Seminar on Skepticism
Philosophy 80
10:30 - 11:50, TTh Peter Suber
Carpenter Hall 323Spring 1997-98



The required reading for this course consists of several hand-outs and the following books:

  1. Sextus Empiricus, Outlines of Scepticism, trans. Julia Annas and Jonathan Barnes, Cambridge University Press, 1994.
  2. Michel de Montaigne, The Complete Essays of Montaigne, trans. Donald Frame, Stanford University Press, 1957.
  3. Blaise Pascal, Pensées, trans. A.J. Krailsheimer, Penguin Books, 1966.
  4. Ludwig Wittgenstein, On Certainty, trans. G.E.M. Anscombe and G.H. von Wright, Harper and Row, 1972.

I've created a course home-page containing a collection of hand-outs and course-related web links at If you find any other relevant links, let me know and I'll add them to the collection.

Works and pages cited for a given day will be discussed or presupposed that day in class and should have been read in advance. Those in brackets are recommended but not required. All assignments are due at class time.

There are several translations of Sextus Empiricus in print. I have assigned the Julia Annas and Jonathan Barnes translation from Cambridge University Press. But you might also use the Benson Mates translation from Oxford University Press or the R.G. Bury translation from the Loeb Classical Library (reprinted by Prometheus Press). I've given the Cambridge, Oxford, and Loeb page numbers for our Sextus readings.

For Montaigne and Wittgenstein, no specific pages are given for the separate class meetings. Try to read all of The Apology for Raymond Sebond for the first Montaigne meeting, and all of On Certainty for the first Wittgenstein meeting. We will benefit more from two or three discussions of the entire work than from one on the first half and one on the second.

For Pascal, try to read all the assigned sections for the first class meeting. It looks like a lot, but in fact it only amounts to about 12.5% of the book. (Note that the Pascal assignment refers to the Lafuma section numbers used in the Penguin edition; if you are using another edition, you will probably encounter the Brunschvicg numbering system and must translate.)


Week 1, January 12 - 16
first class, no reading due
syllabus; generic hand-out; Plato, Apology

Week 2, January 19 - 23
Sextus Empiricus, Outlines of Pyrrhonism, I.1 - I.163 (Cambridge 3-40, Oxford 89-110, Loeb 3-93)
Sextus I.164 - II.47 (Cambridge 40-79, Oxford 110-133, Loeb 95-183)

Week 3, January 26 - 30
Sextus II.48 - II.192 (Cambridge 79-119, Oxford 133-158, Loeb 183-275)
Sextus II.193 - III.37 (Cambridge 119-152, Oxford 158-179, Loeb 275-349)

Week 4, February 2 - 6
Sextus III.38 - III.150 (Cambridge 152-183, Oxford 179-197, Loeb 349-427)
Sextus III.151 - III.281 (Cambridge 183-216, Oxford 197-217, Loeb 429-513)

Week 5, February 9 - 13
Review day
F.C.S. Schiller, Problems of Belief (excerpts, hand-out) first short paper due

Week 6, February 16 - 20
Montaigne, Apology for Raymond Sebond
Montaigne, cont.

Week 7, February 23 - 27
Review day
Pascal, Pensées: Sections 2-7, 21, 23, 28, 33-34, 44-45, 48, 52, 68, 72-73, 75-76, 82-83, 93, 98-99, 109-10, 119, 124, [125-26], 130-31, 149-50, 156-60, 166, 170, 173-77, 182-83, 185, 188, 190, 199-202, 230-232, 234, 236, 242, 244, 378, 380, 382, 387, 394, 397, 400-01, 404-06, 418-19, 423-24, [427-29], 441, 445-46, [512], 516, 518, 520-21, 525, 529-30, 532, 539-40, 542, 551, 553, 558, 568, 576-77, 588, 599-600, 619, 621, 623, 630-33, 644-46, 651, 653, 655-56, 658, 661, 672, [674], [684], 687, [688], 691, 697, 699, 721, [726], 737, 739, 743, 744, 756-58, 782, 786, 803, 808-09, 814-15, 820-21, 837, [840], [882-83], 886-87, 890, 896, 905-06, 913, [916], 921, 926, 962, 975, 977, [983].

Week 8, March 2 - 6
Pascal, cont.
Review day Analysis of a refutation due

Week 9, March 9 - 13
no class, spring break

Week 10, March 16 - 20
Clifford, "The Ethics of Belief" (hand-out)
James, "The Will to Believe" (hand-out)

Week 11, March 23 - 27
Clifford v. James day; no reading due
Peirce, "The Fixation of Belief" (hand-out) Second short paper due

Week 12, March 30 - April 3
G.E. Moore, "A Defence of Common Sense" (hand-out)
Wittgenstein, On Certainty

Week 13, April 6 - 10
Wittgenstein, cont.
Review day

Week 14, April 13 - 17
Nietzsche and Cabell (hand-outs of excerpts)
Hume, excerpt from Treatise

Week 15, April 20 - 24
Cioran, two essays (hand-out) Draft of final paper due
Presentation of student research

Week 16, April 27 - May 1
Presentation of student research Evaluation form due before next class
Judgment day: last day of class Final paper due

I've stuck in a review day almost every time we change philosophers. Here are some of my ideas on how to use these days; let me hear yours.


Title Due date Weight Description
First short paper February 13 15% 3-5 pp. On Sextus Empiricus. Follow the description of the assignment in my essay hand-out.
Analysis of a refutation March 6 20% 7+ pp. Analyze a classical objection to skepticism and the likely Pyrrhonean reply. Details.
Second short paper March 27 15% 3-5 pp. On any of our authors other than Sextus. Otherwise like the first short paper.
Draft of long paper April 20 0% Due before the oral presentation so that your final version can benefit from the class discussion. Details.
Oral presentation of long paper April 24, 27 5% Share your research with the class. Details.
Evaluation form April 30 0% Due any time before the last day of class.
Long paper May 1 25% 10 page minimum. Topic from a list I will provide. Details.
Participation Daily 20% Helpful, voluntary participation in every discussion. Details.
You must submit all assigned work to pass the course.

Analysis of a refutation

Find a reasoned objection to skepticism in the history of philosophy that you would like to explore more closely. In your paper include the following elements:

  1. A complete citation of the work, and pages, that you are analyzing.
  2. A concise statement of the objection. State this as an objection, not merely as an alternative position.
  3. An explication of the argument behind the objection. Together, the previous item and this one should exceed the original author in clarity, directness, explicitness, rigor, and completeness.
  4. The likely reply of a Pyrrhonean skeptic. Use your imagination and cite Sextus' text.
  5. The likely response of the critic to the Pyrrhonean.
  6. Your comments on the strengths and weaknesses of the arguments on both sides. Give at least two pages to this section.
  7. Please number your sections 1-6 so I can find them.

I can suggest some classical refutations, but part of the fun here is to find one you will want to grapple with.

Please submit two copies of your analysis. I will grade and return one, and put the other on reserve in the library for the rest of the class to consult and/or xerox.

Long paper

As with the short papers, follow the general description of the assignment in my essay hand-out.

Your long paper should be on a topic from a list that I will hand out early in the semester.

In addition, your long final paper must be based on some library research, incorporating and evaluating at least two secondary sources.

Toward the end of the semester you will present your research, conclusions, and arguments to the class. A draft of your paper is due before this oral presentation so that your final version may benefit from the class discussion of your presentation. The draft must be full-length and in polished prose. I will not give you comments your draft, but let the class do that during your presentation.

See my generic hand-out for details on paper mechanics, lateness, rewrites, and the option of having me grade your paper on tape.

If you give me a self-addressed, stamped envelope with your final paper, then I will mail it to you after I grade it. Otherwise you'll have to pick it up next fall.


This is a seminar; hence, there will be no lectures. (Well, maybe a few mini-lectures.)

My expectations are fairly simple. Attend every class. Always be prepared in the reading. Speak voluntarily in every discussion. Listen to others. Be constructive. When you have questions, ask them. When you don't have questions, think of some.

See my generic hand-out for details on participation and discussion.

For your information, here are the dates of our authors. Click on one of their names for a Hippias search.

Plato 427-348 BCE Greek
Sextus Empiricus c.160-210 Greek
Montaigne 1533-1592 French
Pascal 1623-1662 French
Hume 1711-1776 Scottish
Peirce 1839-1914 American
Clifford 1845-1879 American
James 1842-1910 American
Nietzsche 1844-1900 German
F.C.S. Schiller 1864-1937 British
G.E.Moore 1873-1958 British
Cabell 1879-1958 American
Wittgenstein 1889-1951 Austrian
Cioran 1911- Rumanian/French

Return to the course home-page.

Ribbon] Peter Suber, Department of Philosophy, Earlham College, Richmond, Indiana, 47374. Copyright © 1997, Peter Suber.