Friday, August 26, 2005

On Skepticism

For my summer course, English 501, literary research and bibliography, Dr. Baker wrote one word on the board, Skepticism (British spelling, of course) and said that was the theme of the course. Its taken me until now to look into the root of the word.


skep·ti·cism also scep·ti·cism 'Audio ( P ) Pronunciation Key (skpt-szm)

  1. A doubting or questioning attitude or state of mind; dubiety. See Synonyms at uncertainty.
  2. Philosophy.
    1. The ancient school of Pyrrho of Elis that stressed the uncertainty of our beliefs in order to oppose dogmatism.
    2. The doctrine that absolute knowledge is impossible, either in a particular domain or in general.
    3. A methodology based on an assumption of doubt with the aim of acquiring approximate or relative certainty.
  3. Doubt or disbelief of religious tenets.


From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.

Pyrrho (c360 BC - c270 BC), a Greek philosopher from Elis, is usually credited as being the first skeptic philosopher and is the founder of the school known as Pyrrhonism. Diogenes Laertius, quoting from Apollodorus, says that he was at first a painter, and that pictures by him were in existence in the gymnasium at Elis. Later he was diverted to philosophy by the works of Democritus, and became acquainted with the Megarian dialectic through Bryson, pupil of Stilpo.

Pyrrho, along with Anaxarchus, travelled with Alexander the Great on his exploration of the east, and studied in India under the Gymnosophists and under the Magi in Persia. From the Oriental philosophy he seems to have adopted a life of solitude. Returning to Elis, he lived in poor circumstances, but was highly honoured by the Elians and also by the Athenians, who gave him the rights of citizenship. His doctrines are known mainly through the satiric writings of his pupil Timon of Phlius (the Sillographer). The main principle of his thought is expressed in the word acatalepsia, which implies the impossibility of knowing things in their own nature. Against every statement the contradictory may be advanced with equal reason. Secondly, it is necessary in view of this fact to preserve an attitude of intellectual suspense, or, as Timon expressed it, no assertion can be known to be better than another. Thirdly, these results are applied to life in general. Pyrrho concludes that, since nothing can be known, the only proper attitude is ataraxia, "freedom from worry".

The impossibility of knowledge, even in regard to our own ignorance or doubt, should induce the wise man to withdraw into himself, avoiding the stress and emotion which belong to the contest of vain imaginings. This drastic skepticism is the first and the most thorough exposition of agnosticism in the history of thought. Its ethical results may be compared with the ideal tranquillity of the Stoics and the Epicureans.The proper course of the sage, said Pyrrho, is to ask himself three questions. Firstly we must ask what things are and how they are constituted. Secondly, we ask how we are related to these things. Thirdly, we ask what ought to be our attitude towards them. As to what things are, we can only answer that we know nothing. We only know how things appear to us, but of their inner substance we are ignorant. The same thing appears differently to different people, and therefore it is impossible to know which opinion is right. The diversity of opinion among the wise, as well as among the vulgar, proves this. To every assertion the contradictory assertion can be opposed with equally good grounds, and whatever my opinion, the contrary opinion is believed by somebody else who is quite as clever and competent to judge as I am. Opinion we may have, but certainty and knowledge are impossible. Hence our attitude to things (the third question), ought to be complete suspense of judgment. We can be certain of nothing, not even of the most trivial assertions.

This article incorporates text from the 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica, which is in the public domain.

The most important evidence on Pyrrho's views is found in the following fragment of Aristocles, a Peripatetic of uncertain date (perhaps 1st c. B.C.-A.D., perhaps 2nd c. A.D.).

He [Pyrrho] himself has left nothing in writing, but this pupil Timon says that whoever wants to be happy must consider these three questions: first, how are things by nature? Secondly, what attitude should we adopt towards them? Thirdly, what will be the outcome for those who have such an attitude? According to Timon, Pyrrho declared that things are equally indifferent, unmeasurable and inarbitrable. For this reason neither our sensations nor our opinions tell us truths or falsehoods. Therefore for this reason we should not put our trust in them one bit, but should be unopinionated, uncommitted and unwavering, saying concerning each individual thing that it no more is than is not, or both is and is not, or neither is nor is not. The outcome for those who actually adopt this attitude, says Timon, will be first speechlessness [aphasia], and then freedom from disturbance; and Aenesidemus says pleasure. (Eusebius, Prep. Ev. 14.18.2-5, Long & Sedley)

NOTE: Pyrrho must not be confused with Pyrrhus, that crazy elephant-charging Greek general from which we get the word Pyrrhic (meaning: victory at great cost).

I see now, after looking into the meaning of skepticism, why it is such an appropriate word for someone involved in bibliographical research. As any student of bibliography knows, it is impossible to cite every extant source on a person or subject. Sources of knowledge are ever elusive. But can one find contentment in doubt of their own senses? Pyrrho seemed to think so. But that seems to be a question that dogs philosophers, bibliographers and theologians since antiquity. We could use a little more skepticism in these dogmatic, technocratic, fundamentalistic times. Or could we?