Skepsis und Lebenspraxis

Skepsis und Lebenspraxis: Das pyrrhonische Leben ohne Meinungen (Alber, 1998), paperback (2015), Amazon

This book, first published in 1989, responds to a long-standing question about Pyrrhonian skepticism: whether the skeptics have any kind of beliefs. I address this topic in three steps: whether the skeptics have beliefs, whether they employ ordinary assertion in their language, and how they can act.

The question about the skeptic’s beliefs, I take it, asks what goes on in the skeptic’s mind. Things look a certain way to the skeptics. Skeptics think about things and they move through the world without, for example, bumping into walls when they leave a room. I argue that this kind of mental life does not involve beliefs, understood as judgments or claims that such-and-such is the case. That is, I take the side of Barnes and Burnyeat, and argue against Michael Frede’s view that there are two kinds of belief, one of which can be ascribed to the skeptics. However, I take myself to improve on the line of thought defended by Barnes and Burnyeat by emphasizing that what may look as if the skeptics allowed for some kind of belief – the passages that Frede draws on – really prepares the ground for Sextus’ account of skeptical agency.

Second, the question about the skeptic’s beliefs concerns language. Assertions are thought of as the linguistic counterpart of beliefs: something is said to be the case. If the skeptic’s mental life looks as I reconstruct it, the skeptics need a non-assertoric language and, I argue, it is a substantial part of the skeptical project to develop this language. This side of skepticism has not received much attention in earlier publications. It is a crucial part of my analysis that the skeptics’ practices are importantly linguistic practices. I reconstruct several attempts in Sextus Empiricus to describe skeptical language as non-assertoric. The skeptics exploit the fact that, in ordinary conversation, one is understood even if one misuses the language, or uses it in ungrammatical or incomplete ways. And yet, they insist that, for example, “A appears Y to me now” differs significantly from “A appears to be Y to me now.” Elliptic and katachrestic uses of the language are meant to remove the implication that one takes oneself to say how things are.

Third, the question about the skeptic’s beliefs is a question about agency. Action is often thought to involve judgments or beliefs, about what is valuable or to be done on the one hand, but also about the context in which an action takes place and the situation to which it responds. If the skeptics do not form beliefs, how can they act? I defend Sextus’ account of skeptic adherence to appearances against the kinds of arguments that contemporary critics – Stoics and Epicureans – raised. Sextus does not claim that the skeptics act in the robust sense of agency that is the subject matter of ancient theory of action; he merely aims to show that the skeptics can be active according to a less ambitious notion of “activity.” In this, I think, he succeeds. However, I do not fully take the skeptics’ side. As in the case of language, I argue that the skeptics’ practices are parasitic upon ordinary life being non-skeptical. If there weren’t others around who are not skeptics, it is unclear whether the skeptics could live their skepticism.

The final chapter added in (2015) offers 20 premises that sum up how, 17 years later, I think of the book’s main questions. As I’ve come to see it, discussions of skeptical belief are part of a larger theme: what goes on in the skeptic’s mind. This larger question leads away from focus on belief, and toward Sextus’ preferred idiom, namely how skeptics relate to appearances. It also leads to a further question: how skeptics think. Accordingly, the 20 premises cover four topics: belief, action, language, and thought. Premise 20 says that skepticism is, by its very nature, investigation. I end with some remarks on why this is a substantive claim, when in a sense it should be a commonplace—given that the Greek word ‘skepsis’ means inquiry.

“A lucid study by Katja Maria Vogt on what is arguably the most sophisticated conception of skepticism, the writings of Sextus Empiricus in late antiquity.” Martin Scherer for Süddeutsche Zeitung

“Katja Vogt’s book ‘Skepsis und Lebenspraxis’ […] examines the conceptual premises of Skepticism and the practical consequences of the claim of ancient Pyrrhonian Skepticism: that one can lead a life without belief (dogma) and still hold a consistent philosophical position. […] Vogt’s study is precise, clearly presented, and it engages in a productive way with the ancient texts as well as recent research, and she explains the great argumentative potential of Pyrrhonian Scepticism.” Dietmar H. Heidemann for Zeitschrift für philosophische Forschung

“Katja Maria Vogt continues [the research of Michael Frede, Myles Burnyeat, and Jonathan Barnes on Sextus’ position] and arrives at very original and interesting conclusions.” Christoph Horn, Universität Bonn

“Vogt’s project in this publication is to reconstruct the Pyrrhonian answers to three interrelated questions: (a) How can we understand the Skeptic abstention from “dogmata”? (b) How can the Skeptic speak, without using speech in which he asserts something? (c) How can he refute the objection of ‘inactivity’? […] We believe that the work of Vogt, in addition to being a serious study of the central conceptions of Skepticism that takes into account all pertinent sources and is written sensibly and clearly, has the merit of correcting certain current misunderstandings of Skepticism. These modern interpretations of Skepticism, according to the author, fail to grasp Sextus’ unusual position. Moreover, the author emphazises points about Pyrrhonism which, to our mind, illuminate ways of thinking and acting of some post-modernist philosophers, as well as of Wittgenstein.” N.A.E. for Filosofia