Don’t Confuse Pyrrhonism With Skepticism
Pyrrhonism is the earliest form of Western philosophical skepticism; however, what we now consider to be skepticism is so greatly different from Pyrrhonism that calling Pyrrhonism “skepticism” produces severe and difficult-to-reverse misconceptions of what Pyrrhonism is. This is exacerbated by presentations of Pyrrhonism that distort it, sometimes with blithe excuses such as this one in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “Without any claim to historical accuracy, we will take Pyrrhonian Skepticism to be absolute skepticism — the thesis that suspension of judgment is the only justified attitude….”
Pyrrhonism is not absolute skepticism. While suspension of judgment plays a major role in Pyrrhonism, it is not its only justified attitude. The aim of this article is to highlight the aspects of Pyrrhonism that are contrary to this erroneous narrative.
Most contemporary philosophers use the term “skepticism” to refer to refer to the core concern of epistemology: how do we know what we know? The main problem behind this is that “skepticism” has come to be strongly associated with doubt. This is not true of the ancient Greek term from which “skepticism” is derived. That term has nothing to do with doubt. It is about inquiry and investigation. To associate Pyrrhonism with doubt is an error. Our surviving ancient sources on Pyrrhonism do not describe the Pyrrhonist state of mind as doubt. Instead they describe it as suspension of judgment, being at an impasse, or engaged in further inquiry.
Inquiry, investigation, coming to an impasse, and suspension of judgment are the key features of Pyrrhonism. Doubt is not a feature of Pyrrhonism. Pyrrhonism is fundamentally about ethics, not epistemology.
Adding to this is that most of the scholarship on Pyrrhonism focuses on a single feature of Pyrrhonism and a perceived dilemma associated with that feature. One of the major spiritual exercises of Pyrrhonism is suspending judgment on all non-evident claims. Cultivating this ability is a central feature of Pyrrhonist practice. However, some scholars think this feature creates a dilemma: Can a Pyrrhonist say what Pyrrhonism is without contradicting their injunction to suspend judgment?