Ethics and Epistemology in Sextus Empiricus [Book Review]

Graduate Faculty Philosophy Journal 22 (2):216-218 (2001)
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For a few decades now there has been a minor gigantomachia going on in the study of ancient skepticism, especially as regards the interpretation of Sextus Empiricus and Pyrrhonianism. Or perhaps, since Burnyeat and others bring out big guns like Hume as allies for their position, it could be better characterized as an ongoing attempted patricide, which, of course, also has a long and well-established tradition in ancient thought. If the ‘mainstream’ interpretation regards Sextus, and thereby a whole strain of skepticism, as having as part of his project the radical undermining of belief, then the father-killers in this episode of the story have their hero in Michael Frede. It is Frede who is responsible for the latest attempt at defending Sextus, and thus the possibility of a coherent skepticism, from the charge that it is ultimately self-refuting insofar as it would finally reduce its practitioner to the condition of absolute stasis. The only real skeptic, so the charge goes, would be some form of inanimate object. This problem has dogged skepticism since its inception. Witness the perhaps apocryphal or even malicious stories about Pyrrho attempting to withhold judgment about any and every impression as his more practical—though strangely ambivalent regarding their master’s teachings—followers kept him from the rather embarrassing end that various passing vehicles, etc., would have provided. Frede has attempted to show that the skeptical position as it is put forward by someone like Sextus is almost the exact reverse of this interpretation. It is the skeptic who is most willing to engage the world as it is presented to us and the first to resist attempts to ‘pull back the veil’ in order to reveal this world as it ‘actually’ is, with all the attendant revisions to our ethics, politics, etc. that this would entail.



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