In post-Aristotelian Greece dogmatic systems had already developed as responses to the disordered environment: stoicism and epicureanism. Pyrro of Elis, founded another philosophy: scepticism. He concluded that no one could know for sure, nor could he know, if what he perceived with his senses was real and not an illusion. This was the antidote to the dogmatic contemporary philosophies. Its importance lies in a follower of Pyrro, Sextus Empiricus (2nd. century A.D.), who wrote Pros dogmatikous. Sextus, a doctor, gets his surname from his approach to medicine, based on the empirical idea that experience is more trustworthy than medical theory.
Sextus quotes other authors extensively in his analysis and so conserved their ideas for future scholars. For example Hume and Kant used texts from Sextus for their study of ancient philosophy.
Sextus' book describes Pyrronist scepticism in a criticism of contemporary dogmas. The final purpose of Pyrronist philosophy was happiness (eudemonia) and the best way to achieve this was to suspend beliefs (epoché) which would then lead to equanimity (ataraxia). Empiricus describes Pyrronism as:
"... a disposition to oppose phenomena and noumena to one another in any way whatever, with the result that, owing to the equipollence among the things and statements thus opposed, we are brought first to epoché and then to ataraxia... "
Suspension is arrived at through balancing propositions: for every proposition, you have equally compelling reasons to believe it is true and also false. This leads to a suspension of any belief in the proposition: it is neither true nor false.
For Sextus scepticism is different from other philosophies like Epicurism or Stoicism not because of doctrinal content, but through an attitude to philosophical problems. What is common to them all is their aim to achieve ataraxia, though in different ways:
Epicurism seeks pleasure, not in itself, but as the avoidance of pain. This level of painless living is ataraxia.
For the Stoics living virtuously in consonance with Nature is the purpose of life. When this is followed it leads to ataraxia.
The Pyrronist arrives at ataraxia through the suspension of judgement.
Pyrronism is more therapeutic than theoretical. Its aim is to achieve peace of mind. By setting things in equal opposition and suspending judgement, then a state of mental suspense, ataraxia, follows.
Pros dogmatikous (Against the Dogmatists) is another name for the the first 6 chapters of Adversus Mathematicos or Against the Professors.
It has the following structure:
I Against the Grammarians
II. Against the Rhetoricians
III. Against the Geometers
IV Against the Arithmeticians
V. Against the Astrologers
VI. Against the Musicians
Sextus used the impossible infinite regress argument against all methods of reasoning:
"Those who claim for themselves to judge the truth are bound to possess a criterion of truth. This criterion, then, either is without a judge's approval or has been approved. But if it is without approval, whence comes it that it is truthworthy? For no matter of dispute is to be trusted without judging. And, if it has been approved, that which approves it, in turn, either has been approved or has not been approved, and so on ad infinitum."
Sextus' solution to the impossible infinite regress of rational judgements was to advise that judgements should be suspended about all beliefs. This means that we should not claim or deny that any belief is either true or false. Others denied the possibility of knowledge, but he did not declare that. He argued that to affirm that nothing is knowable is an affirmative belief, but that he advocates giving up belief altogether. He suspends judgement (epoché) about whether anything is knowable or not. It is only through suspension of judgement that we can reach peace of mind (ataraxia). Practice of suspending judgement is possible, according to Sextus, by behaving through habit.
The author did admit that we could make affirmative claims about our experience, that is, things we perceive or feel could be true. However, this does not suggest objective knowledge about external reality. He gives the example of tasting honey. Though when you eat it you know it tastes sweet. This is a subjective judgement and may or may not tell you something about the honey itself.
Sextus lends a specific meaning to dogma: something which is beyond appearances and so not provable or disprovable. Included in this are the nature or existence of time, causality, motion or proof itself. The sceptic believes in sensorial appearances, but suspends judgement about the ultimate, metaphysical, truth of non-evident subjects.
The sceptic can believe that God exists or does not exist. However, his belief will not be based on reasoning, since it is not demonstrable that assent to this thesis is more credible that denial of it.
The concept of truth was central to epicurean and stoic thinking, compared to the pyrronist sceptics.
The epicurean criteria for truths were full acceptance of sensory information, preconceptions and feelings. Using these as a basis they then worked out other propositions.
The Stoics searched for truth in 'cognitive impressions' which were believed to guarantee truth.
Sextus criticises the impressionistic, sensory bases of both Epicurus and the Stoics. He argues that the intellect cannot discern which impressions reflect the world and which not. Perceptual impressions cannot be relied on as a criterion. However, true to his own truth, Sextus suspends judgment on whether or not there are criteria of truth.
