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Friday, 24 May 2013

Pyrronism and the ontology of doubts

I'm in the IV International Meeting on Skepticism here in Curitiba where I learned that Pyrrho could have been more of an ontologist of doubt than Sextus' texts hint. I hope to learn more on all that tomorrow by presenting the paper that I transcribe here:

Heraclitus meeting Aenesidemus centuries later:
The ontology of doubts and the ontological grounds of skepticism
Hilan Bensusan

1. Doubting

I would like to start out with the very phenomenon of doubting. In particular, I would like to focus less on how doubts appear and more on what their occurrence reveal. Sextus Empiricus, along with most of the Neopyrrhonist tradition, took the exercise of doubting to be a reliable guide to life, in particular to what should one refrain from believing. Dismantling dogmatic arguments by showing that they are not impermeable to doubt makes the skeptic confident that tranquility is not to be attained by reaching a stable class of beliefs. Doubting – and the subsequent recommended suspension of belief – reveals the impossibility (and ultimately the undesirability) of dogmatic positions. Prevalent doubt tells us something about our beliefs: that in most cases at least, we are not entitled to assert that things are thus and so. Doubts point at a rational impossibility: (at least some) beliefs are untenable; doubts distance us from a consolidated and well-grounded image of how things are. Doubts distance us from beliefs because beliefs are determinations and doubts erode them. The message then drawn from the (prevalent) occurrence of doubts is something along these lines: beware of belief because determinations (that things are thus and so) are subject to erosion by the exercise of doubt.

Doubts can nevertheless reveal things of quite a different nature. Descartes took our ability to doubt as disclosing something about our own nature – and in fact about a substance that composes the world. He took doubting to give us a clue about how things are: there is something capable of doubting. Doubts are not only an obstacle to seeing things through – because they erode determinations – but also a clear revelation of something else: of an ingredient of the world that makes doubting possible. The strategy of extracting some knowledge from the occurrence of doubt was adopted by Hume with his conception of a second creation unveiling our psychology and our habits as it was also in a sense by Kant's transcendental conclusions partly drawn from our ability to doubt our access to things in themselves. The strategy was to make doubts reveal something about the doubter – and eventually about some special realm that ought to be part of our image of the world – like a res cogitans – or part of our overall explanation of knowledge and action - like Humean instincts and habits or like Kant’s transcendental sphere. In any case, doubts reveal something about how things are – by revealing something about how doubters are. Their message is not only one of impossibility, but their presence tells us of something about how things are – and at least in the case of Descartes, their presence provides us ultimately with at least one determination: there is a res cogitans.

These two kinds of lesson drawn from the occurrence of doubt, the attempt to extract impossibilities out of it and the attempt to learn something positive from it, share an assumption I would like to call attention to. It is the assumption that things are thus and so, that is, that they are under some determination. These determinations as to how things are can either be grasped or can escape us. Determination, so the assumption goes, is a common structure of facts (that things are thus and so) and beliefs (that we hold things to be thus and so). This is why, incidentally, truth could be thought in terms of identity of facts and true thoughts (by Frege or McDowell, see Dodd (2000) and Fish & Macdonald (2007)). If our beliefs fail to capture how things are is because they cannot be tuned to have the content of the right determination. Determinations are out there and beliefs attempt to capture them – doubts then come to erode the grounds of beliefs (in the form of determinations). The common assumption between the two kinds of lessons drawn from the occurrence of doubts above is ontological: in the world there are determinations – things are thus and so in the world. If our thought is full of doubts, it either makes access to the world (close to) impossible or reveals something about the stuff that engages into doubting things in a world of determinations.

