Dissecting the skeptics VII

Now that we’ve considered Delavagus’s explication of the skeptics’ dialectical strategy, described in To Unknow Our Knowing, we’ll turn to his description of Pyrrhonism’s aims.

[S]kepticism is simply philosophico-rational thought coming to an awareness of its own rational groundlessness. But Pyrrhonism doesn’t stop there, for the conclusion that philosophico-rational thought is rationally ungrounded is itself rationally ungrounded. In other words, for Pyrrhonians, the skeptical conclusion is just one more thing to be skeptical about. If it has any force, it is only as a hypothetical: if x, then y, where ‘x’ is the framework of rationality as we understand it and ‘y’ is the skeptical conclusion (which, of course, wraps back around and consumes ‘x’). Pyrrhonians are willing to accept that philosophico-rational thought may not in fact be rationally ungrounded; they claim merely that, given these apparently unavoidable rational commitments—commitments without which it seems impossible that there could be any such thing as a search for truth—it seems that our justifications fail, that our thinking turns back on itself, like a mother consuming her offspring, that our knowing drops out of the picture.

Where does this leave Pyrrhonians? It leaves them not as some brand of philosophical skeptic, but rather as skeptics about philosophy.

Throughout its history, philosophy has displayed a tendency toward stunning arrogance and pretentiousness, which in turns has tended to give rise to condescension with respect to what I’ll call ‘common life.’ By ‘common life,’ I mean—simply but roughly—ordinary life as lived by ordinary people. From the rarefied heights of philosophical sagehood, common life seems a paltry, precarious, self-deluded thing. Common life is life bound in Plato’s Cave, seeing naught by shadows (appearances), whereas the Philosopher is the Great Man who has thrown off his shackles, escaped the cave, and beheld the Sun (reality).

Pyrrhonians reject the pretensions of a philosophy that would arrogate to itself the right, to say nothing of the ability, to sit in judgment over common life as such. They live according to appearances—without the baggage of a philosophically loaded notion of ‘reality’ undermining it. To Pyrrhonians, common life (that is, the appearances) is a sort of pragmatic-transcendental framework, an immanent, ground-level framework that comes into view only upon the collapse of the illusory philosophico-rational framework built atop it. Common life is ‘pragmatic’ in the sense that it seems as though the appearances (the ways in which the world shows up for us, in all its phenomenological richness) arise from our social practices; it is ‘transcendental’ in the sense that the appearances seem at the same time to underlie or make possible our social practices.

(Consider: the framework-claim that the world did not pop into existence in the year 1900 both arises from various of our practices—in the sense that if we did not have such practices then the claim would not belong to the framework of common life—and constitutes those practices, since doubting it would render impossible, or at least deeply problematize, those practices.)

Throughout his texts, Sextus claims to champion ‘common life’ over the ‘conceit and rashness of the dogmatists.’ But he is also clear that Pyrrhonians differ importantly from those who have not undergone the skeptical therapy. He marks this difference by telling us that, unlike dogmatists and pre-reflective ‘ordinary people’ alike, mature Pyrrhonians live adoxastōs, without beliefs or opinions. What does this mean? I want to suggest that it represents a sort of proto-contextualism.

In my previous post, I mentioned a few schools of epistemological thought, namely, foundationalism and coherentism, internalism and externalism. Contextualism is another. It comes in a variety of forms, but roughly, contextualists hold that the truth or justification of a claim is determined or constrained by various contextual factors. David Lewis, for instance, (in)famously argued that ‘conversational contexts’ are defined by rules, the last of which he calls the Rule of Attention, which holds that any possibility that is in fact entered into a conversation is thereby not properly ignorable, even if the possibility (such as, e.g., that we are all living in the Matrix) was properly ignorable prior to the possibility being raised. What this means is that we might know all sorts of things one moment, then in the next moment—after the unanswerable Matrix possibility is raised—no longer know anything. On this view, philosophy is actually in the business of, as Lewis puts it, ‘destroying knowledge.’ To philosophize, in other words, is to unknow our ordinary knowing.

