Cartesian Humility and Pyrrhonian Passivity: The Ethical Significance of Epistemic Agency

Logos and Episteme 7 (4):461-487 (2016)
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Abstract

While the Academic sceptics followed the plausible as a criterion of truth and guided their practice by a doxastic norm, so thinking that agential performances are actions for which the agent assumes responsibility, the Pyrrhonists did not accept rational belief-management, dispensing with judgment in empirical matters. In this sense, the Pyrrhonian Sceptic described himself as not acting in any robust sense of the notion, or as ‘acting’ out of sub-personal and social mechanisms. The important point is that the Pyrrhonian advocacy of a minimal conception of ‘belief’ was motivated by ethical concerns: avoiding any sort of commitment, he attempted to preserve his peace of mind. In this article, I argue for a Cartesian model of rational guidance that, in line with some current versions of an agential virtue epistemology, does involve judgment and risk, and thus which is true both to our rational constitution and to our finite and fallible nature. Insofar as epistemic humility is a virtue of rational agents that recognise the limits of their judgments, Pyrrhonian scepticism, and a fortiori any variety of naturalism, is unable to accommodate this virtue. This means that, in contrast to the Cartesian model, the Pyrrhonist does not provide a satisfactory answer to the problem of cognitive disintegration. The Pyrrhonist thus becomes a social rebel, one that violates the norm of serious personal assent that enables the flourishing of a collaborative and social species which depends on agents that, however fallible, are accountable for their actions and judgments.

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Modesto Gómez Alonso
Universidad Pontificia de Salamanca

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