2. Ontology of doubts

If this common assumption is dropped, we can envisage an ontology that contrasts with the underlying ontology of determinations: an ontology of doubts. The main tenet of such an ontology is that the world could be composed not only by determinations but also by doubts. There are no ultimate facts of the matter, but rather doubts of the matter. As the world itself swings between alternatives and is itself filled with problems rather than determinations. Clearly, if we make any sense of this idea, the experience of doubting begins to appear as a direct access to doubts in the world. The lesson to be drawn from the occurrence of doubt is not about impossibilities, neither about a separate stuff in the world or a special realm that has to be taken into consideration, but rather about the world itself. Doubts reveal something ontological by their content. If the world is somehow filled with doubts, entertaining one could be a way to directly access bits of how things are – things are such that they swing between these alternatives. Doubts are somehow positive cognitive acts concerning the world itself. If doubts are out there, to doubt could be to access an element of the world.

But can we make sense of an ontology of doubts? Can we understand the idea that doubts are somehow out there? To understand this could amount to take reality as involving a network of problems as much as (or instead of) an assemblage of facts. The idea could be grounded on the challenge to singular determination – that things are thus and so. I take determinations to have one of the two following forms: a) a predication of the form “x is P”, preceded by a quantifier over x – that is, predications like “all snow is white” or “there are mammals that fly” or even “a number of fish will die today in the lake” (equivalent to “each fish could die” but not to “all fish could die”– or predications of the form “a is P” – that is predications like “the Sun is in the center of a class of revolving planets” which involve constants and eventually predicate over a single item; b) a claim of existence of the form “there are As”, as in “there are microbes”, “there are distant galaxies” or “there are snakes next to the river in the morning”. Doubts, on the other hand, are not only the questions, but an advance of possible answers that are entertained at the same time. Diaphonia is not about our incapacity to make up our minds, but rather a clue into a nature that has not itself made up. Our indecision is, according to the ontology of doubts, not what distances us from how things are, but rather what opens to us the world (or the polemic parts in it). It is not that we are to decide between the many voices with their determinations, but rather that we could be epistemologically virtuous when we suspend our judgment and contemplate the alternative views with equidistant eyes.

Last year, in two occasions including in the meeting dedicated to Porchat’s 80 years, I presented a reading of some Pyrrhonist arguments that was perverted, realist and speculative. Perhaps, in an odd way, it was also a more Pyrrhonist than Neopyrrhonist reading. In any case, I tried to read bits and pieces of the skeptical literature as ammunition for an ontology of doubts. The idea was to take diaphonia as a discovery. The world could be indeterminate, not only concerning universals (events could be stochastic or plainly unruly) but also concerning particulars (particulars are not in any way in particular). The idea was to make the skeptics do ontology – to perversely place them in the metaphysical turn. Instead of presenting their arguments as if they were concerning our access of the world, present them as arguments against determinations in the world. The world somehow contains truth-makers for our expressions of doubt and the skeptical arguments uncover some of those. There is no tribunal of facts for every doubt – even if the verdict is unattainable – but rather doubts themselves could be adequate. Skeptical arguments become arguments for some kind of realism, realism about the articulation of doubts. The emerging image is one of a world that hosts dissents, polemics and problems. The ontology of doubts takes doubts to reveal something about the world – its problems, its incorrigible ambiguity or its relativity of perspective.
To be sure, as doubts cannot stand on their own, the ontology of doubts could not be fully determination-free. Doubts require certainties to ground them, as pointed out, for example, by Davidson’s arguments for a common ground of ultimately true beliefs to make doubts possible and Wittgenstein’s insistence that there ought to be hinges on which doubting turn. The idea is that in order for doubts to take off, some determinations have to be at least taken as certain as they provide a framework on which doubts are intelligible. The game of doubting needs grounds where no doubt is (at least for some time) intelligible. Hinges are propositions that are exempt from doubt. A hinge is examined from within the game of doubting, that is, its status as truthful, conventional, arbitrary or contextually acceptable is not primarily at stake. The point is that doubts are not spinning in the void and therefore they require some fixed points to get off the ground. An act of doubt is always local, it is a move that depends on several things being placed – so that the content of what is put into doubt is put in a context that can isolate a doubt. Concerning hinges, Wittgenstein's focus on the act of doubting and how it displaces certainty insinuates that hinges are not fixed points that fail when doubts appear but rather that doubts and hinges are mutually reinforcing players in a game. Hinges are not necessarily prior to doubts, but they can displace doubts – just as doubts displace determinations. A mathematical proposition (see On Certainty, 1969, section 655) is safeguarded from dispute by sending doubts off to other areas. Yes, there is a divide between what is determined and what is doubted and it is a divide that emerges from the process of doubting, like hinges are part of the mechanics of a working door.
Surely, knowledge cannot be understood outside the game of doubting – but that is because hinges cannot be subtracted from the logical space of reasons that emerges from the scope of doubt. This is where On Certainty can be read as a plea for contextualism concerning knowledge: claims of knowledge are to be assessed within a context framed by hinges. It is not a skeptical image where doubts take over every claim because there is a limit to the power of doubts to take off but it is not also a dogmatic view that can, in principle at least, dismiss each doubts as a smoke curtain that hides a determination. Doubts are not free floating because they bring in the hinges that ground them, but that is not enough to dispel them because hinges are not hidden structures but are called in from the exercise of doubt. It is a transcendental move: the conditions of possibility for the game of doubting – a game in which we engage whenever we are in the space of reasons – involve hinge (determinations). Conversely, the conditions of possibility for the game of holding fast to something – a game in which we engage often enough when we are in the space of reasons – involve doubting something else. Wittgenstein admits that things can be kept comes what may, but in order for a determination to be preserved, it has costs – alternatives have to be doubted. If doubts are ontological, the game of doubting – and the friction between doubts and determinations – is part of the world, doubts are relative to determinations, determinations are relative to doubts. The divide is not necessarily fixed, the world of the ontology of doubts can be such that, so to speak, while truth is not relative, relativity is true. In other words, determinations are in the world if seen from the point of view of some doubts while doubts appear if some determinations are taken for granted. The problematic – and the polemic – cannot be fully eliminated. Some things are determined for others to be doubted and vice-versa. It could be read as Heraclitean ontology: movement prey on fixity, fixity depends on movement. In a more refined version of the ontology of doubt, therefore, it is the board of the game of doubting and determining that is part of the world.

To summarize, the ontology of doubts challenges the thesis that when one is in doubt one is not in contact with the world whereas when one is certain one could be. The ontologist of doubt is rather claiming that one could be in contact with the world in both cases, as doubts are likely parts of the world. When one is in doubt, say, about whether Schrödinger’s cat is alive or not, one is in arguably in a better cognitive position than those who are convinced of one of the alternatives. A doubt, claims the ontology of doubt, is not a signal of distance from the world, as the world is not made solely of determinations.

3. Doubting in the open field

Now, an ontology of doubts brings up several issues to do with the nature and the epistemology of doubting. It is of course possible to put the ontology of doubts itself in doubt. It is, after all, a form of dogmatism: things are such that there are doubts in the world – indeterminacies rather than facts. Surely, one could point out that metaphysics is unavoidable and whenever the ontology of doubts is rejected, the ontology of determinations should replace it. The skeptic who doubts the ontology of doubts would then be forced to accept that the world is made of no more than determinations. The skeptic, to be sure, would resist the move. Maybe she would make clear that she needs no more than passing determinations, and no metaphysics associated to it. The skeptic offers the ontologist of doubt a struggle in open field: if the ontologist presents the board of doubts and determinations as part of the world, the skeptic would simply play within the board and insist that it is in the board and not anywhere else that one can establish whether the board is in the world of elsewhere. The skeptic refuses to accept that a metaphysics (the ontology of doubts and the ontology of determinations tertium non datur) is unavoidable. The issue has to be decided within the board, and playing by the rules of the game of doubting. The skeptic proceeds as usual: tries to suspend judgment as to whether doubts are in the world or only in our head. Doubts, once more, teach us about impossibilities: the impossibility to establish the appropriate ontological status of doubts (and of determinations).

I reach my main concern in this text: the friction between ontology of doubts and skepticism. Both come in many varieties. The former can take the form of the ontology of the problematic (as Deleuze sketches in his 1968), the form of a speculative materialist view the world as absolute facticity (as proposed by Meillassoux in 2006), the form of a metaphysics of indetermination or that of an ontology of polemos (see Bensusan et al. 2012). Skepticism also comes in many flavors including the Neopyrrhonist one and the many interpretations therein about which I’ll say something in the next section. In all cases, the friction is one between asserting that doubts tell us something ontological about the world and suspending judgment about anything ontological (including issues concerning doubts and determinations). To be sure, in the open field the skeptic also doubts dogmatic conclusions concerning the transcendental or the psychological conclusions that are drawn from the occurrence of doubts. Even more, she will not assent to the idea that doubts disclose a substance, a res cogitans. Accordingly, the skeptic takes the ontology of doubt to be no more than further dogmatism. The response open to the ontologist is to try and show that the skeptic herself engages in some form of dogma. The dialectics would hinge on whether the skeptic has to be somehow committed to some dogma concerning determinations.

4. Neopyrrhonism

Neopyrrhonism is about the rejection of convictions of all sorts, including those about the ontological status of doubts. It can be understood as revolving around the effort of minimizing convictions while maximizing doubts. The idea is to engage in an effort to erode anything that is taken to commands assent. It can be seen, therefore, in contrast to the quest for certainty, it is rather a recipe to make doubts proliferate. Sextus’ endeavor, as that of his Pyrrhonic predecessors, was to find systematic ways to provoke suspension of judgment. Sextus is normally read as a skeptic (and in fact, surely, professes it) and, as such, as someone who is not seeking for conviction but rather for absence of certainty. Still, at least some of the modes and procedures he recommended can be understood as strategies to persuade against determinations. Here is where the friction comes back. One the one hand, one can take the effort to undermine what is dogmatically asserted as eroding all conviction (about determination or doubt). On the other hand, one can take the same effort to erode determinations of all kind (either in beliefs or in states of affairs). In other words, friction between the ontology of doubts and Neopyrrhonism is one between the absence of determination on one side and absence of warranted conviction on the other. The former erodes determinations while the latter erodes conviction. The techniques put forward by the Pyrrhonists proliferate doubts – they can be used either to make doubt erode convictions, the skeptical stance, or to rather make it erode determinations.

This contrast can be found in the way Aenesidemus approached the ideas of Heraclitus (cf. Polito, 2004). Aenesidemus bridged the gap between the diaphonia of opinions and that of the world – between polemics as the condition of the inquirer and polemos as a ingredient of the world. The ideas of Heraclitus, in particular his doctrine of the flow and of the polemos, were taken as examples of dogmatism by Sextus Empiricus (PH 1, 210-12). Sextus criticizes Aenesidemus attraction to Heraclitus as an instance of being seduced by a dogma. The doctrine of the polemos, as a variation of the ontology of doubts, asserts things about the world. Not that about fixed elements of the world, but rather about what is fluid and indeterminate. Aenesidemus oscillates between doubts signaling troubles in access and doubts signaling an understanding of how things take place. In both cases, the point of departure is the occurrence of doubts.

Let us pause briefly over some of the Neopyrrhonist ways – maximizing doubts and suspending judgment – and attempt an account of Neopyrrhonic acceptance. The Neopyrrhonist craves for doubts – not to attain knowledge, as does the ontologist of doubt, but to distance herself from it. Doubts are not taken to be ingredients of the world, but they are actively sought. The Neopyrrhonist plays in the board of doubts and determinations – she can venture amid the latter to try and attain more of the former. It is an act in open field: doubts could be dissolved at any moment but the Neopyrrhonist hopes they will proliferate indefinitely (as the seeker of knowledge acts hoping that doubts will not eventually dissipate all knowledge acquired and further acquisition will carry on indefinitely). She is not indifferent between convictions and doubts, she does prefer the second and struggle to proliferate them. Further, she can suspend judgment and hold something as a mere phenomenon. This is a controversial move made by Sextus, and one who admits of various interpretation. A possible account goes along the lines that a Neopyrrhonist’s notion of phenomenon eases her dealings with other people (this is the route chosen by an urbane interpretation, such as Frede’s, 1997, 1997a). A different, or maybe complementary, account is that the acceptance of phenomenon of a strategy to maximize doubts. Doubts require hinge propositions that are determinations, so the Pyrrhonist provisionally adopts some determinations to further doubting. These are merely accepted contents, contents that will enable further doubting. Still, they are determinations that make possible for doubts to take off. So, the claim is that the acceptance of phenomena is not only due to the Neopyrrhonist need to live in a community with other people, or even to deal with her circumstances, but also because further determinations paves the way to the discovery of doubts. Accepting provisionally some determinations enable the skeptic to go up a ladder leading to further doubts – ladder that can be thrown away once no longer needed. If this is so, it doesn’t matter the nature of the (provisional) acceptance the skeptic offers, but only that the determinations entertained do the job of furthering doubts. This would be why, for example, the Neopyrrhonist phenomenon is both sensible and intelligible. Provisional acceptance of common sense (and of parts of science and philosophy) is used to as levers that enable unveiling further difficulties, unpredicted problems, and new suspicions. Those are the aim of the exercise. Provisional acceptance of a determination is a strategy to achieve it.

