Snowballing Ignorance

by reichorn

Aphorism of the Day:

“Sceptics are philanthropic and wish to cure by argument, as far as they can, the conceit and rashness of the Dogmatists.”

— Sextus Empiricus, Outlines of Pyrrhonism


Roger here again.  This is going to be my final post as a guest-blogger for a while.  I’ll still check in when I can, but I simply have too many demands on my time to keep up with the go-go blogging lifestyle.

In parting, I’ve written a pretty thorough — and no doubt thoroughly exhausting — response to Vox Day’s multi-part ‘dissection‘ of my two posts on ancient skepticism.  I apologize in advance.

“Why bother?” is an entirely understandable question.  I could dress it up any number of ways, but given that I have zero expectation of actually making any dialogic progress with Vox or his partisans, it comes down to vanity.

So here it is: my vanity post.

I’ll do my best to keep up with any comments, and I hope to return as a guest-blogger soon.

P.S.:  My wife and I went to see The Avengers tonight.  How awesome is that movie?!  It was especially sweet for old Buffy/Angel fans like us.

Dissecting “Dissecting the Skeptics I”

It seems to me that textual criticism can be charted along two axes: the axis of charitability (of the reading) and the axis of depth (of the criticism).  It is easy to know what to do with criticisms that place high on the charitable-reading axis: if they are shallow, you answer the criticism while filling in what the critic has overlooked or misunderstood; if they are deep, you ponder the criticisms for as long as it takes to come to grips with them.  But when criticisms, whether deep or shallow, score low on the charitable-reading axis, it’s difficult to know what to do with them.  In the case of deep-but-uncharitable criticisms, it’s often the case, it seems to me, that you’re not really dealing with ‘criticism’ at all, properly speaking, but rather with an articulation of views held by the critic that are only tangentially related—if they’re related at all—to the text ostensibly being criticized.

In the case of shallow-and-uncharitable criticisms, it’s generally best simply to ignore them, for the following two related reasons: (1) if the critic read your initial text uncharitably, then (ceteris paribus) you have no reason to expect him to read your responses charitably; (2) given that they are based on an uncharitable reading of the text, the criticisms are likely to betray such deep misunderstandings of the text as to require a great deal of work to reach the point at which you and the shallow-and-uncharitable critic are on the same page (and are thus able to avoid talking past each other)—and given (1), you have no reason to expect that your work will be rewarded.

I have done my best to give Vox’s ‘dissection’ of my two posts on ancient skepticism a charitable reading.  He doesn’t make it easy, given how frequently his ‘logical dissection’ is interrupted by personal insults—all directed at me, of course.  But again, I have done my best.  My conclusion is that, if we put aside all the posturing and name-calling, Vox’s response to my posts are (through no fault of his own) shallow and (very much through a fault of his own) uncharitable.

Let me say a few words on what I mean by ‘charitable.’  The so-called ‘principle of charity’ is a basic hermeneutic principle according to which it is incumbent upon (honest, bipartisan, truth-seeking) critics of texts both (a) to give that text the fairest reading possible and (b) to develop the most sympathetic interpretation of the texts they can.  It should be evident why the principle of charity is a hermeneutic virtue.  Most obviously, it conduces to fruitful debate by avoiding straw-man arguments.  Less obviously, perhaps, it contributes to the development of deep criticisms as opposed to shallow ones.

It seems to me that Vox is pretty upfront about his uncharitable approach to my texts.  He starts out “Dissecting the Skeptics I” by writing, “I’ve been asked in the past to explain how go [sic] about breaking down and critically analyzing an argument and how I am able to so readily spot the flaws it contains… [Delavagus’s] two posts on ancient scepticism will serve as an ideal specimen for this example.”  Now, of course you could argue that, having already read the posts charitably, Vox is able to identify them as “ideal specimen[s].”  But (a) it is clear from the context in which Vox was directed to the posts that he approached them with an uncharitable attitude (I cannot possibly dredge up the evidence here—I’m simply airing my opinion of the matter; you are free to see for yourself, if you care to); and (b) the ‘dissections’ themselves offer ample evidence of uncharitable readings and scant to no evidence of charitable readings.  (For example, he starts out with this: “And since he’s an academic of sorts, we know to look for the word games, in particular the definitional bait-and-switch of which they are so very fond. At this point, I wouldn’t go so far as to say that I smell a rat, only that I believe there is a high probability that a rat or two will soon present itself.”  The thing about these sorts of interpretive preconceptions is that they tend to be self-fulfilling prophecies.)

