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Pyrrhonism is a school of philosophical skepticism founded by Aenesidemus in the first century BCE, said to have been inspired by the teachings of Pyrrho and Timon of Phlius in the fourth century BCE. Pyrrho was a Greek philosopher of Classical antiquity credited with forming the first comprehensive school of skeptical thought. It is best known through the surviving works of Sextus Empiricus, writing in the late second century or early third century CE.
Ancient testimony about the philosophical beliefs of the historical Pyrrho of Elis is minimal, and often contradictory. His teachings were recorded by his student Timon of Phlius, whose works have been lost and only survive in fragments quoted by later authors. Although Cicero, Seneca the Younger, and Julian the Apostate each mention that Pyrrhonism had died out at the time of their writings, other writers mention the existence of Pyrrhonists. Diogenes Laertius mentions Pyrrhonists who were roughly contemporary with Seneca. Pseudo-Clement (c. 300-320 CE) mentions Pyrrhonists in his Homilies. Agathias reports a Pyrrhonist named Uranius in the middle of the 6th century CE. Pyrrhonism as a philosophical school was founded by Aenesidemus, a later contemporary of Cicero.
As with other Hellenistic philosophies such as Stoicism, Peripateticism and Epicureanism, eudaimonia is the Pyrrhonist goal of life. According to the Pyrrhonists, it is one's opinions about non-evident matters (i.e., dogma) that prevent one from attaining eudaimonia. As with Epicureanism, Pyrrhonism places the attainment of ataraxia (a state of equanimity) as the way to achieve eudaimonia. To bring the mind to ataraxia Pyrrhonism uses epoché (suspension of judgment) regarding all non-evident propositions. Pyrrhonists dispute that the dogmatists – which includes all of Pyrrhonism's rival philosophies – have found truth regarding non-evident matters. For any non-evident matter, a Pyrrhonist makes arguments for and against such that the matter cannot be concluded, thus suspending belief and thereby inducing ataraxia.
Although Pyrrhonism's objective is ataraxia, it is best known for its epistemological arguments. Pyrrhonists can be subdivided into those who are ephectic (engaged in suspension of judgment), zetetic (engaged in seeking), or aporetic (engaged in refutation). Pyrrhonist practice is for the purpose of achieving epoché, i.e., suspension of judgment.
The school of thought can be further divided into ephectic Pyrrhonism, aporetic Pyrrhonism or zetetic Pyrrhonism. Prior to Pyrrho, others had given the same rationale for which he is famed.
While an ephectic merely suspends judgment on a matter however arriving at that point,[clarification needed] an aporetic skeptic engages in the refutation of arguments in favor of various possible beliefs before reaching a state of aporia, an impasse which leads to epoché, suspension of judgement. The zetetic claims to be continually searching for the truth but to have thus far been unable to find it, and thus continues to suspend belief while also searching for reason to cease the suspension of belief.
The core practice is through setting argument against argument. To aid in this, the Pyrrhonist philosophers Aenesidemus and Agrippa developed sets of stock arguments known as "modes" or "tropes."
Aenesidemus is considered the creator of the ten tropes of Aenesidemus (also known as the ten modes of Aenesidemus)—although whether he invented the tropes or just systematized them from prior Pyrrhonist works is unknown. Sextus Empiricus attributed them simply to the earlier Pyrrhonists. Diogenes Laeritius attributed them to Aenesidemus. The title of a lost work of Plutarch's (On Pyrrho's Ten Modes) appears to attribute the modes to Pyrrho. The tropes represent reasons for epoché (suspension of judgment). These are as follows:
Superordinate to these ten modes stand three other modes:
Superordinate to these three modes is the mode of relation.
