Skepticism, Human Reason, and Peace of Mind

In Philosophy, Religion, Uncategorized by Alexa Tangara1 Comment

For my first article I will briefly outline some key interesting views advocated in Sextus Empiricus’ Outlines of Skepticism, and then discuss some of the comparative implications. While most of us have heard of some kind of skepticism, it is important to keep in mind Sextus’s view goes radically beyond mere doubt.  In Book I, he explains the skeptic’s ability to suspend judgment by making no assertions about one thing or the other, and only assenting to immediate appearances insofar as they appear to him (immediate appearances being something like “honey tastes sweet or “I feel hot”). The skeptic overturns any arguments of the Dogmatists by consistently proposing equally compelling arguments for the opposing view in order to prove there is no “better” perspective on either side. The aim is to free one from the “troubling anomalies” of the world, thus allowing “tranquility in matters of opinion and moderation of feeling in matters forced upon us”.  Book II moves on to tackle some of the Dogmatists claims by applying the skeptic’s most useful tools following from the five modes of Agrippa found in Book I. With these techniques, Sextus lays out a detailed and extremely philosophically rich account of how the skeptic view functions.

Let me begin by detailing a few of Sextus’ strongest arguments to give you a taste of his style. Book II begins by distinguishing between two kinds of apprehension. The skeptic deems possible apprehension by mere thinking and that which precedes investigation by giving way of a passive appearance (i.e. the taste of honey), but rejects any apprehension that includes a further positing or affirming of the reality of things (the things in themselves).  For in holding beliefs, one must apprehend them in either way or not at all, and of course if not at all one will hold no conviction.  Then by employing the reciprocal mode of perplexity (a common tool of the skeptics), Sextus rejects the possibility of holding a belief about what is unclear by the second way of apprehension as follows,

if any of them [the Dogmatists] wish to start from apprehension, we face them with the demand that they should have already investigated the object before apprehending it; and if they wish to start from investigation, we face them with the demand that they should have apprehended what is to be investigated before investigating it. (69)

Having the conviction that he can now destroy any “subtleties” of the dogmatic argument, he advocates then that the skeptic method is preferable for investigation because in this way the answers are not fully present.

In the most important section in Book II, titled Standards, Sextus gives us an account of the skeptic’s view on the dispute about a standard of truth (that by which we can judge what is true and what is not)  in which he examines only the “very special standards”, or those including “every technical measure of apprehension of an unclear object”, beginning with logic. Once again implementing the reciprocal mode by explaining that any proof requires an established standard by which to judge it, he believes that he has already demonstrated the hastiness of the Dogmatists . Sextus’s central premise here is that the reciprocal mode is unavoidable “since a proof needs a standard which has been proven and a standard needs a proof which has been judged”(72). One may wonder here why we cannot possess an agreed standard of which precedes investigation? Is this a human flaw invoked by inconsistencies between different schools of thought, or rather a flaw in the system of reasoning itself?

Rather, are we as humans so radically different that even our pure reason in itself can also be different? It would seem that pure reason in itself should be consistently equal across the diverse population, separate from opinions and cultural differences. What we are talking about here is the reason that sets us apart from animals (which Sextus rejects). Of course we could imagine that reason could come in degrees such that some have a higher level of reasoning than others. Does this suggest the most intellectually advanced of us are those whom hold the best or most reasonable perspectives?

Further, can we read Sextus to presuppose that there is only one truth and one standard then? If he takes any any object of investigation and presents arguments for and against it only to prove that we should not hold a judgment about either, then it would seem his argument rests on this premise. For if we could believe (through the second mode of apprehension) that honey is both sweet and not sweet, Sextus would no longer hold any conviction. But, is it the case that we can imagine more than one truth and one standard without self-contradiction? It would seem silly in most situations to say, I am both cold and not cold. Logically, this kind of contradiction fails and is untrue. It is easier to think of examples that can be less clear to us, like our feelings about another person, moral codes, or how to live a healthy life. Is it possible for there to be more than one truth without employing relativism? In the broad sense, relativism suggest that “everything is true” insofar as it is true for you. Most philosophers would reject the fruitfulness and coherence of such a view.

Lastly, even if the reader is convinced by Sextus’ arguments on a logical level, is suspending judgment ideal for a fulfilling life? Does putting the intellect at a standstill forfeit the thrill of passions and convictions that create meaning in one’s life? While I can understand how this kind of freedom in many situations out of our control could function to bring peace of mind, I would argue that it would also undermine one of the greatest abilities of the human life, to evoke emotions and passions. Without judgments, where does one find purpose or growth? The moments in one’s life of which create the person are those in which we are forced to make difficult decisions guided by our values, however much they might transform over the years. Further, the “matters forced upon us” are only forced insofar as we accept them.

Alexa is currently pursuing her Ph.D. in Eastern philosophy in Singapore, so based on how confused she is, she figures she must be doing pretty well. She likes to eat as many different colors as possible in a day, and end up on a yoga mat. That is, unless she ends up somewhere else. 


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