Sextus and Wittgenstein on the End of Justification

In: International Journal for the Study of Skepticism

Following the lead of Duncan Pritchard’s “Wittgensteinian Pyrrhonism,” this paper takes a further, comparative and contrastive look at the problem of justification in Sextus Empiricus and in Wittgenstein’s On Certainty. I argue both that Pritchard’s stimulating account is problematic in certain important respects and that his insights contain much interpretive potential still to be pursued. Diverging from Pritchard, I argue that it is a significant and self-conscious aspect of Sextus’ sceptical strategies to call into question large segments of our belief system en masse by exposing as apparently unjustifiable fundamental propositions which are closely related in their linchpin role to Wittgenstein’s hinge propositions. In the first instance, the result is a more complex account of both a deeper affinity between Wittgenstein’s approach to hinge propositions and Sextus’ approach to what I term archai propositions and a divergence between the two. In the second instance, I suggest how the comparison with On Certainty can be illuminating for the interpreter of Sextus. In particular, it can help us to see how the Pyrrhonist’s everyday conduct—common assumptions to the contrary notwithstanding—involves rational procedures of justification, in line with a naturalism reminiscent of Wittgenstein. Furthermore, it can help us to reflect on the Pyrrhonist’s attitude to what Wittgenstein would have called her ‘worldview’. Throughout, I suggest that the comparison with Wittgenstein is interesting, although it must be cashed out differently, not only on the interpretation—or, perhaps, strand—of ancient Pyrrhonism which has the sceptic exempt ordinary beliefs from her suspension of judgement, but also on the interpretation (or strand) which has her disavow all beliefs categorically.

  • BaileyA. (2002). Sextus Empiricus and Pyrrhonean Scepticism. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

  • BarnesJ. (1987). “An Aristotelian Way with Scepticism,” in 51–76 in M. Matthen (ed.), Aristotle Today. Edmonton: Academic Printing & Publishing.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • ——. (1990). The Toils of Scepticism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

  • ——. (1997a). “The Beliefs of a Pyrrhonist,” 58–92 in Burnyeat & Frede (1997).

    • Export Citation
  • BettR. (ed.). (2010). The Cambridge Companion to Ancient Scepticism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

  • BilgramiA. (2004). “Scepticism and Pragmatism,” 56–75 in McManus (2004).

    • Export Citation
  • BrunschwigJ. (1994). “The ὅσον ἐπὶ τῷ λόγῳ Formula in Sextus Empiricus,” 244–258 in his Papers in Hellenistic Philosophy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • BurnyeatM. F. (1976). “Protagoras and Self-Refutation in Later Greek Philosophy,” Philosophical Review 85: 44–69.

  • ——. (1982a). “Idealism and Greek Philosophy: What Descartes Saw and Berkeley Missed,” Philosophical Review 91: 3–40.

  • ——. (1982b). “The Origins of Non-Deductive Inference,” 193–238 in J.Barnes, J.Brunschwig, M. F.Burnyeat, and M.Schofield (eds.), Science and Speculation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • ——. (1997a). “Can the Sceptic Live His Scepticism?” 25–58 in Burnyeat & Frede (1997).

    • Export Citation
  • ——. (1997b). “The Sceptic in His Place and Time,” 92–127 in Burnyeat & Frede (1997).

    • Export Citation
  • BurnyeatM. F., and FredeM. (eds.). (1997). The Original Sceptics: A Controversy. Indianapolis: Hackett.

  • CastagnoliL. (2010). Ancient Self-Refutation: The Logic and History of the Self-Refutation Argument from Democritus to Augustine. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • CavellS. (2004). “Reply to Four Chapters,” 278–291 in McManus (2004).

    • Export Citation
  • DavidsonD. (2006). “On the Very Idea of a Conceptual Scheme,” 196–208 in K.Ludwig and E.Lepore (eds.), The Essential Davidson. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • FineG. (2000). “Sceptical Dogmata: Outlines of Pyrrhonism I 13,” Méthexis 13: 81–105.

