For me, they were steps, I have climbed up upon them – therefore I had to pass over them. But they thought I wanted to settle down on them.
Pyrrhonian skeptics are those who adopt a certain practice with a nod to Pyrrho of Elis, a Greek figure of the mid-fourth to mid-third century BCE, who actually left no writings but with whom the practice is said to have originated. Our best knowledge of this variety of skepticism in fact comes from a second century CE physician named Sextus Empiricus. What makes the Pyrrhonists unique among other sorts of skeptics is that on all speculative, “philosophical” questions, they suspend judgment. This ephectic attitude is in fact the hallmark of Pyrrhonism. From their point of view, other skeptics turn out to be nothing more than negative dogmatists. And that’s a crucial observation, because it’s what gives the Pyrrhonist his claim to being a real skeptic – a word that originally means “inquirer.” If I’ve suspended judgment on an issue, it makes sense for me to continue investigating. If, on the hand, I’ve made up my mind that, say, there is no God or that values don’t exist or that knowledge is impossible, then I’ve closed off that avenue of investigation and come to rest with a position I have to defend no less vigorously than my dogmatic opponents.
A Pyrrhonian skeptic, then, is essentially someone with a peculiar talent for countering any argument with an opposing argument. It’s crucial to see that the Pyrrhonist is not a stubborn sort of person, unwilling to be convinced; it just happens to be devilishly hard to convince him, such is his talent for opposing one argument to another. In the face of his keen awareness of arguments on both sides of every issue, he suspends judgment, and a state of well-being — psychological equanimity – is said to follow this suspension “like a shadow follows a body.” And this is the end at which Pyrrhonian skepticism aims: psychological well-being and health.
The aim of these thinkers (or, more precisely, these practitioners) was not to advance theories, but was instead to cure, where they could, what they called the “conceit and rashness” of dogmatic philosophers. I read Nietzsche’s perennial concern with health as expressing fundamentally the same aim.
3:AM: So is it through the lens of Pyrrho that we should understand Nietzsche’s attitude to knowledge and truth?
JB: I do. And I think the metaphor of a “lens” is particularly helpful here. I want to be clear about the nature of the relationship between the Pyrrhonists and Nietzsche, because I think that philosophers often aren’t perspicuous enough about the nature of historical “influence.” I’ve in fact deliberately avoided, or at least have highly qualified, the claim that Nietzsche is “influenced” by Pyrrho or by Sextus. You won’t find in Nietzsche’s published work any reference at all to Sextus Empiricus, and you’ll find only a couple of allusions to Pyrrho himself. And Nietzsche certainly doesn’t identify himself as a Pyrrhonist. My own view is that if we really take the time to familiarise ourselves with this variety of skepticism, if we come to appreciate its motivations and recognize the moves standardly made by Pyrrhonian skeptics, then we cannot fail to see these motivations and many of the same moves in Nietzsche’s writing, and we’ll come to see Nietzsche’s work in a new light, one in which it becomes less opaque, more coherent, and even more subtle and interesting. So the best description of my interpretation of Nietzsche would be that I read him on the model of Greek skepticism.
Very interesting interview, as is often the case on 3:AM. Her book also looks interesting, but it’s also currently going for a steep fifty bucks on Amazon. Of course, I’m sure that wouldn’t present any problems for one of my fabulously wealthy readers possessed by the generous spirit of the season, nudge nudge hint hint.
…adding, Dave Maier has more.