Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2012.09.36

Diego E. Machuca (ed.), New Essays on Ancient Pyrrhonism. Philosophia Antiqua 126.   Leiden; Boston:  Brill, 2011.  Pp. xi, 207.  ISBN 9789004207769.  $133.00.  

Reviewed by Clifford Roberts, Cornell University (

Table of Contents

This 126th volume of Brill's Philosophia Antiqua series collects together eight original papers on ancient Pyrrhonism. Although the contributions are largely historical and interpretive, they do occasionally intersect, both terminologically and topically, with contemporary philosophical issues. All the contributions approach Pyrrhonism as a philosophical position, but the lack of extensive technical apparatus, concepts, or arguments makes them suitable even for scholars who are only moderately familiar with ancient philosophy.

Ancient Pyrrhonist skepticism has been a curious beneficiary of the flowering of interest in Hellenistic philosophy that began more than 40 years ago. Certainly, the energy and erudition of a number of scholars has enriched our understanding of the contours and details of skeptical arguments. But this approach yields knowledge only of the negative dimension of Pyrrhonism, the arguments against both the claims and the reasoning of 'dogmatic' philosophy. What then of the positive dimension? In addressing it, scholars have largely focused on the question of whether the Pyrrhonist life is a possible life for human beings and only rarely have they attempted to understand other positive aspects of Pyrrhonism. The resulting silence has come to seem the result of Pyrrhonism itself, as though there is little of interest to say about it as a positive position.

It is one of the many virtues of this volume of papers that it does not founder on old debates, but quietly sidesteps them in order to illuminate Pyrrhonism by means of a variety of perspectives and attention to a variety of problems and topics. Machuca and his fellow contributors are to be thanked not least for freeing us from the gnawing worry that there is little of value or interest left to say about the positive side of Pyrrhonism. Yet the volume is to be lauded for many other virtues as well, inter alia: the relative youth of its contributors, the international provenance of half of them, and the willingness of a number of contributors to bring contemporary philosophical work to bear on old questions. In sum, Machuca has put together an excellent collection of papers that will not only prove indispensable for scholars working on Pyrrhonism and ancient skepticism, but also serve as a source of insight and information for scholars working in ancient philosophy quite generally, as well as epistemology, ethics, philosophy of religion, and philosophy of mind.

In what follows I divide my comments in two. Part I focuses on what I regard as the most successful four papers in the volume. Part II focuses on those papers I regard as less successful or vulnerable to some fairly straightforward criticism.


James Warren's contribution focuses on a single argument in AM IX 162-166 against the dogmatic conception of God. The crux of the argument is the claim that: knowledge of pain is acquired through one's experience of one's own pain (I’ll call this KE). Warren argues plausibly and persuasively that the argument targets Stoic doctrine, but notes that the more interesting feature of the argument is what KE implies about the ancient conception of knowledge of pain. Certainly, KE appears to imply that knowledge of pain is such that one can have knowledge of pain only directly, i.e. by feeling one's own pain. But, as Warren argues, Sextus does not support KE by relying on anything like this feature of pain and seems willing to countenance at least the possibility that one can acquire knowledge of pain indirectly. If Warren is right, he has provided powerful evidence of a hitherto unrecognized but fundamental divergence between ancient and contemporary ways of thinking about pain and subjectivity.

Since Sextus contends (PH I 24) that the Pyrrhonist will display piety even though she practices suspension of judgment (ἐποχή) about the existence and nature of God, it has seemed to some interpreters that this piety must be insincere. Harald Thorsrud's paper examines and responds to this 'insincerity objection' in detail. He begins by persuasively arguing against the view that 'ordinary/everyday' religious beliefs are not dogmatic, concluding that a distinction between theoretical and ordinary beliefs will not immunize the Pyrrhonist. In response to the insincerity objection, Thorsrud argues quite ingeniously that there are resources more than adequate for sincere piety in the Pyrrhonist conception of 'appearances' and that insincerity rests on belief, something which the Pyrrhonist lacks. Thorsrud presupposes a certain controversial conception of the Pyrrhonist life as altogether free of belief, which may finally vitiate the plausibility of his response to the charge of insincerity, but he has cast an intelligent eye on a topic not much discussed in the literature.

Stéphane Marchand's paper is his first in English and is, in its own way, a pathbreaking work. Marchand discusses the largely neglected formal dimension of Sextus' writings. After a brief discussion of the attempts by Pyrrho's pupil, Timon, to contrive a distinctive genre or literary method to communicate Pyrrho's skeptical ideas, Marchand focuses on Sextus' work. Marchand divides his discussion into three parts. First, he explains how Sextus' diction is determined by his skeptical ambitions; second, he argues that Sextus' only linguistic aim is the practical one of conveying his points to readers, which results in a 'looseness' of style; and third, he addresses the nature and point of Sextus' emphasis on 'history' and 'historical method'. Marchand's paper shows, in great detail, the depth and richness of Sextus' style and how it is designed to achieve certain philosophical ends. Although some of Marchand's conclusions depend on controversial assumptions, his data and his excellently suggestive organization of that data should be both a benefit and an example to future scholars.

