Eight men; one absent because of heat related stress, one absent for unknown reasons.

My old friend Randy Cohen, originator and long time writer of the NYTimes column The Ethicist, used to say that if there were one topic guaranteed to stir up the masses – numbers and fever pitch – it was animals, anything to do with animals. So it was in prison this eve. The chapter topic was Pyrrhonian skepticism, the third school of thought Montaigne looked to for ideas and advice about how to live (last week we talked about the chapter on Stoicism and Epicureanism). But along the way Bakewell also contrasts Pyrrhonian skepticism with Cartesian skepticism, and almost as a side point she contrasts Montaigne’s delight in animal tales (including his query When I am playing with my cat, how do I know she is not playing with me?) with Descartes’ view of them as mere automata. The battle lines were thus conveniently drawn for us. The best pair of zingers: One man told of a wild deer who broke into his tent in the Rockies to help himself to some fish he’d just fried up, to which the Cartesian in the group replied that he’s be impressed when he heard about a deer who invented a fishing pole and taught itself to cast a rod, to which the first man replied that maybe it was smarter to figure out how to get the fruits of someone else’s labor.

But best of all was the intellectual shepherding by another member of the group when he asked, only half rhetorically: Why do we care so much about how different we are from animals? Why did it matter so much to Descartes and why does it to us? Another person answered: It has to do with the difference between Montaigne’s attitude of trying to learn about ourselves and how to live from pretty much everything including even animals and Pyrrhonism, vs. Descartes’ desire to overthrow Montaigne, and skepticism.

Another interesting theme: that the equanimity or ataraxia Pyrrhonism promises reveals a strange underestimation of the pleasure and value in everyday life — in the yard as well as in the library or school — of talking about what we do or don’t know, of trying to secure knowledge about things that matter to us, of weighing and debating evidence, figuring out the role hunches and gut feeling should play, and more. Ahhh, music to this epistemologist’s ears!

Boy, was that damn Go back! an unwelcome interruption tonight.


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