Most obviously, Vox immediately slaps the label ‘Error!’ on what a charitable critic would formulate as a question or as a remark on a passage’s lack of clarity.  In other words, where a charitable critic would say something like, “It isn’t clear to me why the author has chosen this particular definition of knowledge,” Vox instead declares, “Error!”

The uncharitability of the reading goes so deep and is so pervasive that I’m left at a loss to pick out particular examples, since essentially every sentence of every post is an example.  But I’ll make one more general remark: Vox says, in post 1, that he always asks himself four questions when faced with a text.  It’s striking that the most obvious candidates are nowhere to be found in his list.  Among the things any reader should ask themselves when faced with a text (at least if they intend to criticize the text) are: (1) For what purpose was this written?  (Note that this is a charitable question as opposed to Vox’s fourth, uncharitable variant: “What is the author trying to prove?”)  (2) Who is the intended audience for this text?  (3) What are the author’s goals?  And so on.

I like to think that, had Vox asked himself these questions, he would not have been led to write some of the things he wrote in his first post.  For example, take question (1): the purpose of my two posts on ancient skepticism were to give a brief, thumbnail sketch of a much larger topic.  Question (2): these posts are clearly intended for a general audience; thus, they’re intended to be generally accessible (i.e., not weighed down with too much detail or too many technicalities).  In several places throughout his ‘dissections,’ Vox levels complaints along the lines of: “Delavagus failed fully to address problem x or y, which he himself admits are clearly relevant to the points he wants to make.”  I grant the charge, but dispute its relevancy.  (And, contra Vox, the fact that I point out issues that I fail to address seems to me to suggest intellectual honesty rather than dishonesty on my part!)  A charitable reader—or simply a good reader of texts—would have known from the start that I was not attempting to deal comprehensively with any of the numerous topics I bring up.  It seems that nothing short of an entire scholarly, footnoted tome on the subject would satisfy Vox (though of course it wouldn’t satisfy him, since he’d read the book uncharitably!).  To label as ‘Errors’ what are nothing more than unavoidable internal constraints of the texts themselves (i.e., constraints arising from the posts’ purpose, scope, goals, etc.) indicates nothing but Vox’s inability to recognize or accept the texts for what they are.

Here’s an example.  One of the errors Vox charges me with under the heading First Error (he lumps two separate charges together) is the following: I make “irrelevant musings on what would fascinate Sextus and an unjustified belief claim concerning how Sextus would have made use of modern scientific evidence.”  From this, he concludes that I am “not a rigorous thinker and… [am] liable to going off on irrelevant tangents and making groundless assertions concerning things [I] can’t possibly know.”

But any competent reader should see what I was attempting to do with my introductory remarks.  Noting that I somehow failed in my intention would be fine; but the intention itself is surely plain as day (so to speak).  I start out by saying, “In this post, I’d like to discuss one of Scott’s favorite themes—human stupidity—in relation to Pyrrhonism.  Scott focuses, and for good reason, on the growing scientific (that is, empirical) evidence to the effect that humans are stupid, stupid creatures…  However, Sextus did not think that we require empirical evidence in order to arrive at the conclusion that we’re all idiots.  That conclusion, he thought, can be arrived at purely a priori, that is, while lounging in our armchairs and merely thinking through our knowing.”

It’s obvious what I’m trying to do, yes?  I’m trying to segue, in my first post as a guest-blogger on the Three Pound Brain, from topics typical of the Three Pound Brain (cognitive psych, neuroscience) to the more abstract philosophical musings of my post by suggesting a connection between the two.  That connection takes the form of my claim that Sextus Empiricus, the ancient Pyrrhonian, utilized both empirical and a priori arguments as part of his skeptical dialectic.  Scott talks a lot about the empirical side, whereas I want to discuss the a priori, philosophical side.  Again, this all seems like something any reader should pick up on.  But apparently Vox missed it.

Now, as we’ve seen, Vox charges me with making an “unjustified belief claim concerning how Sextus would have made use of modern scientific evidence.”  But this is what I actually wrote: “Sextus Empiricus himself based many of his arguments on empirical evidence.  Though, of course, his ‘evidence’ was not the sort of thing that would pass muster in a modern scientific context, I believe there’s every reason to think that, were he alive today, Sextus would be at least as fascinated by the growing body of evidence concerning human cognitive shortcomings as Scott is—and moreover, there’s every reason to think that he would have made potent use of this evidence in his skeptical dialectic.”

It’s telling, and indicative of Vox’s uncharitable reading, that he reads right past the two instances of “there’s every reason to think” in my passage.  It honestly boggles my mind to think that a competent reader would call foul—let alone ‘Error!’ (what kind of error, anyway? logical? factual?)—on speculative claims like, “If x were alive today, he’d probably y.”  This is a common enough, and perfectly harmless, thought-experiment.  Any half-intelligent (or halfway-charitable) reader ought to know what I’m saying, namely, “Since Sextus made use of the empirical evidence that was available to him, were ‘he’ alive today (‘he’ meaning: a contemporary analogue to Sextus, i.e., a person alive today writing with the same goals, philosophical outlook, and methodology as Sextus) would no doubt also make use of what empirical evidence is now available.”  Is this really so hard to understand?  Is this really an ‘error’?  Not in any meaningful sense.

The second half of the First Error is this: “a questionable word game being played with ‘evidence.’”  What does this refer to?  The following passage: “Sextus Empiricus himself based many of his arguments on empirical evidence. Though, of course, his ‘evidence’ was not the sort of thing that would pass muster in a modern scientific context.”  What is ‘questionable’ about this?  By putting the second instance of ‘evidence’ in scare-quotes, I’m signaling that it would not pass muster in a modern scientific context.  This is true.  Science has advanced considerably since the second-century; for this reason, modern readers are not likely to consider Sextus’s ‘evidence’ to be genuine evidence.  This is not hard to understand.

The Second Error Vox identifies concerns my use of ‘justified true belief’ as an analysis of knowledge.  The oddity of labeling this an ‘error’ is so startling I’m not even sure what to say about it.  I’ve already explained elsewhere to Vox the wrong-headedness of appealing to the dictionary as a final word on the matter even in ordinary contexts, let alone in philosophical contexts.  As far as I’ve seen, Vox has not responded to these remarks.  I will not repeat them here.  Suffice it to say that ‘justified true belief’ is the standard philosophical analysis of knowledge.  It is not intended to capture everyday usage of variants of ‘to know,’ and thus pointing out that it fails to do so is not a criticism.  This is such an elementary point that, again, I’m not sure what to say about it.  I can only marvel at Vox’s shallowness.

Now, Vox seems to think that the proffered philosophical analysis is just one more definition, on a par with the nine he pulls from whatever dictionary he consults.  But that is to fundamentally misunderstand the nature and purpose of a philosophical analysis of a concept.  In short, the idea behind the ‘justified true belief’ formulation (as I say in my first post) is that there are, on the one hand, beliefs, while on the other hand there is the truth.  A certain kind of person—most of us, I would hope—ideally want our beliefs to be true, that is, we want to believe true things.  We have this word, knowledge, that is generally (my God, I said ‘generally’! ‘error’! ‘error’!) taken as a contrast to belief, in the sense that ‘knowledge’ differs from (mere) belief in also being true.  This is backed up by most of the definitions Vox trots out: knowledge has to do with ‘facts’ and ‘truths.’  The question, then, is how we can bridge the prima facie gap between ‘belief’ and ‘truth.’  We do so, philosophy has long maintained, by way of justification.  Hence, ‘justified true belief’ is an analysis of the concept of knowledge, not a definition of the use of the word.

A brief comment on ‘generally.’  I wrote: “Knowledge is generally taken to be justified true belief.”  Vox claims: “Weasel words such as ‘generally’, ‘basically’, and ‘pretty much’ are always red flags, particularly when they precede something as important as the definition of an argument’s foundation or central subject.”  This is such a bizarre criticism that it boggles the mind.  ‘Generally’ is not (or needn’t be) a ‘weasel’ word; it is simply a qualifier.  It appears all the time in scholarly literature, or anything written by people who are actually conversant with the welter of views on a complex subject.  When it comes to something like the proper analysis of ‘knowledge,’ it is to be expected that not all philosophers agree.  In other words, it is to be expected that any analysis is, at best, only ‘generally’ accepted.

Vox concludes: “As should be clear, Delavagus’s definition of knowledge isn’t a valid one in common usage, but instead represents a different concept altogether. His statement is provably incorrect, as knowledge is quite clearly NOT ‘generally taken to be justified true belief’.”

To sum up: Vox mistakes a philosophical analysis of a concept for a definition of the everyday usage of a word.  Now, of course, I could have been clearer.  I could have said, “Knowledge is generally taken by philosophers to be ‘justified true belief.’”  But this admission merely underscores the shallowness of the criticism.  Vox’s remark here also demonstrates clearly his arrogant uncharitability.

Earlier today I was reading Luciano Floridi’s brilliant article “The Problem of the Justification of a Theory of Knowledge, Part I: Some Historical Metamorphoses.”  I came across the following passage: “… it is generally recognized that neither Plato… nor Aristotle were very concerned with sceptical problems.  Even when Plato and Aristotle can be seen to be interested in proto-sceptical questions, the latter are generally to be characterized as objections on the nature of knowledge rather than objections on the nature of epistemology…” (209).  Floridi attached a footnote to the second instance of ‘generally.’  That footnote reads: “I say ‘generally’ because it has seemed possible to recognize in Meno’s paradox a methodological interested by Plato…  But I shall disregard such as an issue in this context.”

Vox, apparently, would call ‘Error!’ on Luciano Floridi.  Again, the shallowness of Vox’s criticism is incredible.  I won’t even bother to comment on his ‘criticism’ of my footnote regarding Gettier.

Dissecting “Dissecting the Skeptics II”

Vox’s inept interpretive skills (or intentionally tendentious interpretations) are put on display again.  He claims: “Delavagus even goes so far as admitting he has ‘no way to establish the truth/justification of a putative criterion of truth/justification’.”  What I actually wrote, however, was: “… without an already-established criterion of truth/justification, we have no way to establish the truth/justification of a putative criterion of truth/justification.”

In other words, Vox turns what is an articulation of the problem into a claim in my own voice.  This is just sloppy reading.

The Fourth Error.  I wrote, “But even if we bracket out the problem of the criterion, our difficulties are hardly over.  For the sake of argument, let’s all agree to construe justification in purely rationalistic terms. Let us, in other words, agree to seek justification solely on the basis of the autonomous exercise of our capacity to reason. (Let us, that is, become philosophers.)”  Vox labels this an error because “[i]nstead of giving up the philosophical definition of knowledge as intrinsically worthless due to what he has admitted is the impossibility of providing any established justifications for true beliefs, Delavagus simply waves his hand again and attempts to leap over the bottomless pit of the epistemic abyss by asking the reader to agree to pretend the problem of the criterion does not exist.”

Again, this interpretation of what I said is so bizarre as to beggar the understanding.  Notice how Vox has leveraged the misreading I pointed out at the start of this section: I did not “[admit] the impossibility of providing any established justifications of true beliefs.”  Rather, the passage cited was an articulation of the skeptical challenge.  This illustrates the more general fact that Vox’s misinterpretations have now begun to snowball, making it more and more difficult to push them aside.  We saw above that Vox fails to understand the difference between a philosophical analysis of a concept and a definition of the usage of a word.  I suggested that he saw the philosophical analysis as just one more definition to be added to the list.  Therefore, he thinks that we can just abandon the analysis in favor of one of the other definitions.  But this is a simple category mistake.  Above, I said a little about the motivation behind the analysis of knowledge as justified true belief.  It should be clear that none of the dictionary definitions of knowledge address what is at issue in the analysis.  They are not the right sort of thing; it is not their purpose.  (Vox also overlooks, in this connection, the fact that I do consider a number of other ways of analyzing knowledge.)

