Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2000.10.15

Marta Anna Wlodarczyk, Pyrrhonian Inquiry. Cambridge Philological Society Supplementary volume no. 25.   Pp. x, 72.  ISBN 0-906014-24-7.  £15.  

Reviewed by James Warren, Magdalene College, Cambridge (
Word count: 1906 words

This concise monograph, originally one half of a Cambridge Ph.D. thesis,1 offers a new perspective on the method and aims of Pyrrhonist philosophy as expounded by Sextus Empiricus in outlines of Pyrrhonism (PH) and Adversus Mathematikos (M). Two themes are especially prominent: 1. What is the scope of Pyrrhonist doubt? and 2. What is the motivation for Pyrrhonist inquiry? These are familiar questions, and anyone aware of the recent discussion of such topics will no doubt be concerned that this is not a novel agenda,2 but Wlodarczyk (W.) provides a thoughtful and fresh look at these two questions by concentrating on the method which Sextus outlines.

After an introduction which surveys recent work and begins to distinguish W.'s own position, she turns in section II to discuss the Five Modes of Agrippa. She rightly sees these as the major weapon in Sextus' armoury which transform the diaphôniai generated by Aenesidemus' modes into undecidable conflicts. Suspension of belief (epochê) is the inevitable result. (The other stage in the process, isostheneia is tackled much later, in Section VII.) Some of this ground has been covered before,3 but W. takes it as a starting point. If this is the 'sceptical method,' with what is it to be contrasted?

Section III, 'Dogmatism,' looks again at the notorious passage of PH 1.13. W. argues that a Pyrrhonist not only opposes assent to 'the non-evident' (adêla), but also to 'the evident' if this is understood as evident 'in the dogmatic sense' introduced by M 8.316ff.: some things are 'believed to be evident' but are in fact not so. In other words, by casting doubt on any dogmatic criterion of truth the sceptic can cast doubt on things thought evident by a particular dogmatic school. By distinguishing these senses of 'evident' W. makes PH 1.13 compatible with her view of a scepticism not confined to doubting philosophical theories.

Section IV, 'Epochê,' assesses the scope of suspension of belief. W. surveys Sextus' comments about the sort of things which can be brought into diaphônia and argues that Pyrrhonism is primarily a reaction to dogmatism, motivated by the controversies and contradictions between various opinions. But she also contrasts her view with Barnes' picture of therapeutic Pyrrhonism. More than merely producing suspension of judgement over controversies about which the inquirer is already aware, scepticism is a propensity for seeing diaphôniai (29). So W. argues that the sceptic does not merely cure pre-existing worries. He will seek out things to be anxious about and try to resolve them, and will inquire in such a way as to reach epochê once again.

Some of the ramifications of this stance could be further pursued, and there may be some tension between the model W. proposes for the motivation of scepticism and her conclusions about its scope. If Pyrrhonists have a 'propensity to see anomalies,' is scepticism therefore a propensity to see ever more potential sources of anxiety? On this view, it seems, Pyrrhonism is not only parasitic on worry and dogmatism, but once set in motion by such worry it gains momentum until it arrives at the greatest possible scope of doubt. All the same, W. will later wish to check the advance of Pyrrhonist doubt into certain classes of proposition and allow the sceptic to retain some beliefs.

Elsewhere W. characterises the sceptic as 'the philosopher who has a propensity to see anomalies in things, who is puzzled about a great number of issues (both philosophical and everyday), who is aware of disagreement between ordinary people and well acquainted with controversies in the philosophical world' (31). Two questions occur to me: first, is this a picture of someone about to become a Pyrrhonist, or someone already some distance along the Sextan path? If the former, how does this differ significantly from a budding Epicurean or Stoic? If the latter, what was the Pyrrhonist like before becoming a Pyrrhonist? And how does an inquirer change as he progresses further along this Pyrrhonist road? These are important questions and ought to be pursued.

