Scholia Reviews ns 10 (2001) 12.
Marta Anna Wlodarczyk, Pyrrhonian Inquiry. Cambridge: Cambridge Philological Society (Supplementary Volume no. 25), 2000. Pp. x + 72. ISBN 0-906014-24-7. No price given.
Robert B. Todd
University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada
'There is much to debate, and plenty of room for disagreement'. That is a quotation from the preface to a recent collection of the five papers (one by Jonathan Barnes, and two each by Myles Burnyeat, and Michael Frede) that between 1979 and 1984 radically transformed the modern study of ancient Scepticism.[] Wlodarczyk's monograph is a revised Cambridge dissertation that takes up this challenge. It covers, sometimes laboriously, and often rather paraphrastically, all the key concepts of sceptical method used in the works of Sextus Empiricus, but it should be primarily consulted for its attempt to criticise a feature of the five papers mentioned. Wlodarczyk, that is, starts from Sextus' account of sceptical method at Pyr. 1.8, where the suspension of belief (E)POXH/) is, as she rightly says, presented 'not in terms of a set of views or doctrines' (Chapter 1, 'Introduction' [pp. 1-9, at p. 7], the reference for the remaining quotations in this paragraph), and then goes on to claim that Barnes, Burnyeat and Frede all mistakenly emphasise that the sceptic suspends judgment 'about those things, belief in which would involve a criterion of truth and reasoning'.[] Wlodarczyk's goal is to show that 'scepticism has its roots in criteria of a different kind: inquiry and disagreement,' and that the sceptic 'questions, and suspends judgment about, everything which is a matter of inquiry and disagreement, and assents to everything which is not.' Since 'the importance of the sceptical method for solving controversial issues concerning scepticism has not been recognised', her study 'will try to fill the lacuna'.
Frankly, one must wonder why Wlodarczyk did not pursue this goal in an article, and busy scholars may want to read selectively in five of her chapters (2-5 and 7, 'The Sceptical Method' [pp. 10-20], 'Dogmatism' [pp. 21-25], 'Epoche' [pp. 26-31], 'Assent' [pp. 32-39], and 'Truth' [pp. 57-63]), and her Appendix (on the U(POMNHSTIKO/N SHMEI=ON, the 'recollective sign' [pp. 64-69])[], and focus primarily on the section of Chapter 6, 'Belief' (pp. 40-56), where (particularly at pp. 51-56) Wlodarczyk considers the familiar problem of how the sceptic can live an active life while being committed to suspension of judgment. For it is relatively uncontroversial (and surely compatible with an emphasis on truth and reason) to argue that suspension of judgment occurs when subjects are open to inquiry and disagreement. More problematical is the nature of a sceptic's assent, where he applies rather than withholds judgment. Such assent will necessarily involve subjects that are not open to dissent, but also needs more positive characterisation. This Wlodarczyk provides by arguing controversially that it involves belief, a position on which the remainder of this review will concentrate.
Wlodarczyk (pp. 54f.) not surprisingly draws on Sextus Pyr. 1.23f. (the account of the practical criterion), where he claims that a sceptic can engage in the activities of thinking and perceiving, feeling, obedience to the laws, and teaching skills. Although she admits that even the subjects identified here can produce suspension of judgment, the sceptic is not rendered inactive because, for example, doubt about the existence of a fire before him is compatible with his acting as though it does exist, for in such a case he can make the 'non-epistemic' claim, 'There seems to be a fire' (p. 55). Yet Wlodarczyk also wants to say in such cases the sceptic still holds a belief. Sextus (Pyr. 1.23) may say that the sceptic lives A)DOCA/STWS, but the DOXAI/ in question for Wlodarczyk (p. 56) are (predictably) limited to 'decision, judgment or choice about that which is the subject of inquiry or disagreement'. So what sort of special beliefs does the sceptic hold? Her answer (p. 56) is: 'any beliefs as long as they are not formed by inquiry, decision or some dogmatic method'; these are 'uninquired into, undoubted, unchosen but accepted passively without thought. Such beliefs are enough for instinctive or habitual actions'. Then in a footnote (p. 56 n. 31) she slips in the all- important supporting principle, that acting in a certain way 'is a sufficient condition for holding a belief'.
