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Hankinson Pyrrhonism

Hankinson Pyrrhonism

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Pyrrhonism
R.J. HANKINSON
2
R.J. HANKINSON
Pyrrhonism1

Pyrrhonism was the name given by the Greeks to one particular brand of scepticism, that identi\ufb01ed (albeit tenuously) with Pyrrho of Elis, who was said (by his disciple Timon of Phlius) to have declared that everything was indeterminable and accordingly to have suspended judgment about the re- ality of things \u2013 in particular whether they were really good or bad. After Timon\u2019s death Pyrrhonism lapsed, until revived by Aenesidemus. Aeneside- mus held that it was inadmissible either to a\ufb03rm or to deny that anything was really the case, and in particular to hold, with the Academic sceptics, that certain things really were inapprehensible. Instead, the Sceptic (the capital letter denotes the Pyrrhonists, who adopted the term, literally \u2018in- quirer\u2019, as one of the designations for their school) should only allow that things were no more the case than not, or only so under certain circums- tances and not under others. Aenesidemean Scepticism took the form of emphasizing the disagreement among both lay people and theoreticians as to the nature of things, and the fact that things appear di\ufb00erently under di\ufb00erent circumstances (the various ways of doing this were systematized into the Ten Modes of Scepticism); the result was meant to be suspension of judgment about such matters, which would in turn lead to tranquillity of mind. Thus \u2018Scepticism\u2019 denotes a particular philosophical position, not simply, as in modern usage, that of any philosopher inclined towards doubt. Later Pyrrhonists, notably Agrippa, re\ufb01ned the Sceptical method and con- centrated on undermining the dogmatic (that is, anti-Sceptical) notion of the criterion \u2013 there is no principled way to settle such disputes without resorting to mere assertion, in\ufb01nite regress or circularity. We owe to Sex- tus Empiricus our most complete account of Pyrrhonian argument and the clearest exposition of the Pyrrhonian attitude. Faced with endemic dis- pute, Sceptics reserve judgment; but this does not render life impossible for them, since they will still react to the way things appear to be, although without believing in any strong sense that things really are as they seem. Furthermore, when Pyrrhonians describe their a\ufb00ective states, they do so undogmatically \u2013 and the Sceptical slogans (\u2018I determine nothing\u2019, \u2018nothing is apprehended\u2019, and so on) are to be understood in a similar way, as me- rely reporting a state of mind and not expressing a commitment. Thus the slogans apply to themselves, and like cathartic drugs are themselves purged along with the noxious humour of dogmatism.

1HANKINSON, R.J. (1998). Pyrrhonism. In E. Craig (Ed.), Routledge Encyclopedia
of Philosophy. London: Routledge. Retrieved June 14, 2006, fromhttp://www.rep.
routledge.com/article/A102.
Pyrrhonism
3
1. History2

Greek scepticism is inextricably associated with the name of Pyrrho; the ancients themselves dubbed the most enduring and interesting form of scep- ticism of their times \u2018Pyrrhonism\u2019 after its eponymous origin. Yet surprisin- gly little is known about Pyrrho the man, and it is possible that he was not even a Sceptic (in the strict sense of the term) at all (see Pyrrho\u00a73). He lived from c.365 to c.275 bc, and his name became a byword for philosophi- cal detachment from the ordinary concerns of life. Legend has it that his friends had to prevent him fromwalking over cli\ufb00s and under passing tra\ufb03c; this and other amusing if apocryphal stories are recorded in the biography by Diogenes Laertius. He wrote nothing, and most of what we know of him derives fromthe writings of his disciple and amanuensis Timon. According to Timon, Pyrrho held that to be happy we must confront three questions: How are things by nature? What attitude should we adopt towards them? What will be the outcome for those who have this attitude? He answered that all things were equally indi\ufb00erent, unmeasurable and undecidable, and that our perceptions told us neither truths nor falsehoods about the way things really are. The upshot of this is that we should be free of all opinion and commitment. The proper attitude to anything is to suppose that it no more (ou mallon) is the case than not. As a result we should simply acqui- esce in the way things appear without having any strong beliefs concerning the way they actually are.

These remained the characteristic attitudes of Pyrrhonism throughout its history. However, original though Pyrrho undoubtedly was (even if the tradition suggests that he learned philosophical detachment from Indian philosophers while following Alexander the Great\u2019s expedition with Ana- xarchus), his scepticism was not entirely without precedent. Ever since Xenophanes (\u00a75), Greek thinkers had puzzled over the nature and scope of human knowledge, and whether it was genuinely possible. Some fragments of Democritus in particular suggest a cautious attitude to the possibility of human understanding, and Democritus (\u00a73) employed the formula \u2018no more\u2019 on occasion to indicate a sceptical refusal to commit himself one way or the other on some question. Moreover, Aristotle is clearly aware of scep- tical challenges to our ability to rely upon our senses (Metaphysics IV 4\u20135), although he dismisses them as mere captiousness (it is possible that he knew of Pyrrho\u2019s scepticism).

There is no hint of a concerted and systematic attempt to question our justi\ufb01cation for belief in the natures of things before Pyrrho, however. In- deed Pyrrho himself may not have mounted a general assault on the reliabi- lity of the senses (although Timon evidently did), so much as a limited attack

2HANKINSON, R.J. (1998). Pyrrhonism. In E. Craig (Ed.), Routledge Encyclopedia
of Philosophy. London: Routledge. Retrieved June 14, 2006, fromhttp://www.rep.
routledge.com/article/A102SECT.

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