Monday, April 30, 2012

Dissecting the skeptics V

Having completed my critique of To Know Our Unknowing, I'll now proceed to examining the second of Delavagus's two posts on Pyrrhonism, entitled To Unknow Our Knowing:
My previous post ended with the self-defeating conclusion that, as far as we know, we don’t know that we know anything (with the correlate that, insofar as we’re constrained by rational norms, we’re constrained to abjure knowledge-claims). This conclusion was reached a priori: by attempting to think our thought, reflect on our reflection, know our knowing.

For as long as there have been skeptical arguments of this sort, there have been two stock counter-arguments: the peritropē, or self-refutation, argument; and the apraxia, or impracticability, argument. Sextus Empiricus, the only ancient Pyrrhonian whose texts (or some of them, anyway) have come down to us, was perfectly aware of these objections; he argued that they are only effective against an incomplete or distorted understanding of Pyrrhonism. The short version is that Sextus concedes self-refutation, but denies that it constitutes a counter-argument against Pyrrhonism (indeed, the self-refutatory character of skeptical arguments is central to his use of them), but he outright rejects impracticability arguments. Pyrrhonism is not (or at least is not merely) a philosophy; it is an agōgē, a way of life. Sextus characterizes the Pyrrhonian agōgē in terms of living adoxastōs, meaning without opinions or beliefs. In this post, I want to suggest a way of understanding what it means to live adoxastōs.

As I said, Sextus embraces the self-refutatory character of his arguments. He likens them to purgative drugs, which drain themselves away along with the humors they were administered to treat, or to a ladder one kicks away after having climbed up over it (an image appropriated, though probably at second- or third-hand, by both Nietzsche and Wittgenstein). Those who charge Pyrrhonism with self-refutation think that it falls into a dilemma: either the skeptic accepts her own arguments, which (given their self-refutatory character) is logically impossible, or the skeptic doesn’t accept her own arguments, in which case she must also reject (or at least not endorse) their conclusions. But the self-refutation charge overlooks two crucial features of the Pyrrhonian strategy: first, that charging the skeptic with self-refutation amounts to charging philosophico-rational thought as such with self-refutation; and second, that the target of Pyrrhonian arguments at their most general is not any particular content of philosophico-rational thought, but rather the very framework of such thought.
As I showed in Dissecting the skeptics IV, Delavagus's conclusion to his first post is not self-defeating, but rather invalid, because his suddenly universal claim about the human lack of knowledge is totally dependent upon a peculiar philosophical definition of knowledge and is undermined by no less than eight specific errors in his reasoning. In his second post, Delavagus doesn't waste any time before resorting to what we have observed is his customary handwaving. Apparently he expects us to simply accept Sextus's outright rejection of the apraxia argument on the basis of his ancient authority, which of course we can no more do than we can expect Delavagus to accept the historical existence of the Olympian gods on the ancient authority of Homer. So, is Sextus's outright rejection of the impracticability argument justified?

Well, yes, as it turns out, but only because Sextus makes it very clear that the Pyrrhonian agōgē does not actually entail living by skeptical principles. In Chapter IX, The Criterion of Scepticism, he writes:

"It is evident that we pay careful attention to phenomena from what we say about the criterion of the Sceptical School. The word criterion is used in two ways. First, it is understood as a proof of existence or non-existence, in regard to which we shall speak in the opposing argument. Secondly, when it refers to action, meaning the criterion to which we give heed in life, in doing some things and refraining from doing others, and it is about this that we shall now speak. We say, consequently, that the criterion of the Sceptical School is the phenomenon, and in calling it so, we mean the idea of it. It cannot be doubted, as it is based upon susceptibility and involuntary feeling. Hence no one doubts, perhaps, that an object appears so and so, but one questions if it is as it appears. Therefore, as we cannot be entirely inactive as regards the observances of daily life, we live by giving heed to phenomena, and in an unprejudiced way. But this observance of what pertains to the daily life, appears to be of four different kinds. Sometimes it is directed by the guidance of nature, sometimes by the necessity of the feelings, sometimes by the tradition of laws and of customs, and sometimes by the teaching of the arts. It is directed by the guidance of nature, for by nature we are capable of sensation and thought; by the necessity of the feelings, for hunger leads us to food, and thirst to drink; by the traditions of laws and customs, for according to them we consider piety a good in daily life, and impiety an evil; by the teaching of the arts, for we are not inactive in the arts we undertake. We say all these things, however, without expressing a decided opinion."

