Notes on Skepticism


– Skeptics have no difficulty with truth or with belief: their difficulty is with justification, which is the rendering certain that a belief is true by appeal to evidence. The skeptic admits that we might believe true things, but that we have no way of sorting the true from the false in our beliefs, and so suspension of judgment is the appropriate policy. This means that if an ultimately satisfying method of so sorting our beliefs were available, the skeptic would be answered. The skeptic’s central doubt is thus a doubt about reason.

– The heart of the skeptical criticism of knowledge is what’s lately been called the Munchausen trilemma: any attempt to justify a belief either 1) requires infinite steps and is thus not practicable, 2) is circular and thus begs the question, or 3) bottoms out in a dogmatic assertion and thus admits a failure of justificaton. Any satisfying answer to the skeptical critique must thus explain why this trilemma is false.

– The skeptical condition is the human condition: it pops up again and again in history, always as a reaction against over-ambitious dogmatisms, shown to be so by some new discovery that they are not in fact universal and necessary truths. It is alive and well today, under a different face: historicism’, which is a pessimistic doctrine arising from the ruin of Hegelianism. This variant states that culture itself is a kind of malign demon, a veil or medium that essentially distorts reality, and that it is strictly impossible for a person to rise above the presuppositions of their own time. This doctrine leads to a certain way of reading the past, and the present, in which each epoch or culture is a sort of self-contained semantic bubble which can’t be transcended by those within it. The usual critique of this is that it’s unproveable on its own terms, since one could never verify it by comparing the past with the present; history as science is thus impossible, and we’re left with history as fable. But the very possibility of translation is a problem on this point of view, since it should be impossible but manifestly is not: therefore, the correct way to refute it is with a satisfactory theory of translation and interpretation (c.f. Wittgenstein and Davidson). In turn, this should shed new light on the old answers to skepticism (c.f. Descartes and Kant).

– Augustine’s anwer to Ciceronian skepticism, Descartes’ answer to Pyrrhonian skepticism, Kant’s answer to Humean skepticism, etc.

Further Reading:

D.C. Allen, Doubt’s Boundless Sea

R.H. Popkin, History of Skepticism

C.B. Schmitt, Cicero Scepticus

Lucien Febvre, The Problem of Unbelief in the Sixteenth Century

Cicero, Academica

Augustine, Contra Academicos