Readers familiar with the recent literature will see that Wlodarczyk has positioned herself with those who want to make the Pyrrhonian sceptic a somewhat less alarming and paradoxical figure by assigning him beliefs for the ordinary and active portion of his life. But is she still describing beliefs? In a brief review I can only state (dogmatically, I fear) that I doubt that she is, and say that I incline to the position that Pyrrhonians can live without belief, one that Jonathan Barnes has recently restated by pointing to organisms like plants and slugs. As he says, they live complicated lives without beliefs, so 'why think that it is impossible for homo insipiens?'.[] Certainly, Wlodarczyk could have offered a richer philosophical rationale for the alternative position. Her idea that acting in a certain way (not sticking your hand into a non- epistemically credible fire?) is a sufficient condition for belief needs careful thought. Wlodarczyk herself, for example, without offering any justification, has relied on R. G. Bury's Loeb edition for most of her translations in this monograph.[] Of what belief, or beliefs, is that action a sufficient condition? That Wlodarczyk thinks this the best English translation available? That it was the only one she could find? I have no idea, and similarly when I see a known sceptic being pious (praying in the temple?; cf. Sext. Pyr. 1.24), his actions would surely not be a sufficient condition of any specific beliefs, and in that case not necessarily of any beliefs at all.[]
Wlodarczyk's use of Pyr. 1.23f. as the key to the sceptic's ability to act and hold minimal beliefs (ones 'without thought') also invites criticism. She takes this text at face value, and so is willing to commit to the sceptic having inter alia 'instinctive' beliefs in the laws and customs of his society, without asking whether such mindless conservatism should be the lot of any philosopher. That question has been raised by Voula Tsouna- McKirahan in a fascinating paper that Wlodarczyk ignores.[] Tsouna asks whether such beliefs may not be compatible with varying courses of action: for example, when traditional laws and customs that the Sceptic is said to accept at Pyr. 1.24 conflict with existing ones (p. 55 n. 29 shows that such a contrast has not struck Wlodarczyk.) In such a case the action required of a sceptic might require reflection on the beliefs that for Wlodarczyk are 'instinctively' accepted, and that is hardly compatible with such beliefs being 'without thought'. This line of criticism might also serve to suggest how a life without belief might also be one with thought.
Debate and disagreement regarding the ancient sceptics will doubtless continue, and Wlodarczyk's monograph may play some role in this ongoing project. I have addressed only one issue, and have inevitably had to run roughshod over some complex evidence in Sextus, but I think that any enduring value that this monograph may have will rest on the limited extent to which it helps us grapple further with the central problem of how to be a sceptic and still live a human life.
[] M. F. Burnyeat and M. Frede (edd.), The Original Sceptics: A Controversy (Indianapolis and Cambridge 1997). The quotation is at p. x.
[] She is quite right. The unsigned preface to the collection cited in the preceding note states (p. x) that all three contributors agree that the 'central sceptical question' is '"Have you any reason to believe?"'
[] Wlodarczyk invariably, and, I think, unhelpfully, translates it as 'the suggestive sign', simply because of her faith in R. G. Bury's Loeb translation (see n. 5 below).
[] See Barnes in the new introduction to the reprint of the 1994 translation, J. Annas and J. Barnes, Sextus Empiricus: Outlines of Scepticism (Cambridge 2000) at p. xxv. Barnes' essay would be a valuable introduction for beginners to the collection of papers referred to in n. 1.
[] At p. 2 n. 4 Wlodarczyk claims that she follows Barnes and Annas (cited in the preceding note) as well as the Loeb edition, but the latter unfortunately predominates. For example, at p. 28 (Pyr. 2.79) Bury's 'deduce' for SUNA/GEIN is too technical (Barnes and Annas's 'conclude' is superior), and at p. 102 Barnes and Annas's 'fictions' for A)NAPLATTO/MENA is more accurate than Bury's 'inventions', which Wlodarczyk calls 'ironical', as it may be in English but not in Greek. Also, R. Bett's translation of Sextus Math. 11 (Sextus Empiricus Against the Ethicists [Oxford 1997]) is in Wlodarczyk's bibliography, and might have been used instead of Bury at p. 41 for Math. 11.112f. At p. 33 Wlodarczyk suddenly adopts Jacques Brunschwig's translation of Pyr. 1.19f., where TO\ FAINO/MENON elsewhere translated as 'appearance,' is done as 'the phenomenon'.
[] For some illuminating criticism of the notion of passive assent see C. J. Shields, 'Socrates Among the Sceptics', Chapter 13 in P. A. Van der Waerdt (ed.), The Socratic Movement (Ithaca 1994) 350-54.
[] V. Tsouna-McKirahan, 'Conservatism and Pyrrhonian Skepticism', Syllecta Classica 6 (1995) 69-86.