Monday, May 21, 2007

Caution: Pyrrhonist crossing

We're getting ready for a seminar next week on book nine of Diogenes Laertius. I'm going to be introducing the section on the life of Pyrrho. Like Socrates, Pyrrho wrote no philosophical works and, like Socrates, it is incredibly difficult to make clear headway in working out precisely what he thought. Also like Socrates, Pyrrho inspired a series of followers -- Pyrrhonists -- who later went on to elaborate a sophisticated and self-reflexive form of scepticism which professed to suspend judgment over everything.

The stories about Pyrrho's life often found in later sources like Diogenes, clearly reflect the later history of the school and might not, therefore, be simple guides to early Pyrrhonian attitudes. But they are fun, nevertheless, and also revealing of just how weird philosophers were imagined to be. Pyrrho was evidently a great target for this kind of speculation, precisely because of his professed refusal to assent to any dogmatic assertion.

Still, it is not always perfectly clear to me when a given story is supposed to be critical and when it is not. For example, this extract from DL 9.62 might be a fairly straightforward example of a charge commonly made against various forms of scepticism: it is impossible to live that way. Pyrrho was supposed to be constantly in danger of being struck down as he wandered about, paying no heed to what his senses told him (or, perhaps, actively rejecting what his senses told him):
Ἀκόλουθος δ’ ἦν καὶ τῷ βίῳ, μηδὲν ἐκτρεπόμενος μηδὲ φυλαττόμενος, ἅπαντα ὑφιστάμενος, ἀμάξας, εἰ τύχοι, καὶ κρημνοὺς καὶ κύνας καὶ ὅσα <τοιαῦτα> μηδὲν ταῖς αἰσθήσεσιν ἐπιτρέπων. σώζεσθαι μέντοι, καθά φασιν οἱ περὶ τὸν Καρύστιον Ἀντίγονον ὑπὸ τῶν γνωρίμων παρακολουθούντων.
This is Hicks' translation:
He lived a life consistent with his doctrine going out of his way for nothing, taking no precautions, but facing all risks as they came, whether carts, precipices, dogs or what not, and, generally, leaving nothing to the arbitrament of the sense; but he was kept out of harm's way by his friends who, as Antigonus of Carystus tells us, used to follow close after him.
There is no reason to think that Antigonus, whose biography of Pyrrho Diogenes uses here and there, is particularly hostile to Pyrrho. And it is worth noting that Pyrrho did live to a ripe old age. So do we have here a familiar apraxia charge? On this view, it was only because of his followers that Pyrrho did not meet a sticky end rather quickly. Surely his followers had to take a rather different attitude from Pyrrho himself to the prospect of an on-rushing cart, so the viability of this form of scepticism is parasitic of at least someone somewhere taking a resolutely non-sceptical attitude. (It is worth noting that the next comment in Diogenes comes from Aenesidemus, the first century BC fan of Pyrrho, who set out to deny that Pyrrho had ever behaved so bizzarely.) I'm more attracted to this critical interpretation than I once was, but I still wonder whether perhaps this story too is part of a more positive spin. After all, a large number of the anecdotes in Diogenes seem to be trying to offer a positive image of Pyrrho's equipoise. Can this one be viewed in this way? On this view, Pyrrho did indeed live according to his scepticism precisely because of his charismatic tranquillity which encouraged such devoted followers. On either view there is a pun to be found here. Pyrrho lives 'following' (akolouthos) his doctrine because of his followers (parakolouthountes) who pull him out of harm's way.

It's a tricky thing, reading ancient philosophical biography...

1 comment:

craig allen said...

thing is, according to sextus pyrrhonists assent to what appears to be the case, and adopt approximate knowledge thereby, and react, so it makes no sense that pyrrho would ignore the senses... p yrrhonism is materialism, insofar as the senses tell us of the material world. The epistemology of pyrrhonism is that of science now, all knowledge is "theory"... but some things do appear to be the case, and others don't.

-phiseed