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Topic #H65

Ten Modes of Skepticism

13 March 2002
Scribe: David Dagenais


These minutes were spoken on 15 March; for another version, go to the unspoken minutes




Professor Hutchinson wished to begin the lecture by talking about the idea of modes by which we can suspend our judgement.  When they were re-discovered during the Renaissance, Renaissance philosophers produced many works reflecting a new knowledge of these 10 modes.  Professor Hutchinson quoted 4 different groups of tactics or modes, which are techniques of argument on page 289 of Hellenistic Philosophy from Book 9 of Diogenes Laertius’ Life of Pyrrho, section 78:


The Pyrrhonian strategy, according to Aenesidemus in his Outline for Pyrrhonian Topics, is a kind of display of appearances or thoughts according to which they are all juxtaposed and when compared are found to have much inconsistency and confusion.  As for the contradictions found in their investigations, first they show the modes by which things persuade us and then how confidence is eliminated by the same modes.  For they say that we are persuaded when things are consistently perceived, when they never or at least rarely change, when they become familiar to us and when they are determined by customs and when they are delightful and marvelous.  79. They thus showed that on the basis of indications contrary to those that persuaded in the first place, [conclusions] opposite to those we accepted were equally plausible. (Hellenistic Philosophy 289, Life of Pyrrho 9.78-79)


The Pyrrhonian strategy, according to Aenesidemus put thoughts together in large collections.  First they show how the modes persuade us.  The technique works by deconstructing the chain of epistemology.  They say, “How about this…”, which is equally possible to what someone else argues.  Professor Hutchinson said that for now, he would skip over the 10 modes of the Pyrrhonian strategy described by Diogenes Laertius in his Life of Pyrrho and return to page 291 of Hellenistic Philosophy later in the class.


The 10 modes are known in 3 different versions.  They are considered by Sextus Empiricus for a considerable stretch.  Philo of Alexandria, a Jew living in a Jewish Alexandrian community studied the Old Testament and put to it the learning he had acquired from Greek philosophy.  Professor Hutchinson alluded to the biblical passage to which Philo refers where Noah gets drunk.  A student stated that one of Noah’s sons takes advantage of him when he is drunk:


And Noah began to be an husbandman, and he planted a vineyard: And he drank of the wine, and was drunken; and he was uncovered within his tent.  And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father, and told his two brethren without.  And Shem and Japheth took a garment, and laid it upon both their shoulders, and went backward, and covered the nakedness of their father; and their faces were backward, and they saw not their father’s nakedness.  And Noah awoke from his wine, and knew what his younger son had done unto him.  And he said, Cursed be Canaan; a servant of servants shall he be unto his brethren.  And he said, Blessed be the Lord God of Shem; and Canaan shall be his servant.  God shall enlarge Japheth, and he shall dwell in the tents of Shem; and Canaan shall be his servant.” (Genesis 10:20-27)


What does this have to do with skepticism? When he examined this passage, Philo referred to the 10 modes in his writings. Another known version is that of the 10 modes of Agrippa.  Therefore, there are 3 separate windows through which we view these 10 modes and some of the details in each version differ from one another.


The School of Agrippa introduced 5 other modes in addition to the original 10.  These additional 5 modes were added after Aristotle’s Posterior Analytics was rediscovered.  The five modes of Agrippa are a dialectical response to Aristotle’s rediscovered book.  Apart from this, Professor Hutchinson stated that he has no further interest in these five modes since they involve mostly game playing. After these 5 modes we hear also of 2 other modes.  Professor Hutchinson read of the two other modes on page 339 of Hellenistic Philosophy from Book 1, Chapter 16, section 178 of Sextus Empiricus’ Outlines of Pyrrhonism: “They offer in addition two other modes of suspension of judgement.  Since every thing grasped seems to be grasped either by itself or through something else, <when they make us realize that nothing> is grasped <by itself or through something else,>…” (Hellenistic Philosophy 339, Outlines of Pyrrhonism I:xvi 178)  Professor Hutchinson stated that he equally had no interest in these 2 other modes.


