Ancient and Modern Skepticism: an overview
Skepticism has been regarded by Ezequiel de Olaso not only as a way of thinking but also as a way of living which is radically different from others, most of all the philosophical one. However, this was not the meaning that Pyrrho’s legacy adopted in the Early Modern period. This new meaning was not caused by the Early Modern philosophers’ impossibility to read the original texts. It was due to the fact that Skepticism took over a different role, because it was updated in a different context. It is obvious, then, that there is not a direct connection between Ancient Skepticism, whose main thinkers were Pyrrho and Sextus Empiricus, and the one adopted by Early Modern philosophers. Generally speaking, we can point out that both played a confrontative role against dogmatic attitudes, but in the Early Modern period Skepticism did not aim to unperturbedness or quietude as it did in the Ancient times. Philosophers such as Descartes, Leibniz or Hume portrayed the Skeptic as a person who expressed a constant doubt about any topic. James Noxon asserts that both Descartes and Hume considered that they were obliged to test the power of reason as a previous and inevitable step before they could explain their philosophical system. The Pyrrhonic crisis was then a pars destruens that was followed by a pars construens.
Some problems about identity
First of all it is necessary to take into account certain difficulties concerning the different types of Skepticism. Many authors include both Pyrrhonism and Academicism under the label “Skepticism”, despite the fact that Sextus Empiricus himself states what the differences are between the type of Skepticism that he professes, founded by Pyrrho of Ellis (circa 360-275 b.C.), and that of the New Academy, whose main figures were Arcesilas (circa 315 – 241 b.C.) and Carneades (circa 213-129 b.C.). We consider that the authors who adopt this typology usually fall in two mistakes. The first mistake is to consider the New Academy as a kind of Skepticism based on the claim that both Pyrrhonism and Academicism affirm that it is not possible to know the truth. The differences between them consist in the attitude each of them adopts to solve the problem. In order to be faithful to the textual sources, we consider that the above mentioned difference is not exact. The Academics deny the criterion of truth, which entails to assert that we cannot reach the truth because we are incapable of discerning cases of truth from cases of falsity. The Skeptics, on the other side, avoid committing themselves on judgments about the criterion of truth and just accept passively what appears to their senses and follows the laws and customs of their society. Therefore, Pyrrho’s followers do not affirm that they cannot get to know the truth; they just suspend judgment about it and “keep on searching.” Facing the impossibility to reach the truth, Carneades offers a theory of knowledge that consists in asserting that every appearance is potentially deceitful, but despite that fact, we tend to accept some of them and to reject some others. The criterion we use for this distinction is that some appearances persuade us and the rest do not. Thus, he considers that the appearances that are able to persuade us are probable. He also believes that they can acquire different degrees of persuasion based on their coherence. The appearance with the highest level of probability is the one that shows more coherence in its component parts and in doing so allows us to recognize that which it represents. This means that the Academic offers a criterion to discern cases of knowledge –not cases of truth- based on what is more convincing to the knowing subject. The Skeptic, on the contrary, assents unintentionally, without passing through a deliberation process. He does not have recourse to any criterion of eligibility, because that is not a legitimate action to take. The second mistake consists in defining Skepticism as an attitude of “universal doubt.” This interpretation, like the first we have mentioned, belongs not only to contemporary authors but also to many Early Modern philosophers. Concerning this mistake, it may be argued that one of the main features of Skepticism is its opposition to dogmatism. The Skeptic suspends judgment about dogmatic knowledge claims, that is, about assertions that are supposed to be unquestionable, because he considers that it is always possible to oppose to them other claims which are equally trustable. In this way we would arrive at a point of equivalence between them because there would be equally good reasons to accept any of them and it would be impossible to decide which is superior, as the dogmatic pretends. To doubt is not an exclusive feature of the Skeptic because, as De Olaso asserts, dogmatist can also do so. It is an attitude that belongs to anyone who believes that they are able to judge something. That is why doubting is not opposed to asserting something dogmatically. The way to get out of the equivalence of claims to which the dogmatic arguments leads us is not theoretical, but practical. That is why the Skeptical man’s attitude is to abolish doubt through suspense of judgment. This will lead him to unperturbedness about what is being a matter of opinion. As Luis Villoro explains: “Because the main interest of a Pyrrhonist is not to change the world but to reach inner quietude, he chooses to break up with doubt through suspense of judgment. The choice between doubting or not is solved out by means of a practical reason.” As a final comment, we can point out that the fact of not speaking one’s mind out about the truth of falsity of an assessment entails that the Skeptic has a criterion after all, which is to consider that if an assessment cannot be regarded as true or false, it is because it did not reach a certain standard. Therefore, Skepticism is not equal to a lack of criteria. On the contrary, it entails the possession of an unquestionable standard which consists in knowing when it is accurate to suspend judgment or not. This shows once more the dialectical nature of Pyrrhonism. There is not a single Skeptic who doubts about everything. Hence, when we find a Skeptical attitude, we need to enquire what the assessments it is suspending judgment on are and what criterion it is being used. In doing so, we can understand, as Philip Stanley suggests, that “it is possible, without contradiction, to affirm a given proposition under one criterion, suspend judgement on it under a second, and deny it under a third.”
