Sextus Empiricus: Suspending Judgement and Promoting a Skeptical Search for Truth
The following two quotes will help you gain a quick perspective on how the ancient philosopher Sextus Empiricus understood the world:
Those who claim for themselves to judge the truth are bound to possess a criterion of truth. This criterion, then, either is without a judge's approval or has been approved. But if it is without approval, whence comes it that it is truthworthy? For no matter of dispute is to be trusted without judging. And, if it has been approved, that which approves it, in turn, either has been approved or has not been approved, and so on ad infinitum.
Skepticism relieved two terrible diseases that afflicted mankind: anxiety and dogmatism.
Now let’s look at his life and explore his philosophy further.
Sextus Empiricus is best-known for being an exponent of Skepticism. Whilst little is known for certain about Sextus Empiricus’ life, and much of his personal details are based on conjecture, two of his works are extant, one of which, Outlines of Pyrrhonism, provides the most complete account that we have today of a school of Skepticism known as Pyrrhonism.
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Man of Mystery and Medicine
No one can say for certain when Sextus Empiricus lived, but it seems he was active between the 2nd century AD and the first half of the following one. This is based on him being reputed to have been a contemporary of Galen. Like his contemporary, Sextus Empiricus was also a physician, and his name is said to reflect this. According to tradition, Sextus Empiricus belonged to the Empirical School of Medicine, one of the three main medical schools during that period, the other two being the Rational and Methodical schools. This may be seen in the ‘Empiricus’ part of the philosopher’s name. Although we do not know exactly where Sextus Empiricus lived either, it has been suggested that he had spent his life in Rome, Alexandria, and Athens.
Galen and Sextus Empiricus are said to have lived in the same time period. (Public Domain) Like Galen, Sextus Empiricus was also a physician.
Outlines of Pyrrhonism and Sextus Empiricus Against the Mathematicians
Fortunately, two of Sextus Empiricus’ works have survived the passage of time. These are Outlines of Pyrrhonism, and Against the Mathematicians (also translated as Against the Professors). It is thanks to Outlines of Pyrrhonism that we have today a complete description of Pyrrhonism, a school of Skepticism founded by Pyrrho.
According to this school of Skepticism, people searching for a philosophy may be divided into three groups. The first of these claim that they have found truth, and these are referred to as ‘dogmatists’. Aristotle is an example of such a philosopher. The second group, known as ‘sceptics’, claim that truth cannot be found, this philosophy is exemplified by Cleitomachus. The third group continue to investigate for the truth, believing that whilst it has not been discovered yet, it can be discovered. The followers of Pyrrhonism fall within this third group.
Pyrrho. (Public Domain)
To aid their investigations, Pyrrhonists employ a technique known as ‘suspension of judgment’. This technique involves considering the arguments in favor of a proposition, as well as the arguments against it. It may be said that arriving at this ‘suspension of judgment’ is not the same as arriving at a conclusion, as a Pyrrhonist still needs to weigh both sides of the argument and decide for himself / herself which carries more weight, thereby reaching a conclusion.
Following the Modes
The Outlines of Pyrrhonism also provides ‘modes’, which is one of the ways to achieve this ‘suspension of judgment’. Four types of modes are listed – the Ten Modes, the Five Modes, the Two Modes, and the Eight Modes.
Of these, the Ten Modes, attributed to Aenesidemus, are treated most extensively in Outlines of Pyrrhonism. The Ten Modes (taken from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s entry on Sextus Empiricus) is as follows:
1. The mode depending on the variations among animals
2. The mode depending on the differences among humans
3. The mode depending on the differing constitutions of the sense-organs
4. The mode depending on circumstance
5. The mode depending on positions and intervals and places
6. The mode depending on admixtures
7. The mode depending on the quantities and preparations of existing things
8. The mode deriving from relativity
9. The mode depending on frequent or rare encounters
10. The mode depending on persuasions and customs and laws and belief in myths and dogmatic suppositions
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Concrete examples were also provided in order to demonstrate how these modes may be employed. For instance, to illustrate Mode 1, Sextus Empiricus considers the fact that whilst humans find perfume pleasant, animals do not.
Skepticism declined in popularity during the Middle Ages, but it experienced a revival in Europe between the 16th and 18th centuries. In 1562, an edition of Outlines of Pyrrhonism, along with a Latin translation, was published in Geneva by Henricus Stephanus. Sextus Empiricus’ writings were widely read during this time, and amongst those influenced by him are David Hume and Michel de Montaigne.
Morison, B., 2014. Sextus Empiricus. [Online]
Available at: https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/sextus-empiricus/
neamathisi.com, 2018. Sextus Empiricus, the Sceptic, on Not Being Dogmatic. [Online]
Available at: http://neamathisi.com/new-learning/chapter-7-knowledge-and-learning/sextus-empiricus-the-sceptic-on-not-being-dogmatic
New World Encyclopedia, 2015. Sextus Empiricus. [Online]
Available at: http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Sextus_Empiricus
Smith, W. (ed.), 1873. A Dictionary of Greek and Roman biography and mythology: Sextus Empi'ricus. [Online]
Available at: http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.04.0104%3Aalphabetic+letter%3DS%3Aentry+group%3D15%3Aentry%3Dsextus-empiricus-bio-1
The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2012. Sextus Empiricus. [Online]
Available at: https://www.britannica.com/biography/Sextus-Empiricus