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Our panel of 90 professional philosophers has responded to

Question of the day

A little more pedantically than you, I would say, regarding that sentence about the abyss, that an adventurous philosopher looks long and hard even where no explanation seems to lie. That's the abyss. Gazing into an abyss feels like a neutral or innocuous desire to know, until you imagine yourself being looked at in the age of looking. The abyss gazes into you, meaning that it spots you looking for something in it. It sees you actively searching for an explanation.

In other words, I don't exactly take the sentence as you do, but we're reading it similarly. And I am grateful for your response to it: giving up on gazing when you see you're being gazed at. You can understand Kant's advice to metaphysicians as similar to what you're describing. Stop trying to answer these traditional questions as if they were real questions; learn to diagnose the questions in their unanswerability, down to the human desire to exceed empirical human knowledge.

But you wanted to know specifically about ancient philosophers who might have said as you do: “just stop gazing.” As far as I know, the systematic approach to philosophical questions as unanswerable, hence as questions we respond to with the refusal to answer, dates back to Hellenistic philosophy. The Hellenistic Skeptics sound like Kant or Hume sometimes in the way they urge curious philosophers to give it up and stop making proclamations about the way nature reveals itself (or fails to).

For the Skeptics, most metaphysical inquiries lead to error and dismay, all the more unacceptable outcomes given the Skeptics’ recommendation of ataraxia “tranquility, an untroubled condition.” Worrying about the truth or falsity of a metaphysical assertion only gave you troubles you were better off without; so the Skeptics proposed that you assert your indifference to the question with a simple ou mallon “not more” or “not particularly”: no more true than false. Is change real? – it no more is than it isn’t. The skeptic Pyrrho is credited with having originated this response, promising that talking back to metaphysical utterances in this way will ease your mind.

Pyrrho wrote nothing, so we know of his pioneering skepticism through the writings of others. Of the Skeptics who adopted and elaborated his views, Sextus Empiricus is the best known and his books the best preserved. But rather than spell out a reading list I would just recommend the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry “Ancient Skepticism,” an excellent and extensive discussion by Katja Vogt.

As far as Nietzsche’s relationship to such ideas goes, you might be interested in Jessica Berry’s book “Nietzsche and the Ancient Skeptical Tradition” (Oxford University Press, 2010). Berry finds a deep resonance between Nietzsche’s account of the inquirer and the Skeptics’ cautions. I don’t always agree with her analogies, but her argument is informed and reasonable; and your own thoughts about the abyss remark tell me that you’re inclined to agree with her.