Friday, 25 May 2018

The Aim of the Sceptic

It will be apposite to consider next the aim of the Sceptical persuasion. Now an aim is that for the sake of which everything is done or considered, while it is not itself done or considered for the sake of anything else. Or: an aim is the final object of desire. Up to now we say the aim of the Sceptic is tranquility in matters of opinion and moderation of feeling in matters forced upon us. For Sceptics began to do philosophy in order to decide among appearances and to apprehend which are true and which false, so as to become tranquil; but they came upon equipollent dispute, and being unable to decide this they suspended judgment. And when they suspended judgment, tranquility in matters of opinion followed fortuitously.

Sextus Empiricus, Outlines of Scepticism. Translated by Annas and Barnes.

Thursday, 24 May 2018

A Standstill of the Intellect

A Pyrrhonist's researches do not end in discovery; nor yet do they conclude that discovery is impossible. For they do not terminate at all: the researches continue, and the researcher finds himself in a condition of epoche. 'Epoche is defined as 'a standstill of the intellect, as a result of which we neither deny nor affirm anything'. The Sceptical investigator neither asserts nor denies, neither believes nor disbelieves.

Jonathan Barnes, "The Beliefs of a Pyrrhonist".

Saturday, 19 May 2018

Pyrrhonian Manoeuvers: Sense and Intellect

The senses and intellect, I maintain, are no more guides to reality than not.

Against the Senses

The senses are no more a guide to reality than not.

The reports of senses often contradict each other. For instance, I see the dandelion on my lawn as green and yellow whereas my dog sees it as black and white. It can't, however, be both coloured and black and white at the same time in the same respect. I should therefore suspend judgment as to whether the pissenlit is really coloured or black and white12.

As another example, suppose that I'm at the British National Gallery approaching Berjon's Still Life with Flowers. From afar, it looks smooth and flat; from up close, it looks rough and textured. It can't, however, be both smooth and rough at the same time in the same respect. I should therefore suspend judgment as to whether Still Life with Flowers is really smooth or rough3.

As a third example, Picasso's Portrait of Bibi la Purée appears smooth to the eye but rough to the touch. I should thus suspend judgment as to whether it's really smooth or rough. I should, for similar reasons, suspend judgment as to the nature of the entire sensible world and, correspondingly, as to the reliability of my senses' reports about reality.

Against the Intellect

But the intellect is no more a guide to reality than not either. (i) nihil est in intellectu quod non prius in sensu; hence (ii), the intellect relies on the senses as its guide to reality; (iii) the senses are no more a guide to reality than not; hence (iv), the intellect is no more a guide to reality than not.

(i) is the Aristotelian principle that nothing is in the intellect that was not first in the senses. I have no argument for this principle, but it's plausible that even if there are things in the intellect not first in the senses the number of those things is piddling in breadth.

(ii) seems to follow from (i). For if there is nothing in the intellect that is not first in the senses, how could the intellect engage reality except by relying on the senses?

(iii) I've argued for, and so (iv) the intellect is no more a guide to reality than not. And so, the senses and intellect are no more guides to reality than not.


I've disputed whether the senses or intellect are reliable guides to reality. Now, suppose an empiricist comes along to argue that the senses are reliable guides to reality. He will have to use his senses or intellect to judge that this is the case. If, however, he uses his senses, he will fall into circularity; and if he uses his intellect, he will have to justify intellect's reliability and then fall into circularity. And the same goes for anyone who tries prove that the senses or intellect are reliable guides to reality. And so, it can't be proven that the senses or intellect are reliable guides to reality.

I've been adopting the stance of the ancient Pyrrhonist (and through him οἱ δογματικοί) for dialectical reasons. Now I must confess: I've been pulling your leg a little. I'm not actually so skeptical. In the following weeks, I'll be examining various skeptical arguments as well as the consequences of those arguments for our lives. I hope to present as formidable a case for both as I can.

Update 5-19-2018: There are more examples of contradictory perceptions in the combox.

1I've assumed the Pyrrhonian view that evidential equipose naturally results in suspension of judgment for simplicity of exposition (cf. Barnes's "The Beliefs of a Pyrrhonist"), and will discuss this move at greater length in a future post.
2Absent some reason for preferring my perceptions over my dog's.
3Absent some reason for preferring my distant perception of Still Life with Flowers to my near perception of it.