As for the charge of ‘hand-waving,’ it seems as though Vox is fond of leveling this criticism against people, but there’s no grounds for it here.  It is a common procedure—notably so in Sextus himself!—to grant something in order to show that even if we do so, the problem persists.  The expression ‘for the sake of argument’ is so common, and so understandable, that it’s frankly bizarre for Vox to label my use of it an ‘Error.’  Moreover, I would think any intelligent, alert reader would see what I’m doing by granting that rationality is the path to knowledge: I’m explicitly locating the rest of the discussion at a philosophical level.  The fact is, most philosophers simply fail to recognize that the initial problem I point out—that is, the problem of establishing that rationality is the path to knowledge—is even a problem.  They simply take it for granted.  So what I’m doing in this passage is (a) pinpointing a problem so fundamental, so ‘under the radar,’ that it is usually overlooked, and (b) reorienting the argument in such a way that even if we give philosophers what they want, they’re still not out of the woods.

Where is the ‘error’ here?  Again, I could have been clearer on all of this.  But I doubt that many intelligent readers would get tripped up the way Vox repeatedly does.  The key is to try to understand the text.  As far as I can see, all Vox is doing is trying to pick the text apart, not in order to understand it, but to leave it in tatters.  Unfortunately for him—and fortunately for the rest of us—you have to understand a text before you can successfully pick it apart.

Fifth Error.  Vox claims that there are three errors in the claim “wherein [I state] that ‘If a claim to knowledge cannot be justified, then the claimant is rationally constrained to withdraw it’.”  The ‘three problems’ are as follows:

1.  “As it stands, (3) is nothing more than an appeal to authority of the sort that Delavagus has already ruled out of bounds.”

This criticism is, once again, utterly bizarre.  Let’s look at what I actually wrote: “Ancient skeptics suggested the following as non-tendentious rational constraints…  (3) If a claim to knowledge cannot be justified, then the claimant is rationally constrained to withdraw it (at least qua knowledge-claim).”

So Vox’s mistakes include (a) attributing this statement to me personally, when instead I present it as a view of the ancient skeptics, and (b) it is not an ‘appeal to authority’ either way, since, as I wrote, the ancient skeptics viewed all three of these constraints as “non-tendentious,” that is, noncontroversial constraints that dogmatists themselves are bound to endorse.  So it would be one thing had Vox challenged the constraint, i.e., if he had argued that it is tendentious.  But he doesn’t do that.  Even if he had, that would only be a mark against the ancient skeptics, not an ‘error’ committed by me.  At most, it would be a misreading of the ancient skeptics on my part, but he has hardly shown that.  In fact, he has not provided any reason whatsoever for rejecting (3), as we’ll see.

2.  “Second, it is a circular statement, as how can a constraint intended to mark the limits between the rational and the irrational be itself dependent upon a rational constrainment?”

Vox has not shown that the statement is circular.  The constraints come down to this: “If you say you know something, then you open yourself up to being asking how you know.  If you can’t say how you know, then you don’t know, you only believe.  Therefore, you should give up your claim to knowledge.”  What is circular about this?  Furthermore, the idea of using rationality to “mark the limits between the rational and irrational” is common in philosophy.  Now, of course Vox could argue that it’s incoherent in some way, but he hasn’t done that.  On the face of it, it’s perfectly possible.  Vox himself seems to think that he’s an ultimately authority on what is and is not rational!  He draws the limit himself, constantly!

3.  “Third, since Delavagus has permitted himself to simply ‘bracket out the problem of the criterion’, he has no ability to assert that anyone with a claim to knowledge that cannot be justified cannot do exactly the same in refusing to withdraw that claim. The statement isn’t necessarily untrue, but it is both questionable and unjustified.”

