This article is an investigation of the nature of suspension of judgement as it is conceived by Sextus Empiricus. I carry out this investigation by examining what I take to be Sextus’ most pertinent remarks on the topic and by considering them in the context of contemporary philosophical work on the nature of suspension. Against the more frequently encountered idea that Sextus is operating with a privative conception of suspension, I argue that Sextus instead has a metacognitive account of suspension, whereby suspending constitutively involves acknowledging that one is not in a position to tell whether or not p.
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The doxastic state of suspension of judgement (epochē) clearly plays a central role in Sextus Empiricus’ account of the Pyrrhonian Sceptical ‘way of life’ (agōgē).Footnote 1 Indeed, when Sextus claims, in addressing the topic of whether or not Scepticism amounts to a genuine philosophical ‘school’ (hairesis), that “if one counts as a school a way of life that, to all appearances, coheres with some account, where that account shows how it is possible to live rightly… then we say that the Sceptics do belong to a school”, the only aspect of this Sceptical account of how to live rightly that he mentions is that it “extends to the ability to suspend judgement” (PH I: 17).Footnote 2 The central role of suspension in Sextus’ account of Pyrrhonism is expressed clearly in his answer to the question “What is Scepticism?”:
Scepticism is the ability to set out oppositions among things which appear and are thought in any way at all, an ability by which, because of the equipollence in the opposed objects and arguments, we come first to suspension of judgement and afterwards to undisturbedness (PH I: 8).
Suspension is the typical result of the Sceptics’ trademark model of inquiry (zētēsis), which primarily consists in finding ways to oppose to the evidence and arguments for any ‘Dogmatic’ claim evidence and arguments which the Sceptics hold to be equally strong. On the basis of this ‘equipollence’ (isostheneia) the Sceptics suspend judgement about the matter. What is more, they find that this suspension gives rise to a feeling of ‘undisturbedness’ (ataraxia). And the hope of achieving this undisturbedness, Sextus writes, is the “causal principle of Scepticism” (PH I: 12).
Given the centrality of suspension to the Sceptic’s way of life, it is unsurprising that there is extended discussion, in scholarly work on Sextus, of various aspects of the role this state plays in his account of Pyrrhonism. Examples would include the role played by suspension in Sceptical inquiry,Footnote 3 the relation between suspension and undisturbedness,Footnote 4 or the question of whether the Sceptic’s suspension of judgement in the face of equipollent arguments is best understood in psychological-causal terms, or in rational-normative ones.Footnote 5 Given the recent increase in interest in suspension of judgement among contemporary philosophers, perhaps especially due to the work of Jane Friedman, it is likewise unsurprising that one also tends to encounter occasional historical appeals to Sextus’ account in contemporary work on the subject.Footnote 6
Partly by appeal to contemporary work on suspension, in this article I attempt to contribute to the burgeoning literature on a topic that, while it certainly has not been ignored, has historically received rather less attention in scholarly work on Sextus than the aspects of the role of suspension mentioned above: Sextus’ conception of the nature of suspension of judgement itself, i.e., what Sextus thinks one is doing when one suspends. I will argue, against more commonly encountered interpretations, that there is reason to think that Sextus operates with the following ‘metacognitive’ account of suspension. It appears to Sextus that:
One suspends judgement about p iff (i) one believes that one cannot yet tell whether or not p, because the cases for and against p appear to be equipollent, and (ii) one neither believes nor disbelieves that p, on that basis.Footnote 7
I proceed as follows: In Section 2 I briefly introduce three major kinds of views on the nature of suspension. In Section 3 I attempt to motivate the investigation by responding to concerns that Sextus either could not have, or need not have had a view on the nature of suspension. In Section 4 I begin to investigate Sextus’ remarks about suspension, focusing on remarks that might be taken to support the dominant view that Sextus has a privative conception of suspension, according to which it does not amount to a doxastic attitude in its own right. I conclude that, although the remarks investigated in this section confirm the widespread view that Sextus supposes that suspension only ever takes place on the basis of equipollent oppositions, they do not clearly support the idea that Sextus has a privative conception of suspension itself. In Section 5 I investigate remarks from Sextus which might be taken to support the view that Sextus has a positive conception of suspension, according to which it does amount to a distinctive attitude, and consider what that attitude might be. There I argue for the primary conclusion of the article: that Sextus is operating with the metacognitive view stated above.
2 Some Accounts of Suspension
Contemporary work on suspension has resulted in a plethora of different takes on the nature of this state. The conceptual divisions between these takes can, I think, be of use in reflecting on Sextus’ characterisation of the Sceptics’ suspension of judgement, so long as one avoids slipping anachronistically into supposing that Sextus himself was engaging in the kind of argument common to contemporary debates on the topic. Following Alexandra Zinke (2021: 1051-53), I will focus on three major kinds of accounts of the nature of suspension.Footnote 8 The first understands suspension privatively, in terms of the absence of the attitudes of belief and disbelief, while the other two understand it positively, in terms of consisting in or involving an attitude in its own right.Footnote 9 I follow Matthew McGrath (2021: 464) in supposing that to be an ‘attitude’ “is to be in a positive state on the question of whether p”. I take it this means something like ‘to have something to say about the matter of whether p’. The three kinds of accounts are as follows:
Privative accounts: Privative, or “non-belief” accounts take suspension of judgement to consist essentially in the absence of belief and disbelief, rather than in some positive attitude concerning the matter at hand. Such accounts clearly require some sort of qualification in order to avoid absurd consequences like the attribution of a suspension of judgement about the correct interpretation of quantum mechanics to Galileo, or indeed, to a table. Various qualifications might be entertained. Thus Friedman, for example, critically discusses accounts of suspension as ‘non-belief plus having considered the matter’, ‘non-belief plus refraining from belief’, and ‘non-belief for a reason’ (Friedman, 2013: 169-75),Footnote 10 and there is no reason to think that these exhaust the available options.
