The Sponge of Apelles

Alexander Nehamas

  • The Skeptical Tradition edited by Myles Burnyeat
    California, 434 pp, £36.75, June 1984, ISBN 0 520 03747 2
  • The Modes of Scepticism: Ancient Texts and Modern Interpretations by Julia Annas and Jonathan Barnes
    Cambridge, 204 pp, £20.00, May 1985, ISBN 0 521 25682 8
  • Skepticism and Naturalism: Some Varieties by P.F. Strawson
    Methuen, 98 pp, £10.95, March 1985, ISBN 0 416 39070 6
  • Hume’s Skepticism in the ‘Treatise of Human Nature’ by Robert Fogelin
    Routledge, 195 pp, £12.95, April 1985, ISBN 0 7102 0368 3
  • The Refutation of Scepticism by A.C. Grayling
    Duckworth, 150 pp, £18.00, May 1985, ISBN 0 7156 1922 5
  • The Significance of Philosophical Scepticism by Barry Stroud
    Oxford, 277 pp, £15.00, July 1985, ISBN 0 19 824730 3

Thales of Miletus, with whom histories of Western philosophy conventionally begin, was said to have been so concerned with the heavens that he fell into a well while he was gazing at the stars. Ever since then (ever since they have existed, that is) philosophers have been objects of amusement and subjects of satire. For one thing, philosophical views often seem intolerably abstruse. For another, their sheer number, the sheer multiplicity of different equally abstruse views on the nature of the world or on the form of the good life, can itself constitute the ground of suspicion and criticism. And so, of course, it has.

In Philosophies for Sale, for example, Lucian of Samosata (AD 115-200) imagines that representatives of major philosophical schools are being sold into slavery by the gods. The device allows him to parade, and to scoff at, Pythagoreans and Cynics, Heracliteans, Cyrenaics, and Platonists, Atomists, Epicureans, Stoics, and Sceptics. Coming at the end of this long procession, the Sceptic appears almost reasonable when he claims that, in contrast to all the others, he knows nothing. But Lucian quickly undermines this impression. Ridiculously, the Sceptic does not even know what he himself is. His aim in life, he says, is ignorance. He wants to be blind and deaf, ‘without judgment or sense: in a word, a worm’. He doubts whether he has been actually sold, and urges his buyer to suspend judgment about whether he owns him. But in the end he follows his new master: Sceptics seldom lead revolts.

Lucian seems aware that Scepticism bears a complicated relationship to other philosophical schools, though he presents it as a direct competitor to them. His practice thus raises the serious question of the philosophical status of Scepticism itself. This leads directly to the heart of ancient Scepticism and to the question of its differences from the Scepticism invoked or attacked in modern philosophy. Both issues are raised, individually and collectively, by the books reviewed here.

First some background. Ancient Scepticism begins with Pyrrho of Elis (BC 365-270), who, perhaps appropriately, wrote nothing and founded no school; the little we know about him all comes from other authors. Scepticism developed two main branches. The first, institutionalised in the Academy, the school which Plato had established a century earlier and from which this approach – Academic Scepticism – received its name, flourished from the third until the first century BC. Much of our information about it comes from Cicero’s Academica, written in the first century BC and after Aenesidemus, thinking that the Academy had betrayed Scepticism, had started its second branch. This came to be known as Pyrrhonism and it continued until about AD 200, when Sextus Empiricus composed his Outlines of Pyrrhonism and his tracts Against the Professors.

Ancient Scepticism underwent many changes during its five hundred-year history. Some of them are documented in The Skeptical Tradition, an admirable collection of essays on ancient and modern scepticism. Many of these essays, as well as Professor Burnyeat’s vision of the multiformity and elasticity of Scepticism, will have a permanent effect on how such issues are discussed. This is not a volume which simply records and codifies the great interest which Scepticism has recently provoked. In addition, it actually establishes a new subject for philosophers and historians to investigate.

The Skeptical Tradition also shows that, despite their many differences, the ancient Sceptics shared a basic similarity of outlook. This outlook, in turn, distinguishes them sharply from their modern counterparts, and the clarity with which this contrast emerges is one of this collection’s main achievements. Modern Scepticism may in fact be descended from Arcesilaus, Carneades, Aenisedemus and Sextus. But we shall see that the ancients would almost certainly not have recognised it as their legitimate heir.

The opponents of ancient Scepticism, the ‘Dogmatists’, were those who accepted positive doctrines or ‘dogmas’. Unlike those we characterise by that term today, classical Dogmatists offered reasons and arguments for their views. The Sceptics regarded the Stoics as paradigm Dogmatists. But the background of the dispute included all the schools ridiculed by Lucian, and then some – notably Aristotelianism. The fact that there were so many different philosophers with so many different reasons for and against so many different answers to each of their questions was the main weapon in the sceptical arsenal. This weapon, whose name is ‘equipollence’, seems to align the Sceptics with Lucian and against the philosophers, with whom he prefers to group them.

At least in the ancient world, people turned to philosophy in the hope that learning the truth would lead to happiness. To some, however, it appeared that every plausible philosophical view is counterbalanced by another, equally convincing opinion. Consistently confronted with this situation, and eventually becoming adept at producing equipollent views themselves, some enquirers became incapable of endorsing any opinion about the way things are. They found themselves suspending judgment. They became Sceptics in a more technical sense. They withheld assent, and acted only on the basis of how things appeared to them, with no regard for their real nature. And, surprisingly, this refusal to accept anything as true, this desertion of philosophy and of much of common sense, led to tranquillity, to the very goal for which philosophy was originally undertaken.

It is crucial to realise that Sceptics are not reasoned into these positions and that they do not try to persuade others to follow them. This, as we shall see, would be to endorse the view that Scepticism is true and to invite the charge of self-refutation. Sextus thinks of his Outlines as a ‘narrative’, not as a demonstration, of Pyrrhonism. The Sceptic, he writes in a famous passage, is like the painter Apelles. Frustrated at his failure to depict the foaming mouth of a horse, Apelles flung his sponge at his painting and, quite by accident, secured just the effect he had despaired of getting. Tranquillity is the equally unanticipated product of suspending judgment.

The precise extent to which the ancient Sceptics avoided belief is, in fact, quite unclear. And so is the answer to the question whether a life without belief, either tranquil or agitated, is at all possible: whether human beings can truly live as the ancient Sceptics claimed they did. These very complicated questions are raised in some of the most interesting recent work on Scepticism – in the essays by Myles Burnyeat and Jonathan Barnes in The Skeptical Tradition and elsewhere, as well as in papers by Michael Frede. But what is also needed is a more elementary account of Scepticism, a presentation of the Sceptics’ main approaches when undermining their opponents’ views and reaching their own position.

This need is addressed by The Modes of Scepticism, a lively and accessible introduction by Julia Annas and Jonathan Barnes. The book, which begins with some general remarks, contains mostly a detailed examination of the ‘modes’ of Scepticism, traditionally attributed to Aenesidemus. These ‘patterns or schemata which constitute ways of inducing scepticism’ all have roughly the same form. Each argues that objects appear different in different situations, that there is no rational reason to prefer one situation to another, and that we can therefore neither affirm nor deny that any given object is really one way rather than really another. The equipollence of such ‘oppositions’ leads to suspension of judgment.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

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