Now, in my discussions with Porchat, a committed Neopyrrhonist (see his 1992, for example), I often remarked that the notion of phenomenon was an ill-cooked one. Especially because the determinations the Neopyrrhonist takes to be phenomena were bound to be incorrigibly arbitrary. Those determinations, to be provisionally accepted, were picked and chosen with no possible criterion. Porchat would reply in many different ways, but one of his answers always struck me: he would claim that do it doesn’t matter. If what matters for the Neopyrrhonist is to maximize doubts, it doesn’t really matter what is taken to be a phenomenon. In fact, maybe it doesn’t even matter what is meant by asserting something – what exactly means to hold something as a phenomenon – as what really matters is to have determinations available for furthering doubts. In any case, picking (a) commonsense view of the world is contingent. Nothing impinges this view of the world on the skeptic – she adopts them provisionally maybe because there are people around her holding them. While dogmatic philosophers – who deal in convictions – require reasons to hold something rather than something else, the Neopyrrhonist deals in contingencies. Nothing non-factual grounds the choice of what it is to be (provisionally) accepted once acceptance of a determination is no more than a place for doubts to take off. The business, rather than intended towards knowledge, is intended towards finding problems as a goal for inquiry itself. There is no commitment to the idea of doubts or problems lying out there – they can be either constructed or found. Phenomenon is groundless, the search for some sort of epistemic necessity behind what is held – something that entitles us to hold something – is left to the dogmatic. The phenomenon embraced by the Neopyrrhonist is really any phenomenon.

5. Doubts about doubts

The ontology of doubts has been presented as a metaphysical or a speculative endeavor: the one of claiming that there are doubts in the world. Neopyrrhonism, on the other hand, has been presented as the enterprise to doubt – and to live by the maxim of unveiling problems that follow from holding beliefs of any sort. Both deal in doubts – and somehow seek them and keep them. Tension arises when we think of the former as asserting something while the latter attempts to erode convictions. Sextus seems to suspect that Aenesidemus took the attention to doubts as prescribed in the Pyrrhonist recipe, as an intermediary stage towards a more consolidated position – such as an Heraclitean ontology of the polemos. Sextus is unhappy with anyone who takes Pyrrhonic doubt as a step towards what he can only see as dogmatism. The ontologist of doubts, however, doesn’t have to accept this diagnosis. She could insist that no dogmatic recoil was made. What Aenesidemus could have been after, according to the ontologist of doubt, was rather a way to go forward by considering that nothing in the world could, not even in principle, resolve or exorcize doubts. Aenesidemus would have been really improving on Sextus’ Neopyrrhonism by insisting that not even in principle any attitude would be more recommendable than an epokhé. Suspension of judgment is not something to be recommended manqué de mieux, as a second best, but rather as the best attitude one could have (towards some or all contents). In other words, Aenesidemus could explain his adherence to Heraclitus’ views by insisting that the idea that the suspension of judgment is no more than the best possible needs to be debunked. He could be simply realizing that doubts are there to stay – very much in line with the Neopyrrhonist hope – no matter how much we investigate.

