Skepticism Presentation to Phi Sigma Tau Panel--Introduction to Skepticism:

Copyright © 2004 Bruce W. Hauptli

Skepticism is the philosophical orientation which holds that there is little or nothing for epistemologists to study.  Many contemporary epistemologists treat skepticism as a position which no one really adheres to—it is often considered only as vehicle for raising challenges to our knowledge and justificatory claims, not as a viable position in its own right.  In ancient philosophy (that is in Greek and Roman philosophy from about 400 B.C.E. to 200 C.E.), there were two distinct sorts of skepticism which were recognized—and they were actual philosophical positions (indeed “schools”), championed by real individuals.

(a) Ancient Skepticism:

The “appearance/reality” distinction is one of those “basic” distinctions in philosophy around which many important questions, divisions, and arguments coalesce.  While many philosophers appeal to the distinction to focus attention upon the underlying reality, however, Ancient skeptics would focus our attention upon the appearances—which they called “the evident.”  They proposed this focus because they held to a simple fundamental principle.  In his Outlines of Pyrrhonism, Sextus Empiricus [160-210] puts it this way:

…the principle fundamental to the existence of Scepticism is the proposition, “To every argument an equal argument is opposed,” for we believe that it is in consequence of this principle that we are brought to a point where we cease to dogmatize.1

In effect, they held that we should not make claims to knowledge about underlying reality because no non-evident proposition is better warranted than its negation.  They did not mean that we could make no assertions, only that we should limit our propositional assent to those things which are “evident.”  As Sextus says,

those who say that the Sceptics deny appearances seem to me to be ignorant of what we say.  As we said above, we do not deny those things which, in accordance with the passivity of our sense-impressions, lead us involuntarily to give our assent to them; and these are the appearances.  And when we inquire whether an object is such as it appears, we grant the fact of its appearance.  Our inquiry is thus not directed at the appearance itself.  Rather, it is a question of what is predicated of it, and this is a different thing from investigating the fact of the appearance itself.  For example honey appears to us to have a sweetening quality.  This much we concede, because it affects us with a sensation of sweetness.  The question, however, is whether it is sweet in an absolute sense.  Hence not the appearance is questioned, but that which is predicated of the appearance.  Whenever we do expound arguments directly against appearances, we do so not with the intention of denying them, but in order to point out the hasty judgment of the dogmatists.2

It may, at first, not appear obvious why Sextus would complain that the skeptics “deny the appearances,” but Phillip Hallie clarifies why skeptics complain of such misconception when he says:

in Molière’s Le Mariage Forcé there is a Sceptic names Marphurius, who at one point in the play is being belaboured with a stick.  When he starts to yell, the man wielding the stick (Sganarelle, who is apparently speaking for Molière) tells poor Marphurius that a Sceptic cannot be sure that he is being hit by a stick, nor can he be sure that he feels pain.  Saganarelle and Molière believed that the Sceptic doubts everything, including his own everyday experience of sticks and pains, that he lives in a philosophically induced total anaesthesia or aphasia.3

Molière’s portrayal of skepticism is as ancient as Diogenes Laertius (in his Lives of Eminent Philosophers).  Against this sort of mischaracterization, Hallie points out that

scepticism thrived in the ancient world from the fourth century B.C. to the third century A.D., when practical-wisdom philosophies like Stoicism and Epicureanism were (though sporadically) important; in general, this was an era in the history of ideas when pure theoretical and pure mystical or otherworldly philosophies were the exception in the Greek world.  What interested the Greeks primarily was insight into the proper conduct of life, practical wisdom for producing a happy life....4

According to Hallie,

...the arche, or moving cause, of Scepticism is the hope of living normally and peacefully without metaphysical dogmatism or fanaticism; and part of the means for so living is the Practical Criterion of the Sceptics.  This Criterion stated that one should follow “the guidance of nature, the compulsion of the feelings, the tradition of laws and customs, and the instruction of the arts.  The ataraxia, or unpreterbedness, that Stoicism, Epicureanism, and Scepticism sought was not a sort of paralytic anesthesia; it was peaceful living according to the institutions of one’s own country and the dictates of one’s own feelings, experience, and common sense.  All three philosophies wanted tranquility, not paralysis; a peaceful life, not an imitation of death.5

