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Posts Tagged ‘Sextus Empiricus’

Pyrrhonian Scepticism Against Time

Posted by allzermalmer on October 14, 2012

This comes from Sextus Empiricus, the Pyrrhonian skeptic, speaking out against conceptions of time. This comes from Against the Physicists II.

“Let this, then, serve as our account of the difficulties regarding the real existence of time which arise from the conception of it; but we can also establish our case by means of direct argument. For if time exists it is either limited or unlimited; but neither is it limited, as we shall establish, nor is it unlimited, as we shall show; therefore time is nothing.

For if time is limited, there was once a time when time did not exist, and there will one day be a time when time will not exist. But it is absurd to say either that there was once a time when time did not exist, or that there will one day be a time when time will not exist, for the statements that “there once was” and that “there will be” are (as I said before) indicative of different times. So, then, time is not limited.

-Nor, in fact, is it unlimited. For one part of it is past, the other future. Each of these times, then, either exists or does not exist. And if it does not exist, time is at once limited, and if it is limited the original difficulty remains- that there was once a time when time did not exist and there will one day be a time when time will not exist. But if each exists- I mean both past and future time,- each will be in the present. And as existing in the present, both past and future time will be in present time. But it is absurd to say that past and future are conceived as in present time. So, then, time is not unlimited either.

But if it is neither conceived as limited nor as unlimited, it will not exist at all. – Also, what is composed of non-existents will be non-existent- of the past which exists no longer and of the future which does not as yet exist; time, therefore, is non-existent.


Furthermore: if time is anything, it is either indivisible or divisible; but it cannot be either indivisible, as we shall show, or divisible, as we shall establish; no time, therefore, exists.

Now time cannot be indivisible, since it is divided into past, present, and future. And it will not divisible because everything divisible is measured by a part of itself; the cubit, for instance, is measured by the palm, and the palms, is a part of the cubit, and the palm is measured by the finger, and the finger is a part of the palm. So, then, if time too is divisible, it ought to be measured by some part of itself.

But it is not possible for the other times to be measured by the present. For if the present time measures the past, the present time will be in the past, and being in the past it will no longer be present but past. And if the present measures the future, being within this it will be future and not present.

Hence, too, it is not possible to measure the present by the other times; for, as being within it, each of them will be present and not either past or future. But if one must certainly conceive time as either divisible or indivisible, and we have shown that it is neither divisible nor indivisible, it must be declared that time is nothing.


Furthermore: time is tripartite; for one part of it is past, one present, and one future. And of these the past no longer exists and the future does not yet exist. It remains to say that one part exists, the present.

The present time, then is either indivisible or divisible. But it cannot be indivisible, for “nothing divisible is of a nature to exist in indivisible time,” as Timon says, – becoming, for example, and perishing, and everything of a similar kind. And if it is indivisible, it will neither have a beginning whereby it is joined on to the past, nor an end whereby it is joined on to the future; for that which has a beginning and an end is not indivisible. But if it has neither a beginning nor an end, it will not have a middle either; for the middle is conceived by way of comparison in its relation to the other two. And as having neither beginning nor middle nor end, it will not exist at all.

And if present time is divisible, it is divided either into existent times or into non-existent. And if it should be divided into non-existent times, it will no longer be time; for that which is divided into non-existent times will not be time. And if it is divided into existent times, it will no longer, as a whole, be present but one part of it will be past, another future. And for this reason it will no longer, as a whole, be [present and] existent, as part of it no longer exists and part of is not as yet existing. But if of the three times- past, future, and present- it has been proved that not one exists, no time will exist.


And those who assert that present time is the limit of the past and the beginning of the future,- thus making one out of two non-existent times,- making not only one but every time nonexistent.

– And further : if present time is the limit of past, and the limit of the past has passed away together with that whereof it is the limit, present time will no longer exist, if it really is the limit of the past.

– And again; if present time is the beginning of the future, and the beginning of the future does not yet exist, present time will not yet exist, and thus it will have most opposite properties; for inasmuch as it is present it will exist, but inasmuch as it has passed away together with the past it will exist no longer, and inasmuch as it accompanies the future it will not as yet exist.

But it is absurd to conceive the same time as both existing and not existing, and no longer existing and not yet existing. So, then, in this way too one must deny that any time exists.


