Scepticism and the Limits of Charity

  • Ezequiel De Olaso
Part of the International Archives of the History of Ideas / Archives Internationales d’Histoire des Idées book series (ARCH, volume 145)


A great deal of our present-day exegesis of ancient scepticism is implicitly under the sway of the principle of charitable interpretation, most rigorously applied. Hence we have labored not to interpret it as being a concealed form of Dogmatism; and in turn, we have been led to undervalue certain themes and texts which do not permit such charitable interpretation.


Real Nature Consistent Form Ancient Philosophy Essential Tension Ideal Side 
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  1. 1.
    E. de Olaso, “Zetesis,” Manuscrito (Campinas, Brazil) 11.2 (1988); review of J. Annas and J. Barnes [The Modes of Scepticism, 1985] in Nous 25. 1 (1991).CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. 2.
    I only take into account in this essay Burnyeat’s first version of his interpretation (M. Burnyeat, “Can the Sceptic Live His Scepticism?” in Doubt and Dogmatism,eds. M. Schofield, M. Bumyeat, and J. Barnes [Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1980]). British and continental philosophical traditions differ on the meaning of “judgment.” Locke equates “judgment” and “assent or dissent.” He explains that judgment “is exercised… when something is taken to be true before it is proved” (Essay IV, xiv, 1–4). Leibniz answers that “there are people for whom `judging’ is the action which is performed whenever one pronounces in accordance with some knowledge of the case, and some of them may even distinguish judgment from opinion, as not having to be so uncertain” (G. W. Leibniz, New Essays on Human Understanding,trans and eds. P. Remnant and J. Bennet [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981]). Leibniz’s last remark refers perhaps to Plato’s Thetetus. The meaning of “judgment” in English is nearer to “belief’ than the French jugement,the German Urteil,or the Spanish juicio. Consequently, continental philosophers see a sharp contrast between ”suspension of judgment“ and ”suspension of belief.“ This is not the case, I presume, for American and British philosophers. However, there is no clear statement about the difference between ”suspension of judgment“ and ”suspension of belief“ within the British tradition.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    Bumyeat, “Can the Sceptic Live His Scepticism?” p. 25.Google Scholar
  4. 4. See, for example, Burnyeat, “Can the Sceptic Live His Scepticism?”; M. Burnyeat, “The Sceptic in His Place and Time,” in Philosophy in Historyeds. R. Rorty, J. B. Schneewind, and Q. Skinner (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984); M. Frede, “The Sceptic’s Two Kinds of Assent and the Question of the Possibility of Knowledge,” in Philosophy in Historyeds. R. Rorty, J. B. Schneewind, and Q. Skinner (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984; also published in Frede Essays in Ancient Philosophy [Oxford: Clarendon Press, 19871); M. Frede Essays in Ancient Philosophy (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987); J. Barnes, “The Beliefs of a Pyrrhonist,” Elenchos 4 (1983). Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    Olaso, review of Annas and Barnes, p. 147.Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    Richard Popkin, The History of Scepticism from Erasmus to Descartes (Assen: Van Gorcum, 1960); Popkin, The History of Scepticism from Erasmus to Spinoza (Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press, 1979 ).Google Scholar
  7. 7. I have examined a feature of the analysis of the passage by Annas and Barnes (Olaso, review of Annas and Barnes, p. 147).Google Scholar
  8. 8.
    See G. Striker, “Sceptical Strategies,” in Doubt and Dogmatism,eds. M. Schofield, M. Burnyeat, and J. Barnes (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1980), p. 58, n 9.Google Scholar
  9. 9.
    Bumyeat, “Can the Sceptic Live His Scepticism?” p. 42, n. 38.Google Scholar
  10. 10.
    See Olaso, review of Annas and Barnes, pp. 146–147.Google Scholar
  11. 11.
    It could be said that this analysis is superfluous since time, for a sceptic, is neither real (PH III 136) or exists at all (PH III 148). But this is a conclusion Sextus draws from dogmatic premises. When Sextus does not proceed ad hominem, time seems to him to be something (PH III 136 ).Google Scholar
  12. 12.
    Frede Essays in Ancient Philosophypp. 186–187. Google Scholar
  13. 13.
    P. Feyerabend Science in a Free Society (London: NLB, 1978), p. 156. Google Scholar
  14. 14.
    PH 115, 135, 198, 208. Explicit instances of the “rule” had been noticed, e.g., PH I 25, Scepticism and the Limits of Charity 265Google Scholar
  15. 15.
    See Burnyeat, “Can the Sceptic Live His Scepticism?”; M. Hossenfelder, “Einleitung” to Sextus Empiricus: Grundriss der pyrrhonischen Skepsis ( Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1968 ).Google Scholar
  16. 16.
