Pyrrhonism, or Pyrrhonian skepticism, was a school of skepticism founded by Aenesidemus in the 1st century BC and recorded by Sextus Empiricus in the late 2nd century or early 3rd century AD. It was named after Pyrrho, a philosopher who lived from c. 360 to c. 270 BC, although the relationship between the philosophy of the school and that of the historical figure is unclear. A revival of the use of the term occurred during the 17th century.
Pyrrho of Elis (c. 360-c. 270 BC) is usually credited with founding the school of skepticism. He traveled to India and studied with the "gymnosophists". From there, he brought back the idea that nothing can be known for certain. The senses are easily fooled, and reason follows too easily our desires. Pyrrhonism was a school of skepticism founded by his follower Aenesidemus in the 1st century BC and recorded by Sextus Empiricus, who wrote the book series Against the Mathematicians (by some translated ‘Against the Professors’), in the late 2nd century or early 3rd century AD.
The New Academy Arcesilaus (c. 315-241 BC) and Carneades (c. 213-129 BC) developed more theoretical perspectives by which conceptions of absolute truth and falsity were refuted as uncertain. Carneades criticized the views of the Dogmatists, especially supporters of Stoicism, asserting that absolute certainty of knowledge is impossible. Sextus Empiricus (c. AD 200), the main authority for Greek skepticism, developed the position further, incorporating aspects of empiricism into the basis for asserting knowledge.
Whereas academic skepticism, with Carneades as its most famous adherent, claims that "Nothing can be known, not even this", Pyrrhonian skeptics withhold any assent with regard to non-evident propositions and remain in a state of perpetual inquiry. They disputed the possibility of attaining truth by sensory apprehension, reason, or the two combined, and thence inferred the need for total suspension of judgment (epoché) on things. A Pyrrhonist tries to make the arguments of both sides as strong as possible. Then he asks himself if there is any reason to prefer one side to the other. And if not, he suspends belief in either side. According to them, even the statement that nothing can be known is dogmatic. They thus attempted to make their skepticism universal, and to escape the reproach of basing it upon a fresh dogmatism. Mental imperturbability (ataraxia) was the result to be attained by cultivating such a frame of mind.
As in Stoicism and Epicureanism, the happiness or satisfaction of the individual was the goal of life, and all three philosophies placed it in tranquility or indifference. According to the Pyrrhonists, it is our opinions or unwarranted judgments about things which turn them into desires, painful effort, and disappointment. From all this a person is delivered who abstains from judging one state to be preferable to another. But, as complete inactivity would have been synonymous with death, the skeptic, while retaining his consciousness of the complete uncertainty enveloping every step, might follow custom (or nature) in the ordinary affairs of life.
The second debate of Pyrrhonism in the early modern period: problems with historical knowledge
The traditions of ancient skepticism found a new reception in the early modern era climaxing in the 18th century, especially under the influence of the Empiricists (especially under the influence of David Hume (1711-1776) – see An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding) in the discussion of historical doubt: Pyrrhonismus historicus and Fides historica: the "faith" in recorded history. The fundamental question of the debate could not, and cannot, be solved: How can we prove historical data? History is a realm that does not allow experimental proofs. Questions such as with how many stabs was Julius Caesar killed can only be discussed on the basis of documents. If they contradict each other historians can try to balance them against each other. Do certain documents have precedence over others as eye witness reports, can they be validated through experience, or do they include unlikely, marvelous incidents one should disqualify as legend?
The result of the debate was not a final solution of the inherent problem but the implementation of a new science of critical analysis of documents. The questions had a potential to destabilize religious histories. Diderot, in a passage from his Encyclopedie originally censored by Le Breton, states of Pyrrhonism, "Since the time of Huet, theologians seem to have been conspiring to discredit the use of reason. Do they not realize how difficult most of the questions are that pertain to the experience of God, the immortality of the soul, the need of ritual, the truth of the Christian religion? Do they desire a belief that is blind or one that is enlightened? If it is the former, let them admit it in good faith. If it is the latter, let them convince us, by all kinds of measures, of the feebleness of our mind. The way they are going about it, they will produce more skeptics than Christians," expressing both Diderot's unique anti-clericism, and the rising role of skeptical thought about religion and historical data throughout the 18th century. They lost much of their momentum with the transformation of history from a narrative project to a project of critical debate and with the 19th-century implementation of archaeology as a comparatively objective and experimental science.