One may also argue thus: if time is anything, it is either imperishable and ingenerable or perishable and generable; but it is neither imperishable and ingenerable, as shall be proved, nor perishable and generable, as this also shall be established; time, therefore, is not anything.

Now it is not imperishable and ingenerable, seeing that part of it is past, part present, and past future. For the day of yesterday exists no longer, that of to-day exists, and that of to-morrow has not yet come into existence. Hence one part of time (namely, the past) no longer exists antoher (namely, the future) does not yet exist. And for this reason time will be neither ingenerable nor imperishable.

– But if it is perishable and generable, it is hard to say what it will perish into and from what it will come to exist. For neither does the future exist already, nor the past exist any longer. But how can a thing (come into existence) from non-existents, (or how can a thing) perish (into non-existents)? Time, then, is nothing.


One may attack it also in this way; if time is anything, it is either generable or ingenerable, or partly generable and partly ingenerable. But time cannot be either generable or ingenerable or partly generable and partly ingenerable; therefore time is not anything.

For if it i were generable, since everything which is generated becomes in time, time too being generated will be generated in time. Either, then, it will be generated as itself in itself or as one time in another.

And if it is generated as itself in itself, it will be a thing which has come to exist before it has come to exist; which is absurd. For since that in which a thing becomes must exist before that which is generated in it, time also, as generated in itself, must have come into existence before itself; just as a statue is wrought in a workshop, but the workshop existed before the statue, and a ship is constructed in a certain place, but the place was existing before the ship, So, then, if time too becomes in itself, it will exist before itself; and thus, inasmuch as it becomes, it will not yet exist, since everything which becomes, while it is becoming, does not exist as yet; but inasmuch as it becomes in itself, it must exist beforehand. Time, then, will be at once both existent and non-existent. Inasmuch as it becomes it will not exist, but inasmuch as it becomes in itself it will exist. But it is absurd that the same thing at the same instant should both exist and not exist; therefore it is also absurd to say that time becomes in itself.

-Nor yet does it become as one time in another,- the future, for instance, in the present, and and the present in the past. For if one time becomes in another, each of the times will necessarily quit its own position and occupy the post of the other. If, for example, the future time becomes in the present time, the future as becoming during the present will be present and not future; and if the present becomes in the past, as becoming during the past it will certainly not be present but past. And the same argument applies if we reverse their order, making the past becoming in the present and the present in the future; for her again the same difficulties follow.

– if, then, time does not become either in itself or as one time in another, time is not generable itself or as one time in another, time is not generable. But if it is neither ingenerable nor generable, and besides these one can conceive no third possibility, one must declare that time is nothing.

Now the fact that it cannot be ingeneralbe is extremely easy to demonstrate. For if it is ingenerable and neither has become nor will become, one time alone, the present, will exist, and neither will the future, and the things therein, be any longer future, nor will the past, and the things done therein, be any longer past. But this is not so; nor, consequently, is time ingenerable.

Nor yet is it partly generable and partly ingenerable, since, if so, the difficulties will be combined. For the generable must become either in itself or in another; but if it becomes in itself it will exist before itself, and if in another it will no longer be that time but , quitting its own post, it will be the time during which it becomes. And the same argument applies also to the ingenerable; for if it is ingenerable, neither will the future time every exist nor the past, but one time only remains, then, to say that as time is neither generable nor ingenerable, nor partly generable and partly ingenerable, time does not exist.”


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Pyrrhonian Scepticism Against Learning

Posted by allzermalmer on October 13, 2012

This comes from Sextus Empiricus in his book “Against the Ethicists”. I broke up the one long argument to put it in a more readable manner.

“These, then, are the objections of a more general character brought forward by the Sceptics to show the non-existence of learning; and it will be possible also to apply these difficulties in turn to the so-called art of life.

For either the wise man will teach this to the wise, or the unwise to the unwise, or the unwise to the wise, or the wise to the unwise. But neither would the wise man be said to teach it to the wise (for both are perfect in virtue and neither of them needs to learn), nor the unwise to the unwise (for both of them have need of learning and neither of them is wise so as to teach the other). Nor yet will the unwise teach to the wise; for neither is the blind man of instructing the man who sees about colours. It only remains, therefore, that the wise man is capable of teaching the unwise; and this too is a matter of doubt.

