Outlines of Pyrrhonism

by Sextus Empiricus

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Last Updated September 6, 2023.

Outlines of Pyrrhonism was written by Sextus Empiricus, a Greek philosopher and physician who lived in the second or third century CE. Little is known of his life, although several of his other works are extant.

Sextus was a follower of Pyrrho, founder of a Greek school of philosophy known as "Skepticism." Pyrrho (c. 360—c. 270 B.C.E.) lived in Elis and was influenced by the works of Democritus, Stilpo, and Anaxarchus. He accompanied Alexander the Great on his mission to India. Although Pyrrho himself left no writings behind, his ideas are known from the works of his successors. Two of the major sources concerning his work are Sextus Empiricus and Diogenes Laertius.

Outlines of Pyrrhonism (Pyrrhoniae Hypotyposes, abbreviated PH in many bibliographies) is divided into three books. PH I summarizes the principles of Pyrrhonian Skepticism while the subsequent books, PH II and III, advance arguments against opposing schools of philosophy, or "the dogmatists." Sextus is also careful to distinguish between Pyrrhonian Skepticism and the influential "Academic Skepticism" of the Middle Platonists.

Pyrrhonian skeptics are distinguished by withholding judgment concerning truth. Unlike Academic skeptics, they do not assert dogmatically that truth is absolutely unknowable but advocate continued inquiry into both sides of every question. Skeptics are distinguished by knowing specific modes of argument which can be used to undermine dogmatism.

Pyrrhonian skeptics are unlike Academic skeptics in conditionally assenting to sense perceptions and believing that it is philosophically acceptable to act upon them, without asserting their truth. In ethics, they are somewhat related to the Epicureans in seeking tranquility as a goal. For the skeptical philosopher, tranquility is obtaining by not striving to settle questions, as that is impossible, but instead accepting the provisional nature of human knowledge.

PH II and III are a series of refutations of prominent dogmatic schools of philosophy such as the Peripatetics. In these books, Sextus examines the traditional areas of logic, ethics, and physics and shows examples of error or internal contradiction within beliefs and also for every belief shows that there are equally credible opposing beliefs.

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