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Topic #H64

Sextus Empiricus: (General Skeptical Principles) HP pp 302-325

11 March 2002

Scribe: Kevan Copeland



These minutes were not spoken; for another version, go to the spoken minutes


In Monday’s lecture, Professor Hutchinson stated that an analogy of drug abuse mentioned in the previous lecture would be discussed in the present lecture.  The analogy involved abusing drugs which are properly used as therapy.  Certain kinds of therapy were used for certain kinds of anxiety, examples being apathy or lack of energy.  Professor Hutchinson used opiates as an example as a kind of drug therapy that can ruin life if not used properly. While drugs are useful for controlling anxiety, they can also reduce the feeling of anxiety about things which should cause anxiety—namely, those things that humans should care about.   If someone commits an offence, we don’t support doubling punishments if alcohol is involved, as Aristotle would have.  Professor Hutchinson stressed the importance of the action, not the practice, for the action is not enhanced by drug involved.

Professor Hutchinson used the prohibition of alcohol as an example of criminalized drug use with disastrous consequences.  The result of criminalizing drugs is the use of drugs in a shadowy, illegal zone which prevents research from being performed.  Professor Hutchinson did stress that it was necessary to regulate drug use through monitoring and observing the supply and distribution of drugs.  For example, it would be important to have strict controls on opiates, which potentially destroy lives.  Professor Hutchinson stated that he is all in favour of there being a legal way to come into supply of presently illegal drugs, and that the state “has no business in the bedroom or the rec room of the nation.” 

A student asked if Professor Hutchinson meant that one should be able to smoke marijuana legally, but that the government would regulate it.  Professor Hutchinson gave his response by way of an example: In the case of opium, he stated that the government could make it difficult to get it legally, but that pharmacies would be allowed to have it so that if it was needed, a person would be able to acquire it.  He continued to say that if a person acquires this drug presently, they are committing a crime of possession.  By prohibiting the substance, what is in effect being prohibited is the freedom to alter one’s mind.

              Professor Hutchinson went on to compare the criminalizing of drug use to the criminalizing of homosexuality.  We are now ashamed of our forbears who criminalized homosexuality, and similarly we laugh when we remember that at one time coffee was a prohibited substance.  When asked if he advocated ‘negative liberty’, Professor Hutchinson replied that he did not and that when people speak of liberty, they often fail to take public interest into account.

Professor Hutchinson then proceeded to discuss the general principles of Scepticism.  He talked about the  analogy of the weighing of scales.  The approach of the Sceptics is that appearances are equal when they can be opposed.  Professor Hutchinson explained that with this approach one can achieve the state when the scales balanced, and thus the disturbance is eliminated.  Professor Hutchinson discussed the Libra, the symbol for the Scales of Justice.  The first time Professor Hutchinson saw the scales used was when he purchased a set of them in India.  The transaction was accomplished by putting the relevant weight on one side, and then pouring “peanuts” on the other side until balance was achieved.

As Sceptics, we are supposed to have suspension of judgment. The classical criticism of skepticism is that it is self-refuting. The scales are balanced in order to equalize the strength of reasons.  Indexed organizations of argumentative strategies are meant to be a treasure trove.  We are supposed to pick one and apply it, cancelling out impressions, which results in balanced suspension of judgment.    Another accusation against Sceptics is that they leave people without reason to act.  But there is a response.


“That we pay attention to appearances is clear from that which is said by us about the criterion of the sceptical approach.    The term “criterion” is used in two senses: [1] that which is accepted as a reliable indication of the existence or non-existence of something…[2] that which is accepted…for action, by attending to which we will do some things and not do others in life.” (SE PH 1.21; IG III-26)   


Professor Hutchinson stated that we could find our way through the mazes of life with criteria.  These criteria are called rules of everyday conduct, and they include the senses, feelings inside, what other people tell us, what they’ve instructed us to do.  Professor Hutchinson then made a point to say that trades get handed down to us, and trades and trade procedures involve no experimentation, essentially making this kind of knowledge a conservative one.  Experimentation leads to advancement, thus Scepticism is opposed to advancement.  Professor Hutchinson added that many of his students in the past had indicated that they found Scepticism to be ‘anti-philosophy’; that it was derivative and limited, and furthermore, that it aims to take away the wonder that philosophy beings in, with the wonder ending up in skeptical indifference.

Professor Hutchinson then shared his own private philosophical viewpoint, stating that even if he was not a Sceptic, he had a warm spot for Scepticism; in particular, the modes.  He first learned of Scepticism in 1979 at a reading party in a three-story chalet that had no electricity.  Professors and graduate students discussed and read texts, and following this scribes would read back the protocols.  Professor Hutchinson then read passages by a professor who was present at that meeting, Jonathan Barnes.  Barnes wrote about the modes of skepticism, and Professor Hutchinson remarked that he found the modes to be the kernel, or the most interesting part of the system.

The way that Sextus represents differences between his approach and various sceptic-like approaches is to compare himself to alternative schools.  Professor Hutchinson noted that on page 309, students could read about how Sextus felt that the sceptical approach differs from Heraclitean, Democritean, Cyrenaic, Protagorean and Academic approaches.  He then read the entire passage on page 310, section 215.  He elaborated on this by saying that the history of Cyrenaics is disputed.  Professor Hutchinson offered an example that would demonstrate their position: “Whether the wall is white, I cannot say.  All I know is I’ve been whitened by it.”  Essentially when someone is asked what a thing is like, they can report their experiences only.  Professor Hutchinson said that subjectivism could also be expressed as being ‘dogmatic scepticism’, and that subjective impressions are inescapable.  Sextus said that the other position was dogmatic, and that their goal was pleasure whereas the Sceptic’s was freedom from disturbance.  The Cyrenaics insisted on the sensationalist aspect of pleasure, and unlike with the Sceptics, mental states that weren’t the present were not allowed.

Professor Hutchinson then noted that Protagoras thought that “man is measure of all things” and that “The man says that matter is flowing, that while it is flowing additions are continuously made to replace that which is carried away, and that the senses are rearranged and altered according to ages and the other conditions of the body.” (HP pp 310, section 216).  Humans will sometimes apprehend different things because they have different dispositions.  The theory is that the way we are affected affects our judgment, and not always in a fruitful way.  Philosophers know that different subjective positions result in different reported experiences.  Professor Hutchinson used spinach as an example, saying that while he might find it tasty, others will be repelled by it; in that case, relativism is true. 

              Then Professor posed the question “Is it right to kill yourself and become a deceased widow when your husband dies?”  He offered that the relativist reply would be “Such a thing is not right for me” and Professor Hutchinson was not convinced by this statement.  It seems that Suttee is ok to some, but not ok to others.  In this case Subjectivism is true, and those who think it is right think it is right for them, while those who think it is bad think it is bad for them.  Professor Hutchinson stated that he was giving us something to think about, and that Suttee is an inflammatory subject—and one that involves has real- not merely relative or subjective- dimension.