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Pyrrhonism is a school of philosophical skepticism founded by Pyrrho in the fourth century BCE. It is best known through the surviving works of Sextus Empiricus, writing in the late second century or early third century CE.
Pyrrho of Elis (c. 360 – c. 270 BCE) and his teacher Anaxarchus, a Democritean philosopher, traveled to India with Alexander the Great's army where Pyrrho was said to have studied with the magi and the gymnosophists,and where he was influenced by Buddhist teachings, most particularly the three marks of existence. After returning to Greece, Pyrrho started a new line of philosophy now known as "Pyrrhonism." His teachings were recorded by his student Timon of Phlius.
Pyrrhonism as a school was either revitalized or re-founded by Aenesidemus in the first century BCE.
Pyrrhonism's objective is principally psychological, although it is best known for its epistemological arguments, particularly the problem of the criterion and the problem of induction. Through epoché (suspension of judgment) the mind is brought to ataraxia, a state of equanimity. As in Stoicism and Epicureanism, eudaimonia is the Pyrrhonist goal of life, and all three philosophies placed it in ataraxia or apatheia.According to the Pyrrhonists, it is one's opinions about non-evident matters that prevent one from attaining eudaimonia.
The main principle of Pyrrho's thought is expressed by the word acatalepsia , which connotes the ability to withhold assent from doctrines regarding the truth of things in their own nature; against every statement its contradiction may be advanced with equal justification.
Pyrrhonists withhold assent with regard to non-evident propositions, that is, dogma. They disputed that the dogmatists had found truth regarding non-evident matters. For any non-evident matter, a Pyrrhonist tries to make the arguments for and against such that the matter cannot be concluded, thus suspending belief. According to Pyrrhonism, even the statement that nothing can be known is dogmatic. They thus attempted to make their skepticism universal, and to escape the reproach of basing it upon a fresh dogmatism.Mental imperturbability ( ataraxia ) was the result to be attained by cultivating such a frame of mind.
Pyrrhonians (or Pyrrhonism) can be subdivided into those who are ephectic (a "suspension of judgment"), zetetic ("engaged in seeking"), or aporetic ("engaged in refutation").
Pyrrhonism is credited with being the first Western school of philosophy to identify the problem of induction, and the Münchhausen trilemma.
Pyrrhonist practice is for the purpose of achieving epoché, i.e., suspension of judgment. The core practice is through setting argument against argument. To aid in this, the Pyrrhonist philosophers Aenesidemus and Agrippa developed sets of stock arguments.
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 tropes 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.”
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":
Whoever wants eudaimonia (to live well) must consider these three questions: First, how are pragmata (ethical matters, affairs, topics) by nature? Secondly, what attitude should we adopt towards them? Thirdly, what will be the outcome for those who have this attitude?" Pyrrho's answer is that "As for pragmata they are all adiaphora (undifferentiated by a logical differentia), astathmēta (unstable, unbalanced, not measurable), and anepikrita (unjudged, unfixed, undecidable). Therefore, neither our sense-perceptions nor our doxai (views, theories, beliefs) tell us the truth or lie; so we certainly should not rely on them. Rather, we should be adoxastous (without views), aklineis (uninclined toward this side or that), and akradantous (unwavering in our refusal to choose), saying about every single one that it no more is than it is not or it both is and is not or it neither is nor is not. The outcome for those who actually adopt this attitude, says Timon, will be first aphasia (speechlessness, non-assertion) and then ataraxia (freedom from disturbance), and Aenesidemus says pleasure.
Adiaphora, astathmēta, and anepikrita are strikingly similar to the Buddhist Three marks of existence,suggesting that Pyrrho's teaching is based on what he learned in India, which is what Diogenes Laërtius reported.
Other similarities between Pyrrhonism and Buddhism include a version of the tetralemma among the Pyrrhonist maximsand a parallel with the Buddhist Two Truths Doctrine. In Pyrrhonism the Buddhist concept of "ultimate" (paramārtha) truth corresponds with truth as defined via the criterion of truth, which in Pyrrhonism is seen as undemonstrated, and therefore nothing can be called "true" with respect of it being an account of reality. The Buddhist concept of "conventional" or "provisional" (saṁvṛti) truth corresponds in Pyrrhonism to truth defined via the Pyrrhonist criterion of action, which is used for making decisions about what to do.
