Paul Brunton, Notebooks, vol. 13, part II, p. 10, #48:
It is the first operation of philosophical training to instill doubt, to free the mind of all those numerous suggestions and distortions imposed on it by others since childhood and maintained by its own slavish acceptance, total unawareness, or natural incapacity.
Or as I have put it more than once in these pages: Doubt is the engine of inquiry, the motor of mental development. Of course, doubting and questioning are not ends in themselves, but means to the attainment of such insight as it is possible for us to attain.
How to disentangle profundity from puffery in any obscure formulation? Clear thought stops short, a victim of its own probity; the other kind, vague and indecisive, extends into the distance and escapes by its suspect but unassailable mystery.
Excellent except perhaps for ‘victim,’ which betrays Cioran’s mannered negativism. Substitute ‘beneficiary’ and the thought’s expression approaches perfection.
Indolence saves us from prolixity and thereby from the shamelessness inherent in production. (133)
An exaggeration, but something for bloggers to consider.
To be is to be cornered. (93)
Striking, and certainly no worse than W. V. Quine’s “To be is to be the value of a variable.”
Nothing makes us modest, not even the sight of a corpse. (87)
Cioran hits the mark here: the plain truth is set before us without exaggeration in a concise and striking manner.
Conversation is fruitful only between minds given to consolidating their perplexities. (163)
Brilliant. Philosophy, as Plato remarks (Theaetetus St. 155) and Aristotle repeats (Metaphysics 982b10), originates in wonder or perplexity. Fruitful philosophical conversation, rare as it is and must be given the woeful state of humanity, is therefore a consolidation and appreciation of problems and aporiai, much more than an attempt to convince one’s interlocutor of something. Herein lies a key difference between philosophy and ideology. The ideologue has answers, or thinks he has. And so his conversation is either apologetics or polemics, but not dialog. The philosopher has questions and so with him dialog is possible.
Time, accomplice of exterminators, disposes of morality. Who, today, bears a grudge against Nebuchadnezzar? (178)
This is quite bad, and not become of its literary form, but because the thought is false. If enough time passes, people forget about past injustices. True. But how does it follow that morality is abrogated? Cioran is confusing two distinct propositions. One is that the passage of time disposes of moral memories, memories of acts just and unjust. The other is that the passage of time disposes of morality itself, rightness and wrongness themselves, so that unjust acts eventually become neither just not unjust. The fact that Cioran’s aphorism conflates these two propositions is enough to condemn it, quite apart from the fact that the second proposition is arguably false. A good aphorism cannot merely be clever; it must also express an insight. An insight, of course, is an insight only if it is true. Nor is an aphorism good if it merely betrays a mental quirk of its author. For then it would be of merely psychological or biographical interest.
There is no other world. Nor even this one. What, then, is there? The inner smile provoked in us by the patent nonexistence of both. (134)
A statement of Cioran’s nihilism. Unfortunately for him, but fortunately for us, it is self-contradictory. It cannot be true both that nothing exists and that an inner smile, a bemused realization that nothing exists, exists. So what is he trying to tell us? If you say that he is not trying to tell us anything, then what is he doing? If you say that he is merely playing at being clever, then I say to hell with him: he stands condemned by the very probity that he himself invokes in the first aphorism quoted supra.
Everything is nothing, including the consciousness of nothing. (144)
An even more pithy statement of Cioran’s nihilism. But if the consciousness of nothing is nothing, then there is no consciousness of nothing, which implies that the nihilist of Cioran’s type cannot be aware of himself as a nihilist. Thus Cioran’s thought undermines the very possibility of its own expression. That can’t be good.
Will you accuse me of applying logic to Cioran’s aphorism? But what exempts nihilists from logic? Note that his language is not imperative, interrogative, or optative, but declarative. He is purporting to state a fact, in a broad sense of ‘fact.’ He is saying: this is the way it is. But if there is a way things are, then it cannot be true that everything is nothing. The way things are is not nothing.
“It is of no importance to know who I am since some day I shall no longer be” – that is what each of us should answer those who bother about our identity and desire at any price to coop us up in a category or a definition. (144)
This presupposes that only the absolutely permanent is real and important. It is this (Platonic) assumption that drives Cioran’s nihilism: this world is nothing since it fails to satisfy the Platonic criterion of reality and importance. Now if Cioran were consistently sceptical, he would call this criterion into question, and with it, his nihilism. He would learn to embrace the finite as finite and cheerfully abandon his mannered negativism. If, on the other hand, he really believes in the Platonic criterion – as he must if he is to use it to affirm, by contrast, the nullity of the experienced world – then he ought to ask whence derives its validity. This might lead him away from nihilism to an affirmation of the ens realissimum.