This possible answer of Aenesidemus enables us to have a broader look at the tension between Neopyrrhonism and the ontology of doubt. The former takes suspension of judgment to be a recommended attitude for us, and one that is to be maximized. The ontology of doubts, under this perspective, is no more than further dogmatism. The latter, on the other hand, takes Neopyrrhonism to have an intrinsically insufficient view of suspension of judgment once it doesn’t understand it to be ontologically the best attitude (it is, of course, psychologically or epistemologically the best attitude but this is not enough). Sextus could find any ontology – including the ontology of doubt – no more than an exercise in dogmatism, but the converted Aenesidemus could then reply that it is only an ontological move that could make justice to the suspension of judgment as the best attitude (and fully exorcize the Neopyrrhonist tendency to implicitly commit to an ontology of determinations).

We can perhaps now find a way to conciliate the insights and the blind spots of both positions. The ontology of doubts holds that doubts could be found everywhere (and not only in our attitudes, in our heads). Doubts can then also be found within our knowledge and within our doubts – as Heraclitus would have that polemos could be also found in our knowledge of polemos. If this is so, then the ontology of doubts cannot be taken as asserting the existence of doubts out there as something about which we are convinced – or as something immune to doubt. The interplay between doubts and determinations recognizes no fixed territories. Perhaps the ontology of doubts should be seen as a therapy to the Neopyrrhonist tendency to locate doubt within the realms of our thought. We do find doubts – through the Pyrrhonist modes – but they don’t come with a tag with their permanent address written. The techniques to suspend judgment could be pointing not at the relativity of the dogmatic beliefs but rather at the truth of relativity itself. Neopyrrhonism, on the other hand, insists that pointing at the relativity brought up by the activity of doubting does not require asserting any truth beyond suspension of judgment. The ontologist of doubt would then complement this by saying that doubts could be anywhere – there are no fixed territories for doubt because there is no fixed territories for determination. Perhaps a deflated ontology of doubt would do no more than insist that doubt is not confined and determinations are not endemic. According to such a position, doubts can be known, but knowledge of them is also full of doubts. It is not about contemplating doubts from outside them, from a position that is immune to doubting. There is no dogma, not even about doubts themselves. The ontology of doubts (at least in such a deflated form) is no more than a reminder that suspension of judgment could be both the method and the result the method achieves. This is a lesson an ontology of doubt could learn with Neopyrrhonism: determinations are always contingently chosen, provisional and arbitrary – nothing fixed about them. If this is so, there is also nothing epistemologically necessary about holding that there are doubts in the world – it is just a therapeutic claim. A claim that promotes further doubts.


Bensusan, H., L. Antunes & L. Ferreira (orgs) (2012) Heráclito – Exercícios de Anarqueologia, São Paulo: Idéias e Letras.
Deleuze, G. (1968) Difference et répétition, Paris: PUF.
Dodd, J., 1995, ‘McDowell and Identity Theories of Truth’, Analysis, 55: 160–5.
Fish, W. and Macdonald, C., 2007, ‘On McDowell's Identity Conception of Truth’, Analysis, 67: 36–41.
Frede, M. (1997) "The Sceptic's Beliefs" in Myles Burnyeat and Michael Frede (ed.), The Original Sceptics: A Controversy, Indianapolis: Hackett, 1997, 1-24.
Frede, M. (1997a) "The Sceptic's Two Kinds of Assent and the Question of the Possibility of Knowledge", ibid., 127-152.
Meillassoux, Q. (2006) Aprés la finitude, Paris: Seuil.
Polito, R. (2004) The Sceptical Road – Aenesidemus and the Appropriation of Heraclitus, Leiden: Brill.
Porchat, O. (1992) Sobre o que aparece, Discurso, 19, 83-121.
Sextus Empiricus (PH), Outlines of Scepticism, ed: J. Annas & J. Barnes, Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2000.
Wittgenstein, L. (1969) On Certainty, Oxford: Blackwell.

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