Professor Hutchinson then began explaining the 8 modes against causation.  He stated that these were of interest to him and that they were not studied as much since they were not as popular as the 10 modes.  Professor Hutchinson said that a journalist could read these 8 reasons and they would give him reason to think and cross-examine the experts whose news they need to report.  For example, certain people say that the earth’s temperature has been changing over the years because of global warming.  Professor Hutchinson then quoted a passage from Chapter 17 section 181 of Sextus Empiricus’ Outlines of Pyrrhonism on page 340 of Hellenistic Philosophy:


The first of these, he says, is that according to which the whole class of causal explanations, being wrapped up in the non-apparent, is not supported by agreed upon testimony from the appearances.  [2]  Second, is that according to which it is shown that there is a generous abundance of [explanations] so that one can causally explain the object of investigation in many ways, and yet some of them explain it in one way only. (Hellenistic Philosophy 340, Outlines of Pyrrhonism I:xvii 181)


Suppose we are getting data that the earth’s temperature is changing decade by decade.  One might say to stop burning fossil fuels since it is the cause of global warming.  But you could equally say that global warming is not caused by the burning of fossil fuels.  Professor Hutchinson explained that one could be a steady minded sceptic concerning global warming, which he is himself.  These 8 modes are approaches for scientists to argue against the appearance of plausibility in unproven speculations.


In productive science you need to question all of the time, “Is that what is happening?”  As a productive scientist you must deal with theoretical functions nested within theoretical theories; indirect knowledge attained through indirect knowledge.  Scepticism, therefore, is important in modern science.  During the 16th century, more and more ancient works were being translated into the modern vernaculars (French, English, Italian, German, Spanish) and Latin.  Michel de Montaigne, a gentleman philosopher who was an ambassador to Henry IV of France, spread knowledge of sceptical philosophy in his Essais.  René Descartes knew this and borrowed ideas that were filtered into mathematics and the sciences.  Hence, by such thinkers these ideas were recycled into modern philosophy during the Renaissance.  This story is beautifully told by Richard H. Popkin in: The History of Scepticism from Erasmus to Descartes and in the expanded edition, The History of Scepticism from Erasmus to Spinoza.  This is how scepticism was infused into modern philosophy.


Professor Hutchinson said that he believes more in these 8 modes than in the 10 modes.  He explained that he was going to give us 2 examples.  At the end of the class, everyone must go through the series of steps that are written on the board to determine whether the given examples are subjective truths or objective ones.  Professor Hutchinson wanted, however, to avoid the topic of global warming and instead gave the following 2 examples: “sibling incest is wrong” (this is a claim), and, “large amounts of sugary candy tend to make children excitable”. 


The 10 modes are ways we can get to ou mallon (“no more this than that”).  The Persians in the 3rd century said that there was no problem with incest.  Here in Toronto, however, it is a crime.  Professor Hutchinson quoted a passage from Chapter 14, section 40 of Sextus Empiricus’ Outlines of Pyrrhonism, on page 325 of Hellenistic Philosophy: “The first argument, as we said, is that according to which, because of the differences among animals, [all do not] receive the same presentations from the same objects.  We infer this from the differences in their modes of generation and from the various constitutions of their bodies” (Hellenistic Philosophy 325, Outlines of Pyrrhonism I:xiv 40).    Professor Hutchinson said that this is like playing a game of snakes and ladders.  If you are a realist of perception, in other words, if you believe that what is in your range of perception reflects reality, how do account for those sounds that dogs can hear but that we cannot?  Are these sounds part of reality?  One gets to these points by building subjective perceptions.  This is a naïve realism of perception.  The Stoic naïve realist theory is vulnerable to attack when comparing species to species.  