For if wisdom is “the science of things good and evil and neither,” the unwise man, when the wise man is teaching him the things good and evil and neither, will merely hear the things since he does not possess any wisdom but is in ignorance of all these things. For if he should comprehend them while he is in a state of unwisdom, unwisdom will be capable of knowing things good and evil and neither. But, according to them, unwsidom is not capable of perceiving these things; therefore the unwise man will not comprehend the things said or done by the wise man in pursuance of the rule of his wisdom. And just as he who is blind from, so long as he is blind, has no conception of colours, and he who is deaf from birth, so long as he is deaf, does not apprehend sounds, so also the unwise man, in so far as he is unwise, does not comprehend things wisely said and done. Neither, therefore, can the wise man guide the unwise in the art of life.

– Moreover, if the wise man teaches the unwise, wisdom must be cognizant of unwisdom, even as art is of lack of art; but wisdom cannot be cognizant of unwisdom; therefore the wise man is not capable of teaching the unwise. For he who has become wise owing to some unwise. For he who has become wise owing to some joint exercise and practice (for no one is such by experience (for no one is such by nature) either has acquired wisdom in addition while his unwisdom still subsists within him, or else has become wise through getting rid of the latter and acquiring the former. But if he has acquired wisdom in addition while his unwisdom still subsists within him, the same man will be at once both wise and unwise, which is impossible. And if has acquired the former by getting rid of the latter, he will not be able to know his pre-existing condition, which is not now naturally so;

for certainly the apprehension of every object, whether sensible or intelligible, comes about either empirically by way of sense-evidence or by way of analogical inference from things which have appeared empirically, this latter being either through resemblance (as when Socrates, not being present, is recognized from the likeness of Socrates), or through composition (as when from a man and a horse we form by compounding them the conception of the non-existent hippocentaur), or by way of analogy (as when from ordinary man there is conceived by magnification the Cyclops who was “Less like a corn-eating man than a forest-clad peak of the mountains,” and by diminution the pygmy). Hence, if unwisdom is perceived by wisdom and also the unwise man by the wise, the perception takes place either by experience or by inference form experience. But perception does not take place by experience (for no one gets to know wisdom in the same way as white and black and sweet and bitter), nor by inference from  experience (for no existing thing resembles unwisdom) [But if the wise man makes the inference from experience this, it is either through resemblance or through composition or through analogy];so that wisdom will never perceive unwisdom.

– Yes, but possibly someone will say that the wise man can discern the unwisdom of another by the wisdom within himself; but this is puerile. For unwisdom is a condition productive of certain works. If, then, the wise man sees and apprehends this in another, either he will apprehend the condition directly by means of itself, or by attention to its works he will also get to know the condition itself, just as one knows the condition of the medical man from works in accordance with the arts of medicine, and that of the painter from works in accordance with the art of painting. But he cannot perceive the condition by means of itself; for it is obscure and invisible, and it is not possible to view it closely through the shape of the body; nor by means of the works which result from it; for all the apparent works are, as we showed above, common to wisdom and unwisdom alike. But if it is necessary that the wise man, in order that he may teach the art of life to the unwsise, should himself be capable of perceiving unwisdom-even as the artist lack of art,- and it has been shown that unwisdom is to him imperceptible, then the wise man will not be able to teach the unwise the art of life.”

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Problem of Criterion

Posted by allzermalmer on July 3, 2011

Sextus Empiricus presents us with a certain problem. This is the problem of criterion.

We find that we have two typical questions, which seem to be related, yet lead us to problems.

(1.) What do we know?
(2.) How do we know?

For example, I can say that I know that ” there is a computer screen in front of me”. This answers question number one. However, now I will be asked question number two, ” How do I know that there is a computer screen in front of you?” For, knowing that there is computer screen does not answer how I know it. However, it does not stop here. In order to know something, I supposedly have a criterion for how I know it. But now there is even more trouble. I can say that I know this is the criterion.

However, now I will be asked, “How do you know that criterion?”. Thus, I will, eventually, have to have a criterion, and I will need a criterion to support that criterion. I need this other criterion because I cannot use that criterion to support that criterion in question. For to use the criterion in question to support the criterion in question is to beg the question. It is to argue in a circle. But if I need a criterion for the criterion, then I will need a criterion to support the criterion I invoked to help the other criterion, or I will again be arguing in a circle. Thus, we can keep doing this, and we would have to argue ad infinitum. We would have an infinite regress. Thus, we either have to beg the question or go with an infinite regress.

