Western skeptics

Types of skepticism in Western philosophy

In Western philosophy, the term “skepticism” has been used to refer to a range of philosophical positions that have in common a questioning of the very possibility of having knowledge. The Greek word skeptomai (σκέπτομαι) from which the word “skeptical” comes means “to inquire, to investigate.” It could, in principle, be applied to any kind of willingness to keep searching for new evidence or for new ways of looking at a problem, rather than closing off further investigation by claiming that a question has been definitively answered once and for all. In practice, however, it is a term applied to several particular types of inquiry, of which we shall look at two that may be seen as having counterparts in Buddhism.

Pyrrhonism

The term “philosophical skepticism” is associated with the thinking of Pyrrho (ca. 365‒275 BCE), who left no writings but whose teachings are reported by others, including his disciple Timon. One account of his approach that survives is the following fragment from a writing of Aristocles (dates unknown):

He [Pyrrho] himself has left nothing in writing, but this pupil Timon says that whoever wants to be happy must consider these three questions: first, how are things by nature? Secondly, what attitude should we adopt towards them? Thirdly, what will be the outcome for those who have such an attitude? According to Timon, Pyrrho declared that things are equally indifferent, unmeasurable and inarbitrable. For this reason neither our sensations nor our opinions tell us truths or falsehoods. Therefore for this reason we should not put our trust in them one bit, but should be unopinionated, uncommitted and unwavering, saying concerning each individual thing that it no more is than is not, or both is and is not, or neither is nor is not. The outcome for those who actually adopt this attitude, says Timon, will be first speechlessness [aphasia], and then freedom from disturbance; and Aenesidemus says pleasure. (Eusebius, Prep. Ev. 14.18.2–5, Long & Sedley)1

Followers of Pyrrho observed that much of the turmoil and unhappiness of human life arises from holding on rigidly to opinions. When others hold rigidly to opinions other than one’s own, strife is likely to arise, and one is more inclined to see the other as unworthy of respect. This lack of respect can lead in turn to feeling justified in acting or speaking abusively toward the other. So the key to both a harmonious life and an ethical one, said the Pyrrhonians, is to abstain from speaking about opinions (aphasia), and the best way to avoid speaking about opinions is not to hold them in the first place.

Academic skepticism

Academic skepticism is associated with the Academy of Plato, and the Academic skeptics were those who drew upon the Platonic dialogues in which Socrates is presented as questioning everything. This portrait of Socrates appears most vividly in the text called “The Apology,” in which he is portrayed as questioning the oracle at Delphi, which had proclaimed Socrates the wisest of all men. Socrates, of course, doubts the oracle and sets out to prove it wrong by finding someone wiser than himself. In that dialogue Socrates is portrayed as telling of his search for men known for their wisdom and learning. He meets such people, interviews them and discovers that they themselves do not really understand what they claim to know. He summarizes his search in these words:

However, I reflected as I walked away, Well, I am certainly wiser than this man. It is only too likely that neither of us has any knowledge to boast of, but he thinks he knows something which he does not know, whereas I am quite conscious of my ignorance. At any rate, it seems that I am wiser than he is to this small extent, that I do not think that I know what I do not know.

Later Academics understood the Socratic method of inquiry as a technique for dealing with misfortune. Misfortune makes people miserable, because people tend to see situations only from one perspective, their own. If a person can learn to see a situation from other perspectives, then he can see that what is troubling to him might very well be a source of joy to others; one’s own misfortune may be someone else’s good fortune. Learning to see things from many points of view can therefore be an antidote to one of the most common sources of avoidable unhappiness.

More generally, seeing situations form the perspective of others enables one to see that there is no single perspective that is uniquely correct. One person’s truth may be another’s falsehood. What appears virtuous to one person may seem vicious to another. As with Pyrrhonian skeptics, the Academic skeptics observed that rigidity in opinion and narrowness in outlook were inclined to make a person internally unhappy and externally disharmonious with others.

With this brief account of Western skepticism, we can now turn to skeptical tendencies in early Buddhism,


  1. Quoted in Leo Groarke, “Ancient Skepticism,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. ↩︎

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