modes of Aenesidemus. Aware that "conflicting appearances cannot be equally true, equally real", the skeptic is forced to suspend judgment, as he can neither accept all of the appearances before him (because they conflict), nor satisfactorily choose one over the other (as he has no criterion by which to make such a decision). Upon doing so, he is surprised to find himself at peace -- in giving up his struggle to choose one appearance over the other, he has brought himself to a state of contentment.

Interestingly, there seems to be an assumption of dualism here: there is subjective appearance, and there is objective truth. Although the skeptic argues that we cannot formulate a satisfactory intellectual criterion of truth by which to tell the two apart, if we could, we would presumably find that one experience was true, and one was not. As Burnyeat points out in Idealism and Greek Philosophy: What Descartes Saw and Berkeley Missed, however, this is not "an explicitly philosophical thesis" made by the skeptic. This temptation to read the Pyrrhonism as possessing the sort of hyperbolic doubt common to a skeptical philosopher living in a post-Cartesian world must be resisted; there is no reason to believe that the Pyrrhonist has the doubt of "all things" that Descartes claims they possessed in the first Meditation. The lack of a subjective/objective split in Pyrrhonist doubt would mean that there is no evidence supporting "an epistemic reading of the skeptic's appearance-statements." Such a limitation on the scope of Pyrrhonist doubt becomes important in Burnyeat's discussion of assent, and we shall examine it more thoroughly when we arrive there.

As mentioned above, the end result of epoche is supposed to be ataraxia, which is "among other things a matter of not worrying about truth and falsity any more." If epoche is "suspending belief about real existence as contrasted with appearance", a notion critically important to the skeptical argument, "that will amount to suspending all belief, since belief is the accepting of something as true." The expansion of epoche into a suspension of all belief has its roots in the Greek definition of dogma: "dogma originally means simply 'belief' -- as assent to something non-evident, that is, to something not given in appearance." Given that the skeptic is rejecting all dogmatic statements, all statements that concern belief are also to be considered unreasonable, especially since all belief concerns real existence rather mere appearance.

If the skeptic is ignorant of the "real nature" of things, however, we are left with an important question: how can he live his life? When belief is connected to real existence, he is seemingly deprived of a criterion for action as well as one for truth. This question, says Burnyeat, can be traced back to Aenesidemus, who preceded Sextus by two hundred years or so. Aenesidemus was concerned with the establishment of a skeptical system as well, and he "set out to classify the various modes or ways in which things give rise to belief or persuasion", and then subsequently tried to show that "each of these modes produces conflicting beliefs of equal persuasiveness, and is therefore not to be relied upon to put us in touch with the truth."

Parallel to his work on the ten modes was his polemic against the the Academic (or more specifically, Carneades') three-level scheme for the conduct of life. The Academic's criterion rested on the notion of to pithanon -- that which is persuasive, or convincing. Carneades' second criterion was that an impression not only be pithane (convincing), but that it not be "reversed by any of the associated impressions]." The problem with such a criterion, Burnyeat notes, is that it was fallible, as it "allowed that in some instances we would be persuaded of something which was actually false."

Aenesidemus' own position was that "one should not take anything to be true, and he had arguments to show that, in fact, nothing is true." He defended the model of Pyrrho, and attempted to disprove "the idea that a philosophy based on suspending belief would make Pyrrho behave without foresight." Appearance plays an important role in the Pyrrhonist's life, both as Aenesidemus and Sextus depict it. Although, as Sextus writes, "...we shall not be able to decide between our own appearances, and those of other animals", "...the way to live without belief, without softening the skeptical epoche, is by keeping to appearances." Burnyeat thus underscores a point he has raised previously: most skeptical systems fall short of the complete renouncement of all belief that Sextus as espouses, instead focusing their skepticism on knowledge (or merely some sorts of belief), rather than belief itself. In making the criterion for the skeptical life appearance, however, Sextus purports to remove belief from Pyrrhonism while still presenting it as a way to live. "It is a pleasing thought that not only does Sextus anticipate Hume's objection, but was done in part precisely to meet that objection more effectively" than had been done before.

So what is this life by appearances supposed to be? Sextus outlines a "fourfold scheme" by which he will live, designed to allow him to be active "under four main heads":

  1. The guidance of nature - "...the skeptic is guided by the natural human capacity for percipience and thought, he uses his senses and exercises his mental faculties..."
  2. The constraint of bodily drives - "...hunger leads him to food, thirst to drink, and Sextus agrees with Hume that you cannot dispel by argument attitudes the causal origin of which has nothing to do with reason and belief...."
  3. The tradition of laws and customs - "...the skeptic keeps the rules and observes in the conduct of life the pieties of his society..."; "...not attitudes, but practices...are what the skeptic accepts..."
  4. Instruction in the arts - "...he practices an art or profession, in Sextus' own case, medicine, so that he has something to do..."