Sui generis accounts: Sui generis accounts hold that suspension amounts to an attitude in its own right. Friedman, for example, influentially holds that suspension is an attitude, distinct from and not reducible to belief or disbelief, and which expresses a commitment to “indecision about which of p, ¬p is true” (Friedman, 2013: 180).Footnote 11
Metacognitive accounts: Metacognitive accounts take suspension to involve a higher-order attitude towards one’s first-order cognition. Typically, such accounts tend to understand suspension in terms of a higher-order belief about one’s epistemic relation to p. Thus Masny, for example, takes suspension about p to involve one having the belief that one neither believes nor disbelieves that p (Masny 2019: 5024). Raleigh, by contrast, takes suspension about p to involve the belief “that one cannot yet tell whether or not p, based on one’s evidence” (Raleigh 2021: 2455).
To be clear, it is not my intention here to adjudicate contemporary disputes about the nature of suspension, which are very much ongoing, but rather to use them as aids in the investigation of the notion of suspension operative in Sextus’ texts. Before launching this investigation, however, it is necessary to address the question of why one should suppose that Sextus has a view on this topic at all.
3 Does Sextus Have a View on the Nature of Suspension?
It is worth noting that there is a fairly widespread tendency to attribute to Sextus a view on the nature of suspension of judgement, both among philosophers working systematically on suspension today and among scholars of ancient Pyrrhonism. Friedman (2017) appeals to Sextus’ characterisation of the Sceptics as those who are “still inquiring” (PH I: 3) in order attribute to him the view that suspension of judgement itself amounts to the attitude of inquiry. McGrath (2021: 468) suggests that the Sceptics’ suspension of judgement is not in fact identical with the neutral doxastic attitude that occurs between the attitudes of belief and disbelief, since it is motivated by non-epistemic factors. Sextus’ suspension is rather an attitude of deliberately refraining from belief because of the possible benefits of further inquiry, thinks McGrath. Jonathan Barnes attributes to Sextus a privative account of suspension whereby you suspend judgement about something “if and only if, having reflected on the matter, you neither believe or disbelieve it” (Barnes 2000: xix).Footnote 12 And each of these views can be disputed. Friedman is no doubt right to call attention to the relation between, on the one hand, the suspension of judgement that occurs in Pyrrhonian inquiry, and, on the other, Sextus’ characterisation of the Sceptics as ongoing inquirers. But Sextus never explicitly states that to suspend judgement just is to inquire. What he does say frequently is that the Sceptics “conclude” (sunagein) with suspension of judgement (e.g., PH I: 35, 99, 123, II: 79, III: 49, AP I: 191, II: 6), and that suspension occurs “after the inquiry” (PH I: 7), so it is not clear that Friedman is right to identify Sextus’ suspension with the attitude of inquiring. In McGrath’s case, although one could read some of Sextus’ frequent criticisms of Dogmatic rashness (propeteia) in terms of extolling the possible benefits of further inquiry, these criticisms seem more frequently to target a tendency to believe on the basis of insufficient evidence. After Sextus’ discussion of the Agrippan modes (PH I: 177), and of the problem of the criterion (PH II: 21), for example, he remarks that these target Dogmatic rashness, but what is targeted in these cases is the tendency to believe something on the basis of, e.g., an arbitrary hypothesis, or circular reasoning. These cases lend themselves to an interpretation of Pyrrhonian suspension more agreeable to analysis in terms of purely epistemic factors. Finally, I will argue in Sections 4 and 5 of this article that Barnes’ case for attributing a privative conception of suspension to Sextus should be resisted.
The challenge to be addressed in this section, however, is whether such disputes are well motivated, or even legitimate. They would be illegitimate if Sextus’ other commitments mean that he could not plausibly have a view on the nature of suspension of judgement. They would fail to be well-motivated if, even if Sextus could have such a view, there are no good reasons for supposing that he in fact had one, nor that considering it would contribute anything to our understanding of his presentation of Pyrrhonism. I will address these in turn.
The obvious reason for thinking that it would be illegitimate for Sextus to have a view on the nature of suspension is that such a thing would be a belief (dogma) about what it is to suspend judgement, and the Sceptics, famously, “hold no beliefs” (PH I: 12) or ‘do not dogmatise’. If attributing a view to Sextus on the nature of suspension involves attributing a ‘Dogmatic’ belief to him, this would seem to be incompatible with a fundamental aspect of his account of Pyrrhonism. Indeed, Sextus explicitly claims that the ‘Sceptical phrases’, including “I suspend judgement” (PH I: 196) apply to themselves (PH I: 14–15, 206). This might be taken to suggest that, rather than having a position on the nature of suspension of judgement, the Pyrrhonist suspends judgement about it.Footnote 13 It is not my intention here to enter into a lengthy discussion of the scope and nature of the beliefs that the Pyrrhonist may or may not be permitted to have. I note firstly that even the most radical interpretations of Sextus on this matter, which take seriously the idea that the Sceptic has nothing that could be called a ‘belief’ whatsoever, still acknowledge that this position must be qualified to the extent necessary to enable Sextus to make positive utterances, as when he says that the Sceptics “report descriptively on each item according to how it appears to us” (PH I: 4) or, more generally, “say what is apparent to themselves and report how they are affected” (PH I: 15). A more moderate position on this topic has been prominently defended by Gail Fine, who allows for the attribution of beliefs to the Sceptic, but argues that the Sceptics ‘have beliefs… only about how they are appeared to” (Fine 2021: 287).Footnote 14 I find Fine’s account convincing and will adopt it here, although I think that the conclusions I defend in this article could also be made amenable to defenders of a more radical interpretation of the scope of the Sceptic’s beliefs without much difficulty.Footnote 15