These "tropes" or "modes" are given by Sextus Empiricus in his Outlines of Pyrrhonism. According to Sextus, they are attributed only "to the more recent skeptics" and it is by Diogenes Laërtius that we attribute them to Agrippa. The five tropes of Agrippa are:
According to the mode deriving from dispute, we find that undecidable dissension about the matter proposed has come about both in ordinary life and among philosophers. Because of this we are not able to choose or to rule out anything, and we end up with suspension of judgement. In the mode deriving from infinite regress, we say that what is brought forward as a source of conviction for the matter proposed itself needs another such source, which itself needs another, and so ad infinitum, so that we have no point from which to begin to establish anything, and suspension of judgement follows. In the mode deriving from relativity, as we said above, the existing object appears to be such-and-such relative to the subject judging and to the things observed together with it, but we suspend judgement on what it is like in its nature. We have the mode from hypothesis when the Dogmatists, being thrown back ad infinitum, begin from something which they do not establish but claim to assume simply and without proof in virtue of a concession. The reciprocal mode occurs when what ought to be confirmatory of the object under investigation needs to be made convincing by the object under investigation; then, being unable to take either in order to establish the other, we suspend judgement about both.
With reference to these five tropes, that the first and third are a short summary of the earlier Ten Modes of Aenesidemus. The three additional ones show a progress in the Pyrrhonist system, building upon the objections derived from the fallibility of sense and opinion to more abstract and metaphysical grounds.
According to Victor Brochard “the five tropes can be regarded as the most radical and most precise formulation of skepticism that has ever been given. In a sense, they are still irresistible today.”
Pyrrhonist decision making is made according to what the Pyrrhonists describe as the criteria of action holding to the appearances, without beliefs in accord with the ordinary regimen of life based on:
The Pyrrhonists devised several sayings (Greek ΦΩΝΩΝ) to help practitioners bring their minds to epoche. Among these are:
Except for the works of Sextus Empiricus and Diogenes Laërtius, the texts about ancient Pyrrhonism have been lost, except for a summary of Pyrrhonian Discourses by Aenesidemus, preserved by Photius, and a summary of Pyrrho's teaching preserved by Eusebius, quoting Aristocles, quoting Pyrrho's student Timon, in what is known as the "Aristocles passage." This text is:
'The things themselves are equally indifferent, and unstable, and indeterminate, and therefore neither our senses nor our opinions are either true or false. For this reason then we must not trust them, but be without opinions, and without bias, and without wavering, saying of every single thing that it no more is than is not, or both is and is not, or neither is nor is not.
Pyrrhonism so influenced Arcesilaus, the sixth scholarch of the Platonic Academy that Arcesilaus reformed the teaching of the Academy to be nearly identical to Pyrrhonism thus initiating the Academic skepticism of the Middle Academy. The Pyrrhonist school influenced and had substantial overlap with the Empiric school of medicine. Many of the well-known Pyrrhonist teachers were also Empirics, including: Sextus Empiricus, Herodotus of Tarsus, Heraclides, Theodas, and Menodotus. However, Sextus Empiricus said that Pyrrhonism had more in common with the Methodic school in that it “follow[s] the appearances and take[s] from these whatever seems expedient.” Because of the high degree of similarity between the Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna's Madhyamaka philosophy and Pyrrhonism, particularly as detailed in the surviving works of Sextus Empiricus, Thomas McEvilley suspects that Nagarjuna was influenced by Greek Pyrrhonist texts imported into India.
Pyrrhonism is often contrasted with Academic skepticism, a similar but distinct form of Hellenistic philosophical skepticism. Dogmatists claim to have knowledge, Academic skeptics claim that knowledge is impossible, while Pyrrhonists assent to neither proposition, suspending judgment on both. The second century Roman historian Aulus Gellius describes the distinction as follows:
"...the Academics apprehend (in some sense) the very fact that nothing can be apprehended, and they determine (in some sense) that nothing can be determined, whereas the Pyrrhonists assert that not even that seems to be true, since nothing seems to be true."
Following the death of Timon, the Platonic Academy became the primary advocate of skepticism until the mid-first century BCE. While early Academic skepticism was influenced in part by Pyrrho, it grew more and more dogmatic until Aenesidemus broke with the Academics to revive Pyrrhonism in the first century BCE, denouncing the Academy as "Stoics fighting against Stoics." Some later Pyrrhonists, such as Sextus Empiricus, go so far as to claim that Pyrrhonists are the only real skeptics, dividing all philosophy into the dogmatists, the Academics, and the skeptics.
