Probably not, as this post will hopefully demonstrate. It will provide a few reflections on the differences between Pyrrhon’s skepticism and the instrumental skepticism of Nassim Nicholas Taleb, the author of the best-seller, “The Black Swan: The impact of the highly improbable”. Don’t expect from this post a review of the book, not even a criticism of his main argument, which is that we should ignore experts, stop trying to predict everything and take advantage of uncertainty.
My point hereunder is limited to show that Taleb’s interpretation of Pyrrhon’s skepticism is not accurate, probably plainly wrong and that this weakens somehow its thesis about decision making or how we should cope with adversity. “So what ?” will you say. “Who’s Pyrrhon anyway ?” Well, my true aim in this post is not so much to dissert about Taleb’s 350 pages but to let you know more about Pyrrhon of Ellis, an original greek philosopher who did not write a line.
Why? Among other things because Pyrrhon’s ideas might have changed the course of our occidental philosophy if Plato had not been so successful in obscuring them. Interestingly, Pyrrhon’s guiding idea (there “are” only appearances and no “beings” behind them) is close to some extent to the oriental philosophy which does not know the concept of being, as the great philosopher & sinologist François Jullien explained us last week during a stimulating seminar organized by Philosophy & Management. This absence is key to understand the way Chinese think and act. Besides better understanding the philosophy of the world’s rising power and perhaps more importantly, Pyrrhon’s skepticism might also help to cope with adversity but in a different way than Taleb’s.
Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s “Black Swan” is today on many bookshelves (for Taleb’s home page, click here; for a review of the book, see among many others the site cityofsound). My good friend Roland Vaxelaire (who just launched his consulting company specialized in stakeholders management; for more info firstname.lastname@example.org) offered me the book. Meanwhile another friend, Damien Goy (author of the interesting blog Agora du risque), asked me to comment a few lines out of an interview of Taleb in Philosophie Magazine: “… We are obsessed by our will to eliminate the improbable. What is the remedy to the uncertainty that governs our lives? Not the skepticism of Pyrrhon that annihilates all possibility of thought and action. Rather the skepticism of Sextus Empiricus: we need to look at history accumulating facts but generalizing as little as possible. We need to keep in mind the secondary effects of causal affirmations.”
I looked further in Taleb’s book for references to Pyrrhon and Sextus Empiricus. He barely mentions Pyrrhon and a few times Sextus Empiricus. On page 46 only does he write at length about Sextus Empiricus (I hereunder quote this page almost entirely):
“He belonged to a school of medicine called “empirical,” since its practicioners doubted theories and causality and relied on past experience as guidance in their treatment, though not putting much trust in it…. The most famous proponent of the empirical school, Menotodus of Nicomedia, who merged empiricism and philosophical skepticism, was said to keep medicine an art, not a “science,” and insulate its practice from the problems of dogmatic science. The practice of medicine explains the addition of empiricus (“the empicical”) to Sextus’s name.
Sextus represented and jotted down the ideas of the school of the Pyrrhonian skeptics who were after some form of intellectual therapy resulting from the suspension of belief. Do you face the possibility of an adverse event? Don’t worry. Who knows, it may turn out to be good for you. Doubting the consequences of an outcome will allow you to remain imperturbable. The Pyrrhonian skeptics were docile citizens who followed customs and traditions whenever possible, but taught themselves to systematically doubt everything, and thus attain a level of serenity. Buth while conservative in their habits, they were rabid in their fight against dogma. …
Where Sextus is mostly interesting for my ideas is in his rare mixing of philosophy and decision making in his practice. He was a doer, hence classical scholars don’t say nice things about him. The methods of empirical medicine, relying on seemingly purposeless trial and error, will be central to my ideas on planning and prediction, on how to benefit from the Black Swan.”
What can we deduce from these quotes about Taleb’s view of Pyrrhon, Sextus Empiricus and Pyrrhonian skepticism? Quite a lot, I believe, and not much to Taleb’s advantage, eventhough what he writes is not entirely false either, of course.
Taleb’s main mistake is in my view to extract Pyrrhon’s and Sextus’s ideas from their context in order to use them to support his own ideas and demonstrations. This is clear in the last paragraph of page 46 (also the last quoted paragraph here above). By so doing, by instrumentalizing the skeptics’ ideas, he entirely misses, in my eyes, the essence of their philosophy.
This is very clear in three quotes from Taleb, which I discuss hereunder.
1. In his Philosophy Magazine’s interview, Taleb says that “the skepticism of Pyrrhon annihilates all possibility of thought and action”.
In a typically Pyrrhonian fashion, I would say that this is just one way to look at it. I would add, in a less Pyrrhonian fashion, that this is probably not the most correct way. The way to look at it is just the opposite, namely that Pyrrhon’s skepticism liberates thought and action.