     Ancient skepticism had two primary forms: Pyrrhonian [after Pyrrho of Elis: ~360-~270 B.C.E.] and Academic [as in Plato’s Academy] skepticism.  Scholars offer differing characterizations, but the core difference is clarified by David Sedley when he says:

Sextus [a Pyrrhonian skeptic], in what is by far his fairest set of comments on the skeptical Academy, grants an almost complete philosophical concord between Arcesilaus [~315-~240 B.C.E.—an Academic skeptic and head of Academy ~273 B.C.E.] and his own Pyrrhonist school, but he adds the qualification that, when Arcesilaus says that individual acts of epoche are goods and individual acts of assent are evils, he might be accused of treating this as an objective truth, whereas when the Pyrrhonist says more or less the same thing he is merely describing the way things appear to him.”6

In short, the Academic Skeptics came close to contending that “we know nothing”—and, thus, close to self-refutation, while the Pyrrhonians tried to present no positive doctrine, and contented themselves with saying “how things appeared to them,” and offering a methodology which, it seemed to them, might help others attain a peaceful life.  As Hallie notes,

...the Academic Sceptics introduced two elements into Scepticism.  The first is a sustained, systematic attack upon certain dogmatic positions, like the metaphysics of Plato, and far more importantly the philosophy of the Stoics.  The Academics pin-pointed their enemies and concentrated their fire upon them, while the pre-Academics were more interested in the living of a happy life and were satisfied to attack their opponents piecemeal.  The second element that the Academic Sceptics introduced was a detailed doctrine for living amongst phenomena in ordinary life.7

In other words, the Academic skeptics engaged in the philosophic critique of other philosophers (including Platonic Academics, stoics, Epicureans, etc.) and tried to offer an “therapy” which would help people to avoid dogmatism and content themselves with “the appearances” since, according to their view, we don’t know anything about the underlying reality.  The Pyrrhonians left of the final clause.  Thus an Academic skeptic would contend, for example, that we have no perceptual knowledge (because perceptions can contradict one another, etc.), while the Pyrrhonist would contend that it seems to her that we have no such knowledge.

     Whatever their orientation, the Ancient Skeptics offered a number of “reminders,” “procedures,” “arguments,” or “tropes” which facilitated the avoidance of “dogmatic belief.”  The practice recommended was to help individuals avoid the propensity, temptation, or mistake of “going beyond the appearances.”  As Hallie notes:

…doubt, rather than being an instrument for rolling back the veil of sense-experience, is a means of wiping off the excrescences that befoul man’s life and lead him into endless, bitter conflicts with his fellow men.  The function of doubt is to make room for a happy everyday life, not to do away with it.  This is the “true” function of doubt, at least as far as our greatest authority on Scepticism, Sextus Empiricus, is concerned.
  This special function of doubt is well though not pleasingly expressed by Sextus in the metaphor of the laxative.  Doubt washes itself away along with the dubious unprovable claims it works on, and it does so, according to our Sceptical physician, “just as aperient drugs do not merely eliminate the humours of the body, but also expel themselves along with the humors.  The ultimate purpose of Scepticism is to make doubting unnecessary, to let the customs of our country, our needs for food and drink and so forth, and our plain everyday speech take over the direction of our thought and life after the doubting is done.8

For the Ancient Skeptics, the “evident” (or the appearances) was not confined to sensory experiences.  They spoke of “assent which is compelled,” and believed that not only did our sensory experiences compel our assent to things, but so did our feelings, and the traditions and instructions of our professions, laws, customs, and arts.

(b) “Modern,” “Contemporary,” or “Cartesian” Skepticism:

Many who speak of skepticism have no intention of speaking of an Ancient philosophical orientation concerned with avoiding dogmatism, limiting our assent to the evident, and producing ataraxia.  Instead, they see skepticism as functioning as the epistemologists’ conscience, ensuring that we accept no propositions which are not fully warranted.  In his “Scepticism,” Peter Klein, for example, maintains that:

assuming that knowledge is some form of sufficiently warranted true belief, it is the warrant condition, as opposed to the truth or belief condition, that provides the grist for the sceptic’s mill.  The Pyrrhonists will suggest that no non-evident, empirical proposition is sufficiently warranted.  A Cartesian sceptic will argue that no empirical proposition about anything other than one’s own mind and its contents is sufficiently warranted because there are always legitimate grounds for doubting it.  Thus, an essential difference between the two views concerns the stringency of the requirements for a belief’s being sufficiently warranted to count as knowledge.  A Cartesian requires certainty.  A Pyrrhonist merely requires that the proposition be more warranted than its negation.9