According to Edward Conze, Greek Skepticism can be compared to Indian philosophy, especially the Buddhist Madhyamaka school. Pyrrho spent about 18 months in Taxila as part of Alexander the Great's court during Alexander's conquest of the east, and the high degree of similarity between Madhyamaka and Pyrrhonism, particularly the surviving works of Sextus Empiricus, Thomas McEvilley have leds scholars to suspect that Nāgārjuna was influenced by Greek Pyrrhonist texts imported into India.
Catuṣkoṭi is a logical argument that is important in the Buddhist logico-epistemological traditions, particularly those of the Madhyamaka school, and in the skeptical Greek philosophy of Pyrrhonism. McEvilley argues for mutual iteration and pervasion between Pyrrhonism and Madhyamika:
An extraordinary similarity, that has long been noticed, between Pyrrhonism and Mādhyamika is the formula known in connection with Buddhism as the fourfold negation (catuṣkoṭi) and which in Pyrrhonic form might be called the fourfold indeterminacy.
McEvilley notes a correspondence between the Pyrrhonist and Madhyamaka views about truth:
Sextus says  that Pyrrhonism has two criteria regarding truth:
- [T]hat by which we judge reality and unreality, and
- [T]hat which we use as a guide in everyday life.
According to the first criterion, nothing is either true or false[.] [I]nductive statements based on direct observation of phenomena may be treated as either true or false for the purpose of making everyday practical decisions.
The distinction, as Conze has noted, is equivalent to the Madhyamika distinction between "Absolute truth" (paramārthasatya), "the knowledge of the real as it is without any distortion," and "Truth so-called" (saṃvṛti satya), "truth as conventionally believed in common parlance.
Buddhist philosopher Jan Westerhoff says "many of Nāgārjuna’s arguments concerning causation bear strong similarities to classical sceptical arguments as presented in the third book of Sextus Empiricus’s Outlines of Pyrrhonism."
Diogenes Laërtius' biography of Pyrrho reports that Pyrrho traveled with Alexander the Great's army to India and incorporated what he learned from the Gymnosophists and the Magi that he met in his travels into his philosophical system. Christopher I. Beckwith draws comparisons between the Buddhist three marks of existence and "Aristocles Passage". Other scholars, such as Stephen Batchelor and Charles Goodman question Beckwith's conclusions about the degree of Buddhist influence on Pyrrho. Conversely, while critical of Beckwith's ideas, Kuzminsky sees credibility in the hypothesis that Pyrrho was influenced by Buddhism, even if it cannot be safely ascertained with our current information. While discussing Christopher Beckwith's claims in Greek Buddha: Pyrrho's Encounter with Early Buddhism in Central Asia, Jerker Blomqvist states that:
On the other hand, certain elements that are generally regarded as essential features of Buddhism are entirely absent from ancient Pyrrhonism/scepticism. The concepts of good and bad karma must have been an impossibility in the Pyrrhonist universe, if “things” were ἀδιάφορα, ‘without a logical self-identity’, and, consequently, could not be differentiated from each other by labels such as ‘good’ and ‘bad’ or ‘just’ and ‘unjust’. A doctrine of rebirth, reminiscent of the Buddhist one, though favored by Plato and Pythagoras, was totally alien to the Pyrrhonists. The ἀταραξία, ‘undisturbedness’, that the Pyrrhonists promised their followers, may have a superficial resemblance to the Buddhist nirvana, but ἀταραξία, unlike nirvana, did not involve a liberation from a cycle of reincarnation; rather, it was a mode of life in this world, blessed with μετριοπάθεια, ’moderation of feeling’ or ‘moderate suffering’, not with the absence of any variety of pain. Kuzminski, whom Beckwith (p. 20) hails as a precursor of his, had largely ignored the problem with this disparity between Buddhism and Pyrrhonism.
Ajñana, which upheld radical skepticism, may have been a more powerful influence on Pyrrho than Buddhism. The Buddhists referred to Ajñana's adherents as Amarāvikkhepikas or "eel-wrigglers", due to their refusal to commit to a single doctrine. Scholars including Barua, Jayatilleke, and Flintoff, contend that Pyrrho was influenced by, or at the very least agreed with, Indian skepticism rather than Buddhism or Jainism, based on the fact that he valued ataraxia, which can be translated as "freedom from worry". Jayatilleke, in particular, contends that Pyrrho may have been influenced by the first three schools of Ajñana, since they too valued freedom from worry.
