“Naess embodies the spirit of philosophy in its original sense as being a loving pursuit of wisdom. It is a deep exploration of our whole lives and context in pursuit of living wisely. The essence of Socratic inquiry is to know ourselves. From his work on Pyrrhonian scepticism to his … positive statements on pluralism and possibilism, Naess says he is a ‘philosophical vagabond’ or ‘wandering seeker’, what the ancient Greeks called a zetetic’” (1).
In 1968 Arne Naess (1912-2009) published Scepticism (2) two years before resigning as chair of philosophy at the University of Oslo to devote himself to environmental problems. Part of this book focuses on Sextus Empiricus (150-225 CE), the last recorded Pyrrhonist philosopher in a line going back to Pyrrho of Elis (c360-c272 BCE).
Pyrrhonists, as described by Sextus Empiricus, neither made truth claims nor denied the possibility of making them. Instead, they cultivated a deeply embedded attitude of suspension of judgement (epoche), allowing possibilities to stand open within the process of continuing inquiry. Such a turning away from the drive for intellectual closure enables peace of mind (ataraxia) in our engagement with the richness and diversity of experience. As Naess says, the Pyrrhonist philosopher “leaves questions open, but without leaving the question. He has however given up his original, ultimate aim of gaining peace of mind by finding truth because it so happened that he came by peace of mind in another way.” (2)
Naess was not himself a Pyrrhonist, but clearly valued the Pyrrhonist frame of mind. He took something from it into his later work, as is made clear in Alan Drengson’s introduction to Naess’s Ecology of Wisdom (1):
“… there is never one definitive interpretation of philosophical texts; there is never one description of an event and all processes are complex interactions involving changing forces and relations, internal and external. Experience and the processes around us form changing patterns or gestalts. The nature of reality is multidimensional and creative. … Our spontaneous experience is so rich and deep that we can never give a complete account of it in any language, be it mathematics, science, music or art … As a deep questioner and seeker, Naess remains free of dogmatic and monolithic doctrine about the world … [which] partly explains why he celebrates a movement supported by diverse people with many world views”.
I enjoy this view of inquiry, and feel inspired to carry it forward more consciously in my own work. My sense is that it will bring my inquiry more into the world, without its losing its contemplative core.
(1) Arne Naess Ecology of Wisdom UK: Penguin Books, 2016 (Penguin Modern Classic. First published 2008)
(2) Arne Naess Scepticism Abingdon, UK: Routledge, 1968