  • ——. (2003). “Sextus and External World Scepticism,” Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy 24: 341–385.

  • FogelinR. J. (1981). “Wittgenstein and Classical Scepticism,” International Philosophical Quarterly 21: 3–15.

  • ——. (1994). Pyrrhonian Reflections on Knowledge and Justification. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

  • FredeM. (1997a). “The Sceptic’s Beliefs,” 1–25 in Burnyeat & Frede (1997).

    • Export Citation
  • ——. (1997b) “The Sceptic’s Two Kinds of Assent and the Question of the Possibility of Knowledge,” 127–153 in Burnyeat & Frede (1997).

    • Export Citation
  • GlannonW. (1986). “Wittgenstein’s Place in the Sceptical Tradition,” Schriftenreihe der Wittgenstein-Gesellschaft: Die Aufgaben der Philosophie in der Gegenwart 12.1: 551–553.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • GlockH. J. (ed.). (2001). Wittgenstein: A Critical Reader. Oxford: Blackwell.

  • GraylingA. C. (2001). “Wittgenstein on Scepticism and Certainty,” 305–321 in Glock (2001).

    • Export Citation
  • HackerP. M. S. (2001). “Philosophy,” 322–347 in Glock (2001).

    • Export Citation
  • HallieP. P. (ed.), and Etheridge, S. G. (trans.). (1985). Sextus Emricus: Selections from the Major Writings on Scepticism, Man & God. 2nd edition. Indianapolis: Hackett.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • KernA. (2004). “Understanding Scepticism: Wittgenstein’s Paradoxical Reinterpretation of Sceptical Doubt,” 200–218 in McManus (2004).

    • Export Citation
  • KleinP. D. (2011). “Epistemic Justification and the Limits of Pyrrhonism,” 79–96 in Machuca (2011b).

    • Export Citation
  • LeeM.–K. (2010). “Antecedents in Early Greek Philosophy,” 13–35 in Bett (2010).

    • Export Citation
  • LongA. A. (2006). “Aristotle and the History of Greek Scepticism,” 43–69 in his From Epicurus to Epictetus: Studies in Hellenistic and Roman Philosophy. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • LongA. A., and SedleyD. N. (1987). The Hellenistic Philosophers, 2 vols. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

  • MachucaD. E. (2009). “Argumentative Persuasiveness in Ancient Pyrrhonism,” Méthexis 22: 101–126.

  • ——. (2011a). “Pyrrhonism and the Law of Non-Contradiction,” 51–77 in Machuca (2011b).

    • Export Citation
  • ——. (ed.). (2011b). Pyrrhonism in Ancient, Modern, and Contemporary Philosophy. Dordrecht: Springer.

  • MalcolmN. (1958). Ludwig Wittgenstein: A Memoir. London: Oxford University Press.

  • McGinnM. (2004). “The Everyday Alternative to Scepticism: Cavell and Wittgenstein on Other Minds,” 240–259 in McManus (2004).

    • Export Citation
  • McManusD. (ed.). (2004). Wittgenstein and Scepticism. London: Routledge.

  • MooreG. E. (1959). “Proof of an External World,” 127–150 in his Philosophical Papers. London: Allen and Unwin.

  • Moyal-SharrockD., and W. H.Brenner (eds.). (2005). Readings of Wittgenstein’s On Certainty. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

  • NussbaumM. (1994). “Skeptic Purgatives: Disturbance and the Life without Belief,” 280–315 in her The Therapy Of Desire. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • PerinC. (2010a). “Scepticism and Belief,” 145–164 in Bett (2010).

    • Export Citation
  • ——. (2010b). The Demands of Reason: An Essay on Pyrrhonian Scepticism. Oxford: Oxford University Pres.

  • PhillipsD. Z. (2005). “Wittgenstein’s On Certainty: The Case of the Missing Propositions,” 16–29 in Moyal-Sharrock and Brenner (2005).

