Victor Nuovo: Explaining Skepticism

16th in a series

The terms skeptic and skeptical are commonplace in our ordinary discourse, so one might think that they hardly require definition. A skeptic is a doubter, and “skeptical” denotes an attitude of mind to doubt things in general.


Most of us are selectively skeptical. For example, we are or should be skeptical of any sales pitch, for it is evident that the person making it has no interest in enlightening us, but only in selling us something that we might or might not need. We are also or should be skeptical of claims made by certain politicians who are accustomed to telling lies. Liars must not be trusted.

Skepticism is also a major post-Socratic philosophical tradition. Its founder was Pyrrho of Elis (360–270 BCE). Pyrrho travelled in the train of Alexander the Great east to Persia and India, where he encountered “Gymnosophists,” naked philosophers, who discarded all the trappings of civilized life as detrimental to pure thought.

Returning to Greece, Pyrrho began to teach philosophy. Unlike Epicurus and Zeno, he established no school. Rather he propagated his philosophy by preaching and engaging in dialogue and debate in public places. He denied that we are capable of distinguishing between good and evil, right and wrong, true and false, and doubted that we could ever be sure that anything at all really exists.

In a brief biography, Diogenes Laertius writes, “He led a life consistent with this doctrine, going out of his way for nothing, taking no precaution, but facing all risks as they came, whether carts, precipices, dogs or what not, and leaving nothing to the judgment of the senses.” Diogenes adds that he was kept out of harm’s way by his friends.

In this respect, he was a consistent skeptic. He did not dogmatically deny the possibility of knowledge. He presented arguments designed to refute all claims to knowledge, and not knowledge only, but also belief. His goal was life without belief.

And what sort of life is that? Pyrrho and his successors claimed that it is a complete indifference which leads to tranquility, peace of mind. In this respect, ancient skepticism appears to be more of a religion than a philosophy. Some interpreters liken it to Buddhism.

The philosophical value of skepticism lies not so much in its lifestyle, but in the means by which philosophical skeptics established and defended their point of view. Pyrrho and his followers were well versed in the doctrines and arguments of the other philosophical schools: Platonic, Aristotelian, Epicurean and Stoic, whose proponents they labelled “Dogmatists.” Their arguments were not based in ignorance, but on wide knowledge and logical sophistication. The point of their skeptical arguments was to demonstrate that our cognitive faculties are incapable of knowledge, and that what we take to be knowledge or believable hypotheses do not add up to a coherent picture of the world. Their skeptical arguments are worthy of consideration, for they challenge our ordinary beliefs about the nature of things around us and our capacity to know them.

Their aim is to build an unbridgeable divide between appearance and reality. Seeing may be believing, but if the ideas in our minds do not correctly represent things as they really are, how can we even know to correct them? Besides, we have only our own minds to count on. Others may see things differently from us. Objects that seem heavy to one, may seem light to another; cool to one and warm to another. Moreover, we humans are not the only animals that have the sense of perception. Birds, squirrels and turtles have it as well, but suppose they see things differently? Truth is said to be in the eye of the beholder, but then is it really truth? In sum, all things are relative, and we are caught in a labyrinth of relativity.

The philosopher David Hume (1711–1776) studied the arguments of the ancient skeptics very carefully, and used them to establish his own skeptical position. But he also offered a reprieve from the skeptical dilemma. In the end, nature is always at hand to rescue skeptical philosophers from the hazards of their philosophical doubt. For they will come to realize that if their viewpoint were universally accepted “all life must perish.” “All discourse, all action would immediately cease; and men remain in total lethargy, until the necessities of nature, unsatisfied, put an end to their miserable existence. It is true, so fatal an event is very little to be dreaded. Nature is always too strong for principle.” But nature may someday annihilate us.

Postscript: The primary source of Pyrrho’s skeptical arguments is Sextus Empiricus, “Outlines of Phyrrhonism.” However, it is not available in an affordable edition. Diogenes Laertius (180–240 CE), mentioned above, was an ancient historian and biographer who wrote what has become an indispensable source for the study of ancient philosophy: “The Lives of the Eminent Philosophers.” It is available in a new English translation, published by Oxford University Press. It is a good read. Visit your local bookshop.

Share this story:

More News

Editorial: Learning to cope with floods

As lightning flashes outside my office window this Wednesday evening and weather forecaste … (read more)


Community Forum: Taking on health care costs

The 2024 Legislative session started and finished the same way — with universal concern ab … (read more)


Ways of Seeing: What I’ve been reading

Three years ago, I joined Goodreads’ annual reading challenge. Since then, I’ve read betwe … (read more)

Share this story: