Sunday, March 30, 2014

Pyrrhonism: How the Ancient Greeks Reinvented Buddhism

Book Review: Pyrrhonism: How the Ancient Greeks Reinvented Buddhism by Adrian Kuzminski (Lexington Books 2008 – Kindle edition)

This is an interesting and important book which offers an interpretation of a philosophical way of approaching belief that I think is an excellent way of being and that could do much for our world threatened by the madness of fanatical dogmatists. This Pyrrhonist view is most exemplified in the works of the Ancient Greek philosophers Pyrrho of Elis and Sextus Empiricus, and in other forms by the Buddhist philosophers Nagarjuna and Chandrakirti as well as the early 20th century philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. I think the book’s title (or rather subtitle) is a bit misleading as a case is not really made for Pyrrho or any of the later Pyrrhonist sceptics actually reworking Buddhist philosophy though that is a remote possibility as Pyrrho was said to have visited India with Alexander the Great and developed his philosophy from ideas of Indian sages. Nagarjuna came along several centuries after Pyrrho and it seems more plausible (though not very) that he was influenced by the Greeks who had lived and mingled in Bactria in Indo-Greek syncretistic mostly Buddhist communities since the time of Alexander. This book is one of comparative philosophy. It is unique that it is a comparison of nondogmatic philosophies.

Pyrrhonists are distinguished by the idea of suspending judgment about what is nonevident. Furthermore, this freedom from belief (about what is nonevident) was thought by them to extend to a kind of contemplative freedom without the anxiety surrounding beliefs. This they called ataraxia. Belief involves uncertainty and uncertainty can spur anxiety. Focus on presence and immediate experience without clinging to beliefs can mitigate such anxiety. I think such a practice can be quite relevant today and quite therapeutic as well. One might call it – ‘keeping an open mind’ – which is perhaps more difficult to do than one might think as we have preconceived notions about many things.

The author makes a long and quite detailed case to point out that Pyrrhonism is different than Scepticism, particularly the later Scepticism of the Academics, which is more a “nihilistic negative dogmatism.” Pyrrhonism and Academic Scepticism have been equated throughout history and he makes a very good case that this is a misunderstanding that has been perpetuated through time. The Academic Sceptics assert that there are no true beliefs while the Pyrrhonist makes no assertions, but merely suspends belief. This seems to be a very clear difference. Academic Sceptics draw a conclusion while Pyrrhonists do not. Nothing nonevident is affirmed or denied and judgment is suspended. Pyrrhonism is not a view or theory, but rather a practice of non-attachment to things non-evident. It is therapeutic rather than dogmatic. Sextus Empiricus referred to it as a skill, or ability, rather than a view, or dogma. Only appearances are evident – sensations and thoughts that make for obvious acknowledgement and upon which we can easily agree. These ideas, according to Kuzminski, bear “…a striking similarity to some Eastern nondogmatic soteriological traditions, particularly Madhyamaka Buddhism.”

The Pyrrhonists called themeselves skeptics but “only in the original Greek sense of the word, skeptikos – a seeker, one who inquires or examines, considers, deliberates, etc.” Unlike the later Sceptics they did not question all assertions and when they did so the goal was to discern which assertions concerned nonevident matters and which were based on self-evident experience. Thus the goal of their inquiry was not to endorse or refute statements but to sort out what is (subtly) evident from is nonevident.