The Cartesian skeptic poses the possibility of evil deceivers, brains in vats, and other “skeptical hypotheses,” all of which are meant to show the epistemologist that none of her beliefs are completely justified, and, thus, none are entitled to be called “knowledge.”  While there are few real Cartesian skeptics, it also seems that few have improved upon Descartes’ own inadequate attempts to firmly ground his claims to knowledge in face of the Cartesian skeptic’s challenges.

     The modern skeptics offer a global skepticism contending that we do not know because we are never legitimately certain, and since knowledge requires certainty, we must precind from knowledge claims.  Such skeptics maintain that ‘certain’ is like ‘flat’ and ‘empty’—it is an “absolute term” which applies only when something admits of no degree of uncertainty (bumpiness or contents).10   Just as nothing can be completely flat or empty, so nothing can be completely certain.  Since knowledge requires certainty, however, this entails that nothing is known.  Such skeptical arguments serve to test theories of justification and help ensure that what we contend to be justified will indeed be so.

     There are many contemporary versions against such skeptical arguments, but one of the most effective appeals to the nature of justificatory questions pointing out that a call for justification is always offered relative to a specific context, and that that context provides a basis for a valid justification.  The arguments here, to continue with the analogy to “absolute terms,” is that when we use ‘flat’ and ‘empty’, we do so in specified contexts. In his “The Pragmatic Dimension of Knowledge,” Fred Dretske maintains that:

what counts as a thing for assessing the emptiness of my pocket may not count as a thing for assessing the emptiness of a park, a warehouse, or a football stadium.  Such concepts, we might say, are relationally absolute: absolute, yes, but only relative to a certain standard.  We might put the point this way: to be empty is to be devoid of all relevant things, thereby exhibiting, simultaneously, the absolute in the word ‘all’) and relative (in the word ‘relevant’) character of this concept.11

Similarly, he and many others contend, the modern skeptic falls prey to error right at the beginning of her discussions—she contends that knowledge requires completely justified belief, and fails to pay attention to what sort of activity justification is.  Since it is richly contextual, critics of modern skepticism contend, all we need to do is remind the skeptic of this (via some therapeutic arguments), and the global skeptical worries will dissolve.

     Here it is interesting to note that the response to contemporary Cartesian skepticism is a therapeutic argument strongly akin to the Ancient skeptics therapeutic arguments against the dogmatists.  But here I will stop this introduction!


1 Sextus Empiricus, Outlines of Pyrrhonism I, 6, trans. Sanford Etheridge, in Sextus Empiricus: Selections from the Major Writings on Scepticism, Man, and God, ed. Phillip Hallie (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1985), p. 35.   Back

2 Ibid., I, 10, p. 38.   Back

3 Phillip Hallie, “Classical Scepticism—A Polemical Introduction,” in Sextus Empiricus: Selections from the Major Writings on Scepticism, Man, and God, op. cit., pp. 2-28, pp. 5-6.   Back

4 Ibid., p. 6.   Back

5 Ibid., p. 7.   Back

6 David Sedley’s “The Motivation of Greek Skepticism,” in The Skeptical Tradition, ed. Myles Burnyeat (Berkeley: Univ. of California, 1983, pp. 9-29, p. 13.   Back

7 Phillip Hallie, “Classical Scepticism—A Polemical Introduction,” op. cit., pp. 17-18.   Back

8 Ibid., p. 7.   Back

9 Peter Klein, “Scepticism,” in A Companion to Epistemology, eds. Jonathan Dancy and Ernest Sosa (Oxford: Blackwell, 1992), pp. 457-458, p. 457.   Back

10 Cf., Peter Unger, “A Defense of Skepticism,” Philosophical Review v. 80 (1971), pp. 317-336.   Back

11 Fred Dretske, “The Pragmatic Dimension of Knowledge,” Philosophical Studies v. 40 (1981), pp. 363-378, p. 386-387.   Back

 Go to Part II of the Presentation: Living One's Skepticism--Contra Burnyeat

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