I take this view from Marcel Conche’s views on Pyrrhon’s skepticism, as he expressed them in his excellent book, “Pyrrhon ou l’apparence” (“Pyrrhon or the appearance” – unfortunately not yet translated into English). In order to understand the liberating effect of Pyrrhon’s skepticism, one must dig a little bit more into the various brands of skepticisms. In this book, Conche clearly distinguishes Pyrrhon’s skepticism from Sextus’s, even though Sextus’s skepticism is usually referred to as “Pyrrhonian skepticism”. This “Pyrrhonian skepticism” is, at least in Conche’s view and mine, not Pyrrhon’s skepticism.
As Conche argues in his book, skeptics such as Sextus distinguish appearance and reality. They doubt the appearance but do not doubt reality, nor the difference between appearance and reality. Pyrrhon, on the other hand, abolishes the difference between appearance and reality or being, distinction on which rests Aristotle’s metaphysical ontology. What does this mean? Simply put, it means that for Pyrrhon there is no reality behind the appearances. This is an idea which is not easy to swallow: it goes brutally against one of the most enduring idea in western philosophy since Plato and Aristotle, namely that there is a truth, a being, a reality, an essential form (whatever you want to call “it”) behind or beyond appearances.
The key formula of Pyrrhon is “ou mallon”. It means in Greek «pas plus». “Ou mallon” could be used as follows: “Honey is not sweeter than it is bitter nor does it have a more passing attribute”. In other words, we can’t know what honey is, as such. But Pyrrhon goes further. Refusing Aristotle’s principle of non-contradiction, he claims that Honey’s being is no more than a non-being, than an appearance. And this for Pyrrhon goes universally, for everything so that nothing can be said “to be”. Everything only “appears” without “being”. It results that appearances, according to Pyrrhon, are neither appearance-of (a being), nor appearance-for (for a being – a subject).
To understand better this, let me quote here Conche from another of his books which I’m currently translating into English: “Philosopher à l’infini”:
“To live such a short period of time, between the infinite past (when we were not yet) and the infinite future (when we will not be anymore), can we really call that “to be”? Neither Plato, nor Aristotle did think that, even though they wanted the “forms” (…) to be eternal so that they could be said to “be” as we will see in the next two chapters. Indeed, the lasting being is more real than the passing one. If Man only lasts one day, he is “the shadow of a shadow”, says Pindar, the Greek lyric poet who lived in the 5th century BC.
Of course, in everyday life, looking at the table in front of me, I say: “the table is”. Or: “this is”. That is because I only see things in their present and current form or shape, forgetting the two infinites – the past and the future. I don’t perceive what surrounds me as lost in the infinity of time. Hence I take it for a firm reality.
On the contrary, if I could see all things with the infinity of time in the background, they would appear to me as fleeing, incapable of taking the form of firm beings. They would then resemble “to shadows and to phantoms” says Philon who lived in the 4th century BC. He adds: “In a procession, the first ranks get out of sight as they move further. In a torrent, the waves stream faster than our capacity to perceive them. Similarly, in life, things pass by, move away and, although they seem firm, not one of them remains fixed for a single moment. All flee continuously”.
As we limit time to a present flanked by a short-term past and future, we are able to say: “This is”, “I am”, etc. This occurs because we only succeed in living and acting in a “narrow” time, the timeframe of the short lives and of the world we live in. Let us now however try to exempt ourselves from the need to act and consider our lives as brief moments in an infinite time, the timeframe of the whole of reality – Nature as I call it, which as we will see later can be thought to be infinite in space and time. Are we then still able to define ourselves with the words we use in the narrow time of our daily life? What are we then? No beings, no nothingness either, just appearances but that does not refer to a being, which glide and flee, destined to oblivion.
Neither appearance-of (a being), nor appearance-for (for a being – a subject): Such is the Pyrrhonian notion of Appearance, called after Pyrrhon, the ironic philosopher, considered by some as one of the fathers of skepticism. In the monotheist creed, Man is the only being not destined to death. If on the contrary, Man has no destiny, he just appears for a moment; death extends its power to all there is. All finite beings are then subsumed to the notion of Appearance. This whole of finite beings, the whole of reality, is infinite since there is nothing else, but this infinity is multiple, without unity.”
From this extract, one will understand that Pyrrhon’s skepticism does not annihilate thought. On the contrary it invites us to view the world, all that surrounds us, in a radically different way. It does not invite not to think but rather to be aware that what we think cannot help us to express what things are, since they “are” not.
Does this lead to annihilate action then? No. On the contrary, it liberates us from the thought that some actions “are” more worthy, better, than others. In Taleb’s words about Sextus (“he was a doer” – where he probably implicitly means “just like me”), Pyrrhon was also a doer: not only did he accompany Alexander the Great in his expeditions, he also had a farm where, contrary to other learned men of his time, he was not reluctant to work with his hands. For example, he washed himself his pigs and carried them to the market.
2. Taleb also writes in “Black Swan” that the “the Pyrrhonian skeptics were docile citizens who followed customs and traditions whenever possible” and that “they were conservative in their habits”.