The recovery and publishing of the works of Sextus Empiricus in the sixteenth century ignited a revival of interest in Pyrrhonism. The publication of the works of Sextus Empiricus, particularly a widely influential translation by Henri Estienne published in 1562, played a major role in Renaissance and Reformation thought. Philosophers of the time used his works to source their arguments on how to deal with the religious issues of their day. Major philosophers such as Michel de Montaigne, Marin Mersenne, and Pierre Gassendi later drew on the model of Pyrrhonism outlined in Sextus Empiricus’ works for their own arguments. This resurgence of Pyrrhonism has sometimes been called the beginning of modern philosophy.
The balance scale, in perfect balance, is the traditional symbol of Pyrrhonism. The Pyrrhonist philosopher Montaigne adopted the image of a balance scale for his motto.It has also been suggested that Pyrrhonism provided the skeptical underpinnings that René Descartes drew from in developing his influential method of Cartesian doubt and the associated turn of early modern philosophy towards epistemology. The Pyrrhonian formulation of skepticism would also go on to have a considerable influence on David Hume, who uses "Pyrrhonism" as a synonym for "skepticism" occurred during the eighteenth century.[better source needed]. Historical Pyrrhonism emerged during the early modern period and played a significant role in shaping modern historiography, by questioning the possibility of any absolute knowledge from the past and transforming later historians' selection of and standard for reliable sources.
Friedrich Nietzsche criticized the "ephetics" as a flaw of early philosophers, who he characterized as "shy little blunderer[s] and milquetoast[s] with crooked legs" prone to overindulging "his doubting drive, his negating drive, his wait-and-see ('ephectic') drive, his analytical drive, his exploring, searching, venturing drive, his comparing, balancing drive, his will to neutrality and objectivity, his will to every sine ira et studio: have we already grasped that for the longest time they all went against the first demands of morality and conscience?"
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 always must stipulate this in her or his research and findings. It is, in effect, a modernized extension of Pyrrhonism. Indeed, historic Pyrrhonists sometimes are described by modern authors as fallibilists and modern fallibilists sometimes are described as Pyrrhonists. The term "neo-Pyrrhonism" is used to refer to modern Pyrrhonists such as Benson Mates and Robert Fogelin.
The Pyrrhonians withheld assent to every non-evident proposition. That is, they withheld assent to all propositions about which genuine dispute was possible, and they took that class of propositions to include both the (meta) proposition that we can have knowledge of EI-type propositions and the (meta) proposition that we cannot have knowledge. Indeed, they sometimes classified the Epistemists and the Academic skeptics together as dogmatists because the Epistemists assented to the proposition that we can have knowledge, while the Academic skeptics assented to the denial of that claim.
Those who believe they have discovered it are the "dogmatists," specially so called - Aristotle, for example, and Epicurus and the Stoics and certain others; Cleitomachus and Carneades and other Academics treat it as inapprehensible:the skeptics keep on searching. Hence it seems reasonable to hold the main types of philosophy are three- the dogmatic, the Academic, and the skeptic.
Both Academic and Pyrrhonian Scepticism develop in complicated ways in response to each other and in response to their common dogmatic opponents.
Skepticism: Those Academic thinkers who developed sets of arguments to show either that no knowledge is possible (Academic skepticism) or that there is not sufficient or adequate evidence to tell if any knowledge is possible. If the latter is the case then these thinkers advocated suspending judgment on all questions concerning knowledge (Pyrrhonian Skepticism).
Pyrrhonism, in whatever form it might have taken after Timon's death in 230 BCE, was utterly neglected until Aenesidemus brought it back to public attention
So while Pyrrho's influence is significant, it does not shape the contours of Arcesilaus' scepticism nearly as much as the influence of Plato and Socrates.
Aenesidemus criticized his fellow Academics for being dogmatic...Aenesidemus committed his scepticism to writing probably some time in the early-to-mid first century BCE...leading Aenesidemus to dismiss them as "Stoics fighting against Stoics."