Western Books to Start With, Part 3

Pyrrhonism: How the Ancient Greeks Reinvented Buddhism Adrian Kuzminski. Plymouth, U.K.: Lexington Books (a division of Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.), 2008.

Pyrrhonism is one of my favorite forms of emptiness teachings. It is very easy to understand and pretty easy to apply. It leads to a radical and profound state of not-knowing, while being peacefully in tune with life. Its founder Pyrrho (c. 360 BCE to 270 BCE) was an ancient Greek philosopher, and its most prolific expositor (Sextus Empiricus, c. 160–210 CE) was a physician.

One of my friends, Dawid Dahl, has been putting Pyrrhonism into practice. Here's what he says about it after about 18 months:

“I am Dawid.” It stopped making any sense. “The sky is up.” Likewise. “You will die.” What? “This is confusing.” What does all that even mean? The Pyrrhonist sceptical inquiry has helped lift from my shoulders all rigid conceptions as to what's real or not, and I've been experiencing a kind of peace that defies all description.

—Dawid Dahl

Imagine a life lived in harmony with the flow of impressions, a peaceful life undisturbed by distraction, disorder, confusion, ignorance, differences of opinion, conflicts of interpretation and matters of judgment! Pyrrhonism calls this kind of harmony ataraxia. It is attained by suspending judgment about any conclusions or truths derived from appearances, and flowing with appearances themselves. Appearances are not only sensory impressions, but also how things seem to be. The Pyrrhonist will go along with “The honey seems to be sweet,” but will not assent to “The honey is sweet.”

Suspension of judgment is a liberation not only because it removes the problematic burden of defending some nonevident dogmatic belief, but also because it allows us to respond to our direct experience of objects without the distortions, excesses, and denials introduced by unsubstantiated beliefs about those objects.

—Adrian Kuzminski


Pyrrhonism is not too well known by this name, but its techniques for deconstructing dogmatic claims have been so influential in the West that for several thousand years, philosophers have been arguing over them. The Pyrrhonist is peacefully undisturbed by all this.

The Pyrrhonist suspends judgment about all claims that go beyond experience, including metaphysical claims like these:

  • I exist.
  • There is a self.
  • There is no self.
  • The world is real.
  • The world is not real.
  • The world is knowable.
  • The world is not knowable.
  • Knowledge is possible.
  • Knowledge is not possible.
  • My happiness is something good in itself.

The Pyrrhonist suspends judgment about all such claims because they assert conclusions about things in themselves outside of what appears. Because these claims assert what is the case beyond experience, they are in competition with other claims and other experiences that seem to indicate different conclusions. The Pyrrhonist investigates these claims by opposing them to each other, suspending judgment about them, and discovering peace. There are many clever ways that Pyrrhonism investigates metaphysical (and other) claims. In fact, Pyrrhonism characterizes itself as a way of life, not a fixed, decided philosophy.

The Pyrrhonist contrasts this way of life with “dogmatism,” the approach in which a person adopts and defends a claim as true. Pyrrhonism itself doesn't see itself as based on a dogmatic claim, but rather on the spontaneous discovery that a life without dogmatism is more peaceful. The Pyrrhonist became a Pyrrhonist by accident. In trying to achieve peace by inquiring into the truth behind appearances, the inquirer failed, and so gave up and suspended judgment. Peace immediately followed! The following story is often told about Pyrrhonism:

[Once upon a time, when the painter Apelles] was painting a horse and wished to depict the horse's froth, he failed so completely that he gave up and threw his sponge at the picture – the sponge on which he used to wipe the paints from his brush – and ... in striking the picture the sponge produced the desired effect.

—Sextus Empiricus, The Outlines of Pyrrhonism.

Pyrrhonism is sometimes called scepticism, but writers distinguish Pyrrhonism from the sorts of ancient and modern scepticism which asserts, “Knowledge is impossible.” This claim is seen by Pyrrhonists as dogmatic. The Pyrrhonist suspends belief about whether knowledge is possible.

With ataraxia, appearances, no longer confused with the distracting and confining beliefs ordinarily held about them, could now be appreciated for what they were, thus opening the way to a new, nondogmatic way of life.

—Adrian Kuzminski

The Book

Adrian Kuzminski's book compares Pyrrhonism, the ancient Greek form of scepticism, to Madhyamika Buddhism. He doesn't tell you how to go about Madhyamika or Pyrrhonism, but rather discusses the doctrinal and historical parallels between these two approaches. Greece had its own cultural resources that can explain how Pyrrhonism could arise there. In addition, Pyrrho is believed to have traveled to India with the army of Alexander the Great, where Pyrrho met the “gymnosophists” (naked philosophers or wandering sadhus). The similarities between Pyrrhonism and Madhyamika Buddhism are too remarkable to be ignored.

There are four chapters:

1. Why Pyrrhonism is not Scepticism. This is an important chapter. Sometimes Pyrrhonists are included within the larger group of sceptics (e.g., see The Skeptic Way mentioned below), but for Kuzminski's purposes, he is drawing a rigid distinction between the two teachings.

Sceptics have been around since ancient Greece, and some sceptics are active today. Scepticism challenges the claims about knowledge and reality made by science, as well as by the grand metaphysical systems of Plato, Aristotle, Locke, Descartes, Kant, Hegel, Bertrand Russell and many others. The main sceptical claim is that knowledge is unreliable or impossible. The claim may be about perception or concepts or ethics. The sceptical claim may be total or partial, that is, the skeptic may say that we can't know anything at all, or may say that we can't know as much as we think we can know.

Notice that these sceptical claims are put forth as something that is true, something that can be known. The question immediately arises, “Why should this claim carry any more weight than the claims it challenges?” It's a good and important question.

Kuzminski is emphatic that Pyrrhonism is different from typical scepticism for two reasons.

One, the goal of Pyrrhonism is not to make true statements about reality, knowledge or objects of consciousness. Rather, it is a kind of liberational teaching whose goal is peace. Two, unlike scepticism, Pyrrhonism doesn't even make claims about how things are, but suspends judgement on anything that could count as a claim. The goal is not to end up on the side of truth, but to be undisturbed by claims and their ramifications.
Pyrrhonism doesn't make claims, not even negative ones.

The ataraxia, which Pyrrhonists claimed to have discovered following suspension of judgment, is what allowed them to face the world not only without anxiety, but also with dignity and propriety.

—Adrian Kuzminski

2. Pyrrhonism and Buddhism. In this chapter, Kuzminski compares Pyrrhonism with Madhyamika Buddhism. There is very strong evidence that Pyrrho, the founder of Pyrrhonism, traveled to India with the army of Alexander the Great and met with the mystics, ascetics and traveling sadhus. He is said to have brought back their ascetic and meditative way of life. He may have picked up some traces of Buddhist emptiness teachings, even though this was several hundred years before Nagarjuna.

Kuzminski lays out several very striking doctrinal and textual parallels:

  • Pyrrhonism and Madhyamika Buddhism are both anti-essentialist, non-metaphysical teachings with the purpose of leading the inquirer to peace and tranquility.
  • Both approaches even use the rope-and-snake analogy to critique theories of perception.
  • Both approaches argue against holding or clinging to beliefs about a way in which things really are.
  • Both argue strategically, and not with an effort to establish their own view as true.
  • Both use the beliefs and concepts of their opponents (Pyrrhonism calls the opponents “dogmatists”) in a deconstructive way. The approach is to see through a claim or concept without then propounding a new one in its place.
  • Both use a four-sided logic of investigation called the “tetralemma.” This is used by Madhyamika and Pyrrhonism to consider all the logical possiblities when examining metaphysical claims. Let's say you are investigating the question “Does an apple exist?”, you examine all four possibilities and end up abandoning them all. You don't conclude, “An apple exists.” You don't conclude, “An apple doesn't exist.” You don't conclude, “An apple both exists and doesn't exist.” And you don't conclude, “An apple neither exists nor doesn't exist.” And you don't conclude, “None of the above,” either.
  • Both approaches refute claims that are meant as objectively true. And yet both approaches acknowledge a conventional way of living that is not refuted but which is an expression of peace of mind.
  • Both approaches see themselves as empty of inherent existence or metaphysical truth, and both instruct the inquirer how to use the approach while also experiencing its emptiness.

3. The Evident and the Nonevident. This chapter comes closer than any other to giving an idea about how to go about Pyrrhonism. The main idea is that one goes by appearance, by what is evident, but withholds endorsing anything nonevident. What is evident? Some examples given include perceptions but also appearances or what I would call the “seemingness” of things. “The honey seems sweet.” This itself is not challenged, but one withholds judgment about the claim that the honey “really is” sweet. One doesn't believe that the honey is sweet, and also doesn't believe that it is not sweet.

Of course it seems that we couldn't function without simple beliefs. “We couldn't even walk across the street if we didn't believe it was safe” is a critique made against Pyrrhonism. But the Pyrrhonist would reply that belief is not necessary. “It seems that the street is safe, so I cross. I am not judging or investing anything on whether or not the street really is safe.”

The Pyrrhonist is not unable to move or to act. Without believing or defending claims about how things are, the Pyrrhonist proceeds in accordance to how things seem, and is peaceful about it. This includes everyday observances, guidance by nature, necessitation by feelings, and the handing down of laws and customs. To suspend judgment while enjoying these abilities is for the Pyrrhonist analogous to the Buddhist's distinction between conventional truths and ultimate truths. The most famous Pyrrhonist, Sextus Empiricus, was not inactive at all. As mentioned above, he was a physician in ancient Greece.

4. Modern Pyrrhonism. Among modern philosophers (where “modern” means since Descartes, who wrote the famous phrase Cogito ergo sum “I think therefore I am” in 1637), Kuzminski sees George Berkeley (1685-1753) as a Pyrrhonist about matter and the material world.

Kuzminski also sees Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) as the most complete Pyrrhonist in modern times, even though Wittgenstein never mentions anything about Pyrrhonism. First of all, says Kuzminski, Wittgenstein treated objects as existents only insofar as they relate to other objects, and not because they are known to exist on their own. This is in harmony with the Buddhist emptiness teachings. And Wittgenstein does not expect that objects retain unchangeable essences while the appearances are free to change. For Wittgenstein, everything is on the surface.

Although Wittgenstein is often thought of as a classic globally-doubting sceptic, this is not how Kuzminski sees him. For Kuzminski, Wittgenstein is a Pyrrhonist, not a sceptic. Kuzminski emphasizes several Wittgensteinian pronouncements against global doubt. Wittgenstein held that doubt was only possible against a background of belief and assertion. Wittgenstein wrote, “The game of doubting itself presupposes certainty.”

Actually, there are other quite recent philosophers and writers who are at least as “Pyrrhonist” as Wittgenstein. If Wittgenstein fits, then so would other anti-essentialists, such as John Dewey, Richard Rorty, Isaiah Berlin, and perhaps Thomas Kuhn, Michel Foucault and Paul Feyerabend.

For Further Reading

If you are interested in pursuing Pyrrhonism, the best book to begin with is Benson Mates' The Skeptic Way: Sextus Empiricus's Outlines of Pyrrhonism. Sextus' book has been considered a dangerous work, a systematic presentation of the sceptical critiques. Many of the West's most famous philosophers have tried to bulletproof their philosophies against the critiques and deconstructions Sextus sets forth.

Mates' version of Sextus is a magnificent translation and commentary. Mates provides the most sympathetic treatment I have seen of this powerful approach to peace. Not only that, but this version is the most helpful and practical for someone who wants to learn how to approach life in this way. Other translations focus on the historical aspects of Pyrrhonism and treat it as an ancient curiosity. But Mates' edition can be used. I highly recommend it!

Greg Goode