Skepticism Presentation to Phi Sigma Tau Panel--Living the Skeptical Life Contra Burnyeat

Copyright © 2004 Bruce W. Hauptli

In his “Can the Skeptic Live His Skepticism?”1 Myles Burnyeat considers the traditional objection to skepticism which holds that skeptics propound a view that they can not put into practice.  In raising this objection, for example, David Hume says that “...though a Pyrrhonian may throw himself or others into a momentary amazement and confusion by his profound reasonings; the first and most trivial event in life will put to flight all his doubts and scruples, and leave him in the same, in every point of action and speculation, with philosophers of every other sect....”2  Burnyeat contends that while this objection is frequently raised, it is not generally supported by any argument.  While a skeptical life seems an impossibility, Sextus and other Pyrrhonists recognize this objection but deny its force; and, thus, a detailed argument that such a human life is impossible is called for.

     According to Burnyeat, instead of believing, Pyrrhonians assent only where they are constrained to do so:

look through a sample of skeptic arguments and you will find that a great number of them end by saying that one is forced to suspend judgment, the word most commonly used being “anagkazo,” the same word as describes our passive relationship to an impression of sense and the assent it engages.  The skeptic assents only when his assent is constrained; and equally, when he withholds assent, suspends judgment, this is because he finds himself constrained to do so.  A marked passivity in the face of both his sensations and his own thought processes is an important aspect of the skeptic’s detachment from himself. (p. 131)

The Pyrrhonian skeptic who follows appearances is not limited to the following sensory appearances.  In addition to this “guidance of nature,” Burnyeat points out, Sextus speaks of the compulsion of bodily drives, the constraints imposed by law and custom, and the constraints imposed by one’s profession.  These constraints allow for activity not by legitimating belief but, rather, by compelling the skeptic to “follow the appearances.”  She does not claim to believe (claim that what she assents to is true) but rather, explains her action by appealing to these constraints.

     Like Hume, then, the Pyrrhonian skeptic recognizes the strength of nature, but for her it determines assent and not belief (since the latter is connected with truth).  What she objects to is not assenting to the appearances but, rather, accepting any of them as true.  She would avoid dogmatic belief by detaching herself from the search for truth and assenting only where constrained to do so.  She offers skeptical arguments designed to produce suspension of belief—arguments designed to show that each belief claim has a contrary which has equal force of reason behind it.

     Burnyeat argues that while this line of argument may rescue the Pyrrhonian from the traditional charge that her doctrine is incoherent with her day-to-day practice, it yields incoherence on a “higher level.”  While on the first level the Pyrrhonian skeptic may be able to consistently claim that it appears that honey is sweet while not believing this (assenting to it because of the compulsion of the appearances without believing it), the overall attainment of first level belief-suspension requires that she accept, on the second level, claims like “contrary claims have equal strength.”  In the case of these claims, however, one may not distinguish assent from belief.  According to Burnyeat, then, the skeptical life is impossible because the first level belief-suspension will be possible only if the Pyrrhonist believes various second level claims as the result of her arguments.

     The Pyrrhonist could, however, contend that her assent on the second level is itself constrained.  That is, contra Burnyeat, she might claim that the second level arguments and claims are not believed but, rather, assented to.  Here it would be the practices and customs of thought which constrain assent (whereas on the first level it was percipience, desire, custom, and professional training).  Instead of claiming that certain philosophical arguments and beliefs are true, she would contend that skeptical inquiries and examinations lead her to assent to claims like “No more this than that.”  The Pyrrhonist could contend that the tendency to move from assent to belief on the second level would itself be a function of the forces which compel our assent on this level, and the “methodological” remarks which Sextus offers about the second level assertions would be intended to block the tendency to slide from assent to belief on this level.

     Of course this response raises the specter of a regress—Burnyeat could reply that it merely delays the problem since the assent on the second level will be the result of some third level beliefs which the skeptic accepts as true.  Clearly, a life based on acceptance of beliefs on some higher level is not a life without belief, and since the Pyrrhonist’s life is to be one which avoids belief, the Pyrrhonist can not live such a life if she believes on some higher level.  This argument presumes that the skeptic accepts (rather than assents) on the higher level, however, and this claim deserves closer scrutiny.

     If the Pyrrhonist’s response regarding the higher level “assents” is to hold much promise, then, the distinction between assent and belief must, contra Burnyeat, make sense here.  The picture Burnyeat paints of the Pyrrhonist’s second level moves portrays her as employing rational arguments to establish the equipollence of contrary first level claims.  Thus she is hoist by her own petard—employing the apparatus of philosophical argumentation, she seeks to warrant meta-level claims about the object-level and, at best, may claim that object-level beliefs are to be eschewed.  Here the Pyrrhonist is portrayed as using reason to attempt to establish the poverty of reason (here another of the traditional critiques of skepticism looms), and the self-refuting character of her endeavor seems to warrant the claim that the life-style which she champions is an impossible one.