Professor Hutchinson then quoted the 10th mode from Chapter 14 section 145 of Sextus Empiricus’ Outlines of Pyrrhonism on page 336 of Hellenistic Philosophy:


The tenth mode, which has a particular application to ethics, is that which employs the practices [of ordinary life], habits, laws, belief in myths and dogmatic suppositions.  A practice [of ordinary life], then, is a choice of [way of] life or of some action which is made by some one person or by many people, for example, by Diogenes or by the Spartans. (Hellenistic Philosophy 336, Outlines of Pyrrhonism I:xvi 145)



Therefore, when you are examining some action, you must compare it to the actions of others.  Professor Hutchinson said that good examples of this could be found when Diogenes Laertius, in Book 9 section 83 of his Life of Pyrrho on page 290 of Hellenistic Philosophy:


The fifth mode is based on ways of life, customs, mythical beliefs, agreements among various peoples, and dogmatic assumptions.  In this mode are included views about things honourable and shameful, true and false, good and bad, the gods, and the generation and destruction of all phenomena.  For the same thing is held to be just by some but unjust by others; good to some and bad to others.  The Persians, for example, do not regard it as out of place for a father to have intercourse with his daughter; whereas for the Greeks, this is monstrous.  The Massagetae, according to Eudoxus in the first book of his Travels, hold wives in common; the Greeks do not.  The Cilicians delighted in being pirates, but not the Greeks.  84.  Different people believe in different gods; some believe in providence, some do not.  The Egyptians mummify their dead; the Romans cremate them; the Paeonians throw them into lakes.  From these facts, suspension of judgement about the truth [ought to follow].  (Hellenistic Philosophy 290, Life of Pyrrho 9.83)


Professor Hutchinson asked the class to focus on the last example.  The Egyptians mummify their dead, the Romans cremate them, and the Paeonians throw them into lakes.  Professor Hutchinson added that the Irish always burry their dead and the Tibetans carry the corpses to mountaintops so that large birds may come and eat them.  These are, therefore, 5 different customs of disposing of the remains of loved ones.  Are they subjective or objective truths?


              Professor Hutchinson gave the following example of a subjective truth: “I like the taste of spinach.”  Professor Hutchinson then said that saying, “Toronto is an unfriendly place”, is a subjective truth.  A student then asked the question, “How you can say that the spinach is tasty or not?”  Professor Hutchinson said that the claim has a 3-part predicate: “You can find out about it since x is saying that y has p.”  If we recognize that claims are relative to the person observing or making the judgement, we can admit that we are wrong.  Professor Hutchinson again took the example of how to dispose of the remains of loved ones.  The Tibetans carry their dead up to mountaintops since they believe that, by being eaten by birds, the spirits of their dead will animate these birds.  Professor Hutchinson’s personal view is that all of the ways of burying a body that maintain dignity and privacy are good.  Furthermore, any way that does not have these criteria is bad.  Therefore, when a dead body comes into your zone of responsibility, if your disposal of the body satisfies those criteria it is O.K.


Professor Hutchinson, however, said that in a certain culture, if the customs for burial are not followed, the action is objectively wrong and not subjectively wrong.  For example, if in B.C. , Professor Hutchinson dragged the corpse of his mother up to a mountaintop in the Rockies to be eaten by large birds, objectively it would be wrong since he would not be maintaining the dignity and privacy of the burial rites in B.C.  Professor Hutchinson said he believed that this was a question of knowledge.  A student asked why Professor Hutchinson believed this.  Professor Hutchinson answered that if the issue is to burry the dead., it is a question of knowledge, and that there is no reason to be sceptical.  Some would argue the thesis that all moral truths are subjective.  Professor Hutchinson does not agree, he believes that they are objective.  One student asked, since sibling incest messes the kid up, could one argue that the claim, “sibling incest is wrong”, is a subjective truth?  Professor Hutchinson maintained that many claim that sibling incest is wrong is an objective truth and not a subjective one.


Professor Hutchinson then returned to the example that a large amount of sugar causes kids to be excited.  One student said that she believed this to be an objective truth since she has seen it happen.  Professor Hutchinson revealed that sugar actually has a tranquilizing effect.  One poor experiment that was performed several years ago determined that sugar made children excitable.  Those who conducted the experiment, however, did not account for food colouring and artificial flavors.  Recently there was an article that explained that controlled experiments have shown that sugar actually has a tranquilizing effect on children.