How to Keep an Open Mind
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How to Keep an Open Mind

An Ancient Guide to Thinking Like a Skeptic

Sextus Empiricus

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eBook - ePub

How to Keep an Open Mind

An Ancient Guide to Thinking Like a Skeptic

Sextus Empiricus

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How ancient skepticism can help you attain tranquility by learning to suspend judgment Along with Stoicism and Epicureanism, Skepticism is one of the three major schools of ancient Greek philosophy that claim to offer a way of living as well as thinking. How to Keep an Open Mind provides an unmatched introduction to skepticism by presenting a fresh, modern translation of key passages from the writings of Sextus Empiricus, the only Greek skeptic whose works have survived.While content in daily life to go along with things as they appear to be, Sextus advocated—and provided a set of techniques to achieve—a radical suspension of judgment about the way things really are, believing that such nonjudging can be useful for challenging the unfounded dogmatism of others and may help one achieve a state of calm and tranquility. In an introduction, Richard Bett makes the case that the most important lesson we can draw from Sextus's brand of skepticism today may be an ability to see what can be said on the other side of any issue, leading to a greater open-mindedness.Complete with the original Greek on facing pages, How to Keep an Open Mind offers a compelling antidote to the closed-minded dogmatism of today's polarized world.

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Skepticism: The Big Picture

Sextus gives an overview of skepticism in the opening of book I of Outlines of Pyrrhonism: except for one minor omission (in section [7]), I include the whole of this.

On the Most Basic Difference among Philosophies

[1] Suppose you’re investigating some topic: chances are, the result is that either (a) you make a discovery, or (b) you deny making a discovery and admit the matter is not to be grasped*, or (c) you keep on investigating. [2] So equally, when it comes to the things investigated in philosophy, some people have claimed to have discovered the truth, some have declared that it is not possible for this to be grasped, and some are still investigating. [3] It is those strictly called dogmatists* who think they have discovered it—people like Aristotle* and Epicurus* and the Stoics* and some others; it’s Clitomachus* and Carneades* and other Academics* who have declared they are dealing with things not to be grasped; and it’s the skeptics who are still investigating. [4] Hence it makes sense that the most basic philosophies are thought to be three: dogmatic*, Academic, and skeptical. About the other ones, it will be appropriate for others to speak; right now it’s about the skeptical approach that we are going to speak in outline, with the following preface—that on none of the things to be discussed do we insist* that the matter is definitely as we say, but on each one we are reporting like a case study, according to how it now appears to us.

On the Accounts of Skepticism

[5] There is one account of the skeptical philosophy called “general,” and another called “specific.” The general one is where we expound the features of skepticism, telling how it is conceived, what are its starting points and its arguments, its criterion and its aim, what are the modes of suspension of judgment, how we employ the skeptical statements, and the distinction between skepticism and the philosophies closest to it; [6] the specific one is where we argue against each part of so-called philosophy. Well, let’s deal first with the general account, beginning our survey with the names of the skeptical approach.

On the Ways Skepticism Is Named

[7] The skeptical approach, then, is called investigative, from its activity involving investigation and inquiry, and suspensive from the reaction that comes about in the inquirer after the investigation … and Pyrrhonian, from the fact that Pyrrho* appears to us to have gone in for skepticism in a more full-bodied and obvious way than those before him.

What Skepticism Is

[8] The skeptical ability is one that produces oppositions among things that appear and things that are thought in any way whatsoever, from which, because of the equal strength in the opposing objects and accounts, we come first to suspension of judgment, and after that to tranquility*.
[9] We call it an “ability” not in any elaborate sense, but simply in terms of being able; “things that appear” we are taking here as the things perceived with the senses, which is why we contrast with them the things that are thought. “In any way whatsoever” can be connected with the ability (meaning that we’re taking the word “ability” in a simple way, as we said), or with “producing oppositions among things that appear and things that are thought”; since we oppose these in a variety of ways—opposing things that appear to things that appear, or things thought to things thought, or interchanging them, so that all the oppositions are included—we say “in any way whatsoever.” Or “in any way whatsoever” goes with “things that appear and things thought,” meaning that we are not investigating how the things that appear do appear, or the things that are thought are thought—we’re taking these in a simple way. [10] We speak of “opposing” accounts not necessarily in the sense of an assertion and a negation, but simply in place of “conflicting.” “Equal strength” refers to an equality in terms of trustworthiness or its absence, so that none of the conflicting accounts is ahead of any other as more trustworthy. Suspension of judgment is when thought comes to a stop; because of this we neither deny nor put forward anything. Tranquility is a trouble-free condition, or calmness, of the soul. How tranquility comes in alongside suspension of judgment we will suggest in our remarks on the aim.1

About the Skeptic

[11] The Pyrrhonian philosopher was in effect already explained in the conception of the skeptical approach; it’s the person who has a piece of this “ability.”

About the Starting Points of Skepticism

[12] The starting point that causes skepticism, we say, is the hope of getting tranquility. Highly gifted people, being bothered by the inconsistency in things, and at a loss as to which of them they should give more of their assent to, went for investigating what is true in things and what is false, on the assumption that by determining these things they would achieve tranquility. But the starting point of the skeptical setup is, above all, every argument’s having an equal argument lying in opposition to it; for from this we seem to end up not having doctrines*.

