Profiles in skepticism: Sextus Empiricus

Figs in Winter
8 min readJun 19, 2024

The enigmatic philosopher who inspired millennia of debate

The mysterious Sextus Empiricus, image from Wikimedia.

Ancient skepticism was the root of a long tradition of critical thinking that eventually led to the maturing thought of Medieval, Renaissance, and finally modern and contemporary authors, ranging from John of Salisbury (1110–1180) to Michel de Montaigne (1533–1592), from René Descartes (1596–1650) to Baruch Spinoza (1632–1677), from David Hume (1711–1776) to Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900), and so on.

In this six-part series, of which the present is the last entry, we have looked at only some of the major figures belonging to the two major strands of ancient skepticism: Pyrrhonism and Academic Skepticism. We have discussed the Cyrenaics, Pyrrho, Arcesilaus, Carneades, and Cicero, though we have skipped Timon, Aenesidemus, Philo of Larissa, the medical empiricists, and Plutarch. Let me conclude with a look at one of the most influential and controversial of the Pyrrhonists: Sextus Empiricus. (Much of this discussion is based on chapter 10 of Skepticism: From Antiquity to the Present, edited by Diego Machuca and Baron Reed, Bloomsbury Academic, 2015, entry authored by Tad Brennan and Cliff Roberts.)

Sextus is crucial in the history of skepticism because he is the one that made it possible for the approach to be transmitted to the…

--

--

Figs in Winter

by Massimo Pigliucci. New Stoicism and Beyond. Entirely AI free.