Sextus Empiricus: The Suspension of ‘Judgment’

Sextus Empiricus

Scepticism is an ability, or mental attitude, which opposes appearances to judgments in any way whatsoever, with the result that,owing to the equipollence of the objects and reasons thus opposed we are brought firstly to a state of mental suspense and next to a state of “unperturbedness” or quietude.

Outline of Skepticism – Sextus Empiricus

Having a discussion with a friend on doubt carried too far…

I don’t know if it’s so much doubt in your sense as skepticism – as in Sextus Empiricus, who spent his time debunking ‘beliefs’ not because people believed in things in any definable sense, but because they sought reasons (Rationality) for their beliefs when there was and could be none; so, for him doubt began with a suspension of judgment, a questioning of both sides of an issue – a debate among the various ideas without taking sides until in the end either both were qualified, disqualified, one or the other qualified – at least to his own satisfaction. In this way he hoped to produce tranquility rather than fall into any sense of nihilistic doubt of never ending questioning – what later thinkers term the “idiot questioner” who is never satisfied, and always obstinate, never resting in any fact, truth, or judgment. Empiricus thought such doubt to be stupid, and set Pyrrhonist skepticism above such foolishness. (And, I’ll admit I’m speaking of Pyrrho who traveled with Alexander the Great, and some say was curiously interested in Madhyamaka Buddhism during his travels! Pyrrhonists offer no view, theory, or knowledge about the world, but recommend instead a practice, a distinct way of life, designed to suspend beliefs and ease suffering. )

I have to admit that early on I was definitely of the school of Pyrrhonist skepticism after Empiricus… and, even now, my own ride through nihilism was not the extreme type leading through endless idiot questions, but rather of the type that like Nietzsche sought a path beyond the decay, decadence, and demise of meaning through a transvaluation of values, a path that seems like Empiricus to offer not a resolution in Hegel’s sense, but rather a momentary stasis of revisable working (heuristics) of judgement so that we can continue our projects without reducing them to dogmatic belief systems or eternal verities.

Without a theory of meaning we are like those lost creatures below the broken tower of Babel who no longer understand each other and have lost all sense of knowledge, communication, and meaning until all that is left is a civil-war of all against all. Is this not happening in our time? Yet, in our time politics has fallen into the trap of a dichotomizing and binary opposition that situates humans and pits them against each other in a polarizing Left/Right extreme narrative reduction in which neither side can do anything but hate the other’s positions. What if like the ancient Pyrrhonists we could all suspend those beliefs, suspend our automatic judgments of each other’s positions, and then begin to reason together till some form of equitable and charitable path forward could be proposed in which all could agree? Isn’t this what democracy once held out for humanity? What happened to that dream? That dream has taken on the darker hues of a dystopian nightmare…