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.
A revival of the use of "Pyrrhonism" as a synonym for "skepticism" occurred during the seventeenth century.
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.
Diogenes Laërtius recorded the following list of scholarchs of the Pyrrhonist school of philosophy.
270-235 Timon of Phlius
???-??? Euphranor of Seleucia
???-??? Eubulus of Alexandria
???-??? Ptolemy of Cyrene
c. 100 Heraclides of Tarentum
c. 50 Aenesidemus
???-??? Antiochus of Laodicea on the Lycus
c 100 Menodotus of Nicomedia
c. 120 Herodotus of Tarsus
c. 160 Sextus Empiricus
c. 200 Saturninus
Anaxarchus was a Greek philosopher of the school of Democritus. Together with Pyrrho, he accompanied Alexander the Great into Asia. The reports of his philosophical views suggest that he was a forerunner of Pyrrhonism. Aelian writes that he was called Eudaemonicus or "Happy Man"(Ancient Greek: Εὐδαιμονικὸς).
Skepticism or scepticism is generally a questioning attitude or doubt towards one or more items of putative knowledge or belief or dogma. It is often directed at domains, such as the supernatural, morality, theism, or knowledge. Formally, skepticism as a topic occurs in the context of philosophy, particularly epistemology, although it can be applied to any topic such as politics, religion, and pseudoscience.
Diogenes Laërtius was a biographer of the Greek philosophers. Nothing is definitively known about his life, but his surviving Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers is a principal source for the history of ancient Greek philosophy. His reputation is controversial among scholars because he often repeats information from his sources without critically evaluating it. He also frequently focuses on trivial or insignificant details of his subjects' lives while ignoring important details of their philosophical teachings and he sometimes fails to distinguish between earlier and later teachings of specific philosophical schools. However, unlike many other ancient secondary sources, Diogenes Laërtius generally reports philosophical teachings without attempting to reinterpret or expand on them, which means his accounts are often closer to the primary sources. Due to the loss of so many of the primary sources on which Diogenes relied, his work has become the foremost surviving source on the history of Greek philosophy.
Pyrrho of Elis was a Greek philosopher of Classical antiquity and is credited as being the first Greek skeptic philosopher and founder of Pyrrhonism.
Arcesilaus was a Greek philosopher and founder of the Second or Middle Academy—the phase of Academic scepticism. Arcesilaus succeeded Crates as the sixth head (scholarch) of the Academy c. 264 BC. He did not preserve his thoughts in writing, so his opinions can only be gleaned second-hand from what is preserved by later writers. He was the first Academic to adopt a position of philosophical scepticism, that is, he doubted the ability of the senses to discover truth about the world, although he may have continued to believe in the existence of truth itself. This brought in the sceptical phase of the Academy. His chief opponents were the Stoics and their dogma of katalepsis.
Aenesidemus was a Greek Pyrrhonist philosopher, born in Knossos on the island of Crete. He lived in the 1st century BC, taught in Alexandria and flourished shortly after the life of Cicero. Photius says he was a member of Plato's Academy, but he came to dispute their theories, adopting Pyrrhonism instead. Diogenes Laërtius claims an unbroken lineage of teachers of Pyrrhonism through Aenesidemus, with his teacher being Heraclides. However, little is known about the names between Timon of Phlius and Aenesidemus, so this lineage is suspect. Whether Aenesidemus re-founded the Pyrrhonist school or merely revitalized it is unknown.
Sextus Empiricus, was a Pyrrhonist philosopher and a physician. His philosophical works are the most complete surviving account of ancient Greek and Roman Pyrrhonism, and because of the arguments they contain against the other Hellenistic philosophies they are also a major source of information about those philosophies.
Philosophical skepticism is a philosophical school of thought that questions the possibility of certainty in knowledge. Skeptic philosophers from different historical periods adopted different principles and arguments, but their ideology can be generalized as either (1) the denial of possibility of all knowledge or (2) the suspension of judgement due to the inadequacy of evidence.