     In evaluating this picture of the Pyrrhonist’s procedure on the second level we must recall the many warnings Sextus provides regarding the non-dogmatic character of the Pyrrhonist’s pronouncements.  Suppose we take him at his word when he says that in “...none of our future statements do we positively affirm that the fact is exactly as we state it, but we simply record each fact, like a chronicler, as it appears to us at the moment.”3  Chroniclers do not generally present rational arguments.  Instead they tell tales.  Good chroniclers, of course, tell tales which report events which did occur—thus the distinction between chronicles and works of historical fiction.  Sextus would offer a unique sort of chronicle however.  First, the “events” chronicled are philosophical arguments—the Pyrrhonist records arguments which are about first level claims.  Second, like all chroniclers, the Pyrrhonist has a purpose in mind.  Indeed, like most chroniclers, her purpose is one of “moral education.”  But whereas ordinary chroniclers portray lives or historical events in order to educate us (whether by good or bad example) as to how life ought to be led, the Pyrrhonist chronicles philosophical arguments with the same end-in-view.

     It is important to note that there is all the difference in the world between chronicling arguments and arguing however.  The Pyrrhonistic chronicler reports (indeed, reports appearances according to Sextus) rather than argues.  Where Burnyeat would have the Pyrrhonist advance second level arguments (and, thus, accept certain things as true on this level), Sextus would have the Pyrrhonist chronicle such argumentation.4

     As every instructor of introductory philosophy knows, students too frequently fail to distinguish philosophical argumentation from the chronicling of the same—they mistakenly believe that they may chronicle arguments when their instructors demand that they advance arguments.  Should the Pyrrhonist accept the philosophy instructors’ demands however?  If she does (if she advances arguments as reasons for certain second level theses), she falls prey to Burnyeat’s critique.  Suppose, however, that she refuses the philosophy instructors’ demands (and offers a chronicle rather than an argument).  In that case her second level remarks will not constitute an attempt to advance a philosophical thesis by reasoned argument, and her first level assent would not be based upon argumentation in the manner Burnyeat imagines.  Instead of arguing (and, thus asserting) on the higher level, she would report how the arguments appear to her, and from this appearance her suspense of judgment would result.

     Her technique for bringing about this state (and ultimately the tranquillity which she seeks) would not be by arguing but, rather, by chronicling philosophical argumentation.  Instead of arguing for the conclusion that “ each and every case dogmatic claims are indeed equally balanced and hence that one ought to suspend judgment” (p. 138), she would chronicle various philosophical arguments, and this chronicle would be offered to aid both her and others in forestalling the move on the first level from assent to belief.

     Burnyeat maintains that “...accepting the conclusion that p is true on the basis of a certain argument is hardly to be distinguished from coming to believe that p is true with that argument as one’s reason.” (p.138)  He also claims that the Pyrrhonist uses “reason to...destroy all trust in reason itself” (p. 133) and he speaks of the individual who lives without belief as someone who has been “converted by the skeptic arguments.” (p. 126)  I do not want to deny that one may advance the arguments which the Pyrrhonist chronicles.  Nor do I wish to deny that some skeptics may advance exactly the sorts of arguments which Burnyeat puts in the mouths of the Pyrrhonist.5  What I wish to deny is Burnyeat’s claim that the Pyrrhonist’s methodological remarks must be taken as assertions (as beliefs that certain higher level claims are in fact true).  If we construe the Pyrrhonist’s remarks along the lines of chronicle rather than argumentation, then these remarks need not be construed as assertions—they may be descriptions of how the higher level arguments appear to the Pyrrhonist.  Moreover, these appearances may compel the Pyrrhonist’s assent no less than the appearances which arise out of the senses, the passions, the traditions, and the professional practices.

     Tranquillity rather than anxiety can be produced by such a chronicle just because it does not argue.  The preferred moral is not drawn from the tale by deduction (after all, one may be able to “deduce” that “the race will go to the swift if they remain awake” with as much ease as one may be able to draw the traditional “conclusion”).  Instead, the moral flows from the tale given the chronicler’s skill in telling the story.  It is in the telling of the tale that one is “led” to the chosen moral, and the Pyrrhonist would tell a tale which would aid both herself and us in suspending judgment and, thus, achieving tranquillity.

     In speaking of assent without belief, the Pyrrhonist need not recommend an impossible detachment from herself.  Were she attempting to advance arguments without assertion and belief, she would indeed be attempting such an impossible task.  Since she is not advancing arguments, the detachment she recommends is not impossible (at least not on the grounds Burnyeat cites).  On the higher level, as on the lower level, the Pyrrhonist recommends that we assent only where compelled.  Moreover, she claims, the chronicle which she sets out for us compels us to assent to the appearance that the lower level claims are equally warranted and, thus, leads us to suspend judgment.  The Pyrrhonist recognizes the human tendency to move from assent to belief, indeed it is just this move she would forestall.  She need not make this move on the second level to forestall it on the first one however.  Her chronicles of the philosophical arguments do not constitute an attempt to divorce an arguer and her argumentative conclusions but, rather, they are meant to facilitate a self-conscious and consistent marriage of appearances and the appeared-to individual—a condition wherein one attends to the philosophical appearances and assents to them only when compelled to do so.

