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Philosophical Connections

Compiled by Anthony Harrison-Barbet

PYRRHO

(c. 360 — c. 270 B.C.)

 

SCEPTICISM

Founder of the Sceptic School (skeptikos in ancient Greek meant 'inquirer'), Pyrrho was born in Elis and studied under the Atomist Anaxarchus. In 334 he travelled with Alexander the Great on his expedition to India. He wrote nothing himself, and we owe our knowledge of his thought largely to his pupil Timon of Philius and to Sextus Empiricus.

 

KNOWLEDGE

[1] Pyrrho can hardly be said to have had a theory of knowledge, because his central principle was that we cannot be certain of anything. If knowledge is possible, it must be of appearances only — which are relative. We can know nothing of a thing's 'inner substance' [a]. (This ignorance is called akatalepsia.) How something appears to you is different from how it appears to me. How can we know which is correct? Only sensations are real: but there can be no certainty in any assertion, affirmative or negative, about them. Sense experiences contradict each other. We must therefore try to balance opposing arguments so that they cancel out, and then suspend our judgement and remain silent. This suspension of judgement is referred to as the epoché [b].

 

ETHICS

[2] Pyrrho held a similar relativistic and sceptical view about what is claimed to be right or wrong [a]. So, because we cannot be sure, we must aim at indifference or imperturbability towards life and try to achieve a state of tranquillity (ataraxia) [b] and thence 'well-being' or happiness [c]. Furthermore, while recognising that we cannot cut ourselves off completely from society, we must in practice regard its customs and standards as only probable [d].

 

CRITICAL SUMMARY

There is some disagreement as to the extent or Pyrrho's indifference to external things. Some interpreters have thought of him as an ascetic avoiding any commitment to society. Others have seen him as exhibiting a more practical approach to life — accepting things as they are and rejecting only dogmatism and immoderacy. The key feature of Pyrrho's way of life, however, is clearly his quest for tranquillity of mind; and his 'suspension of judgement' must be understood as geared to achieving this end rather than as an axiom of any strict methodological scepticism. His contribution as a philosopher must on this analysis therefore be regarded as limited.

 

READING

[Pyrrho:] Sextus Empiricus, Against the Dogmatists; Hypotyposes — Outlines of Pyrrhonism; Long and Sedley, op. cit., chs 1-3. See also the Loeb edition.

Study

R. Bett, Pyrrho, his Antecedents and his Legacy.

Collection of essays

M. F.Burnyeat (ed.), The Sceptical Tradition.

 

CONNECTIONS

Pyrrho

 

[1a] Perception: scepticism — knowledge only of appearances (relative)

   Protagoras

   Democritus

   Plato

   Aristotle

Epicurus

Carneades

Sextus

Hume

[1b]

[2b]

[6b 7b]

[secs 16 17]

[1a]

[1a]

[1a]

[1b]

 

[1b] Suspension of judgement: the epoché

Carneades

Sextus

Hume

   Husserl

[2a]

[1b]

[1b]

[2c]

 

[2a d] Scepticism/ relativism — ethics: probability of customs, standards

   Protagoras

   Socrates

   Plato

   Aristotle

Epicurus

[1b 3a]

[2a]

[11e 12a]

[sec. 18]

[1b]

 

[2b] Tranquillity (ataraxia)

   Democritus

   Epicurus

Sextus

[3b]

[4a]

[2d]

 

[2c] 'Well-being' (eudaimonia) as end

   Democritus

   Plato

   Aristotle

Sextus

[3a]

[11f g]

[18c]

[2e]