The point is that, whether or not it ought to be called a belief, the Sceptic can have and express a perspective on what some experienced state is like, and this presumably extends to suspension of judgement, since this is a state with which the Sceptics are extremely familiar. Sextus might not be prepared to stand dogmatically by his conception of suspension, to “affirm that things certainly are just as we say they are” (PH I: 4), nor to hold that his account really truly captures the nature of the state as it really is, since the Sceptics only “say what is apparent to us and do not make firm assertions about the nature of externally existing things” (PH I: 208), but he does not need to in order to have such a conception. After all, Sextus says that the intention of the Sceptics “is to make clear what is apparent to us” (PH I: 191).Footnote 16 It is therefore perfectly legitimate for Sextus to attempt to clarify the nature of suspension of judgement as it appears to him, and subsequently for us to see how this compares to contemporary theories of suspension, even if the latter are formulated with ‘Dogmatic’ intentions that Sextus would reject.Footnote 17
So it is possible for Sextus to have a view on the nature of suspension of judgement. Attributions of such views to him are not obviously illegitimate. What reason is there to think that he in fact has such a view, however? And what does it contribute to our understanding of his Scepticism?Footnote 18 The first thing to say here is that it would be quite surprising if Sextus were not operating with a conception of suspension of judgement, given the fundamental role played by this state in his account of Pyrrhonism. As I indicated above, Sextus presents suspension as the key to the Sceptics’ achievement of undisturbedness. And the hope of precisely this achievement was what motivated the Sceptics to begin philosophical inquiry in the first place. The Sceptic is literally an investigator, or an inquirer (a ‘zetetic’), and all of the Sceptics’ philosophical inquiries, Sextus claims, have resulted in suspension of judgement.Footnote 19 Given the Sceptics’ commitment to “say what is apparent to themselves and report how they are affected” (PH I: 15), and given the frequency with which they suspend judgement and its vital importance to their way of life, one should expect Sextus to spend some time setting out what it is to suspend judgement in his account of Pyrrhonism. And one can also expect Sextus’ account of the nature of suspension, I think, to relate interestingly to other key aspects of his presentation of Pyrrhonism and thus to have consequences for broader questions about how to understand Pyrrhonism as he presents it. Although such relations and consequences are not the primary object of investigation in this article, I provide two brief examples here to indicate their possibility:
First example: Casey Perin has argued that Sextus’ account of Sceptical inquiry is one that is governed by certain norms that “are evidential in character” (Perin 2015: 122), and that these follow ultimately from the fact that the Sceptic, according to Sextus, “accepts truth as the norm of belief” (Perin 2015: 117). According to Perin, then, it seems that the Sceptic’s suspension of judgement is a genuinely doxastic state, motivated only by epistemic factors, i.e., the opposing arguments and evidence they have surveyed. If McGrath (2021: 468) is right to claim that Sextus’ suspension is not in fact a genuinely doxastic state, but rather an attitude of refraining from belief motivated by the possible benefits of further inquiry, then this calls into question Perin’s characterisation of Sextus’ Sceptic as governing their inquiries according to purely evidential norms. In fact, Perin himself notes something similar, pointing out that the fact that Sextus also claims that the Sceptics suspend in order to achieve undisturbedness suggests that they may also accept a competing “utility” norm for belief, thus threatening the coherence of Sextus’ account of Scepticism (Perin 2015: 121-24).
Second Example: Diego Machuca has argued, roughly, that: (i) if one has a purely psychological-causal account of why one suspends judgement, then one does not have a metacognitive account of suspension, (ii) that the Pyrrhonist’s move to suspension is purely psychologically caused by equipollent opposing arguments, and therefore (iii) that Sextus does not have a metacognitive account of suspension (Machuca 2022: 227). I will in fact dispute premise (i) of this argument in the next section of this article, but for the purposes of this example I will accept that it is true. Premise (ii) is controversial, since other readers of Sextus understand the Pyrrhonist’s suspension instead to proceed on the basis of considerations about what is rationally required in the face of equipollent opposing arguments.Footnote 20 Appealing to the old adage that one person’s modus ponens is another’s modus tollens, one might therefore suggest to someone accepting Machuca’s premise (i) that, if there is independent evidence for attributing a metacognitive account of suspension to Sextus, then it would follow that the Pyrrhonist’s move to suspension of judgement is not just a matter of psychological causation.
How one understands Sextus to conceive of suspension of judgement may well have further implications for how one understands his broader account of Scepticism, then. The main point here, however, is that Sextus’ goal, in the Outlines, is to “discuss in outline the Sceptical way of life” (PH I: 4). Given the central role of suspension in that way of life, it is difficult to see how this task could possibly be achieved without going at least some way towards giving an account of what it is to suspend judgement, as it appears to the Sceptic.
And sure enough, a reading of Book I of the Outlines confirms that Sextus does spend some time characterising what it is to suspend, claiming, for example, that it is an affection, or condition (pathos), that it concerns the intellect, that due to it the Sceptics neither reject nor posit anything about the object of their inquiries, and that it ‘makes clear’ the Sceptics’ apprehension of equipollence in terms of the convincingness of the opposing positions on the topic that they are inquiring about. I investigate Sextus’ various characterisations of suspension of judgement and what the overall account of this state is that they suggest over the final two sections of this article.
4 Sextus and the Privative Account of Suspension
I suggested above that the most frequently encountered position on Sextus’ conception of suspension of judgement is the one that takes him to be operating with a privative account of suspension. As Barnes puts it, characterising what he takes to be Sextus’ view:
x is sceptical with regard to the proposition that P if and only if (i) x has considered whether or not P, and (ii) x does not believe that P, and (iii) x does not believe that not-P. (Barnes 2000: xix)
Here ‘sceptical with regard to’ stands for ‘suspends judgement about’, clearly. Barnes is attributing to Sextus what Friedman (2013: 169) refers to as a ‘non-belief plus having considered the matter’ account of suspension. In this section I will look at three aspects of Sextus’ characterisation of suspension of judgement and will argue that, although they tell us interesting things about Sextus’ account of suspension, they do not necessarily show that Sextus is operating with a privative conception of suspension.
The first of these is from PH I: 10, where Sextus describes suspension as “a standstill of the intellect (stasis dianoias), owing to which we neither reject nor posit anything”. This characterisation could be taken to suggest that suspension of judgement is indeed being defined privatively by Sextus, merely in terms of the attitudes of belief and disbelief that it excludes.Footnote 21 This is perhaps suggested by Plínio Junqueira Smith’s reading of this material, when he states, “What sort of result is suspension of judgement? Sextus tells us explicitly what it is… namely, a state in which the sceptic does not affirm nor deny anything concerning the object investigated’ (Smith 2022: 74).Footnote 22 But of course, such a characterisation is perfectly compatible with various metacognitive and sui generis conceptions of suspension as well. Such accounts also take the suspending subject not to affirm or deny something about the object investigated, i.e., to have any first-order beliefs about it. It is merely that this is not all there is to suspension, on such accounts, since they hold that there is also, e.g. an attitude of indecision, or a higher-order belief about one’s epistemic standing. Such things are not ruled out merely by noting that suspension involves having no first-order, or object-directed belief or disbelief. And PH I:10 does not in fact explicitly define suspension as the absence of belief and disbelief. It just states that, due to the Sceptic’s suspension, they neither affirm nor deny anything. It is perfectly natural to read this as suggesting that neither believing nor disbelieving is merely an element of suspension, rather than its definition. Sextus’ description of suspension as a ‘standstill of the intellect’ might count against attributing certain kinds of attitudinal accounts of suspension to Sextus, such as the idea that suspension is the attitude of inquiry (since this this is hardly suggested by the idea of a ‘standstill’), but it is hardly decisive evidence for attributing to him a privative account of suspension.
Stronger evidence, perhaps, for attributing a privative account of suspension to Sextus, is provided by a passage from Book I of Against the Logicians. Here, in the context of rehearsing Arcesilaus’ criticisms of ‘apprehension’ (katalēpis) as a candidate for the criterion of truth, Sextus concludes that anyone upholding such a criterion will ultimately be forced to “decline assent about everything”. He then adds, “But declining assent is none other than suspending judgement” (AL I: 157). This sounds closer to an explicit statement that, if one assents to nothing, that is, neither believes nor disbelieves, then one is suspending judgement. But a closer look at the context of the remark calls this conclusion into question. Sextus is stating the conclusion of Arcesilaus’ case against the viability of a Stoic account of the criterion of truth. That conclusion, roughly, is that since the Stoic holds that a certain kind of ‘apprehension’ amounts to the criterion of truth, and since Arcesilaus has argued that no such apprehension really takes place, the Stoic upholding this criterion must neither believe nor disbelieve anything. And therefore they must suspend judgement. What the passage really seems to be stating, therefore, is that given the traditional view that there are only three possible doxastic positions to take regarding whether p: belief, disbelief, and suspension, if belief and disbelief are off the table then the only possible position is suspension.Footnote 23 The connection between suspension and the absence of belief and disbelief here is therefore one of inference, rather than definition. ‘If one neither believes nor disbelieves, then one must suspend’, not ‘Suspending is the absence of belief and disbelief’. Sextus’ remark here is therefore compatible with positive accounts of suspension which also take suspension to be the only possible result one belief and disbelief are off the table.Footnote 24 The evidence for attributing a privative account of suspension to Sextus is again not decisive.
A final reason for supposing Sextus to be operating with a privative conception of suspension is suggested by Machuca. Machuca (2022: 119) points out that Sextus describes suspension, at PH I: 7, for example, as an “affection” (pathos), where this indicates a physical or, in this case, psychological state one finds oneself in as a result of being affected, in this case by contrary arguments. For Sextus’ Pyrrhonist, claims Machuca, “Suspension is therefore something that imposes itself upon him, and so something he accepts passively, in much the same way in which he accepts such affections as the feelings of hunger and thirst” (Machuca 2022: 120). On the basis of this emphasis on understanding suspension as a passive affection, Machuca rejects the attribution to Sextus of conceptions of suspension which view it positively, and as a higher-order belief in particular, claiming that such a view,
does not fit well with his suspensive attitude because… he does not suspend judgement because he believes that he does not believe or disbelieve p, but because he finds himself unable, as a matter of psychological fact, to hold any beliefs whatsoever about whether p due to the apparent equipollence of the arguments for and against p (Machuca 2022: 227).
There are a number of ways to respond to the claim that Sextus’ description of suspension as an affection counts against attributing a positive conception of suspension to him. One might begin by noting that Sextus is not always especially careful with his terminology, claiming speak “in a loose sense” (PH I: 207). At PH I: 17, for example, he calls suspension of judgement an “ability” (dunamis), when it is clear that really the ability here is that of constructing opposing arguments which give rise to suspension, rather than suspension itself. Perhaps one might say something similar about the claim that suspension is an “affection that comes about in the investigator after the inquiry” (PH I: 7): e.g., that Sextus is really describing the affection of ‘undisturbedness’ that follows suspension for the Sceptic, rather than suspension itself. This would then fit rather better with those occasions on which Sextus describes suspension in far less passive terms, for example in his discussion of Dogmatic theories of demonstration in Against the Logicians:
For if the arguments produced against demonstration have remained unrefuted, and the arguments taken up in favour of there being demonstration are also strong, let us attach ourselves neither to one set nor to the other, but agree to suspend judgement (AL II: 477).
This passage does not at all appear to portray the Sceptics’ suspension of judgement as something imposed upon them and which they passively accept, but a state they adopt deliberately on the basis of recognising the equipollence of opposing arguments. Perhaps we should not put as much weight on Sextus’ description of suspension as a passive affection as Machuca does, then.Footnote 25
Still, it should be admitted that Sextus does describe suspension as an affection on more occasions than simply at PH I: 7, which suggests it is not just a case of incautious use of language.Footnote 26 But even if we accept that, for Sextus, suspension has some affective or ‘pathetic’ aspect to it, I am not sure that it counts against the attribution to him of a positive account of suspension in the way that Machuca takes it to. Even if the Sceptic’s adoption of suspension of judgement is understood purely as a state the Sceptic is psychologically pushed into by the apprehension of equipollent opposing arguments, this does not preclude the idea that suspension constitutively involves a particular attitude. In the case of a higher-order belief, for example, it is commonly supposed that we have at most rather limited agency when it comes to the beliefs that we adopt. In the absence of an argument for taking Sextus to be committed to a strong kind of doxastic voluntarism, understanding suspension as a state one passively adopts is no reason to reject the idea that it might constitutively involve a belief.
I do not think, then, that there is strong evidence for attributing a privative conception of suspension to Sextus. But before moving on to examine the evidence for attributing to him a positive conception it is worth briefly noting that, if Barnes and others are right to attribute a privative conception to Sextus, then they are also right to think that Sextus’ account of Pyrrhonism clearly does conceive suspension as involving certain specific conditions, and thus successfully avoids being simply indistinguishable from, e.g., never having considered the matter in question. Barnes, as I indicated above, takes Sextus to suppose that one can only suspend after having considered the matter, and this is clearly right, since Sextus says that suspension comes about “after the inquiry” (PH I: 7). In fact, I think that conditions attached to the Pyrrhonist’s suspension are rather more specific that this. For the Pyrrhonist to suspend judgement, it is not sufficient that they have considered the matter. Rather, it appears only ever to be on the basis of the apparent equipollence of the opposing cases for and against some candidate belief that the Pyrrhonist suspends judgement, according to Sextus. A typical example is provided by the Sceptics’ suspension of judgement concerning the existence of gods. There is no suggestion that the Sceptic could suspend after having considered the matter because they do not find it to be very important, for example, or because they find both the existence and the non-existence of gods to be frightening or unpleasant prospects.Footnote 27 Instead Sextus is clear, “the Sceptics said that there no more are than are not gods, because of the equipollence of the opposing arguments” (AP I: 59).Footnote 28
Neither a lengthy discussion of further such examples,Footnote 29 nor a detailed discussion of the various Sceptical “modes of suspension of judgement” (PH I: 5, 164) by which the Sceptics construct their equipollent opposing arguments is necessary here in order to show that Sextus considers suspension only to take place on the basis of an appreciation of the equipollence of opposing cases.Footnote 30 This is because Sextus quite explicitly writes equipollent opposition into the definition of suspension when he states that the Sceptics use the term ‘suspension’ because “the intellect is suspended… because of the equipollence of the matters being inquired into” (PH I: 196). Without the apprehension of such an equipollent opposition, it would seem, the Sceptic would not be suspending.Footnote 31 We can defend, as a minor conclusion, then, the claim that if Sextus understand suspension privatively, then he understands it along the following lines:
One suspends judgement about p iff (i) it appears to one the cases for and against p are equipollent and (ii) one neither believes nor disbelieves that p, on that basis.Footnote 32
It remains the case, however, that no conclusive evidence has been presented for attributing a privative conception of suspension to Sextus. Thus, in the next section, I consider the possibility that he might in fact have been operating with a positive conception of the state. It should be noted, however, that such a conception needs to retain the emphasis on the necessity of apprehending an equipollent opposition outlined here in order to be legitimately attributed to Sextus.
5 Sextus and Positive Accounts of Suspension
In the previous section I argued that there are no strong reasons to suppose that Sextus is operating with a privative account of suspension. In this section I turn to the evidence for attributing to him a positive account, one which understands suspension as an attitude. There are potentially two questions to answer here: firstly, do Sextus’ remarks about suspension of judgement suggest that it appears to him that suspension constitutively involves an attitude? And if so, secondly, what kind of attitude?
There are plenty of passages to which one might appeal in order to suggest that Sextus has a positive account of suspension, but they are, for the most part, far from being decisive. Sextus claims at one point, for example, that from equipollent arguments “suspension of judgement is produced in our thinking” (AL II: 159). This could be taken to suggest that some positive state is being arrived at, if it should seem odd to describe a mere absence of belief and disbelief as being “produced” (gínetai). But this is weak evidence. It is still plausible that Sextus might express a privative conception of suspension this way, speaking ‘in a loose sense’, as he admits to doing.
The material that seems most significant to me when it comes to understanding Sextus’ view on the nature of suspension is his collection of remarks on “the Sceptical phrases” (PH I: 187–209). These phrases, Sextus writes, are uttered on the basis of having put to use the argumentative “modes of suspension of judgement” and thereby “manifest a Sceptical disposition (diathesis)” (PH I: 187). In other words, the Sceptical phrases are used to express the state the Pyrrhonist finds themselves in upon apprehending equipollent opposing arguments, i.e., the state of suspension of judgement. The phrases, which it seems can be used fairly interchangeably, include not only ‘I suspend judgement’ itself, but also, inter alia, ‘Opposed to every argument there is an equal argument’, ‘Everything is inapprehensible’, and ‘No more’ (ou mallon). Since these phrases are used to express the Sceptic’s suspension of judgement, it makes sense to attribute particular weight to them when attempting to clarify Sextus’ conception of that state. I think that an examination of these phrases provides good evidence for attributing a positive account of suspension to Sextus, as I will attempt to show in this section.
Regarding the Pyrrhonist’s use of ‘no more’, Sextus explains that this is an abbreviated way of saying “No more this than that” (PH I: 188), where this expresses the fact that it appears to the Pyrrhonist that the opposing arguments that they are considering are equipollent and that they thus suspend judgement (PH I: 190). The crucial passage from Sextus’ discussion of this phrase is as follows: he says that the Sceptics “use it [‘no more’]… for ‘I do not know which of these things I should assent to and which not assent to’” (PH I: 191).Footnote 33 If ‘no more’ expresses the Sceptic’s suspension of judgement, then this passage indicates that suspending is understood by Sextus to involve taking up a certain position on one’s epistemic standing vis-à-vis the object of inquiry.Footnote 34 That is to say, in reporting what it is to suspend judgement here, Sextus seems to be stating that it involves acknowledging that one is not in a position to believe or disbelieve. This seems to be confirmed when Sextus, discussing the phrase ‘I suspend judgement’ itself, adds, “We use ‘I suspend judgement’ for ‘I cannot say which of the things proposed I should find convincing and which I should not find convincing’, making it clear that objects appear to us equal in respect of convincingness’” (PH I: 196). In making this claim, Sextus appears precisely not to be saying that all there is to suspension is the absence of belief and disbelief, but rather, again, that suspension itself involves acknowledging that one is not in a position either to believe or to disbelieve, specifically because of the equipollence of the opposition being considered.
Another way to make this point concerns the content of the Sceptical phrases. If, as I have suggested, the phrases characterise the Sceptic’s suspension of judgement, then the content the Sceptic expresses by means of them – ‘I do not know which of these things I should assent to and which not assent to’, ‘I cannot say which of the things proposed I should find convincing and which I should not find convincing’, etc., − is the content of the Sceptic’s suspensive state. But if this is right, then it immediately rules out a privative conception of suspension, since, according to such conceptions, suspension itself has no content: it is merely the absence of belief and disbelief.
This material, then, suggests to me that Sextus is not operating with a privative conception of suspension. Instead I think that Sextus here seems to take suspension itself to involve an attitude, rather than merely the absence of the attitudes of belief and disbelief. And the kind of attitude that Sextus’ account of the Sceptical phrases suggests is not, I think, a sui generis indecision-expressing attitude, nor the attitude of inquiry, of refraining from belief, etc. It looks instead as though Sextus is describing suspension as involving something like a higher-order belief about what the Sceptic is in a position to believe about the matter at hand. PH I: 191 and 196, cited above, both state fairly explicitly that, in suspending judgement, the Pyrrhonist is explicitly acknowledging that they are not in a position either to believe or to disbelieve. The Sceptic is thus metacognising when they suspend. The contemporary account of suspension that this most closely resembles, I think, is that defended by Thomas Raleigh, for whom suspending constitutively involves believing that “one cannot yet tell whether or not p, based on one’s evidence” (Raleigh 2021: 2455).
One might object that if Sextus, by ‘I suspend judgement’, means ‘I cannot say which of the things proposed I should find convincing and which I should not find convincing’, then perhaps this is not incompatible with a privative account of suspension after all. If Sextus’ ‘I cannot say’ is understood to express something like ‘I have been forced into a position in which I can neither believe nor disbelieve, and thus have nothing to say about the matter at hand’, rather than ‘I explicitly acknowledge that I am not in a position to believe or disbelieve concerning the matter at hand’ then perhaps there is something to such an objection.Footnote 35 But the text of PH I: 196 does not lend itself to such an interpretation, I think. Sextus writes that, in suspending, the Sceptic “makes clear” by ‘I suspend judgement’ precisely “that objects appear to us equal in respect of convincingness”. To suspend judgement, for Sextus, thus involves an explicit report on one’s own epistemic standing. It is therefore being conceived in terms of metacognition. It is not merely the case that, for Sextus, suspension must be understood to take place on the basis of apprehending some equipollent opposition, whereby this is simply a necessary condition for the state and suspension itself can be understood privatively (i.e., the possibility considered at the end of the previous section). Rather, explicitly formulating the apprehension of this equipollence and what it means for whether or not to believe that p, belongs essentially to what it is to suspend about p, so that suspension itself has this as a positive content in the form of a higher-order belief.Footnote 36
This interpretation is further supported by additional material from the Sceptical phrases. Repeatedly, when discussing the phrases which characterise the Sceptics’ suspended state, Sextus affirms that the Sceptic is “saying what is apparent to them about the subject proposed” (PH I: 197), and that the content of the Sceptic’s claim in such cases is that “those of the matters inquired into… which I have considered appear such to me that none of them seems to me to exceed in convincingness or lack of convincingness that which conflicts with it”. (PH I: 199).Footnote 37 Such passages reaffirm that, for Sextus, suspension involves no ‘Dogmatic’ beliefs, but only characterising or reporting how things appear, and that what is reported in suspending is an equipollent opposition such that the Sceptic can neither believe nor disbelieve concerning the matter at hand. As I stated in Section 3, I think it is acceptable to characterise such reports in terms of ‘beliefs about how things appear’, and it is in this sense that the higher-order belief essential to suspension should be understood, for Sextus. On this basis, it seems plausible to me to attribute to him the following position on suspension of judgement. It appears to Sextus that:
One suspends judgement about p iff (i) one believes that one cannot yet tell whether or not p, because the cases for and against p appear to be equipollent, and (ii) one neither believes nor disbelieves that p, on that basis.
Of course, interpreters of Sextus who reject that idea the Sceptic can have a ‘belief’ even of the kind ‘I believe that it appears to me that I can neither believe nor disbelieve p, on the basis of the equipollent opposing arguments’ can simply replace (i) above with ‘one assents to the appearance that one cannot yet tell whether or not p, because the cases for and against p appear to be equipollent’. This preserves the metacognitive character of account without needing to attribute a ‘belief’ to Sextus, insofar as the Sceptic’s ‘assent’, however precisely it is understood, has as its object the Sceptic’s assessment of the cases for and against p.
I think that the account above satisfies various conditions for plausibly attributing a view on the nature of suspension to Sextus. (a) It suggests that he does have a view on the nature of suspension, as one would expect, given its centrality to the Sceptical way of life. (b) It retains the idea that Sextus is not making a Dogmatic claim about the nature of suspension, but he is reporting how it appears to him. (c) It captures the fact that the suspension of judgement, according to Sextus, only ever takes place on the basis of apprehending an equipollent opposition. And (d) it makes good sense of the material from the ‘Sceptical phrases’, which, I have argued, gives the impression that explicitly formulating the claim that the equipollent opposition in question means that the Sceptic is not in a position to adopt a belief or disbelief concerning the object of inquiry belongs to what it is to suspend. I therefore take this interpretation to be more plausible than accounts that suppose Sextus simply not to have a view on the nature of suspension, or ones that take him to understand suspension privatively.
This attribution of a metacognitive conception of suspension to Sextus represents the primary conclusion of this article. It is reasonable to ask at this point what difference it makes to attribute this account of suspension to Sextus, beyond making better sense of Sextus’ discussion of the Sceptical phrases, as I have suggested here that it does, instead of the merely privative one mentioned at the end of Section 4, which also incorporated Sextus’ demand that suspension always involve apprehending an equipollent opposition. Spelling out the implications of this difference in full is a task for another time, but I will briefly mention two points in conclusion. Firstly, the Sceptics typically conclude their inquiries with suspension of judgement.Footnote 38 The content of this conclusion, for the investigation of some claim that p, is, as Perin (2018: 119) notes, “that p and its negation are… equipollent”. This conclusion, if one supposes Sextus to be operating with a metacognitive account of suspension, just belongs to the content of the higher-order belief constitutive of the Sceptic’s suspension of judgement. This then makes good sense of Sextus’ claim that the Sceptics “conclude with suspension of judgment” (PH I: 35). If, one the other hand, one insists that suspension be understood privatively, and only on the basis of this conclusion about equipollence, one is forced to say instead that the Sceptics conclude their inquiries with a diagnosis of equipollence, and only then suspend judgement, with the suspension itself having no distinctive content, despite what Sextus says in PH I: 196. This strikes me as considerably more awkward as a reading of Sextus’ text.
Finally, it seems to me that attributing this metacognitive conception of suspension to Sextus lends itself well to those interpretations of Sceptical inquiry which understand it as primarily concerned with what is rationally required of one, as opposed being a governed by matters of psychological necessity. Rational interpretations of Sceptical inquiry require that the Sceptic, presumably self-consciously, conducts and includes their inquiries on the basis of evidential norms governing which doxastic state to adopt. An account of the content of the Sceptic’s suspension as the explicit acknowledgement that they are not in a position either to believe or disbelieve the claim in question fits such an interpretation, it seems to me, rather better than an account of the Sceptic’s suspension which has no distinctive content of its own, but merely needs to take place on the basis of the apprehension of an equipollent opposition. I favour such a ‘rational’ account of Sceptical inquiry, but must argue for it elsewhere.
I will use ‘Pyrrhonism’ and ‘Scepticism’, as well as ‘Pyrrhonist’ and ‘Sceptic’ interchangeably in what follows.
I will use the following abbreviations for Sextus’ texts:
PH = Outlines of Scepticism trans. J. Annas and J. Barnes (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000)
AL = Against the Logicians trans. R. Bett (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005)
AP = Against the Physicists trans. R. Bett (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012)
M = Against Those in the Disciplines trans. R. Bett (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018)
In using these abbreviations I follow various others in rejecting the tradition of citing Against the Logicians, Against the Physicists, and Against the Ethicists as if they are additional books of Against Those in the Disciplines, on the grounds that this is most likely not the case (See Bett’s introduction to AP: xi-xx). See Machuca 2022: 16–17 for a recent case for breaking with tradition on this matter.
Translations have occasionally been altered.
This bears some resemblance to the metacognitive account of suspension recently defended by Raleigh (2021: 2455), although no suggestion is made here that Sextus arrives at this view on the basis of a similar argument.
See Masny 2019: 5010, for a more detailed summary of distinctions in the recent literature on the topic.
No suggestion is made here to the effect that these exhaust the possibilities for theories of the nature of suspension of judgement, but they do seem to capture much of the contemporary theoretical landscape.
The emphasis is on ‘critically’ here, since Friedman rejects privative accounts of suspension. Wedgwood (2002), for example, seems to defend a privative account.
Machuca (2022: 227) points out that the nature of suspension of judgement is a matter of philosophical controversy today. This is presumably intended to recall the mode of dispute, and to suggest that the Sceptic would therefore not hold a view on the topic.
See also Perin 2010: 84, for further support of this view. The classic case for attributing no beliefs at all to the Sceptic is Burnyeat 1997. However, Burnyeat’s case for denying any kind of beliefs to the Sceptic depends heavily on the claim that “dogmata” were not used in reference to subjective states by ancient Greek philosophers, but only to matters of objective fact. See Fine 2021: 288–324, for an extended case against this view.
There is an alternative account of the scope of the Sceptic’s beliefs, defended by Frede (1997) and more recently by Morison (2011), which does not restrict the Sceptics beliefs to appearances. According to this account, the beliefs that the Sceptic does not have are not those with a certain content, e.g., being claims about the nature of things, but those reached by a process of philosophical reasoning. In taking Sextus to be reporting how what it is to suspend appears to be to him, I am likewise not supposing that he holds this view as a result of philosophical argument.
This is confirmed by numerous remarks in Sextus’ treatment of the ‘Sceptical phrases’ where suspension of judgement is expressed and characterised, but without thereby holding that such phrases “make these things clear by nature” (PH I: 195). Sextus is merely characterising the Sceptics’ non-dogmatic view of suspension. I take it that this allows him to hold a view on what it is to suspend, without thereby being dogmatically committed to a position on a matter of philosophical controversy, as Machuca suggested.
It has been pointed out to me by Alexandra Zinke that even if the Sceptic were to have no theory of the nature of suspension this is no obstacle to our observing his portrayal of Scepticism and characterising suspension as it is operative there, just as epistemologists characterise the beliefs of an ordinary person who themselves has no position on the nature of belief. This is certainly true, but it also seems to me that Sextus goes some way towards developing an explicit account of suspension himself.
My thanks to an anonymous reviewer for this journal for pushing me on this point.
PH I: 203 states clearly that everything the Sceptic has inquired into has resulted in the kind of equipollent oppositions that give rise to suspension of judgement. PH I: 169 states that “every object of inquiry” can be referred to the modes of suspension of judgement (the Agrippan modes specifically, in this case).
Sextus, of course, does not talk explicitly about ‘disbelief’, but I do not think that it is problematic to use the term when discussing his views on suspension.
Smith does not explicitly commit Sextus to a privative account of suspension, as far as I can see.
I think that Sextus is fairly clearly committed to the traditional idea that there are only three doxastic positions one can take regarding whether p. See AP II: 45, or M I: 28, for example. This counts against McGrath’s (2021: 468) suggestion that Pyrrhonian suspension of judgement should not be understood as the traditional, third doxastic attitude, I think.
See McGrath 2021: 463–64, for a contemporary statement of the claim that there are only three genuine doxastic attitudes one can take regarding whether p, where the neutral one amounts to an attitude. The traditional view that there are only three possible doxastic positions to take regarding the question of whether p might be considered more controversial in contemporary philosophy (hence McGrath’s defence of it), but it is not surprising that the kind of criticisms that might be directed towards it by today’s epistemologists did not occur to Sextus.
Whether Sextus’ Pyrrhonist suspends judgement because they are psychologically caused to, or because they recognise that, rationally, they ought to in the face of equipollent arguments, is a live topic in the secondary literature. See Eichorn 2020: 189–197 for a good overview. I do not want to defend a position on this debate here, firstly because that would require an article in its own right, but secondly because I think that the conclusions I defend here about the nature of suspension do not depend on taking up a particular position in that debate.
The claim that suspension is an affection does lend itself well to the position I defended earlier, whereby Sextus can report on how suspension of judgement appears to be to him, without defending a philosophical claim to the effect that this is how suspension of judgement really is by its nature. At PH I: 22, for example, he claims that the ‘standard’ of the Sceptical way of life is ‘what is apparent’, where appearances can be understood in terms of ‘involuntary affections’ and are not, for the Sceptics, objects of philosophical inquiry, where this would mean the attempt to find out whether something is by nature the same as the way that it appears.
Along similar lines, Friedman (2013: 173) suggests that an arachnophobe might refrain from belief about whether or not spiders have good eyesight because they simply cannot bear to think about spiders at all, but that it would not be appropriate to say that such an arachnophobe suspends judgement about the eyesight of spiders.
At PH I: 188–91 Sextus discusses his use of the expression “no more” and makes it clear that it refers to suspension of judgement, rather than being a claim about metaphysical indeterminacy, for example.
For further such examples see PH I: 31, 61, 177, AL II:159, 298, AP II: 6, 69, or M I: 157.
This is again to pass over the issue of the precise nature of the relationship between the Sceptics’ apprehension of equipollence and their suspension of judgement, i.e., whether this is a matter of psychological causality, or whether it involves adherence to the demands of reason.
This bears some resemblance to the view that Friedman critically discusses in terms of ‘non-belief for a reason’ (Friedman, 2013: 174–75). See also Perin 2018: 119. It is worth noting that the view that the Sceptic suspends judgement only on the basis of equipollent arguments or evidence seems to be the dominant one in the literature on Sextus. An exception is Wieland 2014. See Machuca 2015 for a response.
Sextus is here distinguishing his use of ‘no more’ from that of earlier Sceptics, who may have used it to express a more controversial, metaphysical claim to the effect that “contraries hold of the same things” (PH I: 210). The content of such a metaphysical claim would straightforwardly appear to be a first-order belief about the world. Understood as a claim about equipollent evidence, however, ‘no more’ would appear rather to be a higher-order belief about one’s epistemic standing. My thanks to an anonymous reviewer for this journal for raising this issue.
Strictly speaking, Sextus says here that the Sceptics use ‘no more’ either as a question, e.g. ‘Why p and not ¬p?’, or to express that they do not know whether to assent to p or to ¬p. This might be thought to muddy the waters a little, but I think that it would be rather hasty to attribute to Sextus a substantive view on the nature of suspension on the basis of this appeal to the notion of a question. Elsewhere Sextus remarks that Dogmatic grammarians may not be in a position to know how the Sceptics use the phrase ‘no more’, “whether it serves as a question or as an assertion” (M I: 315), where this is apparently resolved in the discussion of the phrase in the Outlines (PH I: 189–91). His primary aim here in appealing to the idea that the Sceptics might be asking a question in saying ‘no more’, however, seems to be to defuse the potential objection that, if by the use of this phrase they are in fact committing to a statement about the metaphysical indeterminacy of things, then this is in fact a Dogmatic statement of the kind the Sceptics claim not to make, rather than this being a statement about the nature of suspension as Sextus conceives it.
I think that this is Machuca’s (2022: 227) view, mentioned already. Perin (2018: 119-120) also reads this passage as expressing a fact about the psychological impossibility of believing p or its negation, and takes this to rule out the possibility of understanding Sextus’ suspension as an attitude, on the grounds that it would be at least psychologically possible, albeit rationally impermissible, to hold both such an attitude and a belief that p simultaneously. It seems to me that Sextus’ language admits of a normative interpretation here, however.
This interpretation might be resisted in other ways, of course. One might try to argue, for example, that only Sextus’ expression of suspension of judgements involves a belief about an equipollent opposition and what this means for whether or not to believe about the matter at hand, but deny that this applies to suspension itself. This is a possibility, but it seems to me that, with the Sceptical phrases, Sextus is indeed characterising suspension itself, and that his tendency to sometimes speak about suspension in positive terms, as something the Sceptic does, or as something ‘produced’ makes more sense if the belief about the Sceptic’s epistemic standing belongs to suspension itself.
It might be thought that elements of the Sceptical phrases count against attributing to Sextus a metacognitive account of suspension, such as when he discusses suspension in terms of ‘non-assertion’ and says that it is “refraining from assertion in the general sense” (PH I 192). But Sextus is explicit, in such cases, that what he is ruling out by claiming that the Sceptics refrain from assertion in such cases is the possibility of misinterpreting the Sceptics as Dogmatists, i.e., as “claiming that objects are in their nature such as to move us necessarily to non-assertion”, rather than merely making a claim about how things appear to them (PH I: 193). In such cases he reiterates that this Sceptical phrase still involves that the Sceptics “make it clear now, when we utter it, our condition in regard to the matters being inquired into” (PH I: 193). Such examples do not therefore count against a metacognitive interpretation of suspension, on Sextus’ part.
As Perin (2018: 118) notes, this conclusion must be understood as an “interim conclusion”, since the Sceptics, as Sextus says, are “still inquiring” (PH I: 3).
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I originally began to work on this topic at University College Dublin, thanks to a postdoctoral fellowship from the IRC. Later, a short-term research grant from the DAAD allowed me to spend some time at the Goethe Universität Frankfurt, where I was able to heavily rework this article. My thanks to audiences at the University of Navarra, Northeastern University London, and the University of Konstanz, for comments on drafts of this article. And greater thanks still to Alexandra Zinke, Johanna Schmitt, and several anonymous reviewers for invaluable feedback and criticism.
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Dunphy, R. Sextus and the Nature of Suspension. Philosophia 51, 2241–2259 (2023). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11406-023-00671-8