Second, the awareness of disagreement or even the propensity to see it is not sufficient to make someone a Pyrrhonist. Plenty of self-assured dogmatists can see that people disagree; they just consider themselves to be right and the others wrong. The Pyrrhonist must in addition have accepted the idea that these controversies must be resolved according to the model of inquiry familiar from PH. But here again there is some difficulty in putting clear water between the Pyrrhonist and the dogmatist. W. often (for example, in the treatment of the Five Modes) places her Pyrrhonist in a dialectical context with some dogmatist. But the Five Modes do not invoke reasoning confined to Pyrrhonist inquiry; they deal quite generally with the rules of justification and deduction. Surely dogmatists also justify their positions and often take up and argue against opposing opinions. Or do they merely (and perhaps wrongly) think that their positions are justified? If the latter, then is Pyrrhonism simply a more thorough investigation of grounds for belief than found elsewhere? If dogmatists only thought a bit harder would they be forced to become Pyrrhonists? In her concluding remarks to Section VII, W. again argues that the sceptic's method differs radically from the dogmatist's, even suggesting that this is the greatest diaphônia of all (63). But if so, should the sceptic inquire into and eventually suspend judgement on this question too? W. leaves this last question hanging, but it ought to be resolved, especially given that she rests so much on a distinctive method of 'Pyrrhonist inquiry.'

The next sections turn to the question of what is left for the sceptic after all this doubt. Most pressing, is there enough left for the sceptic to navigate around the world and avoid the old accusation of apraxia? W. now expands the scope of what the sceptic does not doubt and tries to exempt some beliefs from what has seemed so far to be a relentless tide of expanding suspension of judgement.

Section V, 'Assent,' discusses the Pyrrhonist's assent to appearances (phainomena) and to two less familiar topics: the 'suggestive sign' and matters of universal consent. Sextus notoriously allows the sceptic to accept inferences of the sort: 'if there's smoke there's fire'; smoke is a suggestive sign of fire (see PH 2.97-102, M 8.151-8). Is this acceptance not tantamount to having a belief? Worse still, as W. admits (38), there was some inquiry and discussion into the suggestive sign 'as a philosophical concept.' Surely this should cause tarachê and rapidly induce some Pyrrhonist inquiry. Epochê beckons. But no, says W. Sextus is talking about 'token associations' of the suggestive sign not the acceptance of it as a theorised inferential principle. (39) 'The suggestive sign understood as token habitual associations used by everyone is not a subject of dogmatising. It is not a defined method whose definition and existence would be the subject of inquiry or contrary views of either philosophers or ordinary folk... It is a matter of unreflective habit.' This seems to me to sit uneasily with the earlier picture of a Pyrrhonist eager to construct possible controversies, and the distinction between 'theorised' and 'everyday' concepts (cf. 48) might even be pushed towards an 'insulationist' view of the relationship of philosophical thought and everyday practice.4 W. recognises these problems (39) and returns to them in section VI.B, where -- in accordance with her view of the Pyrrhonist's motivations -- she also suggests that the Pyrrhonist could doubt even these token associations if he became perturbed about them. As it happens, however, he does not -- mainly because there is no theorised opposition to them so no need to create diaphônia. (W. also devotes an Appendix to the 'suggestive sign,' which deals with the relevant secondary literature.)

Matters of universal assent command less discussion. Consistent with her view that scepticism begins with cases of diaphônia, W. again argues that where there is no diaphônia there is no inquiry. But is that enough for the sceptic to accept the consensus? I find it unlikely that anyone after reading through PH and M would be prepared to accept something merely because people happen to agree about it. The toolkit of the Ten Modes seems quite sufficient if required to generate an opposing position if one is not readily forthcoming from external sources, and W. allows that sometimes the Pyrrhonist will construct an antithesis himself if he can find none elsewhere. Of course, the question arises why anyone would wish to generate more things to become worried about, but then we are back to more general worries about the motivation and scope of Pyrrhonist doubt.

