73 - Healthy Skepticism: Sextus Empiricus

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Sextus Empiricus, the last great ancient skeptic, expounds a radical branch of the tradition called Pyrrhonism. Peter raises some doubts about how to interpret him.



Further Reading

• J. Annas and J. Barnes (ed. and trans.), Sextus Empiricus: Outlines of Scepticism (Cambridge: 2000).

• J. Barnes, The Toils of Scepticism (Cambridge: 1990).

• M.F. Burnyeat and M. Frede (eds), The Original Sceptics (Indianapolis: 1997).

• G. Striker, “The Ten Tropes of Aenesidemus,” in M.F. Burnyeat (ed.), The Skeptical Tradition (Berkeley: 1983), 95–115.

Stanford Encyclopedia: Ancient Skepticism


Donald Edward … on 1 July 2016

using observations to direct therapy

Did Peter. mention how Sextus uses his observations to proceed? Otherwise how can he get along from day to day without action?

In reply to by Donald Edward …

Peter Adamson on 1 July 2016

Sextus and action

Well as I discussed in the episode Sextus' story is that he can just "follow the impressions" he has without actually endorsing them by assenting, and thus forming beliefs. So perhaps the idea is that, if he feels hungry he eats, without having any beliefs about whether this is a good thing to do or not, etc. There is a big debate in the secondary literature, which I also touched on, as to which beliefs exactly Sextus declines to form (all beliefs or only "philosophical" ones?).

Essense on 13 February 2023

Tiresome plausibility

Is consistent scepticism perhaps more saved when it agrees to two plausibilities: the positive and the opposite statement of one belief which then destroys the plausibility itself (i.e. the plausibility does not occur)? Which seems more tiresome. 

In reply to by Essense

Peter Adamson on 14 February 2023


Not sure I quite follow that, but in antiquity those skeptics who accepted the notion of the "plausible" or "probable" (pithanon) took it to be asymmetrical. In other words if a positive statement is "probable" that is taken to mean the negative one is not, and vice-versa. But these skeptics held on to the idea that they were not certain (presumably not even certain about whether the favored proposition is probable). This approach is associated with the New Academy especially Philo of Larissa and Cicero; Sextus rejects it and adopts a position of "balance" and suspension of judgment between opposing propositions.

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