    Hossenfelder (“Einleitung”) and Mates (B. Mates, “On Refuting the Sceptic,” Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophical Association 58 [1984]), among others, sustained this opinion. Even in the more relevant Sextus texts on this matter (e.g., texts cited in note 14, above) there is no evidence for some possible disappearance of Scepticism. If Pyrrhonism is conceived exclusively as a dialectical ability, once dogmatic assertions disappear clearly, that ability disappears too. But it does not disappear if Pyrrhonism is conceived as a practical agoge (PH I 17). Sextus never considers explicitly the disappearance of Scepticism and explicitly considers the possibility of the establishment of sceptical philosophy after the downfall of Dogmatism (PH II 6 and M I 5). He speaks often of Scepticism as a permanent disposition or attitude (e.g., PH I 3 ss., PH II 253).Google Scholar
  17. 17.
    When reading Aenesidemus’s modes one gets the impression that the author does not care much for the weight of the various illustrations he introduces in his text. We can imagine that if the falsity of one of his examples were proved to him, e.g., that sufferers from jaundice see as yellow the objects we perceive as white (PH I 44), such proof would not alter the conclusion of his argument, and he would consider it simply an indication that he should replace that example with another one, capable of leading less traumatically to the desired conclusion. A striking case of carelessness in the selection of empirical illustrations is the statement that sea-monsters flee from the crackle of bursting beans (PH I 58). I could accept that Aenesidemus is joking but the joke here consists in the fact that the reader expects something with the air of actuality and is offered in exchange a highly implausible illustration (the enormous animal frightened at the crackling of a very small vegetable; the almost impossible difficulty of witnessing such a scence, and doing so several times so as to warrant generalization, etc). The sceptics delight in offering violently asymmetrical oppositions, which makes the task of pondering the claims under discussion according to their epistemic status very difficult, if not impossible. We all say that snow is white; Anaxagoras says it is black because it is frozen water, and water is black (PH I 33). Sextus maintains that we have equipollence (a paradigm of equipollence) here. How does he establish it? His conclusion is perhaps supported by the fact that we are all in one condition and Anaxagoras in the opposite (M VII 333). But this is certainly different from founding the conclusion upon plausibilities.Google Scholar
  18. 18.
    See Barnes, The Toils of Scepticism,p. 11.Google Scholar
  19. 19.
    It is worth noting that PH I 8 and 12 are neither dogmas nor contingent applications of the “up to now” rule to particular cases. Here it would be proper to make two brief comments: First, if the clause refers to “all the oppositions met with up to now,” it is merely setting up an exhaustive list of past and present experiences. But if it refers to “all the oppositions which you may be able to formulate,” then it is related to future practice, and is more like a recommendation. Second, the opposition refers to “every proposition,” not, presumbaly, only to those that have affected the sceptic in his past and present experience. I guess that there is a latent ambiguity in “every proposition” similar to that of the “in any way whatsoever” clause. There is another problem here: Sextus recommends to producing all the possible kind of oppositions “in any way whatsoever.” However, there is an important restriction to this clause. Sextus maintains that the oppositions ought not to be opposed “through precipitancy,” without sceptical investigation (zetesis) (PH I 205). So, the “in any way whatsoever” clause seems incomplete and has to be supplemented by a “without precipitancy” warning.Google Scholar
  20. 20.
    Burnyeat, “Can the Sceptic Live His Scepticism?” p. 52.Google Scholar
  21. 21.
    Burnyeat correctly links PH I 8 and 31–34 (see Burnyeat, “Can the Sceptic Live His Scepticism?” p. 24).Google Scholar
  22. 22.
    R. Watson, “Descartes’ Scepticism: Logic vs. Biography.” II Symposium on the History of Scepticism, Netherlands Institute for Advanced Study (NIAS), Wassenaar, The Netherlands, 31 July-4 August 1990. In Scepticism and Irreligion in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries, eds. R. H. Popkin and A. J. Vanderjagt ( Leiden: Brill, 1993 ).Google Scholar
  23. 23.
    Charlotte Stough (“Sextus Empiricus on Non-Assertion,” Phronesis 29.2 (1984) argues that the sceptic’s statements are not self-refuting. I am not able to consider here this important remark.Google Scholar
  24. 24.
    See Olaso, “Zetesis”; Barnes, Toils of Scepticism,pp. 10–11.Google Scholar
  25. 25.
    The Greeks took their Scepticism seriously: The Moderns do not“ (J. Annas and J. Barnes, The Modes of Scepticism [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985 ], p. 7 ).Google Scholar

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© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 1996

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  • Ezequiel De Olaso

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