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Topic #H64

Sextus Empiricus- General Skeptical Principles

11 March 2002
Scribe: Panteha Yektaeian


These minutes were spoken on 1 March; for another version, go to the unspoken minutes


The lecture began with Prof. Hutchinson reminding us that he had talked to us a little about the analogy of drug abuse in last Friday’s lecture.  He continued by noting that this is a therapy represented by Sextus Empiricus who had himself been a professional doctor, particularly a Medical Empiricist.  The latter referred to  a certain tradition of medicine Thus, when Empiricus describes the analogy of using drugs as a therapy for these complaints he is in fact making use of his own knowledge as he was a doctor and independently a philosopher.

                        The professor went on noting that we encounter him describing therapies for certain kinds of anxieties and the remedies associated with them, which will in certain instances be useful for anxiety and in others for such things as apathy, poor motivation, and lack of energy.  What is important to remark is that when the therapy is a drug it is liable to abuse.  Revealing his own personal convictions on the matter, Prof. Hutchinson stated that the knowledge of whether the drug under use is actually being abused should be made by the individual as opposed to anyone else.  Opium, for example, is a highly effective drug for pain and anxiety relief although it can be abused and therefore can seriously affect or ruin the lives of those abusing it.  Thus, as in the case of opium, skepticism is appropriate with respect to all drug use, particularly in the instance when the affect of a drug results  in decreased anxiety for things about which one should have anxiety.  When one wants relief from anxiety one approach  is to stop caring.  However, if it is something for which one should in fact be caring about then this approach is evidently not a good one.

                        The professor noted that knowledge of what one should care about is at a certain level given to us in the law.  The law, for example, tells us not to steal, rob etc. While he agrees with this, he does not agree with the view of doubling the penalty of an offence committed while under the influence, a position held by Aristotle in his Ethics.

                        Ultimately it is the individual’s business as to what one should be allowed to care and not care about.  Thus, the use of a drug should not be considered a vice nor a public crime.  However, we continue to criminalize and have in the past criminalized drugs, e.g. alcohol, cannabis, opium, etc. with disastrous consequences, namely the impossibility of research into their uses for public health. Prof. Hutchinson was quick to point out, however, that while he was opposed to the criminalization of drugs he was in favour of  comprehensive regulation and control of the supply of presently illegal or pharmaceutical drugs.  Ultimately, however, as expressed by Trudeau, the state has no room in the bedrooms (or recrooms) of the nation.  In the case of drugs, state intervention is inimical to the public health interest.

                        A student then asked whether this meant that the Prof. thought that marijuana use, was for example, up to the individual, but that the government reserved the right to decide the amount being used.  The professor responded by saying no.   The most the government should be allowed to exercise is to make the drug difficult to obtain.  Altering the mind is a widely-recognized constitutional freedom so that the prohibition of such substances should not be undertaken. Parallels between the criminalization of drugs can be made with the criminalization of homosexuality.

                        To this a second student asked whether the Prof. was an advocate of negative liberty, to which he responded by saying that he is opposed to forbidding people’s freedoms, something that our forbears in the criminalization of homosexuality and even coffee, and something which when looking back on today we find utterly ridiculous.

                        We then turned our attention to a discussion of the general skeptical principles of skepticism, specifically, the measuring and weighing analogy in Sextus’ philosophy.   One of the main functions of skepticism is the suspension of balanced judgement through the equalization of appearances when these can be opposed.  The problem arising from such an analogy, however, is the dogmatism to which it gives rise, for we cannot say that the scale is balanced each time.

                        This technique of weighing the balance is called in the Greek , isostheneia or “equal strength of reasons.” This forms the basis of the collection of modes or index of argumentative strategies used in the Skeptic system as a way of eliminating dogmatism.  The point is that one arrives at a balanced suspension of judgement by canceling out conflicting impressions.

                        A classic accusation against the latter technique is that it leaves people without a reason to act.  The Skeptics’ response (as outlined in sections 22 and 23 of Book I of Sextus Empiricus on page 306 of HP) is to say that they respond to a special sort of criteria, referred to collectively as the everyday rules of conduct.  They consist of sense-experience, inner feelings, others’ opinions, and what others instruct us to do through the trades and skills.  These methods they claim are useful tools in getting one through life without commitments.

                        The Professor expressed his disagreement with this opinion by focusing his attention on the implications entailed by the last of these methods.  The trades have been for the most part handed down to us passively and are inflexible. In many organizations things improve not by way of a skeptical attitude, i.e., Not “I don’t know what the better way is,” but rather with a sense of wonder.  Hence, the skeptic approach in this instance is inimical to progress and advancement.  This opinion has been expressed in position papers by students in previous years. Skepticism they asserted is an anti-philosophy in that it eliminates the wonder with which philosophy begins through the display of indifference and indecision.

Despite these criticisms, Professor Hutchinson has a huge warm spot in his heart for Skepticism.  He recounted to us the first time he was introduced to it, some 22 years ago in August of 1979 when he partook in a reading group discussion attended by undergraduate and graduate students and headed by Sir Antony Kenney and Jonathan Barnes (who continues scholarship in Skepticism and has co-written two books on the subject)[i].  It was here that Prof. Hutchinson first discovered the usefulness of keeping a record of  scribe minutes, as a record of the discussion was kept by students and read back at the next meeting.

                        The Cyreniacs seemed to have had both an ethical and pleasure-loving aspect as well as a subjectivist approach to their philosophy as revealed in passages found in their works.  For example, “whether the wall is white I cannot say all I know is that I have been whitened by it” (SE, PH 1. 215, IG III-27).  The professor noted that this stance is one of subjectivism as opposed to skepticism, but that it shares a similarity with dogmatic skepticism in that the truth is ultimately beyond one’s grasp, all that can be attested to are the subjective impressions received.                             

                        Sextus opposed the Cyrenaic system believing it was dogmatic and whereas Skepticism’s goal was freedom from disturbance theirs he contended was concerned with pleasure and the motion of the flesh.  In defense of Cyreniacism the professor noted that it is not the case that the doctrine conceived of pleasure is one maintained by hedonism, so that its absence results in increased distress.

                        We also looked at the subjectivist approaches encompassed by the Protagorean approach (page 216 of HP).  Professor Hutchinson then compared three similar but different strains of thought: (1) relativism, (2) subjectivism, (3) realism, by giving an account of their differing responses in the example of suttee.  To the question of whether it is right to kill oneself  at the death of one’s husband, the relativist will answer that although it is not right for her it is right for those whose culture practices it. The subjectivist will say that suttee is good to some observers and bad to others, thereby providing no resolution to the matter since there is no right answer.  The professor expressed his disagreements with these two stances and in so doing posited that the question is best treated by the realist.



[i] Julia Annas & Jonathan Barnes. The Modes of Skepticism: ancient texts and modern interpetations. Cambridge University Press, 2000. (including translations of parts of Sextus, and other evidence on the various mode systems of Pyrrhonian philosophy).


Sextus Empiricus, Outlines Of Skepticism, translated by Julia Annas and J. Barnes.Camridge Univeristy Press, 2000. ( a translation of all 3 volumes of Sextus Empiricus, “Outline of Scepticism/Pyrrhonism” and a contribution to the series “Cambridge Texts in the History of Philosophy”).