In other words, the Pyrrhonian is eminently practical, because he lives his daily life by giving heed to nature, his feelings, the tradition of laws and customs, and by the teaching of the arts, without any concern for his suspension of judgment or inability to express a decided opinion. The philosophy cannot be impractical because the skeptic maintains a firewall of sorts between his reason and his daily life. This means, of course, that the oft-seen attempts of the modern skeptics to utilize skepticism as a weapon in order to influence these phenomena is a breach of the firewall and therefore intrinsically non-Pyrrhonian. But regardless, we can conclude that Sextus does successfully address the apraxia even if it calls into question the behavior of many of those who claim, incorrectly it would appear, to be Pyrrhonians.

As for the defense against the peritropē charge, I previously explained its flaws in response to an earlier request from Delavagus. Sextus's argument against peritrope fails on three counts. First, Sextus erroneously conflates the subset of his particular philosophy with the set of all philosophico-rational thought; because we can observe there is philosophico-rational thought that is not Pyrrhonian skepticism, all refutation of the latter cannot automatically be taken as any refutation of the former. Second, even if Sextus were correct and charging the skeptic with self-refutation actually did amount to charging philosophico-rational thought as such with self-refutation, that doesn't change the fact that if the charge is substantiated and all philosophico-rational thought is, in fact, self-refuting, then the charge of peritrope against Scepticism must also be correct! If the set is refuted, then the subset is refuted as well. So, it's not a valid defense against the charge. Third, Delavagus doesn't realize that the intended target of Pyrrhonian skepticism is irrelevant with regards to its self-refuting nature; it doesn't matter what Sextus is intending to target when it can be shown that the same arguments can be used just as effectively against his own clearly stated aims.

In that earlier exchange, Delavagus attempted to respond to the first point by claiming that Pyrrhonism is not a philosophy and therefore not a subset of all philosophico-rational thought. He wrote: "Pyrrhonism is a metaphilosophy, not a philosophy: it is philosophizing about philosophy itself, about rational thought as such. On my view, it contains no first-order philosophical claims whatsoever. In other words, it is NOT a member of the 'set' 'Philosophies'; it is a critique of the set-as-such."

But this is another inept attempt at a bait-and switch, because even if we accept his contention that Pyrrhonism is not a philosophy, it still specifically purports to be rational thought, as shown by Delavagus's heavy reliance upon the Agrippan Trilemma, and therefore remains a subset of the set of all philosophico-rational thought. Moreover, Delavagus's view that Pyrrhonism is not a philosophy is provably wrong, as in Chapter I, The Principal Differences between Philosophers, Sextus writes:

"It is probable that those who seek after anything whatever, will either find it as they continue the search, will deny that it can be found and confess it to be out of reach, or will go on seeking it. Some have said, accordingly, in regard to the things sought in philosophy, that they have found the truth, while others have declared it impossible to find, and still others continue to seek it. Those who think that they have found it are those who are especially called Dogmatics, as for example, the Schools of Aristotle and Epicurus, the Stoics and some others. Those who have declared it impossible to find are Clitomachus, Carneades, with their respective followers, and other Academicians. Those who still seek it are the Sceptics. It appears therefore, reasonable to conclude that the three principal kinds of philosophy are the Dogmatic, the Academic, and the Sceptic. Others may suitably treat of the other Schools, but as for the Sceptical School, we shall now give an outline of it, remarking in advance that in respect to nothing that will be said do we speak positively, that it must be absolutely so, but we shall state each thing historically as it now appears to us."

So, Delavagus is clearly wrong, both in claiming that Pyrrhonism is not part of the set of all philosophico-rational thought and in claiming that it is not a philosophy. Indeed, Sextus not only declares skepticism to be a philosophy, but one of "the three principal kinds of philosophy". (I suspect he's also wrong to say it "contains no first-order philosophical claims whatsoever", but we will examine that assertion in a future post.) And therefore, Delavagus's attempted defense of my attack on Sextus's argument against peritrope clearly fails, as does the argument against peritrope.

Finally, with regards to Delavagus's claim that Pyrrhonism is more than a philosophy, but is an an agōgē, a way of life, as well, I note that it is a very strange way of life that makes explicit claims to have nothing to do with the way the philosopher actually lives his daily life, but it is nevertheless true. Still, it should be kept in mind that it is entirely possible for something to fail as a philosophy, but not as a way of life, or vice-versa. In any event, when the aims of Pyrrhonism are taken into account, it becomes readily apparent that the agōgē is nothing more than a form of anti-intellectual, morally neutral stoicism.

Sextus writes in Chapter XII: "We confess that sometimes [the Sceptic] is cold and thirsty, and that he suffers in such ways. But in these things even the ignorant are beset in two ways, from the feelings themselves, and not less also from the fact that they think these conditions are bad by nature. The Sceptic, however, escapes more easily, as he rejects the opinion that anything is in itself bad by nature. Therefore we say that the aim of the Sceptic is imperturbability in matters of opinion, and moderation of feeling in those things that are inevitable."

