Can the Skeptic Search for Truth? The Problems

In my previous post, I offered a brief description of my research project. In this second post, I will refer to both the main texts which are the object of my analysis and the problems that these texts seem to pose for the coherence of Pyrrhonian skepticism.

At the beginning of the Pyrrhonian Outlines (PH), Sextus distinguishes between three kinds of philosophy according to the different attitudes that may be adopted towards the object of a philosophical investigation: the dogmatic, the Academic, and the skeptical. Whereas the Dogmatists in the proper sense of the term claim to have discovered the truth in philosophical investigations and some of the Academics assert that it cannot be apprehended, the Skeptics continue their investigation (PH I 1–3). Elsewhere, Sextus remarks that Skeptics can consistently go on investigating because they agree that they ignore how things are in their nature and the purpose of their investigation is precisely to discover the answer they have not found, whereas for the Dogmatists, who claim to know the nature of things, the investigation has come to an end (PH II 11). In this connection, it should be borne in mind that, as everyone knows, the Greek σκεπτικός means “inquirer” and σκέψις “inquiry.” In fact, Sextus tells us that the skeptical philosophy is “called ‘investigative’ because of its activity concerning investigation and inquiry, and ‘suspensive’ because of the affection that comes about in the inquirer after the investigation” (PH I 7).

As noted in my first post, the purpose of my research project is to determine whether the Pyrrhonian skeptic can consistently claim that the object of his philosophical inquiries is the truth. This topic has recently received new attention from specialists, who have affirmed that the search for truth is incompatible with other defining aspects of the Pyrrhonian philosophy, such as the quest for and the attainment of the state of tranquility or undisturbedness (ἀταραξία) and the use of the so-called Five Modes of Agrippa. This is why some interpreters have held that the object of skeptical investigation is not (or cannot be) the truth. More specifically, the Pyrrhonist’s ongoing investigation seems to pose several problems which show that truth-directed inquiry and Skepticism are incompatible or that there is a gap between the theory and practice of Skepticism, and hence that Sextus is wrong in claiming that the Pyrrhonist continues to search for truth or that Skepticism is a kind of philosophy. The problems in question are the following:

(i) Once the Skeptic has suspended judgment universally, he cannot continue the quest for truth, since this presupposes both belief or confidence that there is a truth and hope that one will find it, which is clearly at odds with the radical skeptical outlook characteristic of Pyrrhonism.

(ii) Suspension of judgment (ἐποχή) is incompatible with investigation, since the state of suspension is attained after the investigation is over, and given that Pyrrhonism is defined by universal suspension, then it is incompatible with the continuation of the investigation.

(iii) The Five Modes of Agrippa block any attempt to find the truth insofar as they are arguments designed to prove that no claim can ever be rationally justified. Therefore, the use of these modes is incompatible with the open-minded search for truth.

(iv) The so-called “argument from possible disagreement” shows that the quest for truth is doomed to failure, because this argument intends to establish that, even when there is no current actual disagreement about a given topic, we should nonetheless suspend judgment because a disagreement might arise in the future.

(v) The search for and the attainment of the state of undisturbedness renders unnecessary and, hence, incomprehensible the continuation of the investigation: given that the search for truth was conceived of only as a means to achieve that state, then once the Pyrrhonist becomes undisturbed he is no longer (or, at any rate, should no longer be) interested in philosophical inquiries.

These five problems seem to show that Sextus’ claim that the Pyrrhonian philosophy differs from the others in that the Pyrrhonist continues to investigate the truth should be considered absurd or incoherent. Faced with this conclusion, some scholars have maintained that Sextus is disingenuous in making that claim. Others have instead argued that the object of the proto-Pyrrhonist’s investigation is different from that of the full-fledged Pyrrhonist’s investigation.

What I do in the paper I am working on is to explore each of these five problems and determine whether they can be explained away or rather whether they are, as scholars have affirmed, insurmountable. Examination of the nature, purpose, and feasibility of Pyrrhonian inquiry will make it possible not only to better understand the character of Pyrrhonian skepticism but also the very nature of philosophical investigation, i.e., whether it requires some kind of confidence in the existence and knowability of truth.