Sextus Empiricus in his Outlines of Scepticism “distinguishes Pyrrhonism very clearly from negative as well as positive dogmatism.” To him a “sceptic” is merely an inquirer and not one associated with a particular view. Pyrro of Elis was around in the 4th century B.C. By the middle of the 3rd century B.C. the term “sceptic” began to be associated with a view of negative dogmatism by those in Plato’s Academy. Sextus Empiricus lived in the 2nd century C.E. but still exemplifies the Pyrrhonist ideal rather than the negative dogmatism of the Academic Sceptics. Most scholars have apparently regarded these stances as two branches of one school but the author makes an excellent case that this is a big misnomer. Sextus Empiricus divided philosophy into those who have discovered the truth – Dogmatists (ie. Stoics, Aristotelians, Epicureans, etc), those who have discovered that truth is not discoverable – the Academics (negative dogmatists), and those who are still investigating – Sceptics (Pyrrhonists). Here is clear differentiation of Academics (now called Sceptics) and Sceptics (here called Pyrrhonists). This is the confusion that has been perpetuated. Oddly, as Kuzminski notes, this confusion, perpetuated from an early time, has relegated Pyrrhonism to a fringe way of thought that is only now rediscoverable in its original form. The early Academic Sceptic – Arcesilaus (a late contemporary of Pyrrho) was said by both Sextus Empiricus and Diogenes of Laertius in his Lives of the Eminent Philosophers, to be a fake Pyrrhonist who was really a Dogmatist. The Academic Sceptics also tended to abandon the goal of ataraxia – the tranquility that comes from being free of attachment to beliefs. Kuzminski also notes that it is a great irony that Pyrrhonism has come to be associated with a form of Dogmatism since the whole basis of it is non-dogmatism. More recent philosophers such as Hume and Nietzsche have also perpetuated the error of equating Pyrrhonism with Dogmatism. Nietzsche had some insights into the matter regarding the connectoion of Pyrrhonism to Buddhism but considered both to be nihilistic. In Buddhist philosophy, nihilism is well pondered but considered to be a non-desirable and extreme view. Nietzsche celebrated the Will as the antidote against the “emptiness” or meaninglessness of nihilism. Another part of the confusion is the question whether thoughts and sensations are beliefs. We can have beliefs about thoughts or sensations but if those beliefs are nonevident – if there are no logical and agreed upon means of drawing a conclusion about them then according to Pyrrhonists, beliefs about them should be suspended. The work is in sorting the evident from the nonevident. It is the negative dogmatist Academic Sceptics that refute all beliefs while the Pyrrhonist does not specifically accept or reject beliefs but merely suspends judgment.

Pyrrho of Elis was said to be influenced by Indian sages in developing his philosophy and it is reasonably likely that those sages were Buddhists. Although Madhyamaka philosophy was not yet present the idea of suspending judgement about beliefs may well have been derived from these sages. Although the author does not mention it there is a sutra attributed to Buddha – I believe from the Pali Canon – that refers specifically to the dangers of getting attached to opinions, any opinions. This is similar to the Pyrrhonist philosophical practice. Pyrrho lived a simple life after returning from India. He was visited in Elis by seekers such as his disciples Timon, Hecataeus, and Nausiphanes. Timon was known for his humor. After these students of Pyrrho the tradition fades into obscurity for a while but then is revived centuries later near the time of Sextus Empiricus. However, Diogenes of Laertius does offer a lineage of Pyrrhonists (that does not include the Academic Sceptics) in his Lives when speaking of the life of Timon.   

Pyrrhonists advocated detachment from what is nonevident rather than what is evident. This is an important distinction that may distance it just a little from Buddhism, although much of the detachment recommended in Buddhism is indeed regarding our beliefs about things, or more specifically our mistaken beliefs about things.

Apparently, there are few modern people who consider themselves to be Pyrrhonists. One is the Norwegian ecological philosopher Arne Naess, who wrote a book on Scepticism. He is also apparently well aware of the distinction between Pyrrhonism and Academic scepticsim. Naess states the Pyrrhonian “view” thusly:

“Reality is in darkness, but not necessarily in darkness; perhaps it can be brought to light; at least he does not know that it cannot.”

The author thinks that Naess does not go far enough in his suspension of belief – that he considers, as did many of the ancient Greek philosophers, conceptuality to be the vehicle of truth and so that notion itself becomes a belief. This is a bit paradoxical but I think the idea is that the existence of “truth” itself is really a belief in the existence of truth. It is a belief that if we could discover the correct conceptualizations, then we would apprehend truth and thus make evident what is nonevident.