It is here that I cannot help but note the irony of Delavagus's claim to be a modern Pyrrhonist while at the same time confessing to be both depressed and infuriated by my "unbounded arrogance". He clearly possesses neither imperturbability nor moderation of feeling, regardless of whether one concludes my arrogance is merely an opinion or an inevitable force of nature. Skeptic, doubt thyself! As for the matter of living without opinions or beliefs, we shall save that for the next post.

Next section
Dissecting the skeptics VI

Previous sections
Dissecting the skeptics I
Dissecting the skeptics II
Dissecting the skeptics III
Dissecting the skeptics IV



Anonymous Suomynona April 30, 2012 2:22 PM  

Delavagus is such a good little brainwashed leftist. Note how he carefully forgoes the normal use of "he" and replaces it with the PC "she". I'd like to ask why is "she" more appropriate than "he". And if it's all the same, then he has clearly demonstrated a preference by choosing one over the other, a bias one might say.

In other words, there are times that even when things are actually equal (not this time as "he" is the common, traditional usage), one must make a choice between them. Unless one uses a coin to determine which option will be chosen (assuming there are only two) the choice is not random but determined by personal preferences.

Yet, one can't help but wonder if little Delavagus' PC sensitivities will have him judging those who don't choose the "correct", albeit equal, option.

Blogger Vox April 30, 2012 2:30 PM  

His choice of "she" instead of the grammatically correct "he" simply shows that he's a poor skeptic. A true Pyrrhonian wouldn't have an opinion, he would simply be directed by the tradition of laws and of customs and use "he".

Anonymous Daniel April 30, 2012 2:40 PM  

Deft, although a Mind Flayer would have been more careful of the poor fellow's psyche.

Anonymous Daniel April 30, 2012 2:45 PM  

As far as the implementation of "she" goes, it is quite obvious that his use is proper. As Delavagus is a slave to deconstructionist no-knowthingism by way of feminist know-nothingism, you ought to know by now that, at the heart of every intellectual wreck there is always a girl problem.

Anonymous Suomynona April 30, 2012 2:50 PM  

Daniel April 30, 2012 2:45 PM

Reading that instantly gave me a headache.

Anonymous 691 April 30, 2012 2:56 PM  

I appreciate that you have done a close reading of his arguments, because it gives clarity to some confused thinking on his part. In particular being careful to stress the definitions of knowledge in the very first post and refer to JTB as "knowledge in a philosophical sense." Secondly, using the language of sets to be precise about exactly what we are talking about at each stage in the argument. A lot of the apparent conflict dissolves when one thinks with much greater precision.

What I find fascinating is that he proves something non-trivial, but extremely limited, and as you tease out the contours of what he has proved that dissolves some of the fog surrounding the issue.

Blogger Vox April 30, 2012 3:03 PM  

I appreciate that you have done a close reading of his arguments, because it gives clarity to some confused thinking on his part.

You're quite welcome. What I find fascinating is that when one reads such an argument closely and identifies the highly specific and easily confirmed flaws in it, one is almost invariably accused of failing to understand what the author meant to, but did not actually, write.

Now, they were just blog posts and I would never have subjected them to such close analysis if I had not been a) challenged to read them, and b) accused of not understanding them. But from his attempts to respond to my earlier posts, it's clear that he doesn't understand the flaws in his argument and so it is unlikely he could have done much better even if he had known such a detailed critique was forthcoming.

Anonymous Suomynona April 30, 2012 3:06 PM  

Vox April 30, 2012 2:30 PM
His choice of "she" instead of the grammatically correct "he" simply shows that he's a poor skeptic.

It also shows that it is a habit for which he has no expectation of being corrected by any of his professors. It is highly doubtful that any commie in that leftist indoctrination camp that is the U of Chicago would even note, much less expect him to correct this obvious grammatical error. It is more important to be politically correct than grammatically correct - or honest, or sane, or, ... etc.

Blogger Markku April 30, 2012 3:12 PM  

Even my physics textbooks (they were all in English - it doesn't make economical sense to translate them) usually referred to the reader as "she".

Blogger Markku April 30, 2012 3:23 PM  

If I were a cynical bastard, even I would write my textbook with she; men have some self-confidence so they won't be much bitching about that choice, but as for the alternative, bitching there shall be.

Anonymous rho April 30, 2012 3:24 PM  

"He" was a stylistic generic until it became politicized, when it turned into either the politically charged "she" or the neutral (and leaden) "they".

