Work in Progress


Inquiry and Expertise in Ancient Skepticism

How can the Pyrrhonian skeptic live his life without holding beliefs? This is one of the most puzzling questions about ancient skepticism. Sextus Empiricus gives us an answer in his Outlines of Pyrrhonism (PH): The skeptic is able to follow the appearances. But when Sextus includes the acceptance of forms of expertise (technai) among the appearances (PH I 24), the mystery deepens. Sextus, who was a medical doctor himself, says that the skeptic does not assent to the dogmatic claims of philosophy and science (PH I 13). How can he claim both to live without beliefs and to accept certain sciences? Or to put it another way, if skeptics accept and practice certain technai, but also suspend judgment and avoid holding all scientific or philosophical beliefs, what kind of science do they practice? Obviously, the notion of skeptical technē cannot be, for example, that of Plato's Socrates who insists in the dialogue Gorgias that the expert must grasp the nature of things in her particular domain in order to explain each of them (465a). Thus, the central question I seek to answer is “What is skeptical expertise?”

I answer the central question by examining Sextus' under-appreciated treatise Against the Professors (M I-VI), which offers his most thorough look at particular subjects of expertise (he attacks grammar, rhetoric, geometry, arithmetic, astrology, and music). I argue for the following characteristics of skeptical technai: First, an adequate skeptical expertise is constituted by a collection of correlated observed phenomena (what he calls commemorative signs) established empirically through repeated observations, and always open to revision. The objects of these technai are limited to observable domains; that is, both the sign and the signified can in some sense be observed. All the same, commemorative signs allow the skeptic to predict future observable occurrences. Second, skeptical expertise is a non-axiomatic or, more generally, non-foundationalist science. It does not ground the scientific domain in first principles in the way that we observe, for example, in Aristotle's scientific theory. Moreover, this science is neither explanatory nor a means to gain knowledge of the world. While the notion of a non-explanatory science may seem incoherent to some, skeptical science is a clear forerunner to certain forms of modern scientific anti-realism (e.g. Duhem 1954). My account shows that Sextus' vision of scientific investigation is truly meant to be grounded in the appearances.


The Pyrrhonian Attack on the Art of Rhetoric

The conflict between rhetoric and philosophy is one of the longest standing debates in the ancient world, extending as it did from the time of the first Sophistic period to at least the second. For much of the history of this debate, the philosophers – including Plato, the Stoics, and Cicero – suggested that orators could not achieve the aim of their expertise unless they were essentially philosophers. Quintilian seems to have taken this criticism to heart, so much so, that he leans toward the Stoic position of defining rhetoric as a virtue: The orator is “the good man, skilled at speaking;” his particular expertise can only be achieved by vir bonus (12.1, cf. 1.1) , that is the sophos. It is in this context that the Pyrrhonian criticism of rhetoric by Sextus Empiricus raises several questions, for Sextus does not insist that oratory can be an art only if the orator is also a philosopher. Rather, he argues that the orator who is wise and virtuous will fail to achieve the aims of rhetoric (Adversus Mathematicos [=M] II 10-12). In contrast , Sextus seems to suggest that the orator and the skeptic have much in common (M II 95-99), a claim which ties into Sextus’ definition of skepticism as the power to set oppositions between phainomena and thought on any topic at all (Outlines of Pyrrhonism I 8). This raises the question: If the Pyrrhonian critique is that the orator turns out to be a skeptic, in what sense do the skeptics oppose rhetoric? In order to answer this question, I examine several of Sextus’ arguments against rhetoric in M II, and I suggest that the Pyrrhonian attack on rhetoric is not so much meant to show that rhetoric is not an art, but rather that certain particular philosophical understandings of technē are indefensible. Thus, it is true that Sextus argues rhetoric is not an art, but it is not because there is some deficiency in rhetoric understood as the skill of persuasion, but rather because there are fundamental problems in identifying a technē in terms of its telos.

Precision and error in On Ancient Medicine

The central section (chapters 9-12) of the Hippocratic treatise On Ancient Medicine (VM) presents a challenge to commentators who see in its argument a shift from what precedes it in chapters 1-8. The author begins the treatise by arguing against those who suppose that medical knowledge requires suppositions or hypotheses that function as a first cause or principle of explanation (τὴν ἀρχὴν τῆς αἰτίης) (I 570 L [=Littré] = 118 J [=Jouanna]). These “newfangled hypotheses” are unnecessary, the author claims; ancient medical knowledge and practice is worthy of being called an art (τέχνη) in light of its principle (ἀρχή) and method (ὁδός) (572L=119J). The author argues for his position through the early part of the treatise (1-8), but the argument seems to shift in chapter 9 to a discussion about the degree of ἀκριβεία that can be achieved in light of the difficulty that doctors have in applying their knowledge to individual cases. For this reason, some commentators claim that chapters 9-12 represent a digression from the main argument of the treatise.

I argue for continuity between these two sections (1-8 and 9-12); the argument from 8 flows directly into 9-12. The key to understanding the argument in this middle section is the contrast found between two closely related notions of ἀκριβεία and ἀτρεκεία. In chapter 12, the author sums up his argument, saying: "And, while the art can admit of such nice exactness [ἀκριβίης], it is difficult always to attain perfect accuracy [τοῦ ἀτρεκεστάτου]" (596L=132J trans. Jones). The apparent contrast between the ἀκριβεία achieved in medicine and the extreme, ὁ ἀτρεκεστάτος, is surprising because, according to the lexicon, the terms ἀκριβεία and ἀτρεκεία are roughly synonymous. Jones' translation indicates that he thinks the contrast involves the degree of measure that is available to the doctor relative to the truth or reality that that measure attempts to match. But it is unclear, given the straightforward meanings for these terms, whether the contrast at VM 12 is one of kind, for example, the precision of one's knowledge contrasted with the accuracy of one's prescriptions; or if it is one of degree, that is, the exactness that one has now achieved contrasted with the greatest possible exactness that one might achieve. In my view, what is contrasted in the middle chapters is the doctor's particular case knowledge, which is ἀκριβήs, and his general scientific knowledge, which falls short of being ἀτρεκής. I shall argue for this by analyzing the use of these two terms (and their cognates) in the medical literature and then applying my analysis to the central chapters VM. If I am correct, there is real continuity between the early and the middle chapters of the treatise. The author is concerned to show that the traditional doctor has adequate knowledge to be skilled at medicine (1-8), and this knowledge constitutes expertise even though fully generalized principles may not be had (9-12).