The word “skepticism” comes from a Greek root that originally meant “to inquire” or “to seek out.” How did we get from there to the modern notion of a skeptic as someone who is constantly casting doubt, if not outright rejecting the possibility of knowing anything for certain? And how might the skeptic navigate the challenges of ordinary life today?
Introductory Video (from our workshop leader)
In this first installment, we’ll look at skepticism within the history of Greek and Hellenistic philosophy, and especially at the work of the most famous skeptic within that tradition, Sextus Empiricus (2nd/3rd c. CE). We will see that for Sextus, skepticism is both an orientation toward the philosophical life, and a method for approaching philosophical problems.
In that course of exploring those two components of traditional skepticism, we will:
— Situate the skeptical movements within the larger history of Greek philosophy
— Distinguish skepticism (in its classical sense) from apathy, indifference, and relativism
— Explore the practical methods which Sextus offers, to see how they might be applied to a wide variety of problems or arguments
— Look at the four special kinds of beliefs, which Sextus thinks are immune to the skeptical method
Once we’ve done that, we’ll step back to look at the big picture: Why would anyone want to be a skeptic? Sextus claims that skepticism leads—surprisingly and unexpectedly—to a state of tranquility. How is that supposed to work? Is it really a path by which any of us could find that tranquility?
And we’ll take up a practical question: How could a genuine skeptic—someone who suspends judgment on nearly all matters of belief—get by in the real, day-to-day world that we all inhabit? Sextus’ own day job was as a medical doctor. We’ll use Sextus’ medical practice as an example, to explore how a skeptic might navigate the practical challenges of ordinary life.
As always, we hope that you’ll leave with a deeper appreciation and understanding of Sextus and his tradition of skepticism, and with suggested readings and resources for further study and exploration.
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