Section VI, 'Belief,' begins with M XI's arguments against beliefs in good or bad 'in nature (φύσει).' Here, W. argues that the Pyrrhonist's arguments against all such positions does not violate the prohibition on even negative conclusions. (42) 'In case one is tempted to think that Sextus affirms negatively the non-existence of good and evil, let us recall that, in accordance with PH II.79 ... he is merely arguing on the other side of an issue.' Here Sextus does fabricate an antithesis to produce a diaphônia. (I would have liked at least a reference here to the work of Richard Bett on M XI, who suggests a distinction should be drawn between this work and the theory of PH.5) A further consequence of W.'s assertion that the sceptic does not possess any such ethical beliefs ought to be spelled out: his drive for ataraxia cannot be a result of any such belief that it is indeed the human telos. Rather, it must be an automatic response like the sceptic's search for a drink when he becomes thirsty.6

W. then goes on to apply her distinction between matters of controversy and agreement to the matter of the sceptic's non-epistemic phainesthai statements. She argues that Sextus restricts such statements to matters of disagreement -- so he will say 'it appears that honey is sweet', but 'I see smoke; there is fire'. W.'s sceptic is happy to say, for example, 'it is raining.' (54) 'Since this statement of his has no chance of being dogmatic, there is no reason for the sceptic to be particularly sceptical about it'. 'No chance' of being dogmatic? Surely someone could claim that in reality it is not raining (perhaps on the basis of some dogmatic theory), and then the sceptic would have to start wondering about it. Again there is an important distinction between the contingent fact of whether some matter is the subject of some (current) controversy and whether some matter could be the subject of such controversy. If the sceptic has a propensity to seek out and even manufacture diaphôniai, I find it hard to see how once the Pyrrhonist tide is set in motion it will leave intact any possible object of inquiry.

Still, W. is certainly right to say that the sceptic gets around the world on the basis of the passive acceptance of token facts which do not motivate inquiry and doubt. The question remains, however, whether these can rightly be characterised as beliefs. W. recognises that Sextus says he accepts these signs ἀδοξάστως (37, 39 n.23), but argues that (50 n.21) δόξα 'is a matter of decision about that which is disagreed about.' Her sceptic therefore has 'beliefs' but not δόξαι.7

This is a well-argued and rich monograph, sufficiently distinctive to offer a new perspective on Sextus' work.8


1.   A version of the other half can be found as M. Wlodarczyk. Aristotelian Dialectic and the Discovery of Truth. Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy 18, 153-210.
2.   The articles by M.F. Burnyeat, M. Frede, and J. Barnes, which set the scene for much thinking through these questions, are now collected in their own volume: M.F. Burnyeat and M. Frede (eds.) The Original Sceptics: a controversy. (Indianapolis, 1997).
3.   J. Barnes. The Toils of Scepticism. (Cambridge, 1990).
4.   For a strong argument against seeing any such 'insulation' in ancient Pyrrhonism, see M.F. Burnyeat. 'The Sceptic in his place and time' in R. Rorty, J.B Schneewind, and Q. Skinner (eds.) Philosophy in History. (Cambridge, 1983) 225-254 (reprinted in Burnyeat and Frede (eds.), n.2 above).
5.   R. Bett. Sextus Empiricus, Against the Ethicists. (Oxford, 1997). This does appear in W.'s bibliography.
6.   See M. Nussbaum. The Therapy of Desire. (Princeton, 1994) 300-306.
7.   Cf. 56 n.31: 'If ... acting is a sufficient condition for holding a belief, the sceptic has beliefs in this sense'.
8.   Some corrigenda: p.22: (quotation from PH 1.19-20) ἀνεπιρίτως should read ἀνεπικρίτως; in next paragraph ἐτὶ should read ἐπὶ. p.33: ὅσον ἐπὶ τῷ λόγωι should read ὅσον ἐπὶ τῶι λόγωι (the iota in τῶι should be adscript as elsewhere). p.38 n.19: 'Historia philosophia' should read 'Historia philosopha' or 'Historia philosophica'. p.44 n.10: An additional close bracket is required after '(Striker (1980) 80-81)'.

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