Skepticism in Early Modern times
At the beginning of this article, we stated that Skepticism adopted a new meaning in the Early Modern period. The manuscripts of Sextus Empiricus were re discovered in the mid-fifteenth century, just a few years before the quarrel about “the rule of faith”, which was one of the main topics at issue in the Reformation of 1517. Both Luther and Calvin argued with the Catholic Church about matters of faith and proposed to replace the criterion of authority of the Pope and the councils for the authority of one’s own conscience. One’s own convictions are the only thing that can lead us to justify the acceptance of any religious opinion. This attitude was the starting point of a battle about the need for an accurate justification of the infallible truth of religion. Catholics reacted against reformists showing that the standard that their enemies proposed was not justifiable and that their pretended religious knowledge criterion based on one’s own subjectivity led to complete Skepticism about religious truths. The edition of Sextus’ works in 1562 helped the religious quarrel to turn into an epistemological dispute, because it unfolded the question of justifying the foundations of knowledge in general. As Richard Popkin states, “the problem of finding a criterion of truth, first raised in theological disputes, was then later raised with regard to natural knowledge, leading to la crise pyrrhonienne of the early sixteenth century.” Michel de Montaigne was highly influenced by the works of Sextus. He applied the Skeptical teaching to the intellectual questions of his time, as we can see in his Essays. One of them, the “Apology for Reymond Sebond” reproduces the distinction made by Sextus between dogmaticists, Skeptics and Academicists. Montaigne expresses his preference for the Skeptic attitude, because he believes that it shows a more radical and coherent kind of doubt than the Academic one. He also adheres to the suspense of judgment method that leads to unperturbedness. Gradually, the Aristotelian physics started losing strength against the emerging modern scientific theories, such as Copernicus’, Galileo’s and Newton’s. This opened a new field for the Pyrrhonic doctrines, because this change in the image of the world created a crisis similar to the one that took place in the religious field. But this time the crisis reached all human sciences and philosophy. That is why in the period that goes from seventeenth to eighteenth century, Skepticism played a different role, which departed from the one it assumed in the Renaissance. Popkin explains that “the super-scepticism of Descartes, involved in his demon hypothesis, began a new phase in the history of skepticism that was to be developed by Pascal, Bayle, Huet, and later Hume and Kierkegaard. Descartes refutation of skepticism also made the skeptics turn their attack against his system instead of against their traditional enemies. Hence, the skeptical arguments had to be altered to fit the new opponent, and skepticism in the last half of seventeenth century changed from being anti-Scholastic and anti-Platonic, to being anti-Cartesian.” This new feature, influenced by the philosophy of Descartes, surely contributed to depicting the Pyrrhonist as a man who doubts about everything or who suspends judgment about any matter, and not only about the assessments that involve dogmatism. Academicism also flourished again in the mid-seventeenth century in the works of some of the most relevant anti-Cartesians of that time. They adapted the Academicism that is portrayed by Cicero in Academica in order to attack Cartesianism, as it is evidenced in Simon Foucher’s works.
For an introduction about Skepticism also see: http://en.wikiversity.org/wiki/Historical_Introduction_to_Philosophy/The_Challenge_of_Skepticism
De Olaso, Ezequiel. “El significado de la duda escéptica. Con un examen preliminar de las opiniones de G. W. Leibniz y de G. E. Moore”, in Revista Latinoamericana de Filosofía. Vol. 1, no. 1, March 1975, pp. 27-37.
De Olaso, Ezequiel. Escepticismo e Ilustración. Venezuela, Oficina Latinoamericana de Investigaciones Jurídicas y Sociales, 1981.
