Skepticism and Progress

Does Pyrrhonian skepticism provide a viable approach for a progressive life? Skepticism is often reproached for its noncommittal attitude towards life, being charged with apraxia, the lack of asserted action or purpose, as well as a deficiency of imagination due to their continual appeal to the unadorned appearances. So we ask, what good is skepticism? Better yet, why practice skepticism? Surely there are compelling justifications why the skeptic school should be preferred over any other, otherwise there be no incentive to study and practice the discipline over any other. To explore these questions I will use ‘progress’ in the philosophical as well as the historical sense. Stated clearly, I will investigate whether the skeptical approach is capable of solving problems, or providing answers to questions, and whether these solutions provide a means of becoming increasingly better in the various life projects humanity undertakes.

I will begin by delineating the core tenants of skepticism, specifically exploring the aim and ends of quietude, before discussing the dilemmas and consequence of these tenants, such as the charge of apraxia brought against skepticism. I will then argue that the skeptical approach ultimately tames progress by providing a regulatory methodology that corrects for stipulative errors of judgment, but does not directly contribute to progress due to its inherent inability to assert any original facticities of value. To conclude, I will take the position that the skeptical approach (though not explicitly stated by the skeptics themselves) is vital in the development of a critical consciousness, that its methodology and tropes provide an analytical framework and methods of deconstruction and reduction that render dogmatic facts, semantics and values as subjective instruments, rather than true facts.

Skepticism can be roughly summarized as a non-committal mental attitude resulting from the rejection of all judgments of appearances by way of a meticulous method of reasoning yielded by the employment of modes, otherwise considered to be a tool-box of tropes. (Ch.I.8) The Pyrrhonists refer to skepticism as an ability to reach a state of suspension or equipolence of judgment, which they characterize as ataraxia, the quietude or tranquility of the soul, regarding the probabilities of assertions. (Ch.I.10) They hold that knowledge gained by way of appearances and judgment always defers to some a priori or alternative criteria for judgment and thus can be refuted using a variety of critical modes or rhetorical tropes to expose errors in judgment. (Ch.I.14) The criteria in question is always threefold, involving the agent, the instrument, and the “according to what” or presentation of objects. (Ch. I.21)

In the first place, there is no universal plenum of agency which is common to all; in this way each man possesses a subjective perspective. Thus we encounter a perspectivism or subjectivity of judgment which explains the relativity of appearances. In the second place, there is no systematic treatment or instrument which does not rely on sense or intellect. What is illusory or apprehensible cannot be decided by either sense or intellect or both since the only criterion for judging require sense, the very criterion in question. The skeptics argue that sense is variable to taste and is therefore an inadequate measure of perception alone. (Ch. II. 50) On the other hand, employing intellect to ascertain judgments is equally fruitless since there is no way to apprehend its existence.(Ch. II. 57) Furthermore, even if the intellect were granted to be apprehensible, there is a diversity of opinion regarding how to judge according to it; this provides no standard for deciding among intellects and which should be preferred.(Ch. II. 58) Conjoining sense and intellect, the skeptics show that all judgments rely on one of these two and that is impossible to judge by both without relying on one or the other asserted either hypothetically or through circular reasoning.(Ch. II. 63) Thirdly, there is no way to decide according to which presentation objects should be judged since all presentations are the result of impressions derived from the external world of which we have no access; this is because the intellect receives presentations by way of the senses and the senses by way of their own subjective ‘affections’. (Ch. II. 70-75) In this way no answer could sufficiently address questions of external realities and values, therefore they eschewed speculation altogether. (DT 42-4) By appealing to external appearances for justification, they establish an inductive framework for approaching problems that relies on the association of phenomenon to establish probabilities. In many ways their approach parallels much of Hume’s intuitions and serves as the foundation for modern science.

While the skeptics disavow dogmatism—truth claims and necessary values—they are not relativistic or solipsistic, nor do they reject the possible existence of truth. They recognize that just because truth cannot be known does not infer its nonexistence. Their approach is much more pragmatic. The skeptics want acknowledge the turgidity of the subjective perspective and the conceptual structure contained within which distorts appearances. They want to save appearances by stripping them down, exposing all biases, and reveal the confounding accounts and inconsistences given the probability of any given account. They seek to reconcile the subjective deficiencies of judgment and experience and, moreover, the schism that separates the mind from the world in a way that allows one to live as ‘accurately’ as possible, probabilistically speaking. This requires challenging loaded concepts and non-evident assertions put forth by others.