It is worth nothing that Sextus' code exemplifies the limitation on Pyrrhonian doubt (that is, that Pyrrhonian doubt is not the sort of hyperbolic Cartesian doubt that it might seem to be) that was discussed earlier. The fact that the Pyrrhonist practices an "art or profession" indicates that the skeptic believes that one can do something; there is surely an implicit acceptance of the existence of an objective world here. It is not a belief in that world, as Burnyeat points out, but rather an indication that explicitly questioning whether anything existed, even the skeptic himself, did not occur to the ancient Greeks. Unlike Descartes, the Pyrrhonian skeptic does not extend his doubt so far as to question whether or not he can act at all, which would indeed be a paralyzing degree of doubt. His motivation for "something to do" is founded in an world-view in which his will can be fulfilled.

Burnyeat also questions just what the skeptic is "contrasting when he sets appearance against real existence." If he is only interested in sense-appearance, his mental life will be restricted, as he will presumably be unable to address philosophical propositions in a skeptical manner. A closer investigation of Sextus' definition of "skepticism as a capacity for bringing into opposition things that appear and things that are thought", however, reveals that "he does not always or even usually mean sensibles alone when he speaks of what appears." Sextus is likely referring to the "impression of the thing that appears" when he speaks of "what appears"; since there are impressions in his lexicon which could not possibly be sense impressions, such as the impression that not all impressions are true, his talk of appearances cannot be limited only to what is sensible. Because the skeptic has in mind non-sensory impressions when he speaks of appearances, he must be careful to relegate "skeptic formulae such as 'I determine nothing' and 'No more this than that'" to the status of being 'mere records of appearance'". How he is supposed to do this poses a considerable problem for the skeptic, and it is at the center of Burnyeat's criticism of Pyrrhonism.

Sextus speaks of things appearing both as objects of sense and as objects of thought, "and sometimes he goes so far as to speak of things appearing to reason or thought." Burnyeat notes that the same language and approach to dealing with how something appears to the senses is equally useful for reporting on non-sensory subjects. The skeptic is not restricted from forming conceptions -- for example, defining a man as a "featherless two-footed animal with broad nails and a capacity for political science" -- so long as he only bases such conceptions on "things that appear closely to reason itself", and as long as he does not commit himself to a claim about the reality of the things he conceives of. An important thing to note here is that the skeptic "divides questions into questions about how something appears and how it really and truly is, and both types of question may be asked about anything whatever." He does not, according to Burnyeat, "divide the world into appearances and realities so that one could ask of this or that whether it belongs to the category of appearance or the category of reality." By speaking of things appearing to both thought and to sense in the same way, the Pyrrhonist widens the scope of his skepticism.

What is the way that something appears to the skeptic? It is an impression he has, and as such is azetetos, or "not subject to inquiry." Moreover, when a thing appears in a certain light to him such that it might seem especially believable, it no more inclines him to actually believe that it is as it appears than would the fact of its so appearing to someone else. This conception of be affected by an appearance in the same way that he would be affected by another person's having it is an important one to bear in mind -- as Burnyeat continues, "...[this] withdrawal from truth and real existence becomes, in a certain sense, a detachment from oneself." Tied into this notion of supposed detachment is "the difficult concept of assent and the will", crucial to understanding "skepticism as a philosophy of life."

If the skeptic is going to claim to live without beliefs and act on mere appearance, there must be a distinction between him basing his actions on what appears and his believing that what appears is actually true. That distinction, according to Burnyeat, is the distinction between belief and mere assent. "Assent", he writes, "is a wider notion that belief." His epoche is taken to be a withholding of assent to anything that is not evident, but "there are things he assents to: ta phainomena", or anything that does appear. Sextus clarifies assent is to be understood as "assent to something insofar as it appears, or to the state/impression which its appearing to us, but the expression of this assent is propositional: e.g., 'Honey appears sweet'." But how does this sort of assent come to be?

The picture Burnyeat portrays is as follows: "things that appear lead us to assent abolutetos, without our willing it, in accordance with the impression they affect us with...when the skeptic assents, it is because he experiences two kinds of constraint." The first brand of constraint is to what Burnyeat terms kata phantasian katenagkasmena pate, or states of affairs with which the skeptic is "forcibly affected in accordance with an to assent...." When we taste honey and assent to the propositional statement, "honey appears sweet", we do so "because we are sweetened perceptually". This rather thorny notion of being affected perceptually seems to mean that "we have a perceptual experience featuring the character of sweetness", and that in assenting to it, we are merely acknowledging this active compulsion to assent coming from what is happening to us. "The impression is just the way something appears to one, and assent to it is just acknowledging that this is indeed how the thing appears to one at the moment."