    • Export Citation
  • PritchardD. (2000). “Doubt Undogmatized: Pyrrhonian Scepticism, Epistemological Externalism, and the ‘Metaepistemological’ Challenge,” Principia: Revista Internacional de Epistemologia 4: 187–218.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • ——. (2005). “Wittgenstein’s On Certainty and Contemporary Anti-Scepticism,” 189–224 in Moyal-Sharrock and Brenner (2005).

    • Export Citation
  • ——. (2011a). “Wittgensteinian Pyrrhonism,” 193–202 in Machuca (2011b).

    • Export Citation
  • ——. (2011b). “Wittgenstein on Scepticism,” 523–549 in O.Kuusela and M.McGinn (eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Wittgenstein. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • QuineW. V. O. (1969). “Speaking of Objects,” 1–25 in his Ontological Relativity and Other Essays. New York: Columbia University Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • StoughC. (1984). “Sextus Empiricus on Non-Assertion,” Phronesis 29: 137–164.

  • StrikerG. (2001). “Scepticism as a Kind of Philosophy,” Archiv für Geschichte der Philosophie 83: 113–129.

  • StrollA. (1994). Moore and Wittgenstein on Certainty. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

  • TorS. (2010). “Argument and Signification in Sextus Empiricus: Against the Mathematicians VIII 289–290,” Rhizai 7: 63–90.

  • VogtK. M. (2010). “Scepticism and Action,” 165–180 in Bett (2010).

    • Export Citation
  • ——. (2012). “Appearances and Assent: Sceptical Belief Reconsidered”, Classical Quarterly 62: 648–663.

  • WatsonR. A. (1969). “Sextus and Wittgenstein,” Southern Journal of Philosophy 7: 229–237.

  • WilliamsM. (2010). “Descartes’ Transformation of the Sceptical Tradition,” 288–313 in Bett (2010).

    • Export Citation
  • WittgensteinL. (1974). On Certainty. G. E. M.Anscombe and G. H.von Wright(eds.), G. E. M. Anscombe and D. Paul (trans.). Oxford: Blackwell.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • ——. (2001). Philosophical Investigations. 3rd edition. G. E. M. Anscombe (trans.). Oxford: Blackwell.

  • WrightC. (2004). “Wittgensteinian Certainties,” 22–55 in McManus (2004).

    • Export Citation
  • 3

    See Barnes (1997) for the nuanced view that Sextus’ corpus contains both what he labels “rustic” and “urbane” tendencies, the former strand of Pyrrhonism being the categorical rejection of all beliefs and the latter a criticism restricted to dogmatic-philosophical beliefs and norms of argument and assent: “The general tenor of PH is, I think, indubitably rustic. But PH also contains important intrusions of urbanity” (1997: 89).

  • 5

    E.g. Burnyeat (1997a: 28; 1982b: 219 n. 62), Long & Sedley (1987: vol. 1, 471), Nussbaum (1994: 288), Striker (2001: 119–120 n. 7), Vogt (2010: 171–178). Although the central aim of Perin (2010b) is to challenge conceptions of Pyrrhonism as “anti-rationalist,” he is ultimately in agreement with this traditional view of the Pyrrhonist’s practical, everyday conduct. Perin maintains that the Pyrrhonist’s adoption of appearances as the criterion of action is rational precisely insofar as the demands of reason are what compel her to suspend judgement and resort to appearances. On his view, then, action on the basis of appearances remains non-rational insofar as it remains devoid of any use of rational justification and deliberation to establish a preference for one course of action over another. In this sense, Perin agrees that “reason fails to guide [the Sceptic’s] thought and action” (2010b: 117–118).

  • 11

    On this passage, see Machuca (2009).

  • 24

    Burnyeat (1997a); cf. Burnyeat (1997b). For this general view of the Pyrrhonist, see most recently Vogt (2012).

  • 25

    Recall Barnes’ (1997) view that Sextus’ corpus confronts us with both the no-beliefs Pyrrhonist and the ordinary-beliefs Pyrrhonist, n. 3 above.

Content Metrics

All Time Past Year Past 30 Days
Abstract Views 93 84 7
Full Text Views 224 211 2
PDF Downloads 22 21 3