Again, this is just one way to look at it. The other way is to recognize that this apparent docility or conservatism can be seen as highly subversive and ironic. Indeed, Pyrrhon the “doer” went well beyond acting. His actions can be considered a practical application of his thoughts. So, while he rejected the gods, he ironically spent a lot of his life cleaning the statues of the city in which he lived. By respecting dutifully the laws of the city while publicly acknowledging he did not believe them, he showed by his own acts how empty and void all dogmas and beliefs might be. He was ironical in his acts as he was in his words. And how could it be otherwise with his view of the world as just appearances? Irony becomes then the best, or even only, way to express your ideas and their opposite, to express that “nothing is more than this or that”. That’s also probably why Pyrrhon did not write anything. Should we therefore think of Pyrrhon as somebody who was mainly silent? On the contrary, he shined as well in his discourse as in conversations. Epicurus admired him. People were fascinated by his capacity to practice irony towards his own discourse. Taleb nevertheless seems to miss entirely the irony and subversive conduct of Pyrrhon and Pyrrhonian skeptics. He seems to be voluntarily iconoclast and ironic towards others’ thoughts; can he be as iconoclast and ironic towards his own ideas?
3. Finally, I don’t believe Pyrrhon or Sextus would have recognized themselves in Taleb’s interpretation of skepticism when he writes in “Black Swan”: “Do you face the possibility of an adverse event? Don’t worry. Who knows, it may turn out to be good for you. Doubting the consequences of an outcome will allow you to remain imperturbable.” Again, Taleb uses here skepticism to implicitely justify his own theory about the management of uncertainties. But this was not at all Pyrrhon’s concern. If he was searching for anything, it was probably for happiness. How to be happy? First by identifying the fundamental source of man’s unhappiness. He found it in the idea of « being ». Photius wrote about him that he was happy mainly because he knew that he did not know anything for sure, neither by his senses nor by his reason. For Pyrrhon, the key to happiness was that nothing would deserve to alter our humor, always equal like a perpetually blue sky.
Indeed, why should we bother since everything is indifferent, since nothing really happens, since the being is illusory? For him, the illusion of the being is inherent to language and leads to conflicts between men (one says “this is just” and believes he tells the truth while another one inevitably says “this is not just”) and even between a man and himself (as he feels obliged to choose between a “truth” and its opposite). If, on the contrary, everything is no more than appearances, there is no obstacle to tranquility, to restful peace of mind, to a perfect indifference to things leading to aphasia and possibly to ataraxy.
For example, Pyrrhon, on a vessel during a tempest, gave to his terrified companions the exemple of a little pig which continued to eat as if nothing was happening, as the perfect example of a wise man. The pig, like any animal, reaches effortlessly ataraxia while man can only reach it through philosophy, simply because the animal is not confused by the being. For Pyrrhon, life is no more than the succession of vanishing moments. To follow the irregular, unequal and multiform movement of life, without either sustaining or negating anything but being always « in sync » with life, such is the pyrrhonian attitude to life. As such, Pyrrhon is a man who brings with him a fresh wind of freedom and irony, teaching everywhere the appearance, the absolute lightness of everything.
We hereby hope to have demonstrated that the skepticism of Pyrrhon and even of his follower Sextus can in no way be interpreted as a way to try to see “what may turn out to be good for you out of an adverse event” as Taleb writes. More importantly we hope to have given you the desire to learn more about Pyrrhon and the fresh wind of freedom and irony his ideas bring. In these troubled times, this is more than welcome.
For those willing to investigate further Pyrrhon and Conche’s philosophies, here are a few suggestions:
- Those interested in understanding better Pyrrhon and who read French are advised to read Marcel Conche’s book on Pyrrhon (see above). For an introduction to the book you can also read the notes (in French) I wrote for a seminar I gave in May 2006 for Philosophy & Management. A doc version of the notes can be found here.
- Those interested in understanding better Marcel Conche can also find here the notes (also in French) for another seminar I gave earlier, in May 2005 for Philosophy & Management. The seminar pretended to discuss the differences between the views of Peter Senge (a specialist of system thinking and author of “The Fifth discipline”) on the complexity of reality and Marcel Conche’s. In fact it was rather an excuse to present a synthesis of what I understood then of Marcel Conche’s philosophy. Although I understand it better now, what I wrote then remains valid, I believe. Marcel Conche was so kind to review it, as well as my synthesis on Pyrrhon, and validated both.
- Finally, for those who only read English, I currently translate, as I mentioned earlier, “Philosopher à l’infini”, Marcel Conche’s personal book in which he discusses the similarities and differences of his views with the ones of his favourites philosophers (Montaigne, Aristotle, Lao-Tse, Omar Khayyam,…). You will find here the first chapter of this book translated into English. If you read it and find mistakes, please let me know. If you’re interested in reading further, please contact me and I will send you the following chapters but beware, I might then ask you to help me further to correct my translation ;-)).
And you, if you have read Taleb, what do you think about his “Black Swan”? What you have learned from it?
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