Bailey notes an interesting point: Burnyeat's position that truth is an objective thing, "a matter of correspondence with external reality." The effect that this seemingly implicit dualist conception of the world is significant. 'The fact that statements about appearance do not say anything about how things stand objectively would have led the Greeks to conclude that ]such] statements are incapable of being either true or false...from this viewpoint, then, the Pyrrhonist is in a position to accept a great many claims about appearances without giving way to belief." Being able to assent in this way also means that he can do what appears best to him -- live by appearance -- without "needing to ascribe to...any beliefs whatsoever." The importance of the Pyrrhonist's not explicitly dividing his world into subjective/objective terms is that by doing so he does not have to make any claim about objective truth by means of his subjective experience. For the Greek skeptic, assenting to an impression, where an impression is understood to be a strictly subjective experience, does not necessarily have anything to do with truth or falsity, although our temptation as post-Cartesian thinkers might be to say that it would.

This conception of assent is not to be limited to objects of the sensory world. When the skeptic makes a philosophical statement, such as "I determine nothing", there is a pathos, a passivity, something the skeptic is affected with, attached to his statements. "As [Sextus] explains, when the skeptic says, 'I determine nothing', what he is saying should be taken to mean, 'I am now such a way as to not affirm or deny dogmatically any of the matters under inquiry'." The question arises, however: what is the affecting agent in the skeptic's mind, some thing parallel to the impressor in sensory impressions? According to Burnyeat, is his the skeptic's own arguments, presumably where he is engaged in the revelation of equally strong views in opposition with each other, that acts as the pathos, "just as much as a sense impression is forced upon him by an encounter with some sensible object and then forcibly engages his assent."

The result of bringing these skeptical arguments to bear on his life, according to Burnyeat, is that the skeptic brings himself into a sort of stalemate, the condition he terms ataraxia. But the skeptic claims that he is not brought into total lethargy, as Hume would assert he must be, precisely because he has access to his fourfold schema. "Of course [he] will have his preconceptions, the result of being brought up in certain forms of life, and these will prompt him to act in one way or the other. But the point is that he does not identify with the values involved. He notes that they have left him with inclinations to pursue some things and avoid others, but he does not believe there is any reason to prefer the things he pursues over those that he avoids."

It seems at first blush that the fact that the skeptic acts based on anything at all -- even "inclinations" -- serve as reasons for the pursuit of some things. Is not his reason that very inclination? Were the skeptic to truly hold the conviction that neither option in any given choice was really better, would he not be without inclination backing up his choice of one? Burnyeat argues that the skeptic's inclinations are not in the same class as voluntary choice -- moreover, the involuntary choice he does have is something like rather like tossing a coin, where "[the skeptic] adheres to the conventions of whatever society he lives in without himself believing in them or having any personal attachment to their values."

Of course, it is one thing for Sextus to claim that the skeptic can respond to all choices without deciding or believing anything, but quite another for him to show that he actually does so. Burnyeat attempts to offer an account of ataraxia by which the skeptic could do so. He offers two examples: the first is from Epictetus, who posed the problem of deciding whether the number of the stars was even or odd. According to Burnyeat's reading of skepticism, the sort of "helpless inability to mind either way" evoked by pondering such a question is how the skeptic feels "about everything." The second example is an elucidation of this sort of detachment: if, say, a tyrant were to tell the skeptic that his family would be slain if he failed to commit some unspeakable deed, the mature skeptic would "be undisturbed not because [his] will has subjugated the tendency to believe and to be emotionally disturbed, but because [he has] been rendered unable to find any reason to think anything is true rather than false or good rather than bad." He acts, but "the point is that he does not identify with the values involved."

II. Burnyeat's Analysis of Skepticism

With this conception of skepticism established, Burnyeat turns his attention to deciding "whether it is a possible life for man." The major objection he finds to the account given by skeptic is that some of his statements of appearance, such as "all things appear relative" or "some things appear good, others evil", are actually beliefs, appearances only in the epistemic sense. There are two ways to interpret this objection: as an objection to how Burnyeat has read Sextus, or as an objection to Sextus' text.