This overlooks the point that these constraints are rational.  They are supposed to embody non-tendentious views on what separates rational (epistemically responsible) from irrational (epistemically irresponsible) knowledge-claims.  Of course someone can refuse to withdraw their claim despite their inability to justify it (it happens all the time!).  And of course they can even go on thinking themselves perfectly rational (Vox is a great example of this!).  But given these constraints, that person would nonetheless be failing to be epistemically responsible, i.e., failing to live up to the standards of rationality.

Dissecting “Dissecting the Skeptics III”

Sixth Error.  My sixth error, according to Vox, is in failing to acknowledge that externalist theories of knowledge answer the skeptical trilemma.  I readily admit that I could have been much clearer on this point.  Indeed, I could have written an entire post (to say nothing of an entire scholarly article) on just this one point.  So Vox is right to have questions about my position.  He is right to be unsure about what I’m saying, whether I’m right, and so on.  But notice that he does not have questions; he is not unsure.  No, he hits me with another ‘Error!’

Quoth Vox: “Remember, the original question which Delavagus intended to answer was this: ‘What, if anything, do we know?’ So, if an individual possesses knowledge, defined as justified true belief, then reason dictates he possesses it regardless of whether he happens to be aware of the validity of the justification for his true belief or not. What do we know? Those true beliefs that are justified, whether we know they are justified or not.”

Vox is right that this is the externalist position.  And it’s right to say that I could have been clearer on this point.  But an intelligent reader should have had little trouble understanding the view.  Vox, clearly, does not understand.

Recall the three constraints on rational justification discussed above.  They are:

(1) If a person claims to know something, then that person opens herself up to the standing possibility of being asked how she knows, i.e., to being asked for the justification of her belief.

(2)  Successful justification cannot fall prey to the Agrippan trilemma.

(3)  If a claim to knowledge cannot be justified, then the claimant is rationally constrained to withdraw it (at least qua knowledge-claim).

It is clear that, within this framework, the externalist position simply fails to answer the challenge.  An obvious consequence of the elaboration of these rational constraints on justification is that the question “What, if anything, do we know?” comes down to the question “What, if anything, do we know that we know?”  On this view—one I endorse, and one which Vox has not addressed at all—philosophical knowledge is staunchly internalist.  Per (1), if a person claims to know something, then she must be prepared to explain how she knows.  Per (3), if she can’t, then she must withdraw her knowledge-claim.  Per (2), she’s going to have a helluva time justifying her knowledge-claim.

Within this framework, what the externalist position comes down to is: “Subject S can be said to know p on the basis of q even if S is not aware that she knows p or that q justifies p.”  Fine!  That’s great.  As I say in the original post: I accept that, Sextus accepts that, no problem!  But it doesn’t answer the challenge, for if S cannot produce a justification for p, then she must withdraw her claim to know p.  It might well be that she had never before thought about p in epistemic terms; but once the challenge is put to her, the idea here is that rationality requires that she produce a justification… or withdraw the claim qua knowledge-claim.

The Seventh Objection simply reiterates the sixth, as far as I can see.

Dissecting “Dissecting the Skeptics IV”

It seems to me that this post consists of (a) reiterations of misunderstandings of Vox’s that I’ve already addressed above, and (b) name-calling and baseless accusations.

Dissecting “Dissecting the Skeptics V”

In this post, Vox trots out his reading of the Pyrrhonian way of life: “The philosophy cannot be impractical because the skeptic maintains a firewall of sorts between his reason and his daily life.”

This is an understandable first impression of the passage he cites, but this interpretation is almost certainly false.  It’s actually closer to my view than most.  The standard reading rejects this sort of interpretation outright.  Vox, read some Myles Burnyeat or Gisela Striker if you actually want to understand what you’re talking about.

Now, Vox claims that Sextus’s argument against self-refutation fails for three reasons:

1.  “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.”

2.  “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.”

3.  “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.”

All of these points are wrong—though Vox’s arguments are understandable, given a superficial reading and a limited understanding of the text.  I want to emphasize again that if Vox wasn’t such an arrogant ass, I would welcome these sorts of questions.  I like teaching this stuff.  But Vox isn’t interested in learning anything.  Oh no.  He’s only interested in being right.

