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Compiled by Anthony Harrison-Barbet


SEXTUS EMPIRICUS

(c. 150 — c. 225)

 

SCEPTICISM

Sextus was probably a Greek and is the primary source of most of our knowledge of Greek scepticism. Little is known of his life, but he seems to have studied medicine as well as philosophy, and he was head of a sceptic school.

 

LOGIC

[1] Sextus is noteworthy for the claim that the syllogism is a circular argument form [see Pyrrhonism, 1] [a]. A major premise which is universal ('All S is P', for example) can be proved only by complete enumeration. The conclusion ('x is P') must therefore already be included in the premiss.

 

METHODOLOGY/ ETHICS

[2] The greater part of Sextus's work [Pyrrhonism, 2 and 3] consists of a comprehensive account of Greek scepticism. But he added glosses of his own [see also Against the Dogmatists]. Scepticism, he said, involves the rejection of all dogmatism — be it in metaphysics (of whatever variety) or epistemological 'probabilism' (associated with the Sceptics of the Academy); in other words, of all positive claims to knowledge [a]. He distinguished three stages of the dialectic process or method of doubt [b]. (1) The philosopher presents claims about some phenomenon, principle, or moral law, which appear to be mutually contradictory. Different Sceptics identified ways of arguing (tropoi), the number varying from thinker to thinker. (2) The second stage is the epoché or suspension of judgement on the tropoi [c]. Sextus seems to confine the epoché to claims which go beyond appearances or everyday behaviour. He here makes an important distinction between (a) certain kinds of words which are indicative signs of supposed entities such as substances, which we cannot experience; and (b) words which 'commemorate', that is, remind us of other experiences we have had, for example, bodily functions, sense experiences, even the conventional rules and customs of our society. We need all these, Sextus says, if we are to cope with the demands of everyday life, but he emphasizes that we must keep an open mind as to their validity. (3) The third stage is the attainment of tranquillity or imperturbability (ataraxia) [d] — this being the ultimate motivating force (arche) underlying scepticism and which leads to well-being (eudaimonia) [e].

 

CRITICAL SUMMARY

Sextus's comprehensive bringing together of the various strands of the Sceptic tradition — the search for ataraxia, the use of dialectic, for example, and his confining of the epoché to what others supposed to underlie phenomena, combined with a provisional acceptance of sensory and conventional cultural data (as opposed to 'probabilism') — all this made for a full-bodied and yet more open-minded and influential philosophy. Herein lies the importance of anti-dogmatic scepticism as an 'attitude' — an attitude which was to provide the foundation for the modern scepticism which emerged in the sixteenth century particularly in the essays of Montaigne. But clearly it is not a system in itself; if it were it would be self-refuting.

 

READING

Sextus: Hupotuposes (Outlines of Pyrrhonism), trans., J. Annas and J. Barnes; Against the Dogmatists. Both books are in the Loeb Classical Library edition, trans. R. G. Bury. See also Long and Sedley, op. cit., chs 71-2.

General

J. Annas and J. Barnes, The Modes of Scepticism.

Study

B. Mates, The Skeptic Way: Sextus Empiricus's Outlines of Pyrrhonism.

Collection of Articles

M. F. Burnyeat (ed.), The Sceptical Tradition.

 

CONNECTIONS

Sextus Empiricus

 

[1a] The syllogism — circularity    Mill [1e]

 

[2a] Scepticism of all claims to positive knowledge

   Zeno

   Pyrrho

   Epicurus

   Chrysippus

   Carneades

[1b 2a]

[1a]

[1a 1b]

[2a]

[1a 2b]

    [also rejection of all dogmatic metaphysics and epistemology — especially Platonic and Aristotelian]
    Descartes [1b 2a]

 

[2b] 'Dialectic' method of doubt

   Zeno

Descartes

[1a]

[1b]

 

[2c] Suspension of judgement — the epoché

   Pyrrho

   Carneades

Descartes

[1b]

[2a]

[1b]

 

[2d] Tranquillity (ataraxia)

   Pyrrho

   Epicurus

[2b]

[4a]

 

[2e] Happiness

   Pyrrho

   Epicurus

[2c]

[4a]