Ataraxia is a Greek term first used in Ancient Greek philosophy by Pyrrho and subsequently Epicurus and the Stoics for a lucid state of robust equanimity characterized by ongoing freedom from distress and worry. In non-philosophical usage, the term was used to describe the ideal mental state for soldiers entering battle.
Timon of Phlius was a Greek Pyrrhonist philosopher, a pupil of Pyrrho, and a celebrated writer of satirical poems called Silloi (Σίλλοι). He was born in Phlius, moved to Megara, and then he returned home and married. He next went to Elis with his wife, and heard Pyrrho, whose tenets he adopted. He also lived on the Hellespont, and taught at Chalcedon, before moving to Athens, where he lived until his death. His writings were said to have been very numerous. He composed poetry, tragedies, satiric dramas, and comedies, of which very little remains. His most famous composition was his Silloi, a satirical account of famous philosophers, living and dead; a spoudaiogeloion in hexameter verse. The Silloi has not survived intact, but it is mentioned and quoted by several ancient authors.
Epoché is an ancient Greek term typically translated as "suspension of judgment" but also as "withholding of assent". The term is used in slightly different ways among the various schools of Hellenistic philosophy.
Agrippa was a Pyrrhonist philosopher who probably lived towards the end of the 1st century CE. He is regarded as the author of "The Five Tropes of Agrippa", which are purported to establish the necessity of suspending judgment (epoché). Agrippa's arguments form the basis of the Münchhausen trilemma.
Richard Arnot Home Bett holds a joint appointment in Philosophy and Classics at the Johns Hopkins University. He received his BA from Oxford University and his PhD from UC Berkeley. He spent 1994-5 as a Fellow at the Center for Hellenic Studies, Washington, D.C. From January 2000 to June 2001 he was Acting Executive Director of the American Philosophical Association, and he was Secretary-Treasurer of its Eastern Division from 2003 to 2013.
In epistemology, the Münchhausen trilemma is a thought experiment used to demonstrate the impossibility of proving any truth, even in the fields of logic and mathematics. If it is asked how any given proposition is known to be true, proof may be provided. Yet that same question can be asked of the proof, and any subsequent proof. The Münchhausen trilemma is that there are only three options when providing further proof in response to further questioning:
The tetralemma is a figure that features prominently in the logic of India. It states that with reference to any a logical proposition X, there are four possibilities:
Hellenistic philosophy is the period of Western philosophy and Middle Eastern philosophy that was developed in the Hellenistic period following Aristotle and ending with the beginning of Neoplatonism.
Monimus of Syracuse, was a Cynic philosopher who endorsed philosophical skepticism, denying that there was a criterion of truth.
Nausiphanes, a native of Teos, was attached to the philosophy of Democritus, and was a pupil of Pyrrho.
Menodotus of Nicomedia, in Bithynia, was a physician and Pyrrhonist philosopher; a pupil of Antiochus of Laodicea; and tutor to Herodotus of Tarsus. He belonged to the Empirical school, and lived probably about the beginning of the 2nd century CE. He refuted some of the opinions of Asclepiades of Bithynia, and was exceedingly severe against the Dogmatists. He enjoyed a considerable reputation in his day, and is several times quoted and mentioned by Galen. He appears to have written some works which are quoted by Diogenes Laërtius, but are not now extant.
Academic skepticism refers to the skeptical period of ancient Platonism dating from around 266 BC, when Arcesilaus became head of the Platonic Academy, until around 90 BC, when Antiochus of Ascalon rejected skepticism, although individual philosophers, such as Favorinus and his teacher Plutarch continued to defend Academic skepticism after this date. Unlike the existing school of skepticism, the Pyrrhonists, they maintained that knowledge of things is impossible. Ideas or notions are never true; nevertheless, there are degrees of probability, and hence degrees of belief, which allow one to act. The school was characterized by its attacks on the Stoics, particularly the Stoic dogma that convincing impressions led to true knowledge. The most important Academic skeptics were Arcesilaus, Carneades, and Philo of Larissa.
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