Diego E. Machuca contributes what is, in many ways, the most impressive paper in this volume. Machuca discusses AM XI with a view to determining whether Sextus is endorsing a moderate form of ethical realism. Machuca focuses his discussion by examining Richard Bett's interpretation of AM XI as philosophically divided: sections 1 - 167 are supposed to constitute a relic of a much earlier and rather different form of Pyrrhonism from Sextan Pyrrhonism. Bett contends that the earlier part elaborates (a) an internally consistent form of Pyrrhonism distinguished by (b) its moderate ethical realism. Most of Machuca's paper is spent reconsidering Bett's evidence and evaluating his conclusions, interpretations, and explanations. Machuca's evaluation is a remarkable feat of rigorous argument, close textual analysis, and detailed commentary. He repeatedly displays the implausibility of many of Bett's assumptions and the inadequate basis for many of Bett's inferences. By the time Machuca is finished, Bett's argument is in tatters: neither (a) nor (b) nor even his proposed historical-cum-philosophical division survives.


As Mauro Bonazzi notes in his opening paper, the Hellenistic schools were preoccupied with historiographic and exegetical concerns in addition to exclusively philosophical ones. Bonazzi focuses on one issue in the historiographic-exegetical debate: whether Sextus' Pyrrhonist ancestors (especially Aenesidemus) interpreted Plato as a Pyrrhonist avant la lettre. The issue is controversial and well-worn, but Bonazzi approaches the problem by reconsidering the evidence and concludes that Aenesidemus shared Sextus' position and regarded Plato as a dogmatist rather than a Pyrrhonist. Bonazzi's discussion and arguments are clear-headed and sensible, and they involve both philological considerations (from haplography and stylometry) and philosophical ones. But Bonazzi makes only brief mention (and that in footnotes) of the course and history of a debate that stretches back 300 years and has occupied a number of redoubtable scholars. At 14 short pages (including 3 1/2 pages of quotations), Bonazzi's contribution is simply too underdeveloped to constitute more than a polemical 'note' on the debate.

Tim O'Keefe's paper addresses the important question of how the Pyrrhonists compare to the Cyrenaics. O'Keefe argues against the claim put forth by some scholars that: both Cyrenaics and Pyrrhonists hold that knowledge of our own affective states (πάθη) is alone incorrigible (call this KI). His argument depends on the following claims: (i) the Cyrenaics' use of "contorted neologisms" (e.g. γλυκάζομαι) implies that they regard the content of knowledge as only what is 'immediately given' in experience; but (ii) the Pyrrhonist does not use such neologisms and (iii) displays "a promiscuous willingness to fill in his formula 'x seems F to me' with almost any items" (35). While O'Keefe's paper displays a number of insights, I find both (ii) and (iii) unpersuasive. Notice, first, that Sextus himself does (contra (ii)) appear to use the Cyrenaic neologisms in contexts in which he is clearly speaking in propria persona as a Pyrrhonist (e.g., PH I 13, 19-20 ). Indeed, the latter contexts appear to be cases where Sextus is explaining the positive side of Pyrrhonism and so his formulations and usage should, prima facie, be taken as canonical. Moreover, (iii) seems to beg the question against those who hold KI, since they will merely claim that the various items 'promiscuously' filled in to the formulae in (iii) are meant to be understood as internal to subjectivity. O'Keefe's approach might have been slightly more persuasive if he had focused on Sextus' explicit arguments against Cyrenaicism (e.g., AM VII 190-200), which he curiously elects to avoid.

The Pyrrhonist advocates 'ordinary life' (βίος) and seems to regard the Pyrrhonist life as distinctively ordinary. Yet scholars have tended to discuss βίος only indirectly, insofar as it bears on questions about the possibility of a Pyrrhonist life. Filip Grgić aims to remedy this neglect and, though he is only partially successful, he deserves praise for the originality of his approach. In the first part of his paper, Grgić argues elegantly and persuasively for the tension between ἐποχή and βίος. According to Grgić, the Pyrrhonist concept of ordinary life is problematic because ordinary beliefs, which necessarily inform and distinguish ordinary life, are as much targets of ἐποχή as dogmatic ones. Consequently, it is unclear how we are supposed to demarcate βίος from dogmatic or non-ordinary life. In the second part, Grgić offers his solution to the 'demarcation problem'. He argues that Sextus distinguishes between judgments taken (a) “as pieces of useful practical information”, i.e. merely as useful for practical life, and (b) “as constituents of philosophical argument” (82). (a)-judgments are ordinary and accepted by the Pyrrhonist; (b)- judgments are neither. Grgić's solution is the least satisfying part of his paper and it suffers from both inadequacy and obscurity. On the one hand, if we suppose, as do all the Hellenistic schools, that abstract philosophical answers can be given to such questions as "How am I supposed to live?", then clearly dogmatic beliefs will also be useful for practical life. Why, then, does Grgić's 'solution' not simply reiterate the demarcation problem? On the other hand, if abstract answers cannot be useful in the relevant way, then we are due an explanation of this deficiency, which Grgić never elaborates.

Otavio Bueno's paper, the last in the volume and the least successful, begins from the claim that Jonathan Barnes charges Sextus, in certain passages, with a commitment to epistemological internalism. If Bueno's claim is right, then he rightly takes Barnes to task for saddling Sextus with this view; but it is not at all clear that Barnes intends his discussion to have the imputed force. The majority of Bueno's paper is occupied with (i) arguing against Barnes' interpretation of epistemological externalism, (ii) responding on behalf of the externalist to Barnes' objection, and (iii) giving a specific 'Pyrrhonist' account of the contemporary internalism/externalism debate. While (iii) might be regarded a contemporary 'application' of a certain interpretation of Pyrrhonism, (i) and (ii) seem at best tangential to the discussion. Consequently, Bueno's paper seems curiously disunified. Moreover, as a piece of scholarship on Sextus, it is neither especially original nor detailed.

The editor of this volume, Diego E. Machuca, is to be commended for bringing together an excellent collection of papers that breathe new life into an area of research that has, in the last few decades, too often seemed on the verge of exhaustion.

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