Anyway, back on topic, philosophy students are big on seeming smarter than they are, and this is no different. One of the defining characteristics of smart people is an ability to communicate their ideas. As an example, Richard Feynman was far more versed in theoretical physics than I am, yet he could communicate his knowledge; and I came out the other end knowing more than I did, and wanting to know even more yet.

Anonymous Suomynona April 30, 2012 3:27 PM  

Markku April 30, 2012 3:23 PM

If I were a cynical bastard, even I would write my textbook with she; men have some self-confidence so they won't be much bitching about that choice, but as for the alternative, bitching there shall be.

The threat of bitching is all it takes for you guys to concede to their inanities? Good Lord, no wonder they roll over you guys. Let them bitch until they're blue in the face. If they don't like the textbook, tell them to write one themselves.

Blogger Markku April 30, 2012 3:29 PM  

The threat of bitching is all it takes for you guys to concede to their inanities?

Notice the "if". I am not, in fact, a cynical bastard.

Anonymous Suomynona April 30, 2012 3:44 PM  

I was not directing that comment at you personally, Markku, neither was I taking the character or personality of the man into consideration. I was only addressing the reasoning behind the motivation. It's no big deal.

Anonymous Salt April 30, 2012 3:56 PM  


At 4PM EST... Paul v Paul (krugman v Paul) on Bloomberg.

Anonymous Salt April 30, 2012 3:58 PM  

And accessible through Zerohedge....

Anonymous Daniel April 30, 2012 4:06 PM  

Daniel April 30, 2012 2:45 PM

Reading that instantly gave me a headache.

Imagine how many aneurysms must be caused in a person before he actually falls for such an "idea."

Now, that's a headache.

I pity the modern academic. He is like a fresh-faced baby oyster who befriends the Walrus and the Carpenter.

But at least the butter's spread too thick.

Anonymous Earl April 30, 2012 5:28 PM  

"Pyrrhonism is a metaphilosophy, not a philosophy: it is *PHILOSOPHIZING* about philosophy itself"

Anonymous zen0 April 30, 2012 6:51 PM  

Earl April 30, 2012 5:28 PM

"Pyrrhonism is a metaphilosophy, not a philosophy: it is *PHILOSOPHIZING* about philosophy itself"

Well, that's one you can cross off your list, Earl.

Anonymous Mind Over Matter April 30, 2012 6:53 PM  

If you don't mind, it doesn't matter.

Anonymous Earl April 30, 2012 6:59 PM  

When I was little I wanted to be a psychologist that psycho-analyzed psychologists. When I got big I learned that discipline is called "philosophy." But who philosophizez the philosophizerz? GOD ALMIGHTY.

Anonymous Noah B. April 30, 2012 7:04 PM  

That was every bit as entertaining as I had hoped. From what I can tell, all human knowledge eventually depends on our most basic assumptions, which we have no way of proving. To the extent that our assumptions are correct, what we logically construct is useful, and to the extent that our assumptions are incorrect, what we logically construct is garbage that in no way resembles the world around us.

This particular group of skeptics seems so bothered by our inability to prove our core assumptions with absolute certainty that they reject all rational thought and action. As you demonstrate, Vox, the skeptics are completely unable to live according to the incoherent beliefs they claim to hold.

Blogger Hermit May 01, 2012 5:29 AM  

"A lot of the apparent conflict dissolves when one thinks with much greater precision."

I've half a mind to take a huge (wall-sized) whiteboard and write out all the sets, subsets,supersets, crossover-sets, and meta-sets, just so I can visualize everything going on here. And just as Vox created the term "S" in the last debate meaning something like Schadenfreude (but not quite), I'll write out all the made up definitions (K, for something like Knowledge, but not quite) on the side so I don't get anything confused with real words with real meanings. I can chunk everything up and understand it, but put it all together and it's a muddle.

Anonymous VD May 01, 2012 5:41 AM  

I can chunk everything up and understand it, but put it all together and it's a muddle.

That's why guys like Delavagus find it so easy to snow everyone. Very few people have the ability to look at a muddle, automatically separate it into its component parts, and immediately see the errors. I can't always articulate them without going through it carefully first, but I can usually see that something isn't fitting as it should at the first glance.

As a general rule, if you scent BS, it's usually there. You just have to be methodical and you'll find it.

Blogger Hermit May 01, 2012 6:59 AM  

"if you scent BS, it's usually there"

It certainly doesn't pass the stink test. I'm currently in a Philosophy class (paid for by GI Bill, not worth paying my own money for), and have read some on my own. I know enough to not get completely lost. It's an excellent lesson in critical thought nonetheless.

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