‘So, Pyrrho, you are dead?
— I beg to doubt it.’
— ‘Hmph! certainly I scout it.’
‘This tomb, friend Pyrrho, leaves no doubt about it.’– Julianus Ægyptius, Prefect of Egypt, translated by John Sampson (Quarrie, 2020, p. 166)
Julianus Ægyptius’ epigram is not a refutation of Pyrrhonian skepticism, but it expresses one of its pitfalls: it is just too counter-intuitive. Pyrrhonian skepticism is a school of philosophical thought that originated in ancient Greece with the philosopher Pyrrho of Elis (Bett, 2022; Vogt, 2022). Most of what we know about it comes not from Pyrrho but from Sextus Empiricus’ Outlines of Pyrrhonism.
According to Pyrrhonian skepticism, the suspension of judgment is the only justified attitude concerning any proposition (including this one). While this approach to philosophy has had a significant influence on Western thought, it is not without its critics.
In this essay, I will first examine the claim that Pyrrhonian skepticism is circular or self-refuting. Then, I will discuss the idea that the suspension of judgment is itself a judgment and hence genuine skepticism is impossible. I will finally discuss the tension between genuine doubt and living while suspending judgment on all propositions. I will conclude that it is nearly impossible for Pyrrhonian skeptics to be consistent in their beliefs and actions.
- The Self-Refutation Argument
- Suspension is Judgment
- Doubt and Behavior
The Self-Refutation Argument
According to some, Pyrrhonian skepticism is flawed due to its reliance on circular reasoning. The skeptic posits that knowledge of the true nature of reality is unattainable and subsequently uses this assumption to suspend judgment on all matters of fact. However, the validity of this assumption cannot be established, as it is based on the premise that certainty is impossible. As a result, the skeptic assumes the truth of their position.
The Pyrrhonian skeptic is essentially saying that we cannot be certain of anything, including the claim that we cannot be certain of anything. This does not prove the self-defeating nature of Pyrrhonian skepticism, but it undermines its persuasiveness.
The problem with this argument is that it presents Pyrrhonian skepticism as an argument. Skeptics aren’t committed to the truth of the premises and conclusions of Pyrrhonian skepticism. The aim of Pyrrhonian skeptics is not and shouldn’t be to convince anyone of its truthfulness. So if we (non-Pyrrhonians) think that the claims of Pyrhonnian skepticism aren’t sound, we should investigate why.
Suspension is Judgment
Another common criticism of Pyrrhonian skepticism relies on the idea that there is no such thing as neutrality. More specifically, claiming that you’re suspending judgment about X is a judgment about X. For example, claiming that both sides are wrong on a given political issue commits one to a specific political point of view.
What is important is that when someone acts like a skeptic, they do so in a non-neutral way. Does this make skepticism self-refuting? No. All this does, as Ronald Dworkin pointed out, is refute certain arguments for skepticism.
Doubt and Behavior
Pyrrhonian skepticism is incompatible with everyday experience. This is because the skeptic is effectively saying that we cannot be certain of anything, including the most basic and mundane aspects of our lives. For example, we cannot be certain that the sun will rise tomorrow, that the floor will hold us up when we stand on it, or that the food we eat will nourish us. However, these are all things that we rely on and take for granted in our everyday lives, and to suggest that we cannot be certain of them is to reject the very foundations of our experience.
This does not prove the contradictory nature of skepticism or do anything to undermine its truth value, but it does render it problematic from a pragmatic perspective. According to Charles Sanders Peirce (1992, pp. 109-123), Descartes made a similar error when he advocated for the doubt of all things and the reliance on first principles. Merely expressing a proposition in the form of a question does not demonstrate the presence of genuine doubt.
True doubt is always accompanied by a feeling. It motivates us to investigate until we minimize or eradicate it. Our beliefs guide our actions. So if skepticism is to have any practical significance beyond being a philosophy one espouses to appear original at social events, it must have practical consequences. What would those consequences be? How would a genuine Pyrrhonian skeptic behave?
The answer to these questions is unclear. If such people exist, I’ve never seen them. It is even difficult to imagine them without engaging in fantasy. It might be that a genuine Pyrrhonian skeptic is a philosophical chimera that does not and can not exist, similar to a strict nihilist, moral relativist, or Übermensch.
The main problem with Pyrrhonian skepticism is not that it is contradictory or logically flawed. Nor that it is too permissive or tolerant of opposing views. In my view, skepticism commits the opposite error: it demands too much of truth without acknowledging less demanding alternatives. I agree with Pyrrho and Sextus Empiricus in that complete certainty is not possible, but it does not have to be. Suspension of judgment on all matters is too extreme of a conclusion to draw from all this.
That demand for certainty Nietzsche characterized (The Gay Science, §347) as arising from the instinct of weakness is not a necessary component of all belief systems outside of skepticism. One can reject the concept of certainty while still holding beliefs about certain propositions. I believe that most people who consider themselves to be Pyrrhonian skeptics engage in this type of belief formation, despite their claims to the contrary.
Pyrrhonian skepticism is not self-refuting, circular, logically contradictory, or anything of the sort. People who claim to be skeptics can and do exist. It is a valid philosophical position that individuals can adopt. The point I want to convey is that given my pragmatist way of thinking, theory of truth, and definitions of what constitutes a “genuine X,” I see no clear way a Pyrrhonian skeptic could consistently act and think like one.
Bett, R. (2022). Pyrrho. In E. N. Zalta & U. Nodelman (Eds.), The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2022). Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University. https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2022/entries/pyrrho/
Nietzsche, F. (2001). Nietzsche: The Gay Science: With a Prelude in German Rhymes and an Appendix of Songs. Cambridge University Press.
Peirce, C. S. (1992). The Essential Peirce, Volume 1: Selected Philosophical Writings (1867–1893). Indiana University Press.
Quarrie, P. (2020). Poems from Greek Antiquity. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group.
Sextus Empiricus. (1933). Outlines of Pyrrhonism (R. G. Bury, Trans.) [Data set]. Harvard University Press. https://doi.org/10.4159/DLCL.sextus_empiricus-outlines_pyrrhonism.1933
Vogt, K. (2022). Ancient Skepticism. In E. N. Zalta & U. Nodelman (Eds.), The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2022). Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University. https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2022/entries/skepticism-ancient/