Some Problems In The History of Skepticism
Auslegung a Journal of Philosophy
Although it is an important tradition in Western philosophical thought, skepticism has for a number of reasons been perennially misunderstood, abused and ridiculed. To clarify what is fundamental to skeptical thought-I wish to review the phases through which it has passed in its long growth and to bring its terrain into sharp focus by contrasting it with its nearest neighbors. Just as speculative philosophy has something of a spiritual father in the figure of Socrates, skepticism is the direct
... cism is the direct descendant of the fourth century Greek philosopher, Pyrrho of Elis, hence the archaic use of "Pyrrhonism" as a synonym for "skepticism." Since we have none of Pyrrho's works, historians have had to rely upon testimony, especially from his disciple the satirist Tiraon of Phlius (whose works are only known in fragments), to determine what he believed and how he lived. 1 It seems necessary to consider the work of Pyrrho and Timon as a single philosophy. If a distinction is to be made, it is that Pyrrho was concerned to live the tranquillity he taught, while Timon, being more gregarious, seems to have delighted in engaging in being a "general railer" against "all dogmatic philosophers." 2 Timon says that Pyrrho supposed three questions to be fundamental in philosophy. 3 The first is What is the nature of things? Pyrrho answered that the nature of reality is indeterminable and therefore cannot be known. This assertion seems to depend on the basic distinction between appearance and reality. Timon says, "I do not lay it down that honey is sweet, but I admit that it appears to be so."4 The grounds for the assertion are human limitations. The senses reveal only appearances, reason distills to mere habit and prejudice. Having given up both, tampering of either by the other is lost as well. Knowledge is therefore impossible. Pyrrho's second question is What is the proper attitude toward reality? Since all is indeterminable, the attempt to gain knowledge can only frustrate the seeker. We ought therefore to abstain from theoretical assertions and cultivate an attitude of indifference toward reality. He ought not to judge, allowing always that what appears may be the opposite of what is and that all assertions are but expressions of an individual's state of mind. The only proper attitude is epoche, suspension of judgment. Pyrrho's life serves as an agoge or exemplary mode of living. He 44 remained silent on metaphysical matters and led a life guided by the compulsion of his feelings, the tradition of laws and customs, the instruction of the arts and nature. The third question Pyrrho asked was What is the value of adopting this attitude? The question was apparently answered by facts. Timon claims that ataraxia, mental tranquillity, follows inevitably upon the heels of epoche. Most speculation in Pyrrho's time concerned moral matters and Pyrrho too was primarily concerned with the summum bonum. Since knowledge is impossible knowledge of what conduces to real happiness is impossible. The only value left is to live undisturbed. By eliminating the possibility of knowledge, Pyrrho effectively terminated any inquiry into happiness and was left with the necessity of being satisfied without happiness, with only tranquillity. Since all was only indicative of states of mind, Pyrrho had to be content with what he felt was the least intolerable state of mind, ataraxia.