Let us examine the former first: "the skeptic's assent to experience, as Sextus describes it, is not the assertion of the existence of certain impressions or experience, but the expression of a non-dogmatic belief about what is the case in the world." In other words, the skeptic doesn't suspend all belief, just dogmatic belief, specifically "epistemic beliefs." Burnyeat responds that there is a distinction in Sextus' text between two kinds of dogma: "broad" dogma, "meaning to accept something or not contradict it", and "narrow" dogma, "assent to one of the non-evident things investigated by the sciences". The Pyrrhonist has no objection to the broad definition of dogma, for he indeed does assent to "states with which he is forcibly affected in accordance with an impression", but he certainly does not assent to "anything that is non-evident." Two questions must be explored: does the assent that he does give "signify approval of an epistemic reading for appearance-statements generally?" Moreover, "does [Sextus'] account of dogma in the narrower sense restrict his disapproval to what we have provisionally called dogmatic belief?"

To the first question we return to the point we have made before about the temptation to read Sextus anachronisticly. The idea that the statement "I am warmed/chilled" is dogma in the broad sense, certainly, but it does not signify an epistemic claim, but rather a recounting of the skeptic's experience. The confusion stems from the Cartesian idea that a claim to being "warmed/chilled" means either that the skeptic feels warmed/chilled subjectively or that an objective process is taking place. The actual terminology Sextus uses can be traced back to its roots in Cyrenaic doctrine, and as Sextus uses it, there is no way to "split the affection into separate mental (subjective) and physical (objective) components." "Skepticism is not yet associated with a Cartesian conception of the self", Burnyeat writes. There is no evidence that supports "an epistemic reading of the skeptic's appearance-statements."

Burnyeat responds to the second question by quoting from Sextus' discussion of the skeptic's avoidance of dogmatism: "He states what appears to himself and announces his own experience without belief, making no assertion about external things." Moreover, his definition of the narrower sort of dogma "is not sufficient basis to credit Sextus with a distinction between dogmatic and non-dogmatic belief." For him, dogmatism is simply the assertion that something is true, and while it may be an interesting philosophical question to ask, "whether and in what terms" can a distinction between dogmatic and non-dogmatic belief be made out, "Sextus has no other notion of belief than the accepting of something as true."

It remains to be seen whether it is an "objection to Sextus that many of his appearance-statements seem to demand the epistemic reading which he refuses." Burnyeat takes as an example Sextus' statement, "to every dogmatic claim I have examined there appears to me to be opposed a rival dogmatic claim which is equally worthy and equally unworthy of belief." According to Sextus, this is not admission that the skeptic holds belief. Instead, he makes such a statement because there are a set of arguments he has been exposed to which compel him to assent to the notion. But Burnyeat argues, "accepting the conclusion that p is true on the basis of a certain argument is hardly to distinguished from coming to believe that p is true with that argument as one's reason."

I am not certain that this claim takes the skeptic's position fully under consideration. The skeptic is specifically trying to avoid making statements which would indicate believing in the truth of p; he wants to claim that he is compelled by certain arguments to state that p appears to be the case. To quote Burnyeat's argument, "in being shown, both on general grounds and by the accumulation of instances, that no claim about real existence is to be preferred to its denial, he has, again, been given reason to believe that generalization true." What is important here, and the source of my uncertainty, is that the skeptic has merely been provided with what could be a reason for belief -- indeed, what most likely would be, for an average person. The skeptic, however, he does not willingly employ belief, even if he might have a reason on one side of an argument that could support having that belief. He is consciously limiting his statements to only those he is compelled to make -- an approach to life by which he merely announces that which he encounters, but does not make any epistemic claims regarding his experience. If the skeptic is in fact making an epistemic claim, then he is unaware that he is making it.

In this example, all that the skeptic is compelled to admit is that it could seem as though the generalization is true, not that it necessarily is. He might argue that even though he has not been exposed to the "accumulation of instances" which might specifically offer a counter-argument of equal strength, there is no contradiction between his systematic skepticism and his report of a non-compelling inclination to believe p so long as he does not himself feel inclined to believe the impression." He assents to these because the "impression a passive affection not willed by the person who experiences it, and as such is not open to inquiry or dispute." I take Burnyeat to mean that an impression of this sort to be something like this: I see a teacup sitting on the table before me, and I assent to the impression which the teacup has upon me, saying, in effect, "Yes, I am indeed receiving this impression of what appears to me to be a teacup, at this time." I am merely giving an account of "what is happening to [me] right now."

The second sort of constraint which leads to assent is by things which "move us actively (tois kinousin hemas pathetikos) and lead us by compulsion nclined by it -- inclination being something that he, in his detached state, would not have. As Burnyeat points out earlier, "an inclination to believe is the last thing the skeptic wants to enter into his chronicle." A non-compelling inclination would not result in him having belief if he is a mature skeptic, one who regards any statement of this sort where he is not constrained as an open case, where no argument is satisfactorily strong enough to result in him making an epistemic claim. I believe that he might also defend his statement that this non-compelling inclination does not affect him by saying something like, "when a thing appears in a certain light to [me], that no more inclines [me] to believe it is as it appears than would the fact of its so appearing to someone else." At most, what he will yield to is that, "it appears to me that p, but I do not believe that p."