Sextus Empiricus best explained the Pyrrhonist way of thinking in his texts where he detailed the sorting of the evident from the nonevident. Appearances are those things that are apparent, that can be agreed upon by convention. Beliefs beyond this are often sources of conflict and misunderstanding. Myths and abstract theories may sometimes require a “temporary suspension of disbelief” in order to fully experience them. Such nonevident projections may have value that can point out and enhance what is evident but the sheer belief in them is belief in the nonevident. There is an account by the 2nd century Christian Eusebius that paraphrases the method of Pyrrho as given by his disciple Timon:

“… we… should be without opinions and without inclinations and without wavering, saying about each single thing that it no more is than is not or both is and is not or neither is or is not”

Interestingly, the four conditions noted above (is, is not, both, and neither) are a logical argument put forth by both Indians and Greeks and perhaps other ancient thinkers and are a special feature of Mahayana logical philosophy where they are sometimes called the “four extremes.” It is also called the tetralemma, or quadralemma, in the Greek tradition where it was known to Aristotle (before Alexander’s travels) where he complained that it was annoying to argue against – yet Pyrrhonists may not have considered its use as a practice rather than as a logical argument.

Kuzminski notes that Pyrrhonism and Buddhism are both nondogmatic soteriological practices. Pyrrhonism may be the only such practice in the Western traditions, he notes. Other Eastern nondogmatic soteriological practices may include some forms of Taoism, Jainism, and Hindusim. Kuzminski gives a survey of possible idea diffusion among Greeks and Indians. A thoroughly comprehensive and utterly fascinating study of this sort is Thomas McEvilley’s The Shape of Ancient Thought which traces and compares the development of many ideas all across the ancient world. In both Buddhism and Pyrrhonism great effort is put forth to avoid adoption of specific views and as argued this is a practice more than a view since it is the avoidance of views – even the avoidance of a view-avoiding view. Kuzminski thinks that Pyrrho developed the idea of ataraxia, tranquility through freedom from beliefs based on his contacts with Indian sages. He cites other authors such as Flintoff who notes several Indian ideas that may involve freedom from belief such as: ahimsa, advaita, nirvana, ananda, samadhi, bodhi, chit, moksha, sat.
Flintoff also pointed out that there existed a skeptical tradition in India once led by an obscure contemporary of Buddha called Sanjaya Belatthiputta. Diogenes of Laertius notes that Pyrrho met with gymnosophists (naked philosophers). They may have been Buddhists, Jains, or these Sanjayan skeptics. One scholar, Hiralal Jain, noted that Sanjaya was considered an Ajnavada, or an Agnostic. Diogenes also noted that Pyrrho adopted a wandering lifestyle after his return to Greece, likely influenced by the Indian ascetics. Other ancient Westerners who adopted such customs included Diogenes the Cynic and Apollonius of Tyana.

Kuzminski compares other ancient Western practices to Eastern meditative traditions but finds few key similarities until Hellenistic times when diffusion likely brought more ideas from the East that were integrated into the Western traditions. He mentions the yogic and meditative practices of the Greek Hesychasts who practiced immovability of the body and stopping of the breath. Later there are the meditative spiritual practices of theurgists and Neoplatonists like Plotinus that quite resemble Eastern meditation.

McEvilley’s book noted the similarities between Pyrrhonism and the Madhyamaka philosophy of Nagarjuna and Chandrakirti but discounted any direct Indian influences on Pyrrho, even though the legends say otherwise. He also noted that Democritus as well as Pyrrho’s teacher Anaxarchus had developed an idea of tranquility as a goal of philosophy so perhaps his ideas were at least partially developed before he went to India. But Flintoff notes that harnessing the specific technique of suspension of judgment as a means to liberation was not in evidence among the Greeks before Pyrrho.

Next, Kuzminski covers the roots of Madhyamaka Buddhism. He mentions the Sutta Nipata from the Pali canon as a source. Key texts are Nagarjuna’s The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way and Chandrakirti’s The Entry Into the Middle Way. The key texts for Pyrrhonism are Diogenes of Laertius’s Life of Pyrrho and Sextus Empiricus’s Outlines of Scepticism and Against the Logicians. Comparing Madhyamaka Buddhism and Pyrrhonian scepticism, Kuzminski favorably compares the following ideas of these two systems: method, belief, suspension of judgment, tranquility, and appearances. Appearances here include both thoughts and sensations. The comparisons he gives are detailed and most favorable. Madhyamaka philosophy also deals with the logic of refutation, particularly in the later Prasangika version where refutation is the key practice. It is thus a very skeptical tradition of inquiry – but has also been wrongly associated with nihilism and pessimism. There is similarity to the Greek dialectical tradition as well. The Prasangika method (rather than view) is one of reducing ideas to absurdity through logical and conceptual analysis. It is the utilization of conceptuality with a goal of non-conceptual wisdom. Even meditative techniques have the feature of releasing the bonds of belief by the method of noting changes in one’s consciousness without reaction, without engaging with what appears, and without accepting or rejecting – just noting. It is a similar idea, although it is not thought that meditation played a part in Pyrrhonism. Madhyamaka philosophy teaches non-attachment to all dogmas – neither asserting or denying. The author suggests a possible parallel of the Buddhist sunyata (emptiness) with the Pyrrhonist aphasia (non-assertion). The Buddhist practice is to recognize emptiness (of self and other-than-self) while Sextus Empiricus gives aphasia, or non-assertion, as not affirming or negating, ie. suspension of judgment. One cannot even assert non-assertion. Similarly, Madhyamaka advises not to get attached to Emptiness or Non-emptiness. Both philosophies seek not to establish truth but the clear away error. Thus wisdom is seen not specifically as truth but as absence of falsehood. One may suggest that it is the same – just negatively expressed, but the possibility remains open whether knowledge can be refined further as more becomes known or evident. It is a sort of stalemate and as the author notes, “the fruit of stalemate is tranquility.” Both Diogenes and Sextus Empiricus noted that ataraxia follows suspension of judgment “like its shadow,” perhaps an unexpected discovery. Nagarjuna noted that “the root of cyclic existence is action. Therefore the wise one does not act.” More specifically this may refer to acting on the basis of beliefs arising from self-centered motives (karmic action). Regarding appearance both Pyrrhonism and Buddhism note that they are mutually dependent, or relative to one another. Appearances are a “middle way’ between existing and not existing rather than one or the other, both, or neither.  Nagarjuna also said that “Everything is real and not real, both real and not real, neither real nor not real.” So we see there is a positive tetralemma as well as a negative tetralemma and in the Buddhist tradition where what is seen as true (temporarily) often depends from what level of realization one inquires. Such statements may appear contradictory but the function I think is to point out that “all of the above” is not different than “none of the above” – or that reality cannot be ultimately known through conceptualizing as it is a “dead end” leading to the precipice of paradox, a word which can mean “beyond opinions.” The notions in the Sutta Nipata of avoiding arguments and being free from clinging to beliefs and opinions can be seen as precursor to the open view of the Madhyamaka.

The author goes into great detail with these comparisons of Pyrrhonism and Buddhism as well as of Pyrrhonian skepticism vs. Academic skepticism. Much of the next section is devoted to clarifying the distinction between the evident and the nonevident and this can get rather tedious. The nature of appearances is discussed. In Pyrrhonism this includes evidence from the senses, including thought to a certain extent. Pyrrhonists may have held a different notion of appearances than their peers among the Stoics, Epicureans, and Aristotelians, who tended to give abstractions such as ideals a real existence. The Greeks distinguished noomenon (mental formulations) from phainomenon (that which appears to the senses). It is the latter that is emphasized as evident by Sextus. Form without content and content without form are both not apparent, and so not evident to the Pyrrhonist. The details become muddled when one considers different types of appearance such as the skandas (aggregates) in Buddhism and the different types of evidence in Pyrrhonism. Here the nature of subject and object is examined. Private and public appearances are compared. Appearances may at times be unreliable, ie. optical illusions. Indeed, the untrustworthiness of the senses led the early physicists like Thales to promote reason above sensory knowledge – a move which Sextus regarded as dogmatic. Even though Sextus defends most appearances as evident he also rails against the orthodoxy of materialistic science as a dogma that assumes things that are not evident like “intelligent design.” Certainly the same could be said of today’s dogma of materialistic science – that the assumptions made about what is going on behind the scenes of observed phenomena are not as evident as science makes them out to be. There is also the idea of the evidently non-evident. Is consciousness evident to consciousness? Does subject exist separately from object? As an object? Sextus says no as the Buddhists say the self does not exist independently. Is this an assertion? Is it in any way different than asserting the independent existence of a self? Indeed, the Yogacara, or Cittamatra (mind-only) school of Buddhism criticized the Madhyamakas as nihilists on similar grounds – as asserters of a kind of negative dogmatism. The Prasangika view later subsumed that by sticking with refutations and avoiding any direct assertions. But ultimately any refutation can be seen as an assertion and indeed this is probably why these nondogmatic schools have not thrived as doctrines but rather have been emphasized as practices – because the logical dialogue is more about ungrasping from assertions and refutations as a practice than as an argument. 

