A Materialist Critique of Skepticism: Part Two

Philosophical skepticism is impacted by truth that is both absolute9 and yet, to the skeptic, impossible to accept.10 That it cannot be found justifies them in their epochē. At the beginning of Outlines of Skepticism Empiricus wrote of his opponents ‘Those who are called Dogmatists in the proper sense of the word think that they have discovered the truth – for example, the schools of Aristotle and Epicurus and the Stoics, and some others.’11

Cicero wrote ‘I am burning with the desire to discover the truth.’12 He believed that ‘The determination of truth and falsity and what is known and unknown is, after all, the governing rule of any philosophy.’13 Montaigne, with a Christian flavouring, thought the same: ‘holy Truth herself, Truth must present the same face everywhere.’14

Maclean wrote that Montaigne believed that the aim of philosophy is ‘to seek truth, knowledge, and certainty.’15 Descartes, who believed his cogito had defeated skepticism sought ‘true,’ ‘certain,’ and ‘perfect’ knowledge.16 With modernity, the absolute truth that overshadowed the ancient skeptics’ philosophising had become openly sought, with God as the guarantor.17

Further, the absolute truth against which skeptical argumentation functions is fundamental to that argumentation in the form of syllogistic validity. Empiricus’s extensive discussion of proof in Book II of his Outlines is based on syllogisms.

In On Academic Scepticism both Lucullus and Cicero built their arguments on syllogistic reasoning. Cicero wrote ‘There are four premises to the conclusion that nothing can be known or apprehended, which is the only subject at question here.’18

Such a formal approach to truth is continued by those who wrote on them. Frede wrote ‘Arcesilaus and his followers…not only did not want to be committed themselves to the truth of the premises and the conclusion of their arguments, they also did not want to be committed to the validity of their arguments.’19

Stroud writes in the same vein with regard to Descartes ‘So both steps of Descartes’s reasoning would be valid and his conclusion would be true.’20 Annas and Barnes applied the same formal and symbolic analysis throughout The Modes of Scepticism.21

The truth of the world and life is not that of formal, syllogistic validity and symbolic analysis. As the reflection of life and the world in our thought (matter reflecting on matter), this truth is inseparable from uncertainty, contradiction and change.

Metaphorically, it is a ‘living’ concept with ever-deepening content – it was once true that the earth is flat. All truth is relative to a theoretical absolute because change is unceasing. Darwin’s theory of evolution is not an absolute truth, but it is a truth which is repeatedly reinforced. Truth is established, tested, confirmed and developed upon through practice.22

Part two/to be continued…

Notes

9. ‘it is no miracle if we are told that we may acknowledge that snow seems white to us but cannot guarantee to establish that it is truly so in essence. And once you shake that first principle, all the knowledge in the world is inevitably swept away.’ Montaigne, ‘An Apology for Raymond Sebond‘ op. cit., 676.

10. ‘Sextus himself, being already a sceptic, does not and cannot believe in the truth of the propositions he advances.’ Julia Annas and Jonathan Barnes, The Modes of Scepticism: Ancient Texts and Modern Interpretations, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1991, 45. ‘“The sceptic”, Sextus says at the end of the Outlines, “being a philanthropic sort, wants to cure by argument, to the best of his ability, the conceit and rashness of the dogmatists” (PH III 280). He presents himself as a doctor (or better, as a psychiatrist) whose task it is to cure the intellectual diseases – the rash beliefs and the conceited opinions – of his fellows. Just as a doctor need not take his own drugs, so a sceptic need not believe his own premisses.’ Ibid., 45. In response to criticism of his Meditations ‘Descartes protested that his sceptical phase was only feigned, that he never had the doubts of the First Meditation, and that no serious, attentive, unprejudiced person could have them, as long as he was aware of some clear and distinct ideas. The doubts, he said, were put forth for therapeutic and dramatic effect’ Richard H. Popkin, The History of Scepticism: From Savonarola to Bayle, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2003, 170.

11. Sextus Empiricus Outlines of Scepticism, op. cit., 3

12. On Academic Scepticism, op. cit., 38

13. Ibid., 19

14. ‘An Apology for Raymond Sebond’, op. cit., 640

15. Ian Maclean, ‘Montaigne and the Truth of the Schools,’ The Cambridge Companion to Montaigne, Ed., Ullrich Langer, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2006, pp. 142-162, online, 142

16. Peter Harrison, ‘Original Sin and the Problem of Knowledge in Early Modern Europe’, Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 63, No. 2, April 2002, pp. 239-259, 248.

17. Popkin wrote: ‘as Pascal avowed, as long as there are dogmatists, the sceptics are right. But if one eliminates the dogmatic standards for genuine knowledge, then the Pyrrhonian attack becomes ridiculous, since it is developed in terms of these strong demands or conditions laid down by the dogmatic philosophers.’, The History of Scepticism: From Savonarola to Bayle, op. cit., 120. The usually implicit demand for a truth which is absolute underlies all stripes of skepticism – it can be seen in the difference between a skeptic and a relativist who does not suspend judgement but holds that something is a particular case in relation to something else. As Annas and Barnes wrote ‘mud is pleasant for pigs, unpleasant for humans – and that is all there is to it. The relativist is surely right: scepticism about ‘real’ pleasantness in this case is silly. …the relativist is the sceptic’s enemy, not his ally, and…victory for relativism is defeat for scepticism.’ The Modes of Scepticism: Ancient Texts and Modern Interpretations, op. cit., 98.

18. On Academic Scepticism, op. cit., 48

19. Michael Frede, ‘The sceptic’s two kinds of assent and the question of the possibility of knowledge’ in Philosophy in History: Essays on the historiography of philosophy, Eds., Richard Rorty, J.B.Schneewind, Quentin Skinner, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1984, 257

20. Barry Stroud, ‘The Problem of the External World’ in Ernest Sosa and Jaegwon Kim, Eds., Epistemology An Anthology, Blackwell, Malden, Massachusetts, 2000, 19

21. Moore used premises to prove there is an external world. Ibid., G.E. Moore, ‘Proof of an External World’, ibid., 24. Montaigne regarded the syllogism as evidence of our inability to reason: ‘In (Montaigne’s) attack (on reason) pride of place is given to the syllogism, of which he gives the standard parodic example: “ham makes us drink, drinking quenches our thirst, therefore ham quenches thirst.” He also undermines the truth-claim of the syllogism in the example of the liar paradox (“if you say ‘I lie’ and if you are speaking the truth, then you lie”) ‘Montaigne and the Truth of the Schools,’ op. cit., 147.

22. Practical activity is the basis of cognition and the criterion of truth. Annas and Barnes wrote ‘Thus science resolves the sceptical doubt. …We know of no specific sceptical reply to any specific scientific resolution of this type.’ They rightly add ‘it is, at the very least, not evident that the ancient scientists and their optical theories had the capacity to resolve the Pyrrhonists’ doubts, or to repel the sceptical conclusions which they drew from these examples.’ The Modes of Scepticism, op. cit., 108-09.

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