In the opening chapter of his Outlines of Pyrrhonism (Hypotyposes) Sextus Empiricus makes the distinction between three types of philosophy — the dogmatic, the Academic, and the skeptic. Philosophers of the first group assert that they have discovered some kind of absolute truth; the Academics claim that no such absolute truth can be discovered; and the third group maintains that it is impossible to say whether man can attain any truth or not. Sextus Empiricus uses the words “Pyrrhonist” or “skeptic” interchangeably to refer to this third doctrine, the one he espouses; and ever since there has been some confusion over just what is to be meant by the term “skepticism” and how carefully it is to be distinguished from “Pyrrhonism,” if at all. Does “skepticism” refer to the belief that no knowledge is possible (“I know that I can know nothing”) or to the more cautious belief that one cannot say whether knowledge is possible or not (“I can know nothing; I cannot even know that I know nothing”)? It is easy to see why these two positions are so difficult to separate. Any Pyrrhonist wishing to demonstrate that the only proper attitude is to remain in a state of doubt must show that no certain knowledge is possible ; for if any single truth could be definitely proven, it would not be possible to suspend judgment totally.


Greek Philosopher Skeptical Argument Loeb Classical Library Sense Judgment Logical Succession 
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  1. 1.
    This outline and all quotations from Sextus Empiricus are taken from R. G. Bury’s Introduction to the Loeb Classical Library edition of the Hypotyposes (London: William Heinemann Ltd., and New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1933), p. xxx. Other histories available are: E. Zeller, The Stoics, Epicureans and Sceptics, translated from the German by Oswald Reichel (London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1892); Victor Brochard, Les Sceptiques grecs, 2e éd. (Paris: Vrin, 1923); and Léon Robin, Pyrrhon et le scepticisme grec (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1944).Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Montaigne twice takes up these stories about Pyrrho (II : xii, 485a and II : xxix, 683–6840). In the first instance he scorns them as unbelievable, in the second he uses them as a marvelous (“quasi incroyable”) example of a man capable of practicing his theories in every day life. See infra, p. 89 note 2. Bayle discounts the same tales in DHC, Pyrrhon D.Google Scholar
  3. 1.
    Zeller (p. 525) and Brochard (p. 55) believe the epochê his. Robin (p. 21), Bury (pp. xxx-xxxi), and Grenier (Œuvres choisies de Sextus Empiricus [Paris: Auber, 1948], p. 12) all reserve it for Arcesilas.Google Scholar
  4. 2.
    Note the analogy to Montaigne. Much time has been devoted to discussion of the Stoic, Pyrrhonist, and Epicurean strains of Montaigne’s thought. One of the reasons it is so difficult to disentangle these currents is that Montaigne is always in agreement with the basic assumptions shared by all three sects, namely the pursuit of happiness through exalting the mind above circumstances and withdrawing the individual into himself. Hence, the appearance of an attitude that we would be tempted to call Epicurean during a period in which Stoicism predominates is not so surprising as it might at first seem.Google Scholar
  5. 1.
    Jean Grenier says that the name is simply a title equivalent to today’s “Doctor,” Œuvres choisies, p. 10.Google Scholar
  6. 2.
    On skepticism and medicine see Robin, Part IV, chap. I.Google Scholar
  7. 1.
    The example given of the vicious circle is this : every matter in question refers either to the intellect or to the senses. How can one demonstrate the validity of a sense judgment? If it is decided to use an intellectual judgment to demonstrate the validity of the sense judgment, then how validate the intellectual judgment? One is involved in the infinite regress of finding a reason for the reason, or in the circular argument of proving the senses by reason and reason by the senses.Google Scholar
  8. 2.
    As Brochard puts it, in Les Sceptiques grecs, pp. 306–307, “Les cinq tropes peuvent être considérés comme la formule la plus radicale et la plus précise qu’on ait jamais donnée du scepticisme. En un sens, encore aujourd’hui, ils sont irrésistibles. Quiconque accepte la discussion sur les principes, quiconque ne les déclare pas ... connus par une immédiate intuition de l’esprit ... qu’on n’a pas besoin de justifier, ne saurait échapper à cette subtile dialectique. ... En résumé, le scepticisme a parcouru trois étapes. Avec Pyrrhon, il conteste la légitimité de la connaissance sensible, et de l’opinion commune. Avec Enésidème, il récuse la science. Avec Agrippa, s’élevant à un plus haut degré d’abstraction, il déclare impossible la vérité quelle qu’elle soit.”Google Scholar
  9. 1.
    In my calculations of his borrowings, I have followed Villey’s notes in volume IV of the Municipal Edition (Bordeaux: F. Pech & Cie, 1920), which are accurate except for an occasional misprinted page number. Villey is extremely cautious in assigning borrowings, and I see no reason to challenge his authority. In one case, where Montaigne discusses le vraisemblable (p. 544a), I believe that he is prompted by a memory of material in Sextus, but there is not a close enough parallel in his treatment of it to speak of a borrowing, and Montaigne’s reflections are in a context different from Sextus’. Surprisingly enough, the essayist does not mention the Greek Pyrrhonist by name here or anywhere else in the Essais. Google Scholar
  10. 1.
    Since Montaigne’s edition of the Hypotyposes also contained a Latin version of Diogenes Laertius’ life of Pyrrho, it is possible that he went to it whenever he mentioned Pyrrho (only three times outside the “Apologie”). He could just as well have gone to his copy of Diogenes. I think the latter quite probable since I : xiv, one of the earliest essays, related the story of Pyrrho and the pig. At the time of writing this essay, Montaigne had presumably not read Sextus Empiricus.Google Scholar
  11. 2.
    Only one of the many anecdotes related in this portion of II : xii can be found in Sextus, viz. the story of the dog following a scent when he comes to a fork in the road (p. 411 a). But the same story is told in one of Plutarch’s Moralia from which Montaigne makes numerous borrowings to illustrate his argument, including the two stories preceding and the two following the incident of the reasoning bloodhound. It seems safe to say that if Montaigne had read the Hypotyposes when he composed this part of the “Apologie,” he did not make use of it.Google Scholar
  12. 3.
    See I: xxiii, passim ; I: xxxvi, 221–2220, and I: xlix, 284–2850 — all written before the “Apologie.”Google Scholar
  13. 1.
    Quoted by Villey, Municipal Edition, Vol. IV pp. 274–275.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Martinus Nijhoff, The Hague, Netherlands 1966

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  • Craig B. Brush

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