I think the problem is about confusion arising from word choices: "humility," "prejudice," and "enlightenment." Before I explain that, I think it would be useful to explain the perspective I'm coming from. 

I'm a Pyrrhonist. Pyrrhonism is one of the philosophies of life that arose in ancient Greece. I'm the author of "Pyrrho's Way: The Ancient Greek Version of Buddhism." 

Most of what we know about ancient Pyrrhonism is through the surviving works of the Pyrrhonist philosopher, Sextus Empiricus. Like Stoicism and Epicureanism, Pyrrhonism is a philosophy of life, and it involves certain practices. The core practices of Pyrrhonism are about cultivating epistemic humility and an attitude of investigation. 

In Sextus' works one can see the kind of outgroup issue described in your article. Most of his attention goes to criticizing the doctrines of competing philosophies and of certain schools of thought. These doctrines are "dogmas" - the transliterated Greek term that is the source for the English term "dogma." The Greek term has a somewhat different meaning than the English term, and Sextus uses it in a technical sense to mean a firm belief in something non-empirical, such as the Stoic dogma that virtue is the only good. So when I say "dogma" I mean it in that sense.

While Sextus usually criticizes dogmas as rash conclusions, when those dogmas are contradicted by empirical evidence, his criticism becomes harsher. The harshest examples are in his book, "Against the Astrologers." Unlike his criticisms of competing philosophies, where he usually argues that the dogmas are rash and disputable, he argues that the astrological dogmas are demonstrably false. 

With regard to his own beliefs, Sextus could be said to be a model of intellectual humility. The problem is that "humility" does not describe his attitude about dogmas. While it's true that he is interested in investigating dogmas, and in that sense has a scout mentality, and he's willing to concede that some dogmas may be correct, he's insistent on proving that dogmas are at best unproven or at worst contrary to empirical evidence.

It's not that there's something wrong or paradoxical that Sextus is doing here. It's that "intellectual humility" should not be considered a form of humility and it should not be called by that term. Sextus doesn't describe what he does in any term related to humility. Rather he describes what the dogmatists do in terms opposite of humility. Hence Pyrrhonists are not humble; they simply lack the conceit of the dogmatists. In other words, it's not "intellectual humility" but "intellectual non-conceitedness." The absence of conceit is not the same as the presence of humility. There's no self-abasement, no sense of unworthiness, no modest self-assessment. 

"Prejudice" isn't correct because that term means coming to judgment without investigation. That's the opposite of what Pyrrhonists do. I think that all that's going on here is simple in-group/out-group issues, and a preference for associating with the like-minded. If someone says they are a Stoic, then that gives one a lot of information that can be used to judge that person. This is not mere prejudice.

The term "enlightenment" is also a problem. Pyrrhonism doesn't use the term "enlightenment," but we do talk about there being an ah-ha experience associated with seeing the world from the Pyrrhonist perspective. Yet to use the word "enlightenment" would imply a hierarchical relationship such as the kind Plato implies with his allegory of the cave. But we have no such enlightenment to give. All we offer is a shattering of dogmatic illusions. 

One of the few positions that Sextus Empiricus could be said to take is that good and evil do not exist by nature - meaning that they arise from the judments of humans. This is a key part of the Pyrrhonist psycho-therapeutic approach. I don't think it should be called "moral humility" though. It's more of a realistic assessment of the flimsiness of all moral judgments. 

Expand full comment

Great piece.

Expand full comment

This is so interesting

Expand full comment