The writings of Sextus Empiricus are the only surviving texts that expound the view of the Pyrrhonian Skeptical movement of ancient times. The movement takes its name from Pyrrho of Elis (c. 367-275 b.c.e.), who doubted that there is any way by which one can attain knowledge. He urged that judgment be suspended as to whether any particular assertion is true or false. He argued that to suspend judgment leads to a state of indifference toward the world and to a kind of inner tranquillity that enables one to live at peace in a troubled world.
The actual school of Pyrrhonian thought began much later, in the first century b.c.e. It developed out of the radical Skepticism that had been prevalent in Plato’s Academy under Arcesilaus and Carneades. The Academic Skeptics developed a series of brilliant arguments to show that nothing can be known; they recommended that one live by probabilities. The Pyrrhonists regarded the Academics as too dogmatic, and the former maintained their doubts, even about the skeptical contention that nothing can be known. Starting with Aenesidemus, who had been a student at the Academy, the Pyrrhonian movement developed in Alexandria, primarily among medical doctors. Aenesidemus and his successors set forth a series of arguments against various dogmatic philosophies, including the Academic Skeptics. The arguments purported to show that every dogmatic attempt to gain knowledge leads to difficulties that cannot be resolved. Instead of seeking knowledge, one should suspend judgment, thus gaining peace of mind.
Sextus was one of the last leaders of the Pyrrhonian school. Besides the fact that he was a doctor and a teacher, practically nothing is known about him. His writings—probably copies of lectures—consist of compilations of the arguments that his predecessors had worked out on any and all subjects. The Outlines of Pyrrhonism is a summary of the Pyrrhonian position, whereas his other work, Pros Mathmatikous (c. second century c.e., also known as Adversus mathematicos; Against the Mathematicians, is a much more detailed exposition of the arguments that the school had developed regarding each particular area in which other philosophers had claimed to have discovered true knowledge. Sextus’s writings are veritable storehouses of skeptical arguments designed to confound all other philosophers. Although very repetitious, they contain both good and bad arguments.
In the last chapter of Outlines of Pyrrhonism, Sextus explains the uneven character of his book in answering the question of why Skeptics sometimes propound arguments that lack persuasion. Skeptics, he writes, are lovers of humankind. They are seeking to cure an ailment called “self-conceit and rashness,” from which the dogmatic philosophers suffer. Just as doctors employ remedies of different strengths depending on the condition of the patient, Skeptics employ arguments of different strengths depending on how “sick” the dogmatic philosophers are. If the therapy can succeed with a weak argument, good. If the case is severe, a strong argument is needed. Hence, the Pyrrhonists offered a variety of arguments, good and bad, weak and strong, because their avowed aim was to cure dogmatists of the disease of supposing that they knew something.
The Outlines of Pyrrhonism begins by dividing philosophers into three groups: the dogmatists, such as Aristotle and Epicurus, who say that they have discovered the truth; those such as Carneades, who say it cannot be found; and the Pyrrhonian Skeptics, who keep seeking for it. The aim of the Pyrrhonian arguments is to cure people from holding either of the first two views. Sextus guards against being accused of “secret dogmatism” by saying that the statements in his work are not to be taken as positive assertions of what is true, but only as expressions of what appear to him to be matters of fact.
The Nature of Skepticism
Sextus describes Skepticism as the ability or mental attitude that opposes appearances, the objects of sense experience, to...
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