In this way the skeptic’s offensive target is all reasoning and dogmatism. Every assertion can be justified by some form of logic, but the skeptics exploit not only the logical structure of logic, but the very premises or propositions which that structure relies on for support. The various tropes they employ expose the frailty of inductive inference by rendering the implicit assumptions embedded within the context of a given assertion. In his book In Defense of Truth, Goodman outlines how the skeptics arrived at their various tropes or modes, which they vehemently maintained were not criterion for truth and are equally refutably, but merely procedures for exposing fallacious assumptions. Goodman illustrates this point by referencing the debate between epistemologists and logicians regarding conclusions possessing embedded premises, or general truths being composed of particular truths. (DT 29-34) This redundancy, as Aristotle once declared, leads to absurdity. The Stoics and Skeptics together seemed to agree on many of the same basic approaches for these problems in logic but, whereas the stoics would posit postulations of their schemata that could be applied to assertions, the skeptics refrained from the idea of giving themselves to any fixed criterion of truth. The skeptics believed that every method or mode or schemata was not safe from scrutiny and could be subjected to the same blind reasoning as any other, and thus they were faced with the famed modal tri-lemma that exposed the circularity, infinite regress or hypothetical dogmatism of any given argument. The viability of formal logics lie in its usefulness as a tool to be employed within a diversity of contexts given a diversity of assumptions. (DT 39) The concern many have when they encounter the sentiments of skepticism is that there is not a clear criteria for how to live, no virtues or principles to really speak of: only the state of quietude and ephetic equipollence with all things. For the skeptics, there is no ‘art of living’, for that would presume the consideration of valuations, and moreover that these virtues are apprehensible.(Ch. XXV.239-51)

There is nothing necessarily true to speak of, nothing that really demands attention for the skeptic, (saving their end of course, quietude) for being disposed on such matters would lead to perturbedness. The closest they arrive is when they answer the question of whether skepticism has a doctrine rule, to which they reply that they do in fact have such a rule, which may come as a surprise. They define it very precisely, and precariously, as a procedure which, conforming to appearance, follows a ‘certain line of reasoning’ that indicates how to live rightly, in a non-virtuous sense, and tends to enable one to suspend thought. (Ch. I. 17) They appeal not to any assertions of their own, but to externalities, such as evident appearances, the social artifacts contained within cultural context, and a vague notion of ‘instinctive feelings’ which they empower to override all other asserted opinions.(Ch.I.17) In this reply they place heavy emphasis on the role of appearances as a guiding rule given how much their teachings repudiate any ‘given account’ made of assertions regarding reality.(Ch. I. 19-20) Their criterion of the four fold life appeals to appearances quite heavily, relying on the guidance of nature, adherence to laws and customs, constraint of the passions#, and instruction in the arts. (Ch.XI. 23-4) The first two are oriented towards the external world, whereas the last two, pertaining to the passions and arts, are oriented internally, requiring self-conscious control or radical, adhoc creativity and imagination.

The dilemma with the skepticism, however, is that they use language and rhetoric to posit their entire philosophy, never criticizing whether the premises and formulas they employ are otiose, notions such as doubt, suspense, the non-evident, quietude, modes and others. Do these occur in degrees? How is one to evaluate progress? Can we say that one skeptic is better than another; or that one is further along in quietude than another? How are they to gauge understanding? How do they assemble an outline for skepticism without prioritizing some notions over others? Any assumption, be it moral valuations or factual assertions, are an indelible feature of mind functioning as a reflexive organ which perceives just as much as he sees. Escaping this is a moot endeavor which the skeptics failed to fully appreciate when considering the pains made to explicitly state their ends and aims. They argue against the sophisms directed at the skeptic expressions by claiming that they make no absolute assertion respecting their absolute truth, that their expressions are held to the same standard of doubt, and that they simply appeal to custom or linguistic convention when speaking so that any attack on their expression is an attack on all, but this seems like evasive rhetoric.(Ch. I. 207-210)

