Agrippa’s Trilemma – Pyrrhonist tranquility


. Explain Agrippa’s Trilemma. What do you think is the best response to it and why?  (639)



Agrippa’s Trilemma is an ancient mode of argument. It was used by the Pyrrhonist skepticts against those who believe they have arrived at a truth or falsehood by way of reasoning. I will explain 3 modes of this argument in the following paragraphs along with various responses that can be used to ‘get around’ the seeming impasse.


The Agrippa Trilemma argues that we have no reason to believe that P for any P. The Pyrrhonists used this tool to try and suspend judgement on issues of conflict and hopefully give rise to tranquillity.


The Trilemma has three modes: Infinite Regress, Vicious Circle and Ad Hoc Assumption.


If we believe p, we can always be asked why you believe p. When you give an answer to that question, the listener can always ask why do you believe that answer? If I were to answer that query, the listener could once again ask why? This conversation can go on and on in an infinite regression in the search of that infallible absolute answer.


A method to stop this regress is to argue in a circle. So rather than continuing a chain that progresses P1…P2…P3…, I can loop back around P1…P2…P3…P1. In arguing this way I am unable to establish any independent reason to believe any of my propositions.


Another method to block the regression is simply to stop somewhere. We make an ad hoc assumption to stop at proposition P4. But this once again does not confer entitlement upon the chain of beliefs. It is arbitrary with no good reason.


The demand for having some independent reason to believe P generates this impasse.


One response to this impasse is Foundationalism. The idea being that the Foundationalist can find a first set of principals/knowledge.  These foundations can then be used to stop the infinite regress. An example is Descartes “I think, therefore I am. Even if we grant that this is true, it seems that there are too few self-justifying beliefs to construct a plausible epistemology.


Another response is Coherentism.  The idea being that justification is a large web rather than a chain. If this is the case of circularity looses its force. But due to the overwhelming amount of beliefs we cannot tell which is the right one.


The Trilemma works due to the demand we place on knowledge of having grounds that are justifiable. Can we block this demand and therefore rob the Trilemma of its power? Can we be entitled to our beliefs without reason?


Perhaps the believer themselves can effect the value of the belief?  A person can be judged to be a sound epistemic citizen which means they are a good judge of when to believe a belief and when to doubt based on the evidence available. The responsible person can draw a line in the sand – create the non-arbitrary break in the infinite regress. Once done the Trilemma is no longer an issue.


This line of thought is argued by the Pragmatist such as Charles Peirce.  They state that we are entitled to our beliefs. However, consistent with our idea of knowledge as an emerging property, they also allow room for these beliefs to be doubted and challenged in a public social discourse which could lead to changes in beliefs.


It seems to me that this is a very functional way with dealing with the issue of the Trilemma.  Practically the world operates in a way that we can depend upon in order to function in that world.  The Pragmatists view of this process works. However, I feel that projects like that of Descartes have an important place in the exploration of our understanding of our epistemological framework. An epistemically responsible citizen can only be bestowed by group consensus – metaphysical discourse stops the lemming effect of just following the most decorated epistemic citizen.

Categories: Philosophical Essays

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