Di Gregori, María Cristina. “Reflexiones sobre escepticismo y relativismo”, in Actas 1as Jornadas de Investigación para Profesores, Graduados y Alumnos de la Facultad de Humanidades y Ciencias de la Educación (UNLP), 1996. Published in Revista de Filosofía y Teoría Política, vol. XXII, 1996, pp. 410-417.
Maia Neto, José. “Academic Skepticism in Early Modern Philosophy”, in Journal of the History of Ideas. Vol. 58, no. 2 (April, 1997), pp. 199-220.
Noxon, James. Hume’s Philosophical Development. Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1973.
Popkin, Richard. The History of Scepticism from Erasmus to Spinoza. Berkeley & Los Angeles, University of California Press, 1979.
Popkin, Richard. The History of Skepticism from Savonarola to Bayle. Revised and expanded edition. New York, Oxford University Press, 2003.
Stanley, Philip. “The Scepticisms of David Hume”, in The Journal of Philosophy. Vol. 32, no. 16 (August, 1935), pp. 412-431.
Sextus Empiricus. Outlines of Pyrrhonism. Translated by R. G. Bury. New York, Prometheus Books, 1990.
Villoro, Luis. “Una alternativa al escepticismo (anotaciones)”, in Revista Latinoamericana de Filosofía. Vol. XIX, Nº 2 (Spring, 1993), pp. 303-312.
- De Olaso, Ezequiel. “El significado de la duda escéptica. Con un examen preliminar de las opiniones de G. W. Leibniz y de G. E. Moore”, in Revista Latinoamericana de Filosofía. Vol. 1, no. 1, March 1975, pp. 27-37.
- Pyrrho is also spelled as Pyrrhus. Here we will use the first spelling but in all cases we are referring to the same person.
- “Beneath the differences in style, there is in Descartes and Hume the same sense of obligation to test the power of reason.” Noxon, James. Hume’s Philosophical Development. Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1973, p. 9. Also see: De Olaso, Ezequiel. Escepticismo e Ilustración. Venezuela, Oficina Latinoamericana de Investigaciones Jurídicas y Sociales, 1981, prólogo.
- Just to mention some of the most relevant: Richard Popkin, Ezequiel de Olaso, Luis Villoro and Victor Brochard.
- Sextus Empiricus. Outlines of Pyrrhonism. Book I. In Cuadernos de Filosofía y Letras. Vol. X, no. 1-4, January-December 1989, pp. 5 y 42-45.
- We are following what María Cristina Di Gregori points out in “Reflexiones sobre escepticismo y relativismo”, in Actas 1as Jornadas de Investigación para Profesores, Graduados y Alumnos de la Facultad de Humanidades y Ciencias de la Educación (UNLP), 1996. Published in Revista de Filosofía y Teoría Política, vol. XXII, 1996, pp. 410-417.
- Sextus Empiricus. Outlines of Pyrrhonism, p. 5.
- Di Gregori, M. C. “Reflexiones sobre escepticismo y relativismo”, p. 412.
- De Olaso, E. “El significado de la duda escéptica”, p. 33.
- Villoro, Luis. “Una alternativa al escepticismo (anotaciones)”, in Revista Latinoamericana de Filosofía. Vol. XIX, Nº 2 (Spring, 1993), p. 308. The translation is ours. In Spanish in the original: “Porque el interés primordial del pirrónico no es actuar en el mundo y transformarlo sino lograr la serenidad interior, elige romper la duda por la suspensión del juicio. La alternativa entre dudar o no, se resuelve por una razón práctica.”
- This interesting fact is noted by Philip Stanley in “The Scepticisms of David Hume”, in The Journal of Philosophy. Vol. 32, no. 16 (August, 1935), pp. 412-431.
- Stanley, Ph. “The Scepticisms of David Hume”, p. 425.
- Popkin, Richard. The History of Skepticism from Savonarola to Bayle. Revised and expanded edition. New York, Oxford University Press, 2003, p. 3.
- Popkin, Richard. The History of Scepticism from Erasmus to Spinoza. Berkeley & Los Angeles, University of California Press, 1979, p. xviii.
- Cfr. Maia Neto, José. “Academic Skepticism in Early Modern Philosophy”, in Journal of the History of Ideas. Vol. 58, no. 2 (April, 1997), pp. 199-220.