I’ve already responded to these arguments here.  Thus, I’m going to respond to Vox’s response to my response.

Regarding (1), I argue that Pyrrhonism is best seen as a metaphilosophy—a philosophy about philosophizing—rather than as a philosophy.  Vox responds: “even if we accept his contention that Pyrrhonism is not a philosophy, it still specifically purports to be rational thought.”  Yes.  But apparently Vox doesn’t understand the conception of ‘meta,’ nor the concept of ‘ad hominem’ argumentation (in the ancient style).  The Pyrrhonian takes up the second-order rational principles of the dogmatists and shows that, given those principles, we’re led to suspension of judgment.  It is immanent critique, but it operates at a metaepistemological level.  I see no evidence that Vox comprehends what this means.

He then says: “Delavagus’s view that Pyrrhonism is not a philosophy is provably wrong.”  This is understandable, given a superficial familiarity with the ancient texts.  Yes, Sextus introduces Pyrrhonism as a ‘philosophy,’ but (a) he clearly distinguishes it from other philosophies (in a significant early passage of the Outlines, he refers to “what they call philosophy,” ‘they’ being the dogmatists, suggesting that Pyrrhonism is not a philosophy in the way that dogmatic philosophies are), and (b) in claiming that Pyrrhonism is best understood as a metaphilosophy, I’m using modern conceptions.  ‘Philosophy’ had a much broader meaning in the Hellenistic world than it does now.  Given what we understand by ‘philosophy,’ Pyrrhonism doesn’t really qualify, since it always adopts a second-order, ‘meta’ position vis-à-vis whatever dogmatism it is engaging.

Dissecting “Dissecting the Skeptics VI”

Vox calls me on my description of the Pyrrhonian method as ad hominem, in the sense of utilizing the beliefs, convictions, etc., of one’s interlocutors.  It’s entirely right to pinpoint this as a topic deserving of elaboration.  But again, instead Vox hits me with an ‘Error.’  (I’m assuming this is Error Eight; I don’t see an eighth error singled out anywhere.)

It can seem that the ad hominem approach flies in the face of the equipollence method, according to which skeptics oppose dogma to dogma.  After all, surely then we’re dealing with two different dogmatists with two different sets of beliefs, convictions, etc.  So how can we be said to make arguments on the basis of premises, etc., which both parties agree to?  This is a good question.  But it has an obvious answer, one that is explicitly brought up in the paragraph under discussion.

I write: “At their most abstract… Pyrrhonian arguments depend only on our most abstract rational commitments. The Five Agrippan Modes… 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.”

The claim, then, is that equipollence arguments are set up on the basis of abstract rational commitments shared by both parties to the dispute.  Notice that the competing dogmas Sextus considers are all philosophical.  The idea is that, at their most abstract, Pyrrhonian arguments trade only on those rational commitments that structure any search for truth, that is, that structure all philosophical inquiries.

Then we have some more examples of really terrible textual interpretation.  Vox writes: “Delavagus then goes on to assert because the skeptic adopts the rational commitments of the philosophical dogmatist, ‘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.’ First, note that this is an admission that the skeptic has no commitment to rational thought.”

The conclusion Vox draws from the passage he quotes from me simply does not follow, for nowhere is it claimed that “the rational commitments that give rise to the skeptical conclusion” are the only rational commitments available to us, that they are the locus of ‘rational thought’ as such.  Vox seems, dimly, to be picking up on the dialectic working in the background (and later the foreground) of my posts: the undermining of philosophy from within and the reconception of our shared human epistemic situation.  Yes, the mature Pyrrhonian, as Vox says, “has no commitment to rational thought,” but only when “rational thought” is construed in purely philosophical terms.  He seems to have missed the moral of the story, namely, that the failure of philosophy reveals to the mature Pyrrhonian the pragmatic-transcendental character of common life.  (As far as I can see, Vox has no idea what this means.  Nor does he care to know.)