The "philosophical" skepticism of Kant and its influence on classical German philosophy
Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) tried to provide a ground for empirical science against David Hume's skeptical treatment of the notion of cause and effect. Hume (1711-1776) argued that for the notion of cause and effect no analysis is possible which is also acceptable to the empiricist program primarily outlined by John Locke (1632-1704). But, Kant's attempt to give a ground to knowledge in the empirical sciences at the same time cut off the possibility of knowledge of any other knowledge, especially what Kant called "metaphysical knowledge". So, for Kant, empirical science was legitimate, but metaphysics and philosophy was mostly illegitimate. The most important exception to this demarcation of the legitimate from the illegitimate was ethics the principles of which Kant argued can be known by pure reason without appeal to the principles required for empirical knowledge. Thus, with respect to metaphysics and philosophy general (ethics being the exception), Kant was a skeptic. This skepticism as well as the explicit skepticism of G. E. Schulze gave rise to a robust discussion of skepticism in classical German philosophy, especially by Hegel. Kant's idea was that the real world (the noumenon or thing-in-itself) was inaccessible to human reason (though the empirical world of nature can be known to human understanding) and therefore we can never know anything about the ultimate reality of the world. Hegel argued against Kant that although Kant was right that using what Hegel called "finite" concepts of "the understanding" precluded knowledge of reality, we were not constrained to use only "finite" concepts and could actually acquire knowledge of reality using "infinite concepts" that arise from self-consciousness.
Fallibilism is a modern, fundamental perspective of the scientific method, as put forth by Karl Popper and Charles Sanders Peirce, that all knowledge is, at best, an approximation, and that any scientist must always stipulate this in his or her research and findings. It is, in effect, a modernized extension of Pyrrhonism. Indeed, historic Pyrrhonists are sometimes described by modern authors as fallibilists. Modern fallibilists also are sometimes described as pyrrhonists.
The Devil's Dictionary defines Pyrrhonism as "An ancient philosophy, named for its inventor. It consisted of an absolute disbelief in everything but Pyrrhonism. Its modern professors have added that."
- Agrippa the Skeptic
- Apophatic theology
- Sextus Empiricus
- Benson Mates
- Nassim Nicholas Taleb
- Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, page 7, section 23.
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- See (1) Thomas DaCosta Kaufman, "Antiquarianism, the History of Objects and the History of Art before Winckelmann", Journal of the History of Ideas, 62:3 (July 2001), pp. 523-541; and (2) Rudolf Unger, "The Problem of Historical Objectivity. A Sketch of its Development to the Time of Hegel", History and Theory, 11:11 (1971), pp. 60-86.
- David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature (1739), Book I, "Of the Understanding" and David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1748).
- See G. E. Schulze, Aenesidemus (1792), excerpted in Between Kant and Hegel: Texts in the Development of Post-Kantian Idealism, Translated with Introductions by George di Giovanni and H. S. Harris, Indianapolis, Indiana: Hackett Publishing, 2000. See also Frederick C. Beiser, The Fate of Reason: German Philosophy from Kant to Fichte, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1987; Chapter 9, "Schulze's Skepticism".
- See (1) H. S. Harris, "Skepticism, Dogmatism and Speculation in the Critical Journal" (1985), in Between Kant and Hegel: Texts in the Development of Post-Kantian Idealism, Translated with Introductions by George di Giovanni and H. S. Harris, Indianapolis, Indiana: Hackett Publishing, 2000; (2) G. W. F. Hegel, "On the Relationship of Skepticism to Philosophy, Exposition of its Different Modifications and Comparison of the Latest Form with the Ancient One", Translated by H. S. Harris, in di Giovanni and Harris (2000) (cited just above); and (3) Michael N. Forster, Hegel and Skepticism, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1989.
- Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, The Encyclopedia Logic (1830), § 28, pp. 65-68, Translated by T. F. Garaets, W. A. Suchting, and H. S. Harris, Indianapolis, Indiana: Hackett Publishing, 1991.
- Powell, Thomas C. "Fallibilism and Organizational Research: The Third Epistemology", Journal of Management Research 4, 2001, pp. 201–219.
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- "Pyrrhonism", from The Devil's Dictionary
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- Ancient Greek Skepticism entry by Harold Thorsrud in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy