Bowl (c1898-1910) by George E Ohr. Courtesy the Met Museum, New York
The ancient Sceptics used doubt as a way of investigating the world. Later thinkers undermined even that possibility
Ask any philosopher what scepticism is, and you will receive as many different answers as people you’ve asked. Some of them take it to be showing that we cannot have any knowledge – of, say, the external world – and some of them take it to be even more radical in showing that we cannot have any reasonable beliefs. In the interests of getting a handle on the varieties of scepticism, one can locate four different milestones of sceptical thought in the history of Western philosophy. These four milestones start with the least threatening of them, Pyrrhonian skepticism, and continue by Cartesian and Kantian scepticisms to the Wittgensteinian moment in which even our intention to act is put in question.
To our modern minds, scepticism is normally associated with frustration and sceptical conclusions are usually taken to be disturbing because they seem to stand in the way of certainty about the world and our place in it. But famously, or rather infamously, those people in ancient Greece who called themselves Sceptics – meaning ‘investigators’ – were pretty happy about it. They thought of their scepticism as a way of life – as a way of reaching ataraxia or tranquillity. In their view, having beliefs is the ultimate cause of anxiety, and therefore the best way to avoid anxiety, to achieve peace of mind, is to get rid of beliefs altogether. The Sceptics in this sense are often called Pyrrhonists after Pyrrho, the ancient Greek master Sceptic who lived in the 4th and 3rd centuries BCE.
Most of what we know of ancient Sceptics comes from the books written by Sextus Empiricus, who lived in the 2nd or 3rd century CE. We know almost nothing about this mysterious figure except that he practised medicine and belonged to the Empirical School of Medicine – hence his being known as ‘Empiricus’. The best known of his works is a book called Outlines of Pyrrhonism – sometimes also known as Outlines of Scepticism – which is the best and fullest account of Pyrrhonian Scepticism we have. But what is a Pyrrhonian Sceptic?
At the beginning of his book, Sextus differentiates three schools of thought: ‘When people are investigating any subject, the likely result is either a discovery, or a denial of discovery and a confession of inapprehensibility, or else a continuation of the investigation.’ The first group of thinkers, whom he calls the Dogmatists, believe that they have discovered the truth, and that they know things about the world and the human beings who live in it. The two most famous thinkers from this school are Plato and Aristotle, but scholars often maintain that it is the Stoic school of thought that is the major target of Sextus when he talks about Dogmatists. The second group are those who are called the Academics; they are opposed to the first group and believe that, so to speak, we know that we know nothing. The third group, with whom Sextus identifies himself, are the Sceptics. These people, contrary to the Academics, do not deny anything, they just withhold their assent from beliefs: they continue their investigations and maintain that this continued investigation leads them to tranquillity. Scepticism, for them, is a kind of skill, […]
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is assistant professor of philosophy at the University of Siegen, Germany. He is the co-editor, with James O’Shea and Luz Christopher Seiberth, of Fraught with Ought: Selected Writings of Wilfrid Sellars (forthcoming, from Oxford University Press) and co-editor, with Luz Christopher Seiberth, of Reading Kant with Sellars: Reconceiving Kantian Themes(forthcoming, from Routledge). He is currently working on two book manuscripts, ‘Skepticism: Cartesian and Kantian’ and ‘Wittgenstein’s Rule-Following Skepticism’.