     The compulsion fostered by the appearances on the higher level, is no different from the compulsion on the lower level.  Assent is actively compelled by our capacity for percipience only when we are perceiving.  Similarly we will be compelled to assent on the second level only when the various chronicles are clearly set out before us.  In chronicling the various second level arguments, the Pyrrhonist is attending to these appearances in order to foster the suspension of belief on the first level and, thus, attain tranquillity.  The skeptic’s plight is not that she must argue for her skepticism but, rather, that she must constantly keep the philosophic appearances before her so that she will not be led from first level assent to first level belief.  Attending to such appearances, and assenting to them, however, does not amount to asserting or believing on the second level (nor on any higher level).  Instead, the chronicler records the appearances in hopes that they will facilitate the purposes of the chronicle.

     Of course, if what I offer here is an adequate response to Burnyeat’s argument, it can not constitute a third level Pyrrhonistic argument.  It must itself be a description of the Pyrrhonistic methodology—a meta-chronicle told not to argue for Pyrrhonism but, rather, to facilitate the suspension of belief and the attainment of tranquillity.  But for the human tendency to move from assent to appearances to belief in real existences, these Pyrrhonistic “ladders” could be finally discarded.  Given this tendency, however, constant reminders are necessary if dogmatism (on any level) is to be avoided.  If this skeptical response is consistent, it may help philosophers understand the necessity for the sort of attack which philosophers like Wittgenstein and Quine mount against skepticism.6  Rather than arguing against the skeptics, these philosophers offer differing sorts of therapy designed to show how the skeptics’ orientations are fundamentally misconceived.  Chronicles are not refuted, they are shown to be inadequate records by alternate chronicles which more adequately reflect the appearances.  But this, of course, is a different story.

     It may help to remember that Sextus was a practicing physician.  If he was a Pyrrhonistic physician, then he did not claim to know that purgatives expelled both themselves and the humors, instead his assent must have been simply that “this is how it seemed to him,” and he was compelled to this assent by the conventions of his profession.  His use of the purgatives was oriented toward producing tranquility, and if he was asked why he applied a purgative, he might well have responded with a second level one like “purgatives clean out the system.”  The second level claim, however, need not be advanced as an instance of medical knowledge which justifies the first level application of the medicine.  Instead it could also have to be something he assented to because of the conventions of his profession.  His assent on the second level would not be the result of medical argument, but would be as compelled as his first level consent.

     Well, anyhow, that is how it seems to me!


1 This article originally appeared in Doubt and Dogmatism, eds. M. Schofield, M. Burnyeat, and J. Barnes (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980).  It is reprinted in The Skeptical Tradition, ed. Myles Burnyeat (Berkeley: University of California, 1983), pp. 117-148; and all citations to it here are to this source.   Back

2 David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding [1748], Section XII.  Cited from Hume's Enquiries, ed. L.A. Selby-Biggie (Oxford, Oxford U.P., 1902), p. 160.   Back

3 Sextus Empiricus, Outlines of Pyrrhonism I, 1, trans. R.G. Bury (Cambridge: Harvard, The Loeb Classical Library, 1933).  Etheridge’s translation is: “we declare at the outset that we do not make any positive assertion that anything we say is wholly as we affirm it to be.  We merely report accurately on each thing as our impressions of it are at the moment.  I prefer Bury’s translation for its suggestion of “chronicling” here.   Back

4 Burnyeat recognizes that Sextus would treat his treatise as a chronicle and he draws the reader’s attention to the fact that Sextus does not mean to limit “appearances” to “sensory appearances:” “...the practice of argumentative inquiry is so considerable a portion of the skeptic’s way of life that they must certainly be included under the skeptic criterion.  They are one outcome, surely, and a most important outcome, of his natural capacity for percipience and thought.” (p. 127)  Indeed, my disagreement with Burnyeat is sparked by his own discussion—I agree that it is important that we recognize that the Pyrrhonists wished to talk about the compelling nature of our thoughts as well as our perceptual experiences.  I disagree with Burnyeat as to whether this compulsion requires that one assert as well as assent.   Back

5 Indeed Sextus sometimes encourages the interpretation Burnyeat offers.  In PH II 79 he says that while in setting up “counter-arguments” against the dogmatists’ arguments “...we do not positively affirm either that they are true or that they are more plausible than their opposites, yet because of the apparently equal plausibility of these arguments and of those propounded by the Dogmatists, we deduce suspension of judgement.”  Burnyeat could contend, of course, that to “deduce” the suspension of judgment is to follow exactly the course he has charted (and to commit oneself to second level beliefs.  While this and similar passages allow for Burnyeat’s reading, I contend that when Sextus is speaking of his methodology most carefully his remarks are most naturally construed along the chronicling metaphor.   Back

6 Cf., L. Wittgenstein’s On Certainty, trans. G.E.M. Anscome and G.H. von Wright (New York: Harper, 1969), and W.V. Quine’s “Things and Their Place in Theories,” in his Theories and Things (Cambridge: Harvard U.P., 1981).   Back

 A fuller version of this argument

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