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Pyrrhonism, or Pyrrhonian skepticism, was a school of skepticism founded by Aenesidemus in the 1st century BCE and recorded by Sextus Empiricus in the late 2nd century or early 3rd century CE. It was named after Pyrrho, a philosopher who lived from c. 360 to c. 270 BCE, although the relationship between the philosophy of the school and of the historical figure is murky. A renaissance of the term is to be noted for the 17th century when the modern scientific worldview was born.
Whereas academic skepticism, with Carneades as its most famous adherent, claims that "Nothing can be known, not even this", Pyrrhonian skeptics withhold any assent with regard to non-evident propositions and remain in a state of perpetual inquiry. They disputed the possibility of attaining truth by sensory apprehension, reason, or the two combined, and thence inferred the need for total suspension of judgment (epoché) on things. According to them, even the statement that nothing can be known is dogmatic. They thus attempted to make their skepticism universal, and to escape the reproach of basing it upon a fresh dogmatism. Mental imperturbability (ataraxia) was the result to be attained by cultivating such a frame of mind. As in Stoicism and Epicureanism, the happiness or satisfaction of the individual was the goal of life, and all three philosophies placed it in tranquility or indifference. According to the Pyrrhonists, it is our opinions or unwarranted judgments about things which turn them into desires, painful effort, and disappointment. From all this a person is delivered who abstains from judging one state to be preferable to another. But, as complete inactivity would have been synonymous with death, the skeptic, while retaining his consciousness of the complete uncertainty enveloping every step, might follow custom (or nature) in the ordinary affairs of life.
The second debate of Pyrrhonism in the early modern period
The traditions of ancient skepticism found a new reception in the early modern era climaxing in the 17th century in the discussion of historical doubt "Pyrrhonismus historicus" and "Fides historica" the 'belief' in history. The fundamental question of the debate could not, and cannot, be solved: How can we prove historical data? History is a realm that does not allow experimental proofs. Questions such as with how many stabs was Julius Caesar killed can only be discussed on the basis of documents. If they contradict each other historians can try to balance them against each other. Do certain documents have precedence over others as eye witness reports, can they be validated through experience, or do they include unlikely, marvelous incidents one should disqualify as legend?
The result of the debate was not a final solution of the inherent problem but the implementation of a new science of critical analysis of documents. The questions had a potential to destabilize religious histories. They lost much of their momentum with the transformation of history from a narrative project to a project of critical debate and with the 19th-century implementation of archaeology as a comparatively objective and experimental science.
Fallibilism is a modern, fundamental perspective of the scientific method, as put forth by Karl Popper and Charles Sanders Peirce, that all knowledge is, at best, an approximation, and that any scientist must always stipulate this in his research and findings. It is, in effect, a modernized extension of Pyrrhonism. Indeed, historic Pyrrhonists are sometimes described by modern authors as fallibilists. Modern fallibilists also are sometimes described as pyrrhonists.
- Agrippa the Skeptic
- Apophatic theology
- Sextus Empiricus
- Benson Mates
- Nassim Nicholas Taleb
- Seyffert, Oskar. Dictionary of Classical Antiquities, 1894, p. 483.
- This article incorporates text from the Encyclopædia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, a publication now in the public domain.
- Powell, Thomas C. "Fallibilism and Organizational Research: The Third Epistemology", Journal of Management Research 4, 2001, pp. 201-219.
- "Ancient Greek Skepticism" at the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy
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