Sample Philosophy Essay Paper on Pyrrhonian Skepticism


The principle of pyrrhonism originates from the position that reason is weak and confused and that through reason, it is impossible to discover or understand the truth. The senses are likewise weak and incapable of providing conclusive information as to the nature of things. From this perspective, reason seems to be out of consideration for individuals seeking to find peace. The peace under consideration in this case, is that which goes beyond the Christian peace described in Phillipians 4:4, which is that which surpasses human understanding. According to Pyrrho, real peace comes not from understanding but from the acceptance that it is impossible to know the nature of things. From this perspective therefore, pyrrhonians built their belief system, which is characterized by lack of actual belief and indifference to reality that is not perceived. Without reason, pyrrhonians have various options availed to them including rationalism, fideism, skepticism and reasoned faith. Rationalism involves trusting reason to deliver truths that are separated from the opinions of many philosophers that point towards the infirmity of reason. Fideism entails having blind faith, obeying and enslaving personal reason to anything that promises the truth; skepticism entails suspending all beliefs in all issues while reasoned faith involves formulating one’s own beliefs and sticking to them. For the pyrrhonian skeptic, the option of choice is to suspend all beliefs in all issues.

Pyrrhonian Skepticism and Equipoise

The pyrrhonian is characterized by several features, which make him/ her capable of suspending judgment. One of the key attributes of pyrrhonism is that it does not endorse any doctrine. This means that a pyrrhonian is relatively free to make choices without being bound by the laws of particular doctrines, a fact that gives them the opportunity to avoid making choices and/ or judgments altogether. The pyrrhonist therefore constantly fluctuates within a state of unclear beliefs and communication as they avoid making the decisions on whether things are right or wrong, just or unjust, determined or undetermined, true or false, cognitive and incognitive. The objective is to not accept the distinction between things as they are but rather to revel in the kind of indecision presented (68 U13-18).

This indecision, to some extent contributes significantly to the state of equipoise that is commonly a characteristic of pyrrhonism. Based on the constant psychological state of being at a loss (indecisiveness as to what is and what is not), which is also described as aporia, competing beliefs in the mind of a pyrrhonian skeptic cancel out each other, resulting in an evidential state of equipoise. Equipoise in this regard is also described as the withdrawal of assent in that rather than making the choice between what is and what is not and having to contend with the counterarguments against the choice made, the pyrrhonians simply abstain from making the decision (1 E25-27). On the one end, it is a call to suspend judgment by the pyrrhonians and let the audience make their own calls. On the other end, it is a state of ataraxia for the audience that gives limited peace if any. For the pyrrhonian, such a state is undesirable. The tranquility gained as a result of suspended judgment therefore could not provide the kind of value accorded by the other form of tranquility that is beyond human understanding.

The divergent impressions that subjects make are at par with each other, leaving no room for distinction between which is convincing and which is not, and most likely no distinction between what is true and what is false (1 F16). The perspective of the pyrrhonist is that it is impossible to tell the difference between what is self evidence and what is secure. This essentially means that any two opposing sides are alike in magnitude and impact, thus the equipoise experienced. The life of a pyrrhonist therefore exists within the equipoise in that the objective is to live life according to the impression held at a particular time, not necessarily because that impression is accurate but rather because that impression is what is experienced at that particular time (71 D10). The implication of a life that is consistently in equipoise is that there is commitment to truth and false as long as different people observe a phenomenon from different perspectives.

Equipoise, Suspension of Judgment and Tranquility

Life in equipoise is characterized by a tranquility that is called ataraxia. Whether this tranquility can be considered real by a non-pyrrhonian o its significance as an indication of the value of life is a subject of further discussion. Nonetheless, pyrrhonian skepticism holds the notion that mental tranquility is essential to happiness or the concept of happiness is a passive conception of the implication of its description. The pyrrhonian peace is predicated upon the concept of not having to understand and not caring about the need to understand whether things are and how they are. Not caring to understand things as they are is what is described as the suspension of judgment, while the passive quietness associated with ataraxia is defined as tranquility (1 H10).

The skeptic abandons every inquiry upon the realization that nothing can be certainly known. Rather than to have a recourse to the alternative, which is to have uncertain beliefs, the pyrrhonian skeptic says that the problem lies not in the certainty/ uncertainty conflict, but rather in the belief itself. This thus means that the skeptic can go forward with their actions without any beliefs, and in this way suspend the need for the decision (epoche). Tranquility is described as the freedom from disturbance, which is the result of a belief less life (71 A3). Without choosing an option to believe in, the pyrrhonian eliminates vulnerability to the impacts of the probable decisions and subsequently cannot be disturbed by any factors within the confined of the suspended judgment (1 H5). Suspending judgment is accomplished through various strategies namely: opposing appearances to appearances, opposing ideas to ideas, opposing ideas to appearances and opposing sometimes present things to the present things. Each of these strategies can be accomplished through 10 different modes as recommended by Pyrrho. Some of the 10 modes include:  same objects do not produce same impressions due to differences in animals; the same objects do not produce the same impressions due to differences among humans; all things appear relative hence judgment must be suspended; differences occur in the quantity and constitution of objects based on impressions; every object is only described by its external appearance and its internal composition; and objects appear different due to locations, positions and distances (71 A3-25).