Whether the Skeptic Has Doctrines

[13] We say that the skeptic does not have doctrines not in that more everyday sense of “doctrine” in which some say that a doctrine is when you agree to something2—for the skeptic assents to the reactions that are forced on him by appearance* (for example, when being warmed or cooled, he would not say “I think I’m not being warmed or cooled”); we say that he does not have doctrines in the sense in which some say that a doctrine is the assent to some unclear matter investigated by the sciences—for the Pyrrhonist does not assent to anything unclear. [14] He doesn’t have doctrines even in uttering the skeptical phrases about unclear things—for example, “No more”3 or “I determine nothing,” or any of the others about which we’ll speak later. For someone with a doctrine puts forward as a reality the matter on which they are said to have a doctrine, but the skeptic does not put forward these phrases as definite realities; he supposes that, just as the phrase “everything is false” says that it is itself false along with the others, and likewise “nothing is true,” so too “no more [this way than that]” says that, along with the others, it is itself “no more” the case [than its opposite], and for this reason brackets* itself together with the others. We say the same about the other skeptical phrases too. [15] But if the dogmatist puts forward as a reality the thing on which he has a doctrine, while the skeptic utters his own phrases in such a way that they are potentially bracketed by themselves, he cannot be said to have doctrines in uttering them. But the most important thing is that in uttering these phrases he says what appears to himself, and announces without opinions* the way he himself is affected, making no firm statements* about the objects actually out there.

Whether the Skeptic Has a School of Thought

[16] We go a similar way on the question whether the skeptic has a school of thought. If one says that a school is an attachment to many doctrines that are consistent with one another and with apparent* things, and by “doctrine” one means assent to an unclear matter, we will say that he does not have a school. [17] But if one says that a school is an approach that follows a certain rationale in line with what appears, where that rationale indicates how it is possible to seem to live properly (“properly” being understood not only in terms of virtue but in a more straightforward way) and extends to the ability to suspend judgment, we say that he does have a school; for we do follow a certain rationale that, in line with what appears, marks out a life for us that fits with ancestral customs and the laws and the culture and our own reactions.

Whether the Skeptic Does Natural Science

[18] We say similar things on the question whether the skeptic should do natural science. If the point is to make declarations with strong confidence about any of the things on which doctrines are held in natural science, we do not do natural science. But if the point is to be able to oppose to every argument an equal argument, and to achieve tranquility, we do engage in natural science. This is also how we cover the logical and the ethical parts of so-called philosophy.

Whether the Skeptics Do Away with Apparent Things

[19] Those who say that the skeptics do away with apparent things seem to me not to be listening to what we say. We don’t overturn the things that lead us, owing to a passive appearance and whether we like it or not, to assent—as we said before;4 and these are the apparent things. When we investigate whether the actual object is such as it appears, we allow that it appears, and our investigation is not about the apparent thing but about what’s said about the apparent thing; and that’s different from investigating the apparent thing itself. [20] For example, honey appears to us to sweeten; we agree to this, for as a matter of sense-perception, we are sweetened. But whether it is indeed sweet as far as argument is concerned,5 we investigate—which is not the apparent thing but something said about the apparent thing. And even if we do go ahead and raise arguments against apparent things, we put these forward not with the aim of doing away with the apparent things, but for a show of the dogmatists’ rashness; for if argument is so tricky that it just about snatches apparent things from under our eyes, how can we not be suspicious of it on unclear matters, and hence avoid following it and acting rashly?

On the Criterion of Skepticism

[21] That we pay attention to apparent things is clear from what we say about the criterion of the skeptical approach. A criterion is spoken of in two ways: there’s the kind that is used for the purpose of trust on a matter of reality or unreality—and we’ll talk about this in the accoun...


  1. Cover Page
  2. Series Page
  3. Title Page
  4. Copyright Page
  5. Contents
  6. Acknowledgments
  7. Introduction
  8. Note on the Translation
  9. Chapter 1. Skepticism: The Big Picture (English)
  10. Chapter 1. Skepticism: The Big Picture (Greek)
  11. Chapter 2. Arguments to Have Up Your Sleeve: The Modes (English)
  12. Chapter 2. Arguments to Have Up Your Sleeve: The Modes (Greek)
  13. Chapter 3. Talking and Thinking Like a Skeptic (and Not Like Anyone Else) (English)
  14. Chapter 3. Talking and Thinking Like a Skeptic (and Not Like Anyone Else) (Greek)
  15. Chapter 4. Going After the Other Philosophers: Logic (English)
  16. Chapter 4. Going After the Other Philosophers: Logic (Greek)
  17. Chapter 5. Going After the Other Philosophers: Physics (English)
  18. Chapter 5. Going After the Other Philosophers: Physics (Greek)
  19. Chapter 6. Going After the Other Philosophers: Ethics (English)
  20. Chapter 6. Going After the Other Philosophers: Ethics (Greek)
  21. Glossary
  22. Persons Referred To
  23. Notes
  24. Further Reading
Estilos de citas para How to Keep an Open Mind

APA 6 Citation

Empiricus, S. (2021). How to Keep an Open Mind ([edition unavailable]). Princeton University Press. Retrieved from (Original work published 2021)

Chicago Citation

Empiricus, Sextus. (2021) 2021. How to Keep an Open Mind. [Edition unavailable]. Princeton University Press.

Harvard Citation

Empiricus, S. (2021) How to Keep an Open Mind. [edition unavailable]. Princeton University Press. Available at: (Accessed: 14 October 2022).

MLA 7 Citation

Empiricus, Sextus. How to Keep an Open Mind. [edition unavailable]. Princeton University Press, 2021. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.