The rest of the problems he cites here are just artifacts of previous misunderstandings, snowballing ignorance.

Dissecting “Dissecting the Skeptics VII”

I found nothing of substance worth discussing in this post.  Vox’s remarks display a complete lack of understanding of the view he is so quick to dismiss.

Dissecting “Dissecting the Skeptics VIII”

Ninth Error.  I’ve misrepresented Pyrrhonism by claiming that Pyrrhonians will believe all sorts of things in an everyday way, and that they will claim to know all sorts of things in an everyday way.  He writes: “Either Delavagus truly does not understand Pyrrhonian skepticism on a fundamental level or he is blatantly misrepresenting it in order to provide a false foundation for his own dogmatic opinions.”

Simply put, there is no question whatsoever that throughout his texts Sextus claims to ‘champion common life.’  Vox himself, above, claimed that: “The philosophy cannot be impractical because the skeptic maintains a firewall of sorts between his reason and his daily life.”  I think this is wrong—what would it mean to have a ‘firewall’ between ‘reason’ and ‘daily life,’ given that ‘daily life’ involves the use of ‘reason’?—but it gestures precisely in the direction that Vox is now saying is clearly false of Pyrrhonians.  Vox himself quotes the chapter of the Outlines entitled “Do Skeptics hold beliefs?”  It is clear that Sextus’s answer to this question is yes.  The only dispute is over what this ‘yes’ amounts to.  Interpreters from Hegel down to Myles Burnyeat have argued that the ‘belief’ in question is not genuine belief, whereas others, from Montaigne to Kant down to Michael Frede, have argued otherwise.

Consider the following quotes from Sextus:

(1)  “We accept, from an everyday point of view, that piety is good and impiety bad” (PH 1.24).  By ‘everyday point of view,’ Sextus is clear that he means “without holding opinions [adoxastōs]” (PH 1.23).  Adoxastōs is a very difficult term to interpret, but I maintain that it ought to understood as meaning ‘without holding dogmata.’

(2)  “Following ordinary life without opinions [adoxastōs], we say that there are gods and we are pious towards the gods and say that they are provident” (PH §3.2).

It is only “against the rashness of the Dogmatists” that Sextus brings his skeptical dialectic to bear against belief in the gods (PH §3.2).  What does the skeptical dialectic demonstrate?  It demonstrates that belief in the gods is not, by the dogmatist’s own lights, philosophically justified.  “The existence of the gods… is neither clear in itself [i.e., self-evident] nor proved by something else” (PH §§3.8–9).  Then how can Pyrrhonians claim to believe in the gods?  They can do so undogmatically, that is, without the added belief that their belief in the gods enjoys objective, philosophical justification.

Tenth Error.  According to Vox, I’ve misrepresented Pyrrhonism by claiming that the Pyrrhonian agōgē (the life adoxastōs) involves adopting a new sort of attitude toward ourselves, one purified of dogmatism.  Why is this an ‘error’?  Because, Vox claims: “The entire purpose of Pyrrhonian scepticism is to rob us of our judgment, to suspend it, in the interest of our tranquility.”  Note, first, that I made no mention of tranquility (ataraxia) in my posts.  I never claimed, nor would any good reader suppose that I had intended, to provide a complete interpretation of Pyrrhonism.  I left out ataraxia even though it is obviously central to any complete account of Pyrrhonism.  But given that I did not mention it, Vox is bound by the principle of charity to interpret my claims about Pyrrhonism as claims that are separable from claims about ataraxia.  He has failed in that.  Moreover, all he’s done is present his own, flat-footed reading of the texts in opposition to my more nuanced account.

In other words, Vox wants to trade on appeals to his reading of the ancient texts as clearly correct.  But notice that my posts were not intended as textual exegesis.  Simply put, Vox has no idea how I correlate my reading with the ancient texts.  Moreover, it is clear, given the decidedly ‘modern’ cast of the discussion, that I was stating a Pyrrhonian view in largely contemporary terms.

If Vox was actually interested in understanding the view he is so quick to dismiss, then he would have had questions, not condemnations.

He would have expressed doubts, not dogmatism.