Originally, the word sceptic meant “One who looks.” As mentioned in the famous quotation from Sextus Empiricus:
“And the sceptics, they are still investigating.”
In this quote, he compares sceptics to dogmatists. There are positive dogmatists: people who know the truth. There are also negative dogmatists, people who know the truth can not be attained. These views are mutually exclusive. The sceptics follow a different path by saying some things can be known, namely what we sense and what we think. Whatever spontaneously and involuntarily pops up in our minds.
Most of the time we’re not satisfied with just receiving that information. We sense something and we develop a belief about it. We judge it. We become attached to our view. Emotions come into play. And that’s exactly where the Pyrrhonists would say we go wrong.Look at an apple, the Pyrrhonist way:
I can see an apple
smell an apple
feel an apple (touch it)
taste an apple
hear an apple (if I tap it, grate it, take a bite out of it)
think of an apple (if I imagine it)
These are all discrete experiences. We cannot taste an apple with our fingers. And there’s no way to derive from these experiences what an apple really is. As philosophers would describe it: there’s no underlying substance to these different experiences of apple. We cannot put all the information from our senses together with our thoughts about an apple and come up with the perfect, Platonic fruit.
“I’ve seen Plato’s cups and tables, but not his cupness and tableness” Diogenes
(PS: To look at an apple the particle physicists way, check David Yerle Writes)
Why would this make any difference?
The Pyrrhonists separated our direct, involuntary experiences of the world around us from our beliefs. All of our beliefs. Then they suspended judgement about these beliefs. In Greece around 300 BCE, it was customary to have public debates between philosophers. You would try to win a debate: to blind the opponent with the force of your argumentation until he gave up.
Legend has it that Pyrrho could defeat anyone in argument, then take his opponent’s position and defeat his own. He could do this because he knew that human truth was fundamentally one-sided, and so could not eliminate opposition.
It’s like playing chess to achieve a stalemate. The Pyrrhonists objective in these debates was to show that comparing beliefs would ultimately take you nowhere. Instead, the complete liberation from dogmatic views would lead to something useful: a state of ataraxia. a-taraxia means not to be disturbed, not to be confused. To achieve serenity.
A simple life
Pyrrho after his return from India lived a half century and more quietly off the beaten path, in his small home in the city of Elis, where his disciples such as Timon had to seek him out.
There seems to be a connection between the philosophy of the Pyrrhonists and their way of life. Adrian Kusminsky says the Pyrrhonist would do as the Romans do, if he happens to find himself in Rome. He would accept the culture, from language to kinship, to society and law and custom, but he would take any situation at face value. He would have no beliefs, no rules to guide him. Kusminsky asks:
Are there any limits to what a Pyrrhonist might tolerate?
What would a Pyrrhonist do in the face of a modern totalitarian regime? We really cannot say. I think he would not rationalise the experience away or buy into concepts like segregation, exploitation or preemptive war.
There is one example from Diogenes, who tells us Pyrrho allowed himself to get enraged on his sister’s behalf, saying that:
“it was not over a weak (or: dear) woman that one should make a demonstration of one’s indifference”
His critics say he should have been detached and indifferent, but they forget that a Pyrrhonist would only want to be detached and indifferent when it comes to beliefs about nonevident things. Pyrrho’s sister was evident to him and he loved her.
Pyrrhonism almost disappears
It’s a real irony that scepticism later became a dogmatic view: the impossibility of inquiry because ultimately nothing can be known. Pyrrho was very often misunderstood. However, there are many links between the observations of the Pyrrhonists and the buddhist ideas of Nagarjuna. If you want to know more, please start by reading the article that bloggingisaresponsibility wrote on the Pyrrhonists and follow his links. It’s part of the thought-provoking Neglected Philosophies series. I have written this mainly because writing about something helps me explore it. I hope you feel the same.
One more comment: As we can infer from the story of Pyrrho’s sister, Philista, the debates of the Pyrrhonists revolved around men. I refer to Pyrrhonists as ‘he’ and ‘him’ because of their culture. I would like to mention that it’s very un-Pyrrhonist to assume that women are different from men based on beliefs about gender.