Sextus Empiricus and the Infinite Regress of Justification (SORENSEN ROY)

Sextus Empiricus and the Infinite Regress of Justification (SORENSEN ROY)

We know almost nothing—about Sextus Empiricus. We do not know when this codifier of Greek skepticism was born or when he died. We do not know where he was born or taught or even if he was Greek rather than a barbarian.

He appears to have been a physician and the head of some school of philosophy. Most scholars place him in the second century. But they are guessing.

What we do know is that Sextus Empiricus authored Outlines of Pyrrhonism and Against the Logicians. These books, along with several others that are commonly attributed to him, compile two hundred years of skeptical arguments. Since Sextus wanted to counter the dogmatists of his day, he patiently describes the doctrines of Aristotle, Diodorus Cronus, the Stoics, and many others. Sextus only records philosophical positions with a view to undermining them. Ironically, Sextus’s survey of sites slated for demolition is much responsible for their preservation. Like the other accidental historian of ancient philosophy, Diogenes Laertius, Sextus’s works were widely and persistently circulated because he had a flair for paradoxes. Sextus leaves us uncertain as to his specific brand of skepticism.

Sextus has long been construed as advocating suspending judgment on all matters. The ancients knew that the Pyrrhonists were inspired by Pyrrho of Elis. Diogenes Laertius reports that Pyrrho learned his philosophy in India. Pyrrho could have visited India by tagging along with Alexander the Great’s expedition. Scholars have pointed out several features of Pyrrho’s philosophy that seem alien to Greek philosophy and that were indigenous to Indian philosophy. Diogenes also reports that since Pyrrho trusted no belief more than any other, he went “out of his way for nothing, taking no precaution, but facing all risks as they came, whether carts, precipices, dogs or what not.” (1925 II, 61-62) Nevertheless, Pyrrho managed to reach age ninety because of the many students and friends who “used to follow close after him.”


Sextus treats philosophy as a kind of mental disorder that can be quieted by dialogue. As physicians are wont to do, Sextus presents his cure as a serendipitous discovery. Like other seekers of the truth, the skeptic began as a dogmatist frustrated by his failure to solve the paradoxes. Weary, he lapsed into a state of suspended judgment. Ironically, this doubt relieved him of the anxiety that he had hoped to dispel by finding the truth. Sextus recalls the story of Apelles, who was trying to paint the mouth foam of a horse. This famous painter used a sponge to clean the paint from failed efforts. Apelles became so frustrated that he threw the sponge at the picture. To his surprise, the mark left by the sponge produced the effect of the horse’s foam. Similarly, the skeptic unintentionally happened upon a resolution of problems that vexed him. Pyrrhonism consolidates this dumb luck.

Sextus’s basic strategy is to treat inconsistency as a tranquilizing ally rather than as an adversary. When you find yourself becoming opinionated on a topic, try to think of opposing arguments. As the pros and cons cancel out, peace of mind dawns.

This method of equipollence must be understood psychologically. It would be dogmatic to rate one argument as being equally cogent as another. Sextus’s aim is to balance the persuasive force of the arguments, not their real merits. The persuasive force is gauged passively, by noting how the argument affects the subject in question. In one’s own case, it is difficult to separate one’s opinion of the argument’s cogency from its objective logical force. Self-therapy gives you no psychic distance. But when Sextus is curing others, he can freely tailor his talking therapy to the patient in question.

The skeptic . . . desires to cure by speech, as best as he can the self conceit and rashness of the dogmatists. So just as the physicians who cure bodily ailments have remedies which differ in strength, and apply the severe one to others whose ailments are severe and the milder to those mildly affected—so too the skeptic propounds arguments which differ in strength and employs those which are weighty and capable by their stringency of disposing of the Dog-matist’s ailment, self conceit, in cases where the mischief is due to severe attack of rashness, while he employs the milder arguments in the case of those whose ailment of conceit is too superficial and easy to cure, and whom it is possible to restore to health by milder methods of persuasion. (1933a, III, 289-91)

Sextus’s method of titrating arguments with counterarguments must be exercised on a laborious case-by-case basis. Conveniently, Sextus also prepares all-purpose argument patterns that help the patient argue other positions to a draw. As the patient becomes a well-rounded dialectician, he absorbs the lesson that “reason is a such a trickster” and stops taking philosophical arguments seriously.

Sextus cannot assert the therapeutic philosophy outlined above.

Pyrrhonism differs from the Academic Skepticism that flourished after Arcesilaus took over Plato’s Academy. The greatest representative of the new academy, Carneades contended that knowledge is impossible. The Stoics had objected that doubt is paralyzing. One does not know what to do next. The skeptics of the new academy replied that decisions can be made on the basis of probabilities (of a qualitative character, not the numeric sort introduced by Pascal and Fermat in the seventeenth century).

Some propositions are more justified than others. Many contemporary scientists are mitigated skeptics of this cautious sort. They are fallibilists who think we can be mistaken about anything. By a testable mixture of observation and theory, scientists instead assign probabilities to hypotheses. As new evidence comes in, the probabilities are revised. Science is a raft that is constantly being repaired. No part is essential. The raft is kept afloat by the process of revision.

Sextus denies that the Academic Skeptics are entitled to assert the sweeping generalization “Knowledge is impossible.”
… Sextus casts himself as the openminded inquirer who refuses to acknowledge that any belief is more probable than any other. Since he does not want to commit himself to any proposition, he does not want to assert that we lack knowledge. For all we know, we know as much as we seem to know.

Sextus does not seek decisive arguments that will convert his adversary from being a believer to being a disbeliever. After all, disbelief is just belief in the negation of a proposition. Sextus encourages neutrality rather than disbelief. He does not want to win or lose; he only wants to play long enough to show the futility of the game. Sextus opposes philosophical beliefs, not the ordinary beliefs one has in everyday life.


A Brief History of the Paradox: Philosophy and the Labyrinths of the Mind
Roy Sorensen



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