X, who instead of looking at things directly has spent his life juggling with concepts and abusing abstract terms, now that he must envisage his own death, is in desperate straits. Fortunately for him, he flings himself, as is his custom, into abstractions, into commonplaces illustrated by jargon. A glamorous hocus-pocus, such is philosophy. But ultimately, everything is hocus-pocus, except for this very assertion that participates in an order of propositions one dares not question because they emanate from an unverifiable certitude, one somehow anterior to the brain’s career. (153)
A statement of Cioran’s scepticism. But his scepticism is half-hearted since he insulates his central claim from sceptical corrosion. To asseverate that his central claim issues from “an unverifiable certitude” is sheer dogmatism since there is no way that this certitude can become a self-certitude luminous to itself. Compare the Cartesian cogito. In the cogito situation, a self’s indubitability is revealed to itself, and thus grounds itself. But Cioran invokes something anterior to the mind, something which, precisely because of it anteriority, cannot be known by any mind. Why then should we not consider his central claim – according to which everything is a vain and empty posturing – to be itself a vain and empty posturing?
Indeed, is this not the way we must interpret it given Cioran’s two statements of nihilism cited above? If everything is nothing, then surely there cannot be “an unverifiable certitude” anterior to the mind that is impervious to sceptical assault.
Again, one may protest that I am applying logic in that I am comparing different aphorisms with an eye towards evaluating their mutual consistency. It might be suggested that our man is imply not trying to be consistent. But then I say that he is an unserious literary scribbler with no claim on our attention. But the truth of the matter lies a bit deeper: he is trying have it both ways at once. He is trying to say something true but without satisfying the canons satisfaction of which is a necessary (though not sufficient) condition of anything’s being true.
My interim judgement, then, is this. What we have before us is a form of cognitive malfunction brought about by hypertrophy of the sceptical faculty. Doubt is the engine of inquiry. Thus there is a healthy form of scepticism. But Cioran’s extreme scepticism is a disease of cognition rather than a means to it. The writing, though, is brilliant.
The quotations are from E. M. Cioran, Drawn and Quartered (New York: Seaver Books, 1983), translated from the French by Richard Howard.
Philip P. Hallie, in his "Polemical Introduction" to Sextus Empiricus (Hackett, 1985, p. 7) writes:
This special function of doubt [its "wiping off of the excrescences that befoul man's life and lead him into endless, bitter conflicts with his fellow men"] is well though not pleasingly expressed by Sextus in the metaphor of the laxative. Doubt washes itself away along with the dubious unprovable claims it works on, and it does so, according to our Sceptical physician, "just as aperient drugs do not merely eliminate the humours of the body, but also expel themselves along with the humours." The ultimate purpose of Scepticism is to make doubting unnecessary, to let the customs of our country, our needs for food and drink and so forth, and our plain everyday speech take over the direction of our thought and life after the doubting is done.
I'm very happy to see you writing (so well) about the summum bonum.
I don't have the text of Sextus at hand to cite you chapter & verse, but I think I recall this correctly.
It would be pretty ironic for a skeptic to denigrate inquiry since skeptikos means precisely one who inquires. The skeptic arrives at adoxia (if he does) not by deciding or choosing to walk away from an issue like AGW [anthropogenic global warming], but by inquiring into it assiduously. If he does so, then something begins to happen in his mind as he accumulates many many arguments pro and con. He eventually finds himself in a state of equipoise, as inclined to believe as to disbelieve. Adoxia is the spontaneous product of assiduous inquiry.
Slim is alluding to, and taking issue with, the last sentence of Ataraxia and the Impossibility of Living Without Beliefs. What I said there implies that the Pyrrhonian denigrates inquiry. Slim rightly points out that the skeptic is by his very nature an inquirer. And as I myself have said more than once in these pages, doubt is the engine of inquiry. So my formulation was sloppy. It is not that the skeptic denigrates inquiry; it is is rather that he denigrates the notion that inquiry will lead to a truth that transcends appearances.
The Pyrrhonian skeptic inquires, not to arrive at the truth, but to achieve doxastic equipoise and adoxia, belieflessness. This in turn is supposed to engender ataraxia.
It's a bold conjecture, and, alas, a completely false one, in my experience at least. The more I inquire into an issue, the more likely I am to settle on one side or another, and not find myself floating in tranquil equipoise betwixt them. Maybe your experience is different? In any case, the skeptical remedy for partisan belief is study, study, study. They believe studying something to death will take you to equipoise and ataraxia. Willfully choosing to ignore an issue like AGW, they believe, will not buy you ataraxia at all. You remain disposed to believe or disbelieve according to your prejudices, and only the therapy of inquiry can work these doxastic prejudices out of you.