Inactivity Change

Inactivity change in pyrrhonian skepticism is described through the concept of active happiness. Pyrrhonians consider happiness to be more of a continuously active concept, which is attained through a combination of different factors, key of which is the suspension of judgment. While other people are more likely to have impressions which they describe as the core of their emotions, their own perceptions of those feelings is that they are imposed on them by the appearances of things. The exercise of phantasia in particular, is the force that pushes impressions to the Pyrrhonian skeptics (71 D10). The impressions to which the skeptic is subjected are unavoidable and they in turn, have a particular pull that drives the skeptic to assent to them. The inability to counter such impressions is what is defined through inactivity change as represented by a variety of texts on pyrrhonian skepticism.

Responses to inactivity change vary from one pyrrhonian to another as evidenced through the metaphors of the animals and perceptual differences (72 C10). The differences between the perceptions of people and those of animals contribute significantly to the pyrrhonian inactivity change. This difference is a component of each of the five major modes of perception associated with pyrrhonism. In particular, various concepts can be used to describe pyrrhonian responses, beginning from the premise of sense differences. In regards to the senses, the pyrrhonian responses are described on the basis of acceptance of appearances made through senses rather than using those appearances as a description of what things are. For one, the pyrrhonian argues that whatever appearances are experienced by one sense do not necessarily translate to the description of things since the senses also perceive things differently. What is acceptable to the sense of sight may not be acceptable to the sense of smell. Similarly, something acceptable to the human sense of smell may not be experienced in a similar manner by the sense of smell of an animal (72 C10). The pyrrhonian largely posits that natural existence is difficult to define given that the senses are co-extensive with a variety of sense organs and that each sense exists only in as much as a specific sense organ recognizes it. Pyrrho describes the concept of change as subject to causal explanations, through which objects find meaning whether they came about in particular order or not. Inactivity change in this essence is the result of the definition accorded to things that have no direct causal relationships based on their links with others which have distinctive causal relationships (1 K15).

Action without Belief

The most common question on Pyrrhonism is how does the pyrrhonian skeptic act without belief? The skeptic defines the impression as what directs human action. Any human decision is founded on three components namely the impression, impulse and assent. In their suspension of judgment, skeptics avoid assent at all costs as their basis of attaining happiness. However, they cannot avoid impression even if they wanted to; on the basis that impression is created as soon as one comes into contact with an object or a scenario. The impression drives impulse, which is the core of action (68 H6-8). This perception implies that without assent, which is defined also through belief systems, the pyrrhonian skeptic can still act based on impression and impulse without violating the concept of suspension of judgment. Activity in this case is not directly linked to belief, implying that a pyrrhonian skeptic can initiate an action even without belief in the action or its consequences. A perfect example of this given in (71 D16-18) entails the perception that it is raining.

In avoiding judgment, the skeptic will say that it appears to be raining. This is to imply that the falling rain is not necessarily a true phenomenon; rather it is an appearance from an independent observer’s perspective. Based on this appearance, the skeptic will use his umbrella when it rains without necessarily believing that it is raining. This kind of action is described as a reflex response or instinctive action based on impression and impulse (72 C10). Choice and action in the world of a pyrrhonian skeptic is driven by perceptions of pleasure and displeasure, and the impression that different appearances move people differently. This impression means that the skeptic has to suspend judgment at all costs, due to the consideration of the fact that what appears pleasurable to one person may not be necessarily pleasurable to another. The decision to act on a particular concern would therefore be based entirely on the impression that a scenario makes at any given time. While the actions of skeptics without belief is somewhat pegged on different premises than those of the general human populace, other people also act in so many instances without belief either through compulsion or through the desire to get outcomes that would be beneficial to many.


Pyrrhonian skepticism is a subject that requires an in-depth discussion and understanding. The skeptic bases his arguments on the need for the suspension of judgment or rather avoidance of assent in every scenario. This characteristic is based on their argument that tranquility comes through the dispensation of the possibility of belief. The decisions made by the skeptics are attributed to impulses that result from the impressions that situations have on them. Concepts such as ataraxia, which defines the ultimate condition of tranquility, and equipoise, are descriptions of the different ends that are pursued by the pyrrhonian skeptic. By virtue of their consideration of impressions and appearances, it is possible for pyrrhonians to act without believing in their actions. Such actions are described as instinctive or reflexive.