By: Wes Alwan
There's a new bio of Montaigne out, How to Live: a Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer, reviewed here:
Because Montaigne’s great question was Socrates’s question—“how to live?”—she arranges her portrait of him around the answers he offered.
Familiarly, the key to Montaigne is his scepticism. It is the scepticism of Pyrrho, as recorded by Sextus Empiricus, which teaches that because the arguments for and against any proposition are equally good or bad, one must suspend judgement (a state known as acatalepsia). This open-minded, non-committal, often ambiguous stance suited Montaigne.
Which reminds me: Sextus Empiricus was rediscovered in the 16th century after a long period in which he was ignored (from the fourth century onwards). As Luciano Floridi puts it (pdf), the "... Middle Ages show no driving interest in sceptical arguments within the restricted philosophical and theological debates that may address issues concerning the nature and reliability of knowledge, when discussing ethical, religious and epistemological questions ...."
The Renaissance saw a revival of interest in Sextus, leading to a popular Latin translation of his Outlines in 1562. Subsequently, Sextus Empiricus was widely read and hugely influential. Montaigne's used Pyrrhonism (Sextus' brand of non-academic skepticism) in service of his ethical concerns, but as the renaissance became the enlightenment the epistemological concerns dovetailed with those of the ongoing scientific revolution. Both were a challenge to Aristotelianism an Scholasticism.
Descartes Meditations was published in 1641, just 20 years after the publication of the first Greek editions of Sextus' works. According to Floridi it is unknown whether Descartes read Sextus, but the breadth of his influence at this point makes this irrelevant. Descartes takes the early modern revival of Pyrrhonian skepticism and significantly radicalizes it. Hume was also deeply influenced by Sextus, who articulates a version of the skeptical argument concerning causation.
The hallmark of Pyrrhonian skepticism is its rejection of the academic skeptic's claim that nothing can be known, not even that nothing can be known; "nothing is knowable" is itself a belief that ought to be given up rather than paradoxically affirmed. (Apparently Hegel -- who asks us to doubt our doubt -- was also deeply influenced by Sextus Empiricus). Ultimately, the Pyrrhonian obtains peace of mind by suspending all judgment at a theoretical level but living by habit (which perhaps involves some sort of non-theoretical belief). Further, we can legitimately make claims about our experience as long as we acknowledge that it is our experience to which the claims apply rather than to things in themselves (to use a Kantian formulation). Hence Descartes' related claim that the I -- as an experience -- cannot be a deception, because in this case the deception would just constitute the I. (I can doubt that my experiences are veridical, but not that I have them). Further, Sextus' concern about the differences between the sensory organs in animals and the fact that perception must be a relationship between such organs and objects is a precursor to the early philosophical impact of the science of optics, as in Locke's primary and secondary qualities (and ultimately, in Kant's distinction between phenomena and things and themselves).
We can see in all of this the debt of not just Montaigne, Descartes, Hume, Kant, and Hegel owe to this brand of skepticism, but also pragmatism. In fact, Sextus formulates the regress argument at the core of modern pragmatist's talk of "conceptual schemes."
There are several important upshots of the Pyrrhonian brand of skepticism, according to which we withhold judgment about the epistemological status of our beliefs rather than despairingly conclude that we can't know anything.
First, agnosticism rules the day. Atheism is just another claim that goes beyond experience. Negative claims that go beyond experience are just as inadmissible as positive ones. (Compare Kant's limitation of scientific claims to empirical phenomena while making room for faith in the domain of the unknown -- although the Pyrrhonian would probably not, without some pragmatic emendations, take the suspension of judgment about what's outside our experiences as a lead-in to faith about it).
Second, inquiry continues (and business generally goes on as usual). This is the pragmatic side of the coin. Pyrrhonianism is not an excuse for despairing of knowledge, putting on a beret, becoming a relativist, and declaring there is nothing outside the text and that we have carte blanche to do what we want with what's inside the text. We suspend judgment about what's outside the text, and we remain curious inquirers within it (and, I would say to give philosophy a place, at its periphery). Which is to say, this brand of skepticism is not a challenge to the value and methodology of scientific inquiry. (Compare all of this to pragmatic defeasibility).
Third, (ironic/aesthetic) detachment abides: the mental tranquility I mentioned above -- "ataraxia" -- is meant to be the consequence of suspending belief. In a point reminiscent of Buddhism (another school with a poorly-placed "h"), suspending judgment helps us avoid desire and hence pain. Again, this is not meant to lead to inaction and paralysis but to serve as a foundation for continued practical activity (including inquiry). And in day to day life, we follow "custom." So when it comes to particular investments of emotion, it's not that we don't make them but that we make them at a less metaphysical level ... perhaps with tongue in cheek ... in such a way as they are easily withdrawn. Think of a football game in which, as fans of a team, we're deeply engaged in an outcome even when we know that ultimately our choice of team is arbitrary. And in the end, unless we're soccer hooligans, we can walk away from that investment relatively unscathed -- we don't bring it with us when we leave the arena. Within a certain prescribed realm (the phenomenal arena) we move, act, and carry on business as usual, even while we launder it of other-worldly, life-and-death, metaphysical implications.
Which brings us to Nietzsche. Naturally! Actually, there's a been quite a bit of work on Nietzsche and skepticism recently, including by our former colleague Jessica Berry, who makes Nietzsche out (pdf) to be a Pyrrhonian skeptic about morality rather than a mere anti-realist. In a similar vein, Maudmarie Clark makes Nietzsche out to be a Kantian skeptic about knowledge -- chicken soupnema to my fan-boy soul -- in her superb Nietzsche on Truth and Philosophy (which also includes an excellent discussion of pragmatism).
But what I want to get at here is the sense in which the detachment -- or rather, phenomenal attachment and noumenal detachment -- I described above is the kind of ironic or aesthetic detachment that Nietzsche might endorse. So to move beyond the football game analogy, the arena becomes a stage, and we become our own work of art. The artist's detachment is a sort of political and moral detachment for the sake of aesthetic attachment: producing a convincing villain requires that Shakespeare remove himself from the temptation to moral condemnation and appreciate the villain aesthetically (and help us do the same). That's why preachy art sucks -- it disfigures rather than represents dispassionately what it rejects or endorses. And when we turn to self-production, the same principle holds. Which is to say, we move beyond utilitarianism and deontology to questions of character.