Burnyeat says that there is a contradiction in the skeptic's stating this. The question before us is whether or Burnyeat's assessment is correct, which would mean that the "nonepistemic reading" is "sheer bluff on Sextus' part." Burnyeat summarizes his argument as something like this: when the skeptic assents to a philosophical proposition such as "contrary claims have equal strength", his assent is in fact an epistemic claim about the true nature of the world, not merely assent to a proposition, as might be the case in a sensory example, such as "it appears to me that the stick in the water is bent but I do not believe it is." He continues,

"If...the philosophical impression includes assent, it ought to make no sense for the skeptic to insist that he does not assent to it as true...if the skeptic does insist, if he refuses to identify with his assent, he is...detaching himself from the person (namely, himself) who was convinced by the argument, and he is treating his own thought as if it were the thought of someone else...he is saying, in effect, "It is thought within me that p, but I do not believe it." In the right circumstances, that could be said. But not all the time, for every appearance/thought one has."

It seems that the crux of his argument rests on this assertion, that one cannot consistently state, "p, but I do not believe that p." As his footnotes reveal, an argument defending this claim can be traced back to Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations, section II x.

According to Wittgenstein's text, to consistently say, "it is thought within me that p, but I do not believe it", a ]state of affairs would need to exist such that the speaker could take notice of himself "as others do." However, Wittgenstein asserts that "one feels conviction within oneself, one doesn't infer it from one's own words or their tone." What this objection does not seem to take into account is that this is not necessarily the case. For example, consider the ability to separate what is willfully displayed from what is reactionary response. Let us imagine that I overhear an off-color joke; my immediate response is to laugh, although my mind rebels -- I say, "this is not something I find amusing, but offensive." I may even object to the teller of the joke -- in doing so, I realize that my actions could be interpreted as being "that two people were speaking through my mouth." One part of me is guided by inclination, as if my id were directly responding to the joke, despite my "moral knowledge" that I should not accept the joke as funny. Or, in a another example, I might be presented with an argument I am initially inclined to accept, such as "it is day", for it appears to be convincing -- there is bright light outside, and I do not feel tired. Yet perhaps I am able to discern that there might be reason to not assent to the argument -- perhaps the appeal is based partially on the artfulness of the speaker, I think, or perhaps I consider that I might actually be inside a movie set, where the appearance of day could be falsely created. In a sense, there are two aspects of my mind at work -- my inclination to assent, and my inclination to not assent.

Could not the same sort of distinction take place in the mind of the skeptic? When presented with a philosophical proposition such as, "contrary claims have equal strength", he has an inclination to assent, but that inclination does not move him; in his words and actions, he does not act as if he believes, but rather suspends judgment. He might say, "it seems to me that my ego believes this, but it isn't true." It is a radical degree of detachment, to be sure, but is it possible? I believe so -- I think that Wittgenstein is correct in saying that belief is a "state of mind...a kind of disposition of the believing person." The skeptic who wishes to say, "p, but I do not believe that p" could be entitled to make the distinction between the part of him to which it p appears to be true and the part of him which does not engage in belief of p if his actions and words do not betray an effective belief in p.

Of course, such a life is a difficult one; Burnyeat points out that even Pyrrho could not divest himself "entirely of his humanity." However, all that would be required to consistently make a claim of this sort would be sufficient resolve to actually live the skeptic's way of life. The inherent difficulty does not imply impossibility. Whether Sextus meant to perceive the mind as divided into disparate parts which could conflict with each other is unclear; much like the temptation to read Cartesian language into Pyrrhonism. It may be that the ancient skeptics lacked the sort of Freudian awareness of their own psychology which I consider, where my inclination and my rational response to it are disparate entities, not only capable of being in conflict with each other but expected to be so. If the skeptic is indeed unwilling to allow inclination into his chronicle, this may even be the case. However, it is a point worth considering, I think -- to dismiss Pyrrhonism simply because it requires a constant consciousness of one's actions and motivations for actions (if my reading of Wittgenstein is indeed correct) seems to be a hasty conclusion.

Works Cited

Pyr"rho*nism (?), n. [From Pyrrho, the founder of a school of skeptics in Greece (about 300 b. c.): cf. F. pyrrhonisme.]

Skepticism; universal doubt.


© Webster 1913.

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