A Materialist Critique of Skepticism: Part Four

For the skeptic, as with Kant, appearances are a barrier to our knowledge. Empiricus argued that since the objects of perception seem to affect us in different ways we cannot speak of their nature but only of their appearance on a given occasion. Further, he wrote ‘what we investigate is not what is apparent but what is said about what is apparent – and this is different from investigating what is apparent itself.’33

As with Descartes, the skeptic metaphysically ‘investigated’ what was thought linguistically. Since no-one could decide on truth between appearances, the result for the skeptic was epochē – suspension of judgement.

Empiricus repeatedly referred to appearances in the world and held that all appearances are relative – both to the judging subject and to what is observed with it. Yet the skeptics’ emphasis on appearances and their relativity contributed to the development of dialectical materialism.

For the materialist, appearance is the manifestation of essence and the task of cognition – through engagement – is to explain how essence (the deeper structural levels of matter or more general relations) manifests in phenomena. As with all matter, essences are subject to change in accordance with the laws of matter.

The skeptic holds that our senses and ability to reason are not simply imperfect but that they ‘deceive’ (as though senses have intentionality) and fail us. Empiricus wrote ‘our senses do not grasp what external existing objects are accurately like. But our intellect does not do so either, especially since its guides, the senses, fail it.

And no doubt it too produces some admixture of its own to add to what is announced by the senses’;34 Cicero wrote ‘So what is apprehensible, if not even the senses give true reports?’35 and Montaigne: ‘nothing reaches us except as altered and falsified by our senses. …The unreliability of our senses renders unreliable everything which they put forward’.36

These attacks on our ability to sense and reason and our trust in them were made in the shadow of absolute truth, not of ‘living,’ relative truth, inseparable from uncertainty and change, from revision and replacement – on the basis of our testing of those truths in practice. Montaigne wrote ‘perhaps we need to harmonise the contributions of eight or ten senses if we are ever to know, with certainty, what Truth is in essence.’37

Montaigne well exemplified a core problem for the skeptics regarding our ability to reason in relation to our senses: ‘Our mental faculty of perception is never directly in touch with outside objects – which are perceived via the senses, and the senses do not embrace an outside object but only their own impressions of it; therefore the thought and the appearance are not properties of the object but only the impression and feelings of the senses.

Those impressions and that object are different things. So whoever judges from appearances judges from something quite different from the object itself.’ Stroud repeats this: ‘There seems to be no way of going beyond (our senses) to know that the world around us really is this way rather than that.’38

These words exemplify a presumption that there is an unbridgeable gulf between ‘us’ (in effect, our consciousness) and the world. We are matter which has developed in particular ways over many millions of years in relating with and to know the world. Our brains have thoughts and reason, our senses sense appearances.

But the moment we begin to not simply observe and contemplate but engage through practice with the appearances of other manifestations of matter, to do what we have developed to do, we begin to acquire knowledge of that matter and to move beyond its appearance. That knowledge will always be relative (to truth as a theoretical absolute) and imperfect – but as we continue to engage, employing the process Lenin summarised at the beginning of this essay – our knowledge deepens.39  Guthrie quoted George Herbert:

A man that looks on glasse
On it may stay his eye,
Or if he pleaseth, through it passe
And then the heav’n espie40

Empiricism has skeptical potential precisely because it is a flawed understanding of how we know the world – for the empiricist sensation is the only source of knowledge. In sensation are to be found internally necessary connections between the sensed world and our brains.

Logical categories are not merely subjective tools applied on the basis of convention or habit but forms of knowledge which have developed through our engagement with the world. They are not (as for Kant) prior to experience – fixed and dead. Hegel showed that not only does the objective content of thought develop, so do its forms and the development of both is inter-related.

Hegel also introduced the role of practice (which for Marx is social) into thought. Concepts are summaries of the experience of thought as it reflects the world and are neither inborn nor given with everyday consciousness but require effort.

Part four/to be continued…

Notes

33. Sextus Empiricus Outlines of Scepticism, op. cit., 8. Stroud writes of life made bearable, imprisoned by appearances. ‘Other people, as I understand them, are not simply sensory experiences of mine; they too, if they exist, will therefore inhabit the unreachable world beyond my sensory experiences, along with the tables and chairs and other things about which I can know nothing. …I would have no more reason to believe that there are any other people than I have to believe that I am now sitting in a chair writing. The representations or sensory experiences to which Descartes’s conclusion would restrict my knowledge could be no other than my own sensory experiences; there could be no communal knowledge even of the veil of perception itself.’ ‘The Problem of the External World’ op. cit., 21, 22-23

34. Sextus Empiricus Outlines of Scepticism, op. cit., 33

35. On Academic Scepticism, op. cit., 46

36. ‘An Apology for Raymond Sebond‘ op. cit., 678

37. Ibid., 667

38. ‘The Problem of the External World’ op. cit., 20

39. ‘The sophism of idealist philosophy consists in the fact that it regards sensation as being not the connection between consciousness and the external world, but a fence, a wall, separating consciousness from the external world – not an image of the external phenomenon corresponding to the sensation, but as the “sole entity”.’ ‘Sensation is an image of matter in motion. Save through sensations, we can know nothing either of the forms of matter or of the forms of motion; sensations are evoked by the action of matter in motion upon our sense-organs. That is how science views it.’ V.I.Lenin, Materialism and Empirio-Criticism: Critical Comments on a Reactionary Philosophy, 1908, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1975, pp. 38, 282.

40. W.K.C.Guthrie, A History of Greek Philosophy, Vol. 2, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1996, 464. Galen wrote that after abusing the senses ‘Democritus represents them as saying to ‘the mind’: “Wretched mind, you you take your evidence from us and then throw us down? That throw is your overthrow.”’ Ibid., 460

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