To Unknow Our Knowing

by reichorn

Aphorism of the Day:

“When… one remembers that the most striking practical application to life of the doctrine of objective certitude has been the conscientious labors of the Holy Office of the Inquisition, one feels less tempted than ever to lend the doctrine a respectful ear.”

– William James, The Will to Believe


This is my second post as a guest-blogger here at the TPB.  It’s a follow-up to my first post, To Know Our Unknowing, and it attempts to round out the brief sketch of (certain elements of) Pyrrhonian skepticism I began there.

About me: My name is Roger Eichorn.  I’m a friend of Scott’s, an aspiring fantasy novelist, and a Ph.D. student in philosophy at the University of Chicago.

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.

Classical Pyrrhonians argued ad hominem, not in the sense of the logical fallacy of that name, but in the sense that their dialectical strategy necessitates the exclusive utilization of the beliefs, convictions, and assumptions of their interlocutors.  In other words, they construct their arguments on the basis of what other people hold to be true.  In demonstrating to A the rational groundlessness of his belief x, Pyrrhonians draw exclusively from premises and inferential rules that are themselves accepted by A and that lead to the conclusion that A does not after all know x.  At their most abstract, then, Pyrrhonian arguments depend only on our most abstract rational commitments.  The Five Agrippan Modes (discussed in my previous post) are merely a handy formulation by skeptics of the rational commitments of non-skeptics (‘dogmatists,’ in Sextus’s sense).  For those who accept their constraints, the Five Modes constitute part of the framework of any search for the truth.  This is borne out by the fact that the vast majority of epistemological theorizing operates within the assumptions of the Five Modes, that is, such theorizing attempts to formulate a solution to the Agrippan challenge, rather than rejecting that challenge.

Thus, the self-refutatory character of skepticism demonstrates the self-refutatory character of all philosophizing done under the aegis of the rational commitments that give rise to the skeptical conclusion.  The proponent of the self-refutation response to skepticism wants to say, in effect, “If the skeptic is right, then the skeptic is wrong.”  But what the skeptical arguments in fact show is that if the skeptical arguments are right, then the dogmatists are wrong, for it is they who hold self-refuting rational commitments.  At their most abstract, these commitments constitute the very framework of philosophico-rational thought itself.

Seen in this light, skepticism is simply philosophico-rational thought coming to an awareness of its own rational groundlessness.

But Pyrrhonism doesn’t stop there, for the conclusion that philosophico-rational thought is rationally ungrounded is itself rationally ungrounded.  In other words, for Pyrrhonians, the skeptical conclusion is just one more thing to be skeptical about.  If it has any force, it is only as a hypothetical: if x, then y, where ‘x’ is the framework of rationality as we understand it and ‘y’ is the skeptical conclusion (which, of course, wraps back around and consumes ‘x’).  Pyrrhonians are willing to accept that philosophico-rational thought may not in fact be rationally ungrounded; they claim merely that, given these apparently unavoidable rational commitments—commitments without which it seems impossible that there could be any such thing as a search for truth—it seems that our justifications fail, that our thinking turns back on itself, like a mother consuming her offspring, that our knowing drops out of the picture.

Where does this leave Pyrrhonians?  It leaves them not as some brand of philosophical skeptic, but rather as skeptics about philosophy.

Throughout its history, philosophy has displayed a tendency toward stunning arrogance and pretentiousness, which in turns has tended to give rise to condescension with respect to what I’ll call ‘common life.’  By ‘common life,’ I mean—simply but roughly—ordinary life as lived by ordinary people.  From the rarefied heights of philosophical sagehood, common life seems a paltry, precarious, self-deluded thing.  Common life is life bound in Plato’s Cave, seeing naught by shadows (appearances), whereas the Philosopher is the Great Man who has thrown off his shackles, escaped the cave, and beheld the Sun (reality).

Pyrrhonians reject the pretensions of a philosophy that would arrogate to itself the right, to say nothing of the ability, to sit in judgment over common life as such.  They live according to appearances—without the baggage of a philosophically loaded notion of ‘reality’ undermining it.  To Pyrrhonians, common life (that is, the appearances) is a sort of pragmatic-transcendental framework, an immanent, ground-level framework that comes into view only upon the collapse of the illusory philosophico-rational framework built atop it.  Common life is ‘pragmatic’ in the sense that it seems as though the appearances (the ways in which the world shows up for us, in all its phenomenological richness) arise from our social practices; it is ‘transcendental’ in the sense that the appearances seem at the same time to underlie or make possible our social practices.

