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DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-A102-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved April 24, 2024, from

Article Summary

Pyrrhonism was the name given by the Greeks to one particular brand of scepticism, that identified (albeit tenuously) with Pyrrho of Elis, who was said (by his disciple Timon of Phlius) to have declared that everything was indeterminable and accordingly to have suspended judgment about the reality of things – in particular whether they were really good or bad. After Timon’s death Pyrrhonism lapsed, until revived by Aenesidemus. Aenesidemus held that it was inadmissible either to affirm or to deny that anything was really the case, and in particular to hold, with the Academic sceptics, that certain things really were inapprehensible. Instead, the Sceptic (the capital letter denotes the Pyrrhonists, who adopted the term, literally ‘inquirer’, as one of the designations for their school) should only allow that things were no more the case than not, or only so under certain circumstances and not under others. Aenesidemean Scepticism took the form of emphasizing the disagreement among both lay people and theoreticians as to the nature of things, and the fact that things appear differently under different circumstances (the various ways of doing this were systematized into the Ten Modes of Scepticism); the result was meant to be suspension of judgment about such matters, which would in turn lead to tranquillity of mind. Thus ‘Scepticism’ denotes a particular philosophical position, not simply, as in modern usage, that of any philosopher inclined towards doubt. Later Pyrrhonists, notably Agrippa, refined the Sceptical method and concentrated on undermining the dogmatic (that is, anti-Sceptical) notion of the criterion – there is no principled way to settle such disputes without resorting to mere assertion, infinite regress or circularity. We owe to Sextus Empiricus our most complete account of Pyrrhonian argument and the clearest exposition of the Pyrrhonian attitude. Faced with endemic dispute, Sceptics reserve judgment; but this does not render life impossible for them, since they will still react to the way things appear to be, although without believing in any strong sense that things really are as they seem. Furthermore, when Pyrrhonians describe their affective states, they do so undogmatically – and the Sceptical slogans (‘I determine nothing’, ‘nothing is apprehended’, and so on) are to be understood in a similar way, as merely reporting a state of mind and not expressing a commitment. Thus the slogans apply to themselves, and like cathartic drugs are themselves purged along with the noxious humour of dogmatism.

Citing this article:
Hankinson, R.J.. Pyrrhonism, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-A102-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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