So can the Pyrrhonian skeptic have beliefs? Sextus declares that there are two meanings to 'dogma'. Loyal to the formula of his philosophy, the author asserts that one meaning is that sceptics have dogmata; the other is that they don't harbour dogmata. The second meaning is interpreted to be that they hold no philosophical opinions. The first meaning, opinions held, is taken to be the sceptic's recognition of being conscious of appearances:
"When we say that Sceptics do not hold beliefs, we do not take ‘belief’ in the sense in which some say, quite generally, that belief is acquiescing in something; for Sceptics assent to the feelings forced upon them by appearances—for example, they would not say, when heated or chilled, ‘I think I am not heated (or: chilled)’. Rather, we say that they do not hold beliefs, in the sense in which some say that belief is assent to some unclear object of investigation in the sciences; for Pyrrhonists do not assent to anything unclear."
The sceptic recognises appearances that aren’t accompanied by equal and opposing appearances. However, this does not involve saying that they are theoretically correct or giving reasons for accepting them. It is passively responding to their attraction.
Dialectic methodThe pyrronist, Aenesidemus, produced an outline of sceptical arguments to help refute dogmatic claims. Sextus discusses a group of Ten Modes from Aenesidemus' writings. These modes describe the way Sextus and his fellow sceptics behave dialectically:
1. "The same impressions are not produced by the same objects owing to the differences in animals."
It is reasonable to suppose that humans do not perceive the world more accurately than other animals. This forces us to suspend our judgement on the nature of things. If dogs like bad smells and humans don't, we cannot conclude that bad smells are either attractive or not by their nature.
2. The same impressions are not produced by the same objects owing to the differences among human beings.
The same as in 1, humans can disagree on their views of things and there is no rational basis for deciding that our personal view is the correct one.
3. The same impressions are not produced by the same objects owing to the differences among the senses.
The same applies to the different senses of the same person. Perfume may be pleasant to the nose, but not to taste. We cannot generalise that perfume, in its nature, is more pleasant than the opposite.
4. Owing to the "circumstances, conditions or dispositions," the same objects appear differently. The same temperature, as established by instrument, feels very different after an extended period of cold winter weather than after mild weather in the autumn. Time appears slow when young and fast as aging proceeds. Honey tastes sweet to most, but bitter to someone with jaundice. A person with influenza will feel cold and shiver even though she is hot with a fever.
Perceivers experience the world depending on their emotional or physical state. We cannot judge these experiences, since we have no rational grounds to assess them.
5. "Based on positions, distances, and locations; for owing to each of these the same objects appear different."
Depending on the location and position of an object, its appearance to the observer will be greatly affected.
6. “We deduce that since no object strikes us entirely by itself, but along with something else, it may perhaps be possible to say what the mixture compounded out of the external object and the thing perceived with it is like, but we would not be able to say what the external object is like by itself."
We cannot experience anything in its purity because objects are perceived mixed with other elements: its internal composition, or its external environment. Since we cannot experience the nature of things we cannot say what that nature is.
7. "Based, as we said, on the quantity and constitution of the underlying objects, meaning generally by "constitution" the manner of composition."
The quality and proportions of things produce different effects. Overdrinking wine debilitates, but drinking the right amount fortifies. We conclude that the nature of wine is no more fortifying than debilitating.
8. "Since all things appear relative, we will suspend judgement about what things exist absolutely and really exist. Do things which exist "differentially" as opposed to those things that have a distinct existence of their own, differ from relative things or not? If they do not differ, then they too are relative; but if they differ, then, since everything which differs is relative to something..., things which exist absolutely are relative."
Relativity is the paradigm. The properties of an object are relative to the perceiver and the features of the thing. These partial views are not sufficient to ascertain its nature, so we must suspend judgement.
9. "Based on constancy or rarity of occurrence."
Frequency of contact with something affects our perception of it. Rare objects appear valuable, beautiful things are less striking when seen after the first time. Diamonds are equally valuable and worthless.
10. "There is a Tenth Mode, which is mainly concerned with Ethics, being based on rules of conduct, habits, laws, legendary beliefs, and dogmatic conceptions."
Customs, cultures and laws evaluate the world differently. A practice in one area is immoral, in another not, as different views on homosexuality show. We must suspend judgement on intrinsic values.
The general aim of Aenesidemus' Pyrrhoneia is to demonstrate that there is no firm basis for cognition.
Ataraxia is peace of mind. Given the disarray in the Greek cities after the death of Aristotle, Macedonia was able to conquer the territory. To counter the atmosphere of anxiety people were looking around for a way to live in tranquility. Stoicism and Epicureism offered lifestyles, so did Scepticism. Sextus offers a therapeutic way of life, through practising a singleminded scrutiny of all aspects of any question. This practice will enable the sceptic to develop the skill of evaluating both sides of a problem.
Pyrrhonists arrive at their peace of mind, ataraxia, not by judging appearances, but by learning to "oppose appearances to judgments" so that they are "brought firstly to a state of mental suspense and next to ataraxia."