(Consider: the framework-claim that the world did not pop into existence in the year 1900 both arises from various of our practices—in the sense that if we did not have such practices then the claim would not belong to the framework of common life—and constitutes those practices, since doubting it would render impossible, or at least deeply problematize, those practices.)

Throughout his texts, Sextus claims to champion ‘common life’ over the ‘conceit and rashness of the dogmatists.’  But he is also clear that Pyrrhonians differ importantly from those who have not undergone the skeptical therapy.  He marks this difference by telling us that, unlike dogmatists and pre-reflective ‘ordinary people’ alike, mature Pyrrhonians live adoxastōs, without beliefs or opinions.  What does this mean?  I want to suggest that it represents a sort of proto-contextualism.

In my previous post, I mentioned a few schools of epistemological thought, namely, foundationalism and coherentism, internalism and externalism.  Contextualism is another.  It comes in a variety of forms, but roughly, contextualists hold that the truth or justification of a claim is determined or constrained by various contextual factors.  David Lewis, for instance, (in)famously argued that ‘conversational contexts’ are defined by rules, the last of which he calls the Rule of Attention, which holds that any possibility that is in fact entered into a conversation is thereby not properly ignorable, even if the possibility (such as, e.g., that we are all living in the Matrix) was properly ignorable prior to the possibility being raised.  What this means is that we might know all sorts of things one moment, then in the next moment—after the unanswerable Matrix possibility is raised—no longer know anything.  On this view, philosophy is actually in the business of, as Lewis puts it, ‘destroying knowledge.’  To philosophize, in other words, is to unknow our ordinary knowing.

The obvious problem with this sort of contextualism is that it seems to sever the link between knowledge and truth, focusing instead on assertability conditions (which amount to answering the question, “When do we consider it okay to claim to know x?”, as opposed to answering the question, “When are we justified in claiming to know x?”).  The Pyrrhonian’s contextualism is different.  It accepts the variability of assertability conditions, namely, that common life introduces uses of ‘to know’ that fail to satisfy the philosophical constraints on justification.  In an everyday sense, then, Pyrrhonians think they know all sorts of things, the same as anyone else.  But, unlike a contextualist such as Lewis, Pyrrhonians will maintain that this sort of knowing is, as Thompson Clarke put it in an influential paper, knowing in a manner of speaking only.  As a human being in the world, thrust into a family, a culture, an environment, Pyrrhonians will believe all sorts of things—in an everyday way.  And, in an everyday way, they will claim to know all sorts of things.  But they will not mistake the degree of their doxastic commitment to x for the degree of x’s objective justification.  They will not believe that their everyday beliefs are justified—except with reference to the presuppositions (the brute assumptions) that frame their communal epistemic practices.  Like their ‘knowledge,’ the Pyrrhonians’ ‘justifications’ have a merely local force, as do (by their lights) everyone else’s—though non-Pyrrhonians are by and large too stubborn or conceited to admit as much.

Pyrrhonians, in other words, will live adoxastōs—free of the second-order belief that their first-order beliefs are (ultimately) justified.

This might sound like a trivial accomplishment, but I don’t think it is.  The desire—the felt need—for objective justification is what leads people to claim to possess it (or at least to act as though they possess it), and I would argue that it is this myopic privileging of one’s own prejudices—the baseless elevation of the parochial to the universal—that has underwritten history’s greatest atrocities and that continually threatens to give rise to any number of fresh horrors.

To unknow our knowing, in the Pyrrhonian sense, is not to rob us of our everyday certainties, to deprive us of something substantial we previously possessed.  Rather, it is to adopt a particular attitude toward ourselves, one that opens up a critical distance between what we believe to be true (often what we cannot help but believe to be true) and what we believe we know, a critical distance that allows us to live on the basis of an understanding of ourselves as reflective beings caught in a whirlwind of culture and biology, as consciousnesses at least partly shaped by forces whose power and scope we neither fully understand nor fully control.