In part VI, I showed that Delavagus shows no understanding of the Pyrrhonian skeptic’s responsibility to exclusively utilize the beliefs, convictions, and assumptions of his interlocutors, and also illustrated how Scepticism is a direct attack on human reason. In this section, Delavagus admits the latter, but then qualifies his admission by noting, correctly, that the Sceptics are open to the possibility that they might be wrong about the unreliable nature of rational thought. Is his claim that this transforms them from philosophical skeptics to skeptics about philosophy also correct?

Yes and no… but ultimately, no. I will not count this as an outright error, however, since it is simply a complicated repeat of his mistaken claim that Scepticism is not a philosophy. Let me explain by first noting that Sextus explicitly asserts that Scepticism is not only a philosophy, but one of the three major schools of philosophy. So, it’s much more accurate to say the Pyrrhonian possesses one philosophy about which he is skeptical and a second one by which he attempts to live his daily life than to say that he does not possess one at all. The first is a sort of Schroedinger’s Philosophy, which is either valid or not valid depending upon something that the philosopher does not know. Ironically enough, one could point towards this sort of if/then approach being in practice much more akin to my probability-oriented perspective than to the Uncertainty dogma championed at Three Pound Brain. What, really, is the material difference between the highly rationalized Pyrrhonian arguments against philosophy and rational thought and the common, instinctive observation that philosophy is nothing more than useless mental masturbation committed by navel-gazing perverts? Furthermore, because the Pyrrhonian observably possesses two distinct philosophies, one focused on opinion and the other concerned solely with phenomena, the potential invalidity of the first philosophy says nothing about the existence of the second.

Indeed, the attempt to simultaneously champion the common life while holding themselves superior to the unsceptical masses appears to show that Pyrrhonianism is an intellectual drug for the philosophy addict, who recognizes the sterility and enervating uselessness of his addiction, but cannot bear to give it up for fear that doing so would render him one of the common herd that he despises. That this attempt to separate himself from the philosophers and the ordinary people alike is doomed to failure can be seen in the impossible metric that Sextus imposes upon the sceptic, since it is quite obvious that no one manages to live adoxastōs. For example, Delavagus may call himself a modern Pyrrhonian, but he is quite clearly not a mature one since he has expressed more than a few opinions and beliefs, while despite his constant advocacy of uncertainty, Scott himself pretends only to “skeptic naturalism” rather than Scepticism.

Delavagus next makes a fascinating and revealing statement that is of far more interest than his subsequent attempt to engage in another definitional switch. He brings up David Lewis’s assertion that philosophy is not in the business of truth, but rather “destroying knowledge”. Which, combined with Delavagus’s earlier definition, means that philosophy exists in order to destroy justified true belief. However, this is Lewis’s view and is not necessarily shared by Delavagus, especially since he promptly switches definitions and claims that to philosophize is to unknow our “ordinary knowing”, which is the very sort of knowledge he specifically precluded through his choice of the philosophical definition. Now, it’s important to recognize that a) Lewis may not be referring to Delavagus’s knowledge, and b) there is no conflict between Delavagus’s assertion about the purpose of philosophy being the destruction of “ordinary knowledge” in favor of “justified true belief”. However, what is completely lacking is any justification or logical support for the legitimacy, or even possibility, of that goal, especially in light of the Sceptical argument that justified true belief does not appear to exist.

If this sounds incoherent, it is because Delavagus has deviated from the argument he was originally presenting, and is now meandering off course into tangential issues that have little relation and no relevance to his defense of Pyrrhonism. We’re rapidly approaching the end of his second post here, so in part XVIII, we shall see if he’s able to somehow pull it all together into an argument that is at least coherent, if not necessarily convincing.

Next section
Dissecting the skeptics VIII

Previous sections
Dissecting the skeptics I
Dissecting the skeptics II
Dissecting the skeptics III
Dissecting the skeptics IV
Dissecting the skeptics V
Dissecting the skeptics VI