Friday, 18 May 2018

Ού Μάλλον

'No more this than that' makes clear our feelings: because of the equipollence of the opposed objects we end in equilibrium. (By 'equipollence' we mean equality in what appears plausible to us; by 'opposed' we mean in general conflicting; and by 'equilibrium' we mean assent to neither side.) Thus, although the phrase 'In no way more' exhibits the distinctive character of assent or denial, we do not use it in this way: we use it indifferently and in a loose sense, either for a question or for 'I do not know which of these things I should assent to and which not assent to'. Our intention is to make clear what is apparent to us, and as to what phrase we use to make this clear we are indifferent. Note too that when we utter the phrase 'In no way more' we are not affirming that it is itself certainly true and firm: here too we are only saying how things appear to us.

Sextus Empiricus, Outlines of Scepticism. Translated by Annas and Barnes.

Thursday, 17 May 2018

One Blog, Three Bloggers

Ontological Investigations is one blog, but three bloggers. We aren't a hive mind, and what one of us posts shouldn't be taken as indicative of what all of us think.

Monday, 14 May 2018

The Explanatory Power of Thomist Aesthetics

One way to judge a theory is by its explanatory power. A theory that is able to account for more of the relevant phenomena is prima facie better than its rivals. In this short article I would like to bring to your attention the strong explanatory power of Thomist aesthetics, an area often overlooked by both popular and professional Thomists. One of the typical problems that aesthetic theories run into is not being able to adequately account for different types of art. Specifically, many theories of art account for classical or realistic art, while failing to comprehend modernist art or vice versa.

Before I begin, let me explain the fundamental idea behind Thomist aesthetics. According to Thomism unity, goodness, truth, and beauty are all transcendentals. Roughly, this means that wherever we find being, we also find unity, goodness, truth, and beauty, because all of these concepts point to one aspect of the notion of being. Thomist aesthetics, unlike other theories, begins with being, and not with a formalized and restrictive definition of beauty or art.

The naive aesthetic theory that I will call “realism” holds that art is an imitation of something real. This makes sense when looking at much of classical art and the history of painting, but utterly fails to explain why an impressionist or expressionist painting (by Claude Monet and Julius Evola, respectively) is considered good, despite that fact that art from the impressionist and early expressionist periods is almost universally loved by non-specialists. Similarly, a popular theory by Arthur Danto, often called “institutionalism” claims that art is whatever artists, galleries, and art-institutions can get away with calling 'art'. This definition seems to bypass the problem we are discussing, namely being able to comprehend a variety of different art styles, but it does so by ignoring the problem, not by answering it. This answer is unsatisfactory, because we want to know why some art seems good, beautiful, or satisfying, while other art does not. These two trends of realism and institutionalism represent most attempts at aesthetic theorizing. Theories that tend towards realism look for some objective feature of art that relates to the world, and all art can then be judged by whatever standard is put forward as the essence of art. Theories that tend towards institutionalism make all aesthetic judgment subjective by saying art is merely a sociological category, or is merely the cause of a subjective emotional response. Thomist aesthetics finds the middle road between these two paths by pointing to being as the foundation of beauty. By recognizing that beauty is an inherent aspect of being, Thomists can make sense of classical realistic art, an impressionist painting, and an abstract expressionist painting.

In a realistic painting or a portrait, a clear depiction of an object or person is the being dsplayed. For example, a young shepherdess is the subject of this painting by William Adolphe Bouguereau, and it is her beauty that is grasped, through her being, when we see the painting. In an impressionistic painting, like this one by Erin Hanson, what is portrayed is a subjective impression of some scene or object. According to Thomism, however, our feelings, emotions, and experiences all have being, and it is this being that is displayed in impressionist paintings. We can follow this logic even further to make sense of an abstract painting that consists two red and blue triangles, or even a painting consisting of one single black line, both by artist Ellsworth Kelly. Triangles and lines have a type of being (often called 'conceptual being' by Thomists), although it is not the exact type of being encountered in physical reality. In abstract paintings like these what is being displayed is the conceptual being of abstract objects contemplated in our minds. The beauty of modern art consists of the beauty contained in conceptual being. It may even be useful to think of the beauty of modern abstract art as more akin to the beauty one finds in the truth of a well-formed, true syllogism or a mathematical formula than to the beauty of a realistic portrait. But no matter how we think of it, it is beauty nonetheless.

Whatever its other virtues or vices as a theory, Thomist aesthetic theory manages to explain a vast array of different types of art, and for this reason alone it should be considered a strong and interesting theory, well worth the time of those looking into aesthetics.

Monday, 30 April 2018

The Regularity Theory of Causation

I'm sometimes told that the regularity theory of causation dominates Anglo philosophy. That isn't, however, true. The regularity theory fell out of favor in the '70s. You can learn more here.