copyright Robert M Ellis 2011

Common but unhelpful assumptions in Western thought: 1. the negative implications of scepticism (U.S. - skepticism)

Sceptical arguments establish effectvely that we cannot be certain about any claim we make. Through our senses, we can only perceive a world that is shaped by the limitations of those senses, and by our mental limitations and our expectations. We may think that we can establish 'truths' about the universe as it really is, but can never be sure that we have done so. Even mathematics, which seems to be universally true, may just be a framework we happen to be using to interpret the universe: it may not be the only possible framework, and we cannot be certain that it tells us anything about a final reality. 

Sceptical arguments are known in Western philosophy going back to Pyrrho of Elis, the ancient Greek founder of 'Pyrrhonian' scepticism. They were also widespread in ancient Indian philosophy. In more recent Western philosophy since the seventeenth century, they have been considered a problem to be overcome. Descartes and Hume considered scepticism to be a problem, with Descartes thinking that this was a problem that could be conclusively solved, Hume that it could not. More recent analytic philosophers have avoided sceptical argument by claiming that it requires certainty - and because it is fruitless to seek such certainty, we would be better redefining 'truth' and 'certainty' in conventional terms in which we can be sure of having them. Some have even claimed that scepticism is meaningless.

These assumptions are unjustified. Scepticism is not a problem, but a solution. It does not have negative implications, but positive ones. Scepticism does not require certainty, but merely undermines it. The apparently pragmatic solution of falling back on conventional meanings for 'truth' and 'certainty' neglects all the ways that scepticism could be practically helpful to us - if we only take it seriously.

Firstly, scepticism does not require certainty, but merely casts doubt on all claims to certainty. The Greeks made a distinction between 'Pyrrhonian' and 'Academic' scepticism, where the former just casts doubt on all claims to knowledge, whilst the latter actually asserts that we have no knowledge. These two types of scepticism are frequently confused today (a phenomenon I call sceptical slippage). It is Pyrrhonian scepticism which can be helpful to us, not Academic. Scepticism should not be identified with a negative claim that we have no knowledge - only that we can't be certain that we do. This requires us to fall back on incremental claims that we can relate to our experience, rather than absolute ones that lie beyond experience. It merely requires us to live with a degree of uncertainty.

Secondly, it is crucially important to recognise that Pyrrhonian scepticism undermines negative claims just as much as positive ones. We are just as uncertain, for example, about God's non-existence as we are about his existence. This means that sceptics are agnostic about God, just as they are about any other metaphysical claim. Agnosticism is not necessarily an indecisive or a compromise position, but just one that works only on provisional claims and has to keep them under review. Agnostics need the critical sense to stay equidistant between metaphysical assertion and denial, and their state of provisionality depends on a psychological state which needs to be supported by conditions.

Scepticism is a more practically useful state for us because it keeps us in mind of the fact that we may be wrong, so that we are obliged not just to construct a coherent theory of what we experience but also one that accounts for the possibility of error. Scepticism, in fact, obliges us to engage in pragmatic rather than metaphysical philosophy, and to question the dubious assumptions on which many 'practical' theories have been based. For example, scientific investigation may be very helpful in investigating our environment and productive of technology, but it may also be based on mistaken theoretical premises, like those now acknowledged for Aristotelian cosmology or Newtonian physics. We only ever move on from inadequate and mistaken assumptions to better and more adequate ones by taking scepticism seriously.

Links to related discussion

Scepticism - concept page

Metaphysical agnosticism - concept page

Thesis on dogmatism and scepticism

Thesis on classical scepticism




Seven common but unhelpful assumptions in Western thought:

1. The negative implications of scepticism

2. The need to accept or reject metaphysical claims

3. The identification of objectivity with absolute claims

4. The acceptability of pure analysis not applied to concrete contexts

5. An account of meaning confined to representation or expression

6. The fact-value distinction

7. The identification of ego with self


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