Slim here offers an excellent and accurate summary of The Skeptic Way, which is also the title of a fine book by Benson Mates.
One can doubt whether ataraxia is the summum bonum and whether it is achievable in the skeptic manner. But one thing to me is clear: insight into just how inconclusive are the arguments on both sides of many if not all issues leads to a salutary decrease in dogmatism.
John Lennon bade us "imagine no religion." But why single out religious beliefs as causes of conflict and bloodshed when nonreligious beliefs are equally to blame? Maybe the problem is belief as such. Can we imagine no beliefs? Perhaps we need to examine the possibility of living belieflessly. In exploration and exfoliation of this possibility we turn to the luminaries of late antiquity.
A concept central to the Greek Skeptics, Stoics, and Epicureans, ataraxia (from Gr. a (not) and taraktos (disturbed)) refers to unperturbedness, freedom from emotional and intellectual disturbance, tranquillity of soul. Thus Sextus Empiricus (circa 200 Anno Domini) tells us in his Outlines of Pyrrhonism, Book One, Chapter Six, that "Scepticism has its arche, its inception and cause, in the hope of attaining ataraxia, mental tranquillity." (Hallie, p. 35) The goal is not truth, but eudaimonia (happiness) by way of ataraxia (tranquillity of mind). The central means to ataraxia and happiness is the suspension (epoche) of beliefs, not all beliefs, but those that transcend the mundane and give rise to contention and strife. To use some contemporary examples, beliefs about abortion, gun control, capital punishment, wealth redistribution, illegal immigration, foreign policy, the nature and existence of God etc. lead to strife and in extreme cases bloodshed. Given the difficulty and seeming irresolvability of the issues, the skeptic enjoins suspension of belief for the sake of ataraxia.
Now freedom from disturbance is clearly good, but is it the highest good? Is the highest life the beliefless life, the life that strives after the highest attainable degree of suspension of belief in respect of contentious matters?
One question is whether it is even possible to live without contention-inspiring beliefs. If it is not possible, then the beliefless life cannot be an ideal for us. 'Ought' implies 'can.' If we ought to do something, then it must be possible for us to so it. The same holds for ideals. Nothing can count as a genuine ideal for us unless its realization is at least possible by us. Now I have argued elsewhere that not even the skeptic can avoid some contention-inspiring doxastic commitments. So I maintain the view that the beliefless life is not possible for us and hence not an ideal for us either.
But even if the beliefless life were possible for us, it would still not be choice-worthy. For our very survival depends on our knowing the truth about matters difficult to discern. For example, is global warming real, and if it is does it pose a threat to human survival? What about the threat to civilization of militant Islam? How much of a threat is it?
These two issues are extremely contentious. Acrimonious and ataraxia-busting debate rages on both sides of both of these issues. But obviously it does matter to the quality of our lives and the lives of our children and other world-mates what the truth is about these questions. It certainly made a difference to the quality of the lives of the workers in the Trade Towers on 9/11 that militant Islamofanatics targeted them. Their quality of life went to zero. Just one bomb can ruin your entire day.
So how could it possibly be right to say that the highest life is the life of belieflessness? If I suspend belief with respect to every contentious matter, every matter likely to induce mental perturbation, not to mention bloodshed, then I suspend belief with respect to the Islamofascist threat. But then I show indifference to my own well-being. It doesn't matter whether you agree with me about the threat of militant Islam. Perhaps you are a leftie who thinks that global warming is more of a threat. Then run my argument using that example.
Mental tranquillity is a high value, and no one who takes philosophy seriously can want not to possess more of it. But it cannot be the highest value. The happy life cannot be anything so passive as the life of ataraxia. We need a more virile conception of happiness, and we find it in Aristotle. For the Stagirite, happiness (eudaimonia) is an activity (ergon) of the soul (psyche) in accordance with virtue (arete) over an entire life. His is an active conception of the good life even though the highest virtues are the intellectual virtues. The highest life is the bios theoretikos, the vita contemplativa. Though contemplative, it necessarily involves the activity of inquiry into the truth, an activity that skepticism, whether Pyrrhonian or Academic, denigrates.
Benson Mates, The Skeptic Way, Oxford UP, 1996, p. 5: ". . . the characteristic attitude of the Pyrrhonists is one of aporia, of being at a a loss, puzzled, stumped, stymied." Aporia is not doubt. Doubt implies understanding, but aporia is a lack of understanding. The modern skeptic may doubt, but not the ancient skeptic.
