Clearing Up Misconceptions About Pyrrhonism

Douglas C. Bates
13 min readDec 27, 2022
Illustration of the anecdote of Pyrrho and the hog

Massimo Pigliucci has published a review of the book How to Keep an Open Mind: An Ancient Guide to Thinking Like a Skeptic. In this book, Richard Bett presents a fresh translation into contemporary English of some of the most important sections of the works of the ancient Pyrrhonist philosopher, Sextus Empiricus, along with with some commentary by Bett.

I previously reviewed the same book. The translation is commendable. Unfortunately, Bett’s commentary ruins the book as Bett misinterprets Sextus. (I’m hardly the only one to think so. Here’s Katja Maria Vogt’s take on Bett’s misinterpretations.)

Sadly, Bett’s misinterpretations have infected what Massimo presents in his review of the same book, and consequently, what he says about Pyrrhonism.

Broad Generalizations Are Not Necessarily Dogmas

Massimo summarizes Pyrrhonism in one short paragraph in which he comes to the conclusion that Pyrrhonism is somehow ironic.

The essence of Pyrrhonism is that our unhappiness is rooted in the fact that we are too attached to all sorts of opinions we have no business being attached to, because they are about “non-evident” matters, i.e., broadly and imprecisely speaking, matters that are not obvious to the senses (like: it’s day now!) or to basic reasoning (like: 2+2=4). One example might be any broad statement about what does or does not make people happy. (Did you catch the irony?)

There’s no irony here; there’s just a misunderstanding. Our distress does not come from our attachment to broad statements; it comes from what such statements are based on. Broad statements based on experience are not the source of distress. Broad statements such as “if there’s smoke, there’s fire,” and “if there is a scar, there was a wound” are not what trouble us. These kinds of broad statements are empirical statements — and they are examples provided by Sextus Empiricus of non-troublesome broad statements. (Outlines 2.102)

As for the question — “what does or does not make people happy?” — that’s a question we can ask people. It’s an empirical question for which a non-troublesome broad statement can be made.

It is not broad statements that are barriers to our happiness. Our problems arise from belief in…

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Douglas C. Bates

Ancient Greek philosophies of life. http://www.pyrrhonism.org Author of “Pyrrho’s Way: The Ancient Greek Version of Buddhism.”