Sextus Empiricus on scepticism triggered by variations in circumstances

One of the relatively neglected modes of scepticism—modes that lead one to conclude to suspension of judgement—arguably pertains to that of circumstances. Mostly this is because we are accustomed to such circumstances, or, when they strike us as important, are either so fleeting as to be unnoticed, or are typically viewed as anomalies to be compared with a commonly accepted standard, and so admit of irrelevance. The central task of Sextus Empiricus in enumerating the mode of scepticism pertaining to circumstances consists in the attempt to show that the different appearances which come about depending on different conditions will be undecidable. The goal of this paper is to evaluate whether Sextus has successfully carried out this task, through a close reading of his first book of the Outlines of Scepticism. The logical structure of his fourth mode is reviewed first, before its association with the infinite regress is assessed second. The contingency of circumstances on standards is analysed third.

Sextus introduces the fourth mode of suspension of judgement by enumerating eight oppositions and two conditions through which ‘objects produce dissimilar impressions on us’ (Empiricus 2000: 28). These are: age and anterior conditions, including (1) states of being natural and unnatural; (2) waking or sleeping; (3) moving or being at rest; (4) hating or loving; (5) being in need or sated; (6) drunk or sober; (7) confident or fearful; and (8) distressed or in a state of enjoyment. The logical structure of these claims can be stated as follows (Morison 2011: 279),

(1)        x appears F in S          

(2)        x appears F* in S*

From equipollence it follows

(3)        We cannot prefer S to S* or vice versa;


(4)        we can neither affirm nor deny that x is really F or is really F*

It should be cautioned that propositions 3 and 4 are dogmas and conclusions respectively—which Sextus rejects the stipulation of—so the technical form should include propositions (1) and (2) only. In the passages we are concerned with, Sextus specifies the circumstance-bound form of this argument. The representative passage here is ‘the same objects are annoying to people in distress and pleasant to people who are enjoying themselves’ (Empiricus 2000: 29), which can be formalised as:

(1)        x appears F to people in condition

(2)        x appears F* to people in condition C*

On judgement, it follows

(3)        Therefore, x is F

(4)        Therefore, x is F*

This argument relies on a definition of ‘appears’ that is compelling, which is to say, of a magnitude that leads us to draw conclusions about the absolute, rather than relative, nature of existing objects. The integrity of Sextus’ structure depends on the impossibility of observers disentangling the condition they are in from their consciousness of the condition. If person P is aware that condition C is leading them to see object x as F, and so refuses to see object x as really relaying F, they cannot be both in condition C and aware that it is ‘misleading’ them, as this ‘unbiased’ disposition manifests under a condition too, namely, an apparently ‘unbiased’ one. Hence, partly because they are necessary and not contingent, ‘anomalies among the appearances are undecidable’ (Empiricus 2000: 30). Sextus, however, stops short of arguing that this is true, but rather that it obtains by definition, lest he descend into an infinite regress of justifications.

Sextus, incidentally, draws upon an infinite regress argument to defend suspension subject to circumstances. He argues that by preferring one appearance of object x in condition C, to another appearance of object x in condition C*, we are deeming the preferred appearance to be true. This requires judgement (i.e. truth or falsity), which depends, in turn, on a standard by which it may be made (e.g. syllogistic vs inferential reasoning), relying furthermore on a proof of the standard (e.g. Aristotelian vs Chrysippusian logic), by which point this standard requires a judgement, inducing a proof, and so on ad infinitum. Figure 1 plots this scheme, though the loop indicated by the arrow should be construed as an infinite regress not of the same content, but procedure, so that every standard, judgement and proof examined in and beyond stage 3 are different.

Screen Shot 2018-11-15 at 10.33.13 am.png
Figure 1 Infinite regress argument of the fourth mode of scepticism

In this configuration, however, standards are discretely, rather than continuously, conceived, given their association with ‘natural’ or apparently default states and dispositions. Sextus distinguishes between, for example, ‘mixing of certain humours which produces inappropriate appearances from existing objects in people who are in an unnatural state’ and those appearances occurring to people in a natural state (Empiricus 2000: 28). However, this distinction raises wider questions about the constitution of standards in general, as it may be necessary to draw upon some which are not easily differentiated. For instance, Sextus argues that ‘many men who have ugly girl-friends think them most attractive’ (Empiricus 2000: 29). There exists, however, no common standard against which one facial aesthetic may be shown to prevail over another, without the introduction of vain or arbitrary categorisations. In this way it is difficult to escape the conclusion that proponents of the objects of judgement are, by Sextus’ account, set up to fail.

Sextus provides a compelling case to arrive at suspension of judgement about external existing objects subject to circumstances. The specific logical structure of the argument obtains soundly from the more general form, though its implied definition of appearance is not self-evident given Sextus’ wish to avoid descending into an infinite regress of justification. This is an issue of argumentation that, incidentally, he uses in defence of his thesis—that anomalies among the appearance are in fact undecidable. However, the component demanded of standards, risks the introduction of self-defeating categorisations. Given its relativity to the rest of the implicated circumstances and conditions of appearance, it brings out a situation from which Sextus secures for himself, once again, prized immunity.

Reference List

Empiricus, S. 2000, ‘Book I’, in in Annas. J. & Barnes, J. (eds.), Outlines of Scepticism, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 3-65.

Morison, B. 2011, ‘The Logical Structure of the Sceptic’s Opposition’, Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy, XL (Essays in Memory of Michael Frede), pp. 265–95.



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