In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Quietism

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Religious and Theological Origins
  • Pyrrhonian Quietism and Its Legacy
  • Rorty’s Neo-Pragmatist Quietism
  • Mcdowell’s Therapy of Transcendental Anxiety
  • Semantics and Metaphysics
  • Metaphysics and Ontology
  • Metaethics
  • Politics and Political Philosophy

Philosophy Quietism
Stelios Virvidakis, Vasso Kindi
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 February 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 February 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0184


Quietism in contemporary analytic philosophy is the view or stance that entails avoidance of substantive philosophical theorizing and is usually associated with certain forms of skepticism, pragmatism, and minimalism about truth. More particularly, it is opposed to putting forth positive theses and developing constructive arguments. It is directly related to a certain construal of Wittgenstein’s early and late work emphasizing the therapeutic purport of his thought. Quietism has been invoked recently mainly by Wittgensteinian and neo-pragmatist thinkers, while it has been criticized by defenders of realist positions. In most cases, the term is used incidentally and sporadically in a variety of dialectical contexts. The term originally referred to a certain tradition in Christian theology and religious practice that can be traced back to the earlier Eastern orthodox “hesychasm,” from the monastic technique of prayer since the 4th century to the theological teaching of St. Gregory Palamas in 14th-century Byzantium, and to the kind of mysticism elaborated by the 17th-century Spanish priest Miguel de Molinos, which spread in Spain and in France. The first conception of philosophical quietism in the history of Western thought is encountered in the approach of Pyrrhonian skeptics of the Hellenistic period, who pursued imperturbability, quietude or tranquility of mind (ataraxia) through suspension of judgment (epoché) and refused assent (synkatathesis) to any philosophical thesis. In fact, Pyrrhonian quietism provides the first combination of a more or less therapeutic goal of philosophizing with an antitheoretical stance. In contemporary discussions, the notion of quietism is often presented in vague, elusive, or ambiguous ways. Its defense is quite controversial insofar as it is often thought to imply intellectual idleness or laziness and objectionable conservatism. One can distinguish among various forms of quietism on the basis of the scope, the strength, and the motivation of the claims advanced, and of the argumentative tactics employed to develop and sustain them. Regarding scope, one can contrast local or partial versions, which restrict the rejection of theorizing to one or more particular areas of philosophical thinking, such as philosophy of language, epistemology, metaphysics, ontology, ethics, or political philosophy, and to global versions, which entail jettisoning philosophical theory in all areas. Moreover, there are stronger and weaker expressions of quietist commitment and different reasons sustaining them at the beginning or at the end of philosophical inquiry. Philosophers advocating quietism of a global or more ambitious form sometimes find themselves in a paradoxical situation when they endorse theoretical positions and proceed to the construction of arguments involving a kind of pragmatic self-refutation.

General Overviews

There are very few comprehensive surveys and systematic accounts of philosophical quietism in different areas. Virvidakis 2006 presents an attempt at a classification of various quietist views and arguments. A useful discussion of quietism of all kinds can be found in a symposium on quietism that was presented in six issues of the journal Common Knowledge (see Perl 2009). There are sporadic references to Wittgensteinian quietists, as opposed to naturalists in contemporary philosophy, in Leiter 2004, but these do not amount to a proper survey, while the selection of papers in the volume edited and introduced by Leiter, including Pettit 2004, reflects his bias against quietism. Pettit 2004 provides a more general construal of quietism, which is contrasted with existentialism as a metaphilosophical stance. Blackburn 2006 offers a short critical account of quietism as a kind of response to debates on metaphysical commitments in different areas of discourse aiming at deconstructing the issue (see also Semantics and Metaphysics).

  • Blackburn, Simon. Truth: A Guide for the Perplexed. London: Penguin, 2006.

    An introduction to debates on the notion of truth and on the metaphysical commitments of alternative positions. The chapter entitled “The Possibility of Philosophy” provides a concise and useful discussion of quietism and of its relation to minimalist conceptions of truth, and also puts forth a negative assessment of quietism as a general stance.

  • Leiter, Brian. “Introduction.” In The Future for Philosophy. Edited by Brian Leiter, 1–24. Oxford: Clarendon, 2004.

    A description of basic trends dividing contemporary philosophers in America opposing Wittgensteinian quietism, which proposes a therapeutic, antitheoretical attitude and the dissolution of problems to naturalists engaged in a constructive cognitive enterprise. The author indirectly expresses his negative assessment of quietist views.

  • Perl, Jeffrey M., ed. Special Issue: Apology for Quietism: A Sotto Voce Symposium, Part 1. Common Knowledge 15.1 (2009).

    First of six special issues of Common Knowledge edited by Perl, with essays on various aspects of quietism, including theological quietism, political quietism, Wittgensteinian quietism, quietism in 18th-century France, Quaker quietism, quietism in Buddhist thought, Islam, and German mysticism. There are also essays on Rorty, Wittgenstein, and Thorstein Veblen in the various issues. Continued in Common Knowledge 15.2 (2009), 15.3 (2009), 16.1 (2010), 16.2 (2010), and 16.3 (2010).

  • Pettit, Philip. “Existentialism, Quietism, and the Role of Philosophy.” In The Future for Philosophy. Edited by B. Leiter, 304–328. Oxford: Clarendon, 2004.

    An attempt to outline and defend a middle position between an existentialist approach to philosophical issues and a quietist stance aiming at “leaving the world as it is.”

  • Virvidakis, Stelios. “Varieties of Quietism.” Philosophical Inquiry 30.1–2 (2006): 157–175.

    A survey of different versions of philosophical quietism, with a first attempt at a comparative assessment of their scope, their strength, and their motivation and of the arguments that sustain them.

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