Either we know something or do not know something. If we know something, then we need a criterion. If we do not know something, then we do not need a criterion. Thus, either we have a criterion to know something or we do not have a criterion to know something.

Either we have a criterion to know something or we do not have a criterion to know something. If we do not have a criterion to know something, then we beg the question. If we do have a criterion to know something, then we need a criterion for our criterion and ad infinitum. In short, either we beg the question or we are left with an infinite regression.

So we find that we come into trouble when we make a claim about what we know. For once we make this claim, we either just take what is said or ask someone to back it up with some criterion for how they know it. Once they make the claim for how they know it, then we ask them to back up that claim with a criterion, since it, in short, becomes another “what we know” and we want to know “how they know” what they know.

A short explication of this problem is given by Roderick Milton Chisholm, and goes as follows: “To know whether things really are as they seem to be, we must have a procedure for distinguishing appearances that are true from appearances that are false. But to know whether our procedure is a good procedure, we have to know whether it really succeeds in distinguishing appearances that are true from appearances that are false. And we cannot know whether it does really succeed unless we already know which appearances are true and which ones are false.  And so we are caught in a circle.”

The argument is also given by Sextus Empiricus in two places. The first follows like this: “This dispute, then, they will declare to be either capable or incapable of decision; and if they shall say it is incapable of decision, they will be granting on the spot the propriety of suspension of judgment, while if they say it admits of decision, let them tell us whereby it is to be decided, since we no accepted criterion, and do not even know, but are still inquiring, whether any criterion exists. Besides, in order to decide the dispute which has arisen about the criterion, we must possess an accepted criterion by which we shall be able to judge the dispute; and in order to possess an accepted criterion, the dispute about the criterion must first be decided. And when the argument thus reduces itself to a form of circular reasoning the discovery of the criterion becomes impracticable, since we do not allow them to adopt a criterion by assumption, while if they offer to judge the criterion by a criterion we force them to a regress ad infinitum. And furthermore, since the demonstration requires a demonstrated criterion, while the criterion requires an approved demonstration, they are forced into circular reasoning.”

And here is the second explication of the problem by Sextus Empiricus: “In another way, too, the disagreement of such impressions is incapable of settlement. For he who prefers one impression to another, or one “circumstance” to another, does so either uncritically and without proof or critically and with proof; but he can do this neither without these means (for then he would be discredited) nor with them. For if he is to pass judgment on the impressions he must certainly judge them by a criterion; this criterion, then, he will declare to be true, or else false. But if false, he will be discredited; whereas, if he shall declare it to be true, he will be stating that the criterion is true either without proof or with proof. But if without proof, he will be discredited; and if with proof, it will certainly be necessary for the proof also to be true, to avoid being discredited. Shall he, then, affirm the truth of the proof adopted to establish the criterion after having judged it or without judging it? If without judging it, he will be discredited; but if after judging, plainly he will say that he has judged it by a criterion; and of that criterion we shall ask for a proof, and of that proof again a criterion. For the proof always requires a criterion to confirm it, and the criterion also a proof to demonstrate its truth; and neither can a proof be sound without the previous existence of a true criterion nor can the criterion be true without the previous confirmation of the proof. so in this way both the criterion and the proof are involved in the circular process of reasoning…”

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Ten Tropes of Skepticism

Posted by allzermalmer on March 24, 2011

Sextus Empiricus lays out the Ten Tropes of skepticism that are to lead to suspension of judgment.

They follow three different main categories, and each with at least two tropes.The three main categories of the tropes are as follows:

  1. The subject who judges
  2. The object judged
  3. The subject who judges & the object judged

Here is the first category: The subject who judges.