While skeptics wish to avoid resolving questions of value, one cannot help but notice how paradoxical this endeavor appears. Why? Values are assumptions that serve as the basis for ethical or right action maintained by individuals. They form a hierarchy of priorities that guide and justify actions, with principle values being the foundation upon which other values and measures of integrity are based. Values are normative and relative, rooted in culture and convention, as well as empirical and absolute, existing on behalf of sheer physical and physiological necessity. Martha Nussbaum’s essay Skeptic Purgatives circumscribes the prerogatives of skepticism, as well as their logical denouement, pointing out the implicit assumptions and values embedded within skeptical thought, specifically the significance of quietude. (SP 544-8) How can skeptics reject judgments of the intellect and the non-apprehensible, yet maintain ends and values such as quietude?

One reply may involve their conception of belief. Contrary to Academic belief, skeptical belief is not a visceral phenomenon but rather a charitable one that follows without strong impulse or inclination or, as they say, “a yielding devoid of consent”. In this way there is no valuation or emotional disposition that sways the affections into disturbance. (Ch. I.227-35) Yet they speak of ‘instinctive feelings’ as a guide to the good life, while in the next breath speak of the ‘constraint of passions’. The skeptics strive to avoid dogmatism and never assent to the non-evident objects of inquiry, but what use are evident objects if we make no appraisal of their worth; think nothing of them? What is our priority or basis for action? Are skeptical tenants self-refuting? The skeptics might reply that by conforming to nature we react to what lies evidently before us, appealing here to absolute values, those for physical and physiological necessity, for principled justification of action. On the other hand, however, they speak equally on the importance of comporting with societal customs. To what extent does a skeptic abide by social convention and tradition for conduct? Skeptics insist on taking a very commonsense approach to such matters, but this does not parse out easily in practical daily living.(PS 523-5)

Speaking on progress, given the skeptic’s tenants—their fourfold, ends, and modes or tropes—what is achieved? Regarding their aim or end, the skeptics defer to ataraxia or quietism, a state of tranquility that appears to be the natural corollary of their aporetic philosophy. This seems by most accounts to lead to apraxia, the lack of action, comparable with the notion ‘analysis paralysis’. (Ch.I.7) Here they fall under scrutiny for their passivity towards life for their lack of assertion, which many equate to a lack of purpose.# How would the consequence of such a philosophy play out? I conjecture that it would resemble a society devoid of collaboration, devoid of collective projects, so to speak, such as buildings or informatics that necessarily take form under the guiding super-vision of a leader or a posited systematic super-structure. To begin, the very notion of improvement would suppose a non-evident value. Furthermore, prescribing and agreeing on a single vision or structure, let alone an imagined or abstract vision of things yet-to-be, would be problematic if not impossible given the skeptics adherence to evident apperceptions. For the skeptic, progressing toward achievement appears to be synonymous with their end ataraxia. But, as Hegel shows, this end is egocentric, involving only the self-conscious, and manifests through the negation of doubt alone.(PS 121-3) This is hardly a starting point for progressing humanity as a species.
To conclude, while the skeptic’s arsenal of tropes and methods of inquiry provide excellent strategies for analyzing and deconstructing the world, their philosophy is merely a self-reflective enterprise. There is no boldness, no otherness, and no priority of relationship with the world. As a result of this lack of assertion it fails to preserve itself in the face of society’s domination, eventually yielding to the dogmatic cult of culture. If there is anything of value within the skeptical enterprise, it is embodied in a critical pragmatism exercising a praxis of skeptical reflection coupled with dogmatic action. We must learn to, as Henri Bergson said, “Think like a man of action, and act like a man of thought.”


Empiricus, S., & Bury, R. G. (1990). Outlines of Pyrrhonism. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books.

Goodman, L. (2001). In Defense of Truth. Amherst, NY. Humanity Books.

Nussbaum, M. (1991). Skeptic Purgatives: Therapeutic Arguments in Ancient Skepticism. Journal History Philosophy. 521-557.

Hegel, G.F,. (1977). Phenomenology of Spirit. NYC, NY: Oxford University Press.

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