Sextus gives four classes of objects or facts (pragmata) as nonevident: things manifest, things absolutely nonevident, things naturally nonevident, and things temporarily nonevident. Things manifest are our direct sensations and thoughts. Things absolutely nonevident are things and ideas which are never likely to be known such as the exact number of stars in the sky or sand grains in a desert. While there may be exact answers to such questions we will likely never know them. Things naturally nonevident are in a similar class but they may be unknowable for different reasons. Sextus gives the nature of the soul as an example. While we could in theory count the stars in the sky if we had the ability to see them all we cannot determine the exact nature of the soul due to lack of clarity. It is a rather shaky and subtle distinction – they are almost the same. In the former case we can see how to make them evident (counting) but in the latter we are unsure. Things temporarily nonevident are things that would become evident to us if we experienced them with our senses such as a place we have never seen. There is discussion of “signs,” both recollective signs and indicative signs. Seeing smoke and assuming fire is an example of a recollective sign (as both are routinely observed together). Indicative signs require more assumption. An example Sextus gives is the statement that bodily movements are a function of the movements of the soul. That may or may not be true but it is clearly nonevident. Thus recollective signs are accepted as evident though temporarily nonevident but indicative signs are considered nonevident. The lines may sometimes be murky. Kuzminski goes through the “stock arguments” of the Pyrrhonists to indicate the evident vs. the nonevident. He makes this statement regarding Science:

“Science is about elucidating anticipating what is evident, including what can be made evident through signs; it is the explicit development of our system of recollective signs to represent correlations among appearances not otherwise representable to us. To show that something believed to be evident cannot (at least yet) be made evident, that it appears in fact to be nonevident, is to show that it is not science.”

These days the findings of quantum theory especially but also relativity, psychic phenomena, and the aberrations of consciousness can challenge what we take as evident and nonevident. Even scientific, atheistic, ideological, and secular ideas can involve taking what is nonevident as evident, though by definition they should not. Kuzminski also notes that much of our science is only partially evident, based on statistical probabilities and conjecture.

Buddhism approaches signification in terms of nama-rupa, name and form. These are links on the chain of dependent origination. We make objects “real” by defining them (giving them form) and naming them. Thus we tend to see the world (and the mind) as composed of distinct objects and ideas. Significations that are a matter of belief such as assertions of the existence of a soul or an afterlife scenario can be the cause of much anxiety and disagreement. Beliefs should be seen as beliefs rather than as facts and Kuzminski suggests that this is a goal of Buddhist meditative practice.

Kuzminski concedes that as a religious tradition that Buddhism has become fairly ritualized and dogmatic yet in principle it is not. Some such as Stephen Batchelor in his Buddhism Without Beliefs have pointed out that ideas like the Four Noble Truths were meant to inspire the means to free oneself from suffering rather than expounded as facts. Buddha described himself more along the lines of a doctor, or healer, than as a savior. Batchelor invokes agnosticism as a Western analogue to the approach of Buddha. Thomas Huxley, in the 19th century coined the term and defined it as a third alternative between the extremes of positive and negative dogmatism. For an agnostic the alternative “I don’t know” is always available. Korean Zen Master Seung Sahn always would say to keep Don’t Know Mind so an agnostic approach can be seen there. Batchelor noted that Buddha apparently harbored some beliefs about what is nonevident such as a belief in reincarnation – although according to tradition such an idea was quite evident to him as an Awakened One. Batchelor suggests that we suspend judgment on such matters but many Buddhist teachers suggest that it is fine to have such beliefs. Perhaps some of us merely lean toward such beliefs without actually embracing them.

The author goes through the work of Richard Popkin who wrote a thorough history of scepticism. Even though he acknowledged the distinction between Pyrrhonian skepticism and Academic skepticism he strands the ideas together in his influential work, according to Kuzminski. For this reason he sees Popkin’s work as a modern perpetuation of the same long held misunderstandings.

Augustine put a new spin on Pyrrhonism by falsely assuming that Sextus’s arguments were seeking to refute reason as a way to understanding nonevident reality. Augustine sought to replace knowledge of the nonevident through reason with knowledge of the nonevident through divine revelation or faith. This view is called “fideism” and Pyrrhonists would likely laugh at such nonsense and appropriation of their arguments for his dogmatic approach for faith basically is belief. Of course, one may also argue that Buddha’s enlightenment was also some sort of revelatory or mystical knowledge from an external source though Buddha himself clearly stated that it was not. Kuzminski thinks that Augustine was key in perpetuating the misunderstanding of the two sceptic schools into modern times. Augustine’s goal was to discredit the philosophy tied to pagan traditions and replace it with a philosophy tied to divine revelation from the Christian God. Thus the texts of Sextus Empiricus came to be used (or rather misused) in the Middle Ages to support this fideist view of divine revelation as a true means of discerning what is nonevident. Thus they had reason to depict Pyrrhonists such as Sextus as negative dogmatists.

The author gives 18th century Irish Bishop Thomas Berkley as one who broke through and propounded Pyrrhonism in a basically correct manner in his Principles of Human Knowledge although he was no Pyrrhonist himself, being a bishop in the Anglican Church. Although he is usually given in the British empiricist trio of Locke-Berkley-Hume, the author notes that Locke was a positive dogmatist and Hume an Academic sceptic. Berkley denied the distinction between appearances and reality and did not favor an external reality beyond appearances. Incidentally, that is an inseparability noted in the Buddhist Mahasiddha tradition of India as well. Berkley did, however, alter his understanding of Pyrrhonism to incorporate his own belief in God and his argument became very similar to the fideism of Augustine, though with more actual Pyrrhonist features. The author thinks he made some good arguments in favor of Pyrrhonism.

The modern philosopher most Pyrrhonian in outlook seems to be the early 20th century philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. He does not seem to have been familiar with the works of any Pyrrhonists but to have developed his ideas independently. He did not publish much and feared his ideas were not well understood even though he had a following during his lifetime. He focused on mathematics and language. The author sees his approach as that of a full Pyrrhonist. This statement from his Tractatus is exemplary:

“What can be said at all can be said clearly and what we cannot talk about we must pass over in silence.” Wittgenstein also pointed out the “doubt presupposes certainty.” We can only doubt something against a comparative background of certainty. We only inquire about things which we have some doubt. Wittgenstein also pointed out the complete doubt of the negative dogmatist Academic skeptics is incoherent. His “picture theory” of signs and the objects they indicate is similar to that of Sextus. His friend and commentator Paul Engelmann stated his theory thusly:

“The relationship between the world (appearances) and language (representation, depiction) is logic, or logical form, and this is precisely what, according to Wittgenstein, cannot be represented.”

He also pointed out that describing what we experience is not the same as experiencing and so language is merely representational rather than real. Communicating experience is thus far not doable and what we experience is thus ineffable, or at least incommunicable.

Interestingly, Engelmann described Wittgenstein’s philosophy as a practical method of living, free of ideologies. He also used phrases like “wordless faith,” “a new spiritual attitude,” and “a universal new way of life” to describe it.

A dogmatist would be one who comes to conclusions about nonevident things while a Pyrrhonist forms no conclusions, at least until things become evident. It is as simple as that, yet we are beset by beliefs in the nonevident as a cultural habit. We see possible connections between things and predict how things will happen and we often see scant evidence as proof that things are as we predicted. In other words, it is not easy to be impartial to beliefs. Fears about the unknown are based at least partially on our exposure to beliefs about the unknown. As humans we seem to like to judge things so suspending judgment is perhaps not part of our habit – but it well should be. I vote that we be less judgmental!

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