Connected with this is a distinction between epoché as the withholding of assent and suspension of judgment. One can withhold assent from an assertion without granting that it makes sense; but if one suspends judgment then one has a clear propositional sense before one's mind which one neither affirms nor denies. See Mates, p. 32. A good distinction! Add it to the list.
So, strictly speaking, aporia is not doubt and epoché is not suspension of judgment. Close but not the same.
John Greco (How to Reid Moore) finds Barry Stroud's interpretation of G. E. Moore's proof of an external world implausible:
According to him [Stroud], the question as to whether we know anything about the external world can be taken in an internal or an external sense. In the internal sense, the question can be answered from “within” one’s current knowledge —- hence one can answer it by pointing out some things that one knows, such as that here is a hand. In the external sense, however, the question is put in a “detached” and “philosophical” way.
If we have the feeling that Moore nevertheless fails to answer the philosophical question about our knowledge of external things, as we do, it is because we understand that question as requiring a certain withdrawal or detachment from the whole body of our knowledge of the world. We recognize that when I ask in that detached philosophical way whether I know that there are external things, I am not supposed to be allowed to appeal to other things I think I know about external things in order to help me settle the question.5
According to Stroud, Moore’s proof is a perfectly good one in response to the internal question, but fails miserably in response to the external or “philosophical” question. In fact, Stroud argues, Moore’s failure to respond to the philosophical question is so obvious that it cries out for an explanation -- hence Malcolm’s and Ambroses’s ordinary language interpretations. Stroud offers a different explanation for Moore’s failure to address the philosophical question: “He [i.e. Moore] resists, or more probably does not even feel, the pressure towards the philosophical project as it is understood by the philosophers he discusses.”6 Or again, “we are left with the conclusion that Moore really did not understand the philosopher’s assertions in any way other than the everyday ‘internal’ way he seems to have understood them.”7 The problem with this interpretation, of course, is that it makes Moore out to be an idiot. Is it really possible that Moore, the great Cambridge philosopher, did not understand that other philosophers were raising a philosophical question? (bolding added)
So how does one know that one is not a brain in a vat, or that one is not deceived by an evil demon? Moore and Reid are for the most part silent on this issue. But a natural extension of their view is that one knows it by perceiving it. In other words, I know that I am not a brain in a vat because I can see that I am not. [. . .] Just as I can perceive that some animal is not a dog, one might think, I can perceive that I am not a brain in a vat. (21)
I suppose I am a limited doxastic voluntarist: though I haven't thought about this question in much depth my tendency is to say that there are some beliefs over the formation of which I have direct voluntary control. That is, there are some believable contents — call them propositions — that I can bring myself to believe at will, others that I can bring myself to disbelieve at will, and still others about which I can suspend judgment, thereby enacting something like the epoché (ἐποχή) of such ancient skeptics as Sextus Empiricus.
What is the highest good? To be a bit more precise, what is the highest good attainable by us though our own (individual or collective) efforts? One perennially attractive, if unambitious, answer is that of the Pyrrhonian skeptics: our highest good lies in ataraxia. The term connotes tranquillity, peace of mind, freedom from disturbance, unperturbedness. Other Hellenistic schools also identified the summum bonum with ataraxia, but let us confine ourselves to skepticism as represented by Sextus Empiricus.
The Pyrrhonian skeptic, then, seeks ataraxia as the summum bonum. This freedom from disturbance is supposed to be achieved by an epoché (ἐποχή) or suspension of doxastic commitments of a certain sort. One is supposed to achieve the happiness of tranquillity by suspending one's belief on a certain range of issues, those issues that typically cause contention, enmity, and bloodshed. Among these will be found philosophical, theological, and political issues. My elite readers can easily supply their own examples.
Near the end of the 1980's I read a paper at a multi-day philosophy conference in Ancient Olympia, Greece. After one of the sessions, we repaired to a beautiful seaside spot for lunch. We sat in the open air at long tables under a canopy. Directly across from me sat a Greek woman who had read a paper on ataraxia. A concept central to the Greek Sceptics, Stoics, and Epicureans, ataraxia (from the Greek a (not) and taraktos (disturbed)) refers to unperturbedness, tranquillitas animi, tranquillity of soul. Thus Sextus Empiricus (circa 200 A.D.) tells us in his Outlines of Pyrrhonism, Book One, Chapter Six, that “Scepticism has its arche, its inception and cause, in the hope of attaining ataraxia, mental tranquility. (Hallie, p. 35) The goal is not truth, but eudaimonia (happiness, well-being) by way of ataraxia (tranquility of mind). A key method is the suspension (epoché , ἐποχή ) of all doxastic commitments.