  1. The opposing perceptions and views of the world which characterize different species: “For how could one say, with regard to touch [for example], that animals are similarly affected whether their surfaces consist of shell, flesh, needles, feathers or scales? And, as regards hearing, how could one say that perceptions are alike in animals with a very narrow auditory canal and in those with a very wide one, or in those with hairy ears and those with ears that are hairless… [P]erfume seems very pleasant to human beings but intolerable to dung beetles and bees, and the application of olive oil is beneficial to human beings but kills wasps and bees.”
  2. The opposing perceptions and views of the world which characterize different individuals: thus “…the greatest indication of the vast and limitless difference in the intellect of human beings is the inconsistency of the various statements of the Dogmatists concerning what may be appropriately chosen, what avoided, and so on.”
  3. The opposing perceptions and views of the world which characterize different sense organs: thus “Pictures seem to the sense of sight to have concavities and convexities,” for example, “but not to the touch,” and “Let us imagine someone who from birth has …lacked hearing and sight. He will start out believing in the existence of nothing visible or audible, but only of the three kinds of quality he can register. It is therefore a possibility that we too, having only our five senses, only register from the qualities belonging to the apple those which we are capable of registering. But it may be that there objectively exist other qualities”
  4. The opposing perceptions and views of the world which characterize different circumstances: “Thus, things affect us in dissimilar ways depending on whether we are in a natural or unnatural condition, as when people who are delirious or possessed by a god seem to hear spirits but we do not…. And the same water that seems to us to be lukewarm seems boiling hot when poured on an inflamed place…. Further, if someone says that an intermingling of certain humors produces, in persons who are in an unnatural condition, odd phantasiai [impressions] of the external objects, it must be replied that since healthy people, too, have intermingled humors, it is possible that the external objects are in nature such as they appear to those persons who are said to be in an unnatural state, but that these humors are making the external objects appear to the healthy in a natural people other than they are.”

Here is the second category: The object judged

  1. the opposing perceptions and views of the world due to different quantities and structures: thus “[the] individual filings of a piece of silver appear black, but when united with the whole they affect us as white… And wine, when drunk in moderation, strengthens us, but when taken in excess, disables the body…”
  2. the opposing perceptions and views of what is right and wrong which characterize different ways of life, laws, myths and “dogmatic suppositions: for “among the Persians sodomy is customary but among the Romans it is prohibited by law; and with us adultery is prohibited, but among the Massagetae it is by custom treated as a matter of indifference, as Eudoxus of Cnidos reports… and with us it is forbidden to have intercourse with one’s mother, whereas with the Persians this sort of marriage is very much the custom. And among the Egyptians men marry their sisters, which for us is prohibited by law.

Here is the third category: The subject who judges & the object judged

  1. the opposing perceptions and views of the world that characterize different positions and distances and places: for example, “lamplight appears dim in sunlight but bright in the dark. The same oar appears bent in water but straight when out of it”
  2. the opposing perceptions and views of the world that characterize mixtures: thus “we deduce that since no object strikes us entirely by itself, but along with something, it may perhaps be possible to say what the mixture compounded out of the external object and the thing perceived with it is like, but we would not be able to say what the external object is like by itself… The same sound appears one way when accompanied by a rarefied atmosphere, another way when accompanied by a dense atmosphere”
  3. the opposing views possible because of the relativity of all things: “…since all things are relative, we will suspend judgment about what things exist absolutely and in nature… This has two senses. One is in relation to the judging subject [different subjects perceiving differently]… The other in relation to the conceptions perceived with it…”
  4. the opposing perceptions and views of the world due to constancy or rarity of occurrence: for “The sun is certainly a much more marvelous thing than a comet. But since we see the sun all the time but the comet only infrequently, we marvel at the comet so much as even to suppose it a divine portent, but we do nothing like that for the sun. If, however, we thought of the sun as appearing infrequently and setting infrequently, and as illuminating everything all at once and then suddenly being eclipsed, we should find much to marvel at in the matter.”

The main points are these (taken from Wikipedia):

  1. Different animals manifest different modes of perception
  2. Similar differences are seen among individual men
  3. For the same man, information perceived with the senses is self-contradictory
  4. Furthermore it varies from time to time with physical changes
  5. In addition, this data differs according to local relations
  6. Objects are known only indirectly through some medium like air, moisture, etc.
  7. These objects are in a condition of perpetual change in color, temperature, size and motion
  8. All perceptions are relative and interact one upon another
  9. Our impressions become less critical through repetition and custom
  10. All men are brought up with different beliefs, under different laws and social conditions

These modes should be sufficient for us to suspend judgment on anything that goes beyond our sensory experience. It prevents us from saying anything dogmatically. We would suspend judgment that goes beyond our direct perception. To see more about what goes beyond direct perception check out Direct v. Indirect Knowledge.

Most of our knowledge, or proclaimed knowledge, of things is indirect knowledge. However, these aren’t the only tropes of skepticism. There are five more, and of those five, three form the trilemma of justification of knowledge claims. I will share those later.

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