Tuesday, October 27, 2009

More on the history of "pessimistic meta-induction"

Another lovely early example:
"[Aristotle’s ghost] freely acknowledged his own mistakes in natural philosophy,
because he proceeded in many things upon conjecture, as all men must
do; and he found that Gassendi, who had made the doctrine of Epicurus as
palatable as he could, and the *vortices* of Descartes, were equally exploded. He
predicted the same fate to *attraction*, whereof the present learned are such
zealous asserters. He said, that new systems of nature were but new fashions,
which would vary in every age..." (Swift, *Gulliver's Travels*, In Chapter VIII of Voyage III, emphasis in original)


  1. Something like PMI appears in Sextus Empiricus Outlines of Pyrrhonism from where I suspect Montaigne got it.

  2. James, you may well be correct (that something like PMI appears in Sextus), and I would love a fuller reference.
    But...it is worth noting that at the point where he offers the PMI, Montaigne cites and quotes Lucretius (De Rerum Natura, V, 1276). This is interesting because it is often ignored that modern brands of scepticism also have roots in Epicurean thought.

  3. This fact was compeletly unknown to me. You really pushed my knowledge to one layer higher. Thanks for sharing such informative post.

  4. I think this may be the passage in Sextus Empiricus's Outlines of Pyrrhonism that James was thinking of:

    So far, then, as concerns the efficient principle this account will suffice for the present. But we must also give a brief account of what are called the material principles. Now that these are inapprehensible may easily be gathered from the disagreement which exists about them amongst the dogmatists. For Pherecydes of Syros* declared earth to be the principle of all things; Thales of Miletus,† water; Anaximander (his pupil), the unlimited; Anaximenes and Diogenes of Apollonia, air; Hippasus of Metapontum, fire; Xenophanes of Colophon, earth and water; Oenopides of Chios, fire and air; Hippo of Rhegium, fire and water; Onomacritus, in his Orphica, fire and water and earth; the school of Empedocles as well as the Stoics, fire, air, water, and earth - for why should one even mention that mysterious “indeterminate matter” which some of them talk about, when not even they themselves are positive that they apprehend it? Aristotle the Peripatetic takes as his principles fire, air, water, earth, and the “revolving body”‡; Democritus and Epicurus, atoms; Anaxogoras of Clazomenae, homeomeries§; Diodorus, surnamed Cronos, minimal and noncomposite bodies; Heracleides Ponticus** and Asclepiades the Bithynian,†† homogeneous masses; the school of Pythagoras,‡‡ the numbers; the mathematicians, the limits of bodies; Strato the physicist,* the qualities.

    Since, then, there exists amongst them as much divergence as this, and even more, regarding the material principles, we shall give assent either to all the positions stated, and all others as well, or to some of them. But to assent to all is not possible; for we certainly shall not be able to assent both to Asclepiades, who says that the elements can be broken up and possess qualities, and to Democritus, who asserts that they are indivisible and void of quality, and to Anaxagoras, who leaves every sensible quality attached to the homeomeries.

    Book III. Chapter VI: Concerning Material Principles. Translation by R. G. Bury in a 1990 edition published by Prometheus Books.