Epistemological Skepticism

Let the followers of Pyrrho and the Academics come and make their objections. I, for my part, have no time for these disputes, nor am I able to undertake the defense of common sense. If I had a suit even about a bit of land, I would call in another to defend my interests. With what evidence then am I satisfied? With evidence which applies to the matter in hand. How is perception effected? Is it through the whole body or any part of it? Perhaps I cannot explain, for both opinions perplex me. That you and I are not the same being. This I know with perfect certainty. How do I know it?" When I intend to swallow anything, I never carry it to your mouth, but to my own. When I intend to take bread, I never lay hold of a broom, but I always go to the bread as to a mark. And you yourselves who take away the evidence of the senses, do you act otherwise? Who among you, when he intended to enter a bath, ever went into a mill?

Here, Epictetus gets to the root of Pyrrho's objections about the senses deceiving us. The view of Pyrrho has been handed down to us over the centuries and comes to light in present day philosophy under the name, "Epistemological Skepticism". This is a notion that sees humans as being like a brain in a jar and someone is jolting us with electrodes to make us believe that we experience things. It is actually easy to overcome this objection under two philosophic principles. One is called "Occams Razor", which is the idea that the simplest explanation of a phenomena is the most likely. The second objection falls under the quintessential American philosophy, "Pragmatism" which stipulates that what is useful, is what is real. It is not useful to think we are merely "brains in a jar". This leads to all kinds of pain and misfortune, as Pyrrho himself experienced by nearly walking off cliffs. Epictetus distinguishes forms by noting that we logically act in response to the information gathered by our senses. We feed ourselves when we are hungry. We wince in pain when we stub our toe. We smile when someone smiles at us. In other words, epistemological skepticism is plain silly and hardly worth arguing about.

What then? Ought we not, with all our power, to hold to this also, the maintaining of general opinion, and fortifying ourselves against the arguments which are directed against it? Who denies that we ought to do this? Well, he should do it who is able, who has leisure for it. But as to him who trembles and is perturbed and is inwardly broken in heart, he must employ his time better on something else.

Epictetus sums up his discourse by telling us that it is right to study and think about how to counter the sophist's objections to right living and right thought. But those who have not mastered their own emotions and thoughts, should first look to that aspect of their existence.

Chapter 27:

  1. On Appearances
  2. Bad Habits (27a)
  3. The Undiscovered Country (27b)
  4. Our Interests and Our Religion (27c)
  5. Epistemological Skepticism (27d)
Stoicism and Christianity Index

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This is a translation and explanation of the first book of the Discourses of Epictetus. His words are in regular text, comments are in bold.

Biographical Information on Epictetus

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