A Materialist Critique of Skepticism: Part Five

Empiricus wrote ‘Scepticism is an ability to set out oppositions among things which appear and are thought of in any way at all, an ability by which, because of the equipollence in the opposed objects and accounts, we come first to suspension of judgement and afterwards to tranquility.’41 For the skeptic, contradictory appearances – which particularly Empiricus documented at length – end their enquiry, but for the materialist they prompt investigation.

Skepticism fails to recognise the dialectical nature of reality – that A does not exist without not-A and that it is through the cognition of this relationship that the world is known. Contradiction is the very doorway into the matter, into matter, and the matter’s relative [to a theoretical absolute] resolution). Hegel wrote: ‘contradiction is the root of all movement and vitality; it is only in so far as something has a contradiction within it that it moves, has an urge and activity.’42

The centrality to skeptical argumentation of the prevalence of contradictory appearances – even though, for them this supposedly led to the desired end of ataraxia43 – contributed to the development of dialectical materialism.

Directly related to the skeptical foil of absolute truth is the skeptics’ inability to correctly theorise change or in the example of Montaigne, accept it.44 Of skin colour Empiricus wrote ‘the colour of our skin is seen as different in warm air and in cold, and we cannot say what our colour is like in its nature but only what it is like as observed together with each of these.’45

Montaigne, desiring that which is ‘beyond change’ wrote ‘Oh God, how bound we are to the loving-kindness of our sovereign Creator for making our belief grow up out of the stupidities of such arbitrary and wandering devotions, establishing it on the changeless foundation of his holy Word!’46

Montaigne was profoundly sensitive to change and its implications, quoting from Plutarch near the end of his Apology: ‘(the nature of the world) is always to flow…all things are subject to pass from change to change, Reason is baffled if it looks for a substantial existence in them, since it cannot apprehend a single thing which subsists permanently, because everything is either coming into existence…or beginning to die before it is born.’47 For the materialist, change is the effect of contradiction and involves every interaction and motion.

The history of skepticism is one of vested interests. Empiricus had a vested interest in portraying the New Academy as dogmatic in relation to his Pyrrhonism. Frede points to Augustine’s criticism of skepticism in Contra Academicos, reinforcing the perception, after Cicero, that skepticism equated with a simple dogmatism.48

In the medieval period skepticism was used to reject Aristotelian science and to argue for the need for faith and revelation.49 It was used by both sides against the other during the Reformation/Counter-Reformation.50 The outstanding (for the success of its effect) example of this is Descartes’ Meditations.

Popkin, noting a review of the traditional interpretation of Descartes 51 wrote that the ‘basis for a complete scepticism was provided in order to shock the audience and get them to seek for absolute certainty.’52

Descartes pursued doubt to its extremity and emerged with the certainty that God was his anchor – in both the metaphysical and sensory realms. In his Meditations Descartes sought, against the Reformation and the revolution in science (to which he contributed), to establish subjective certainty as the objective truth of the Catholic church.53

Part five/to be continued…


41. Sextus Empiricus Outlines of Scepticism, op. cit., 4

42. G.W.F.Hegel, Hegel’s Science of Logic, Trans., A.V.Miller, Humanities Press, New York, 1976, 439

43. The dilemma of Buridan’s ass is a counter-example…

44. ‘All three forms of Hellenistic philosophy share the same goal, although each strives to achieve it in a different way. Stoic immovability, Epicurean apathy, and skeptical imperturbability are all versions of the divine stasis and thus are attempts to escape the temporality and changeability that are integral to the human condition.’ It should be remarked – and the world. Anne Hartle, ‘Montaigne and Scepticism’ The Cambridge Companion to Montaigne, Ed., Ullrich Langer, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2006, pp. 183-206, online, 196

45. Sextus Empiricus Outlines of Scepticism, op. cit., 32

46. ‘An Apology for Raymond Sebond’, op. cit., 652. ‘What is it then which truly is? That which is eternal – meaning that which has never been born; which will never have an end; to which Time can never bring any change.’ Ibid., 682

47. Ibid., 680

48. ‘The sceptic’s two kinds of assent and the question of the possibility of knowledge’ op. cit., 273-274

49. Ibid., 276

50. ‘The employment of Pyrrhonism both as a means of destroying the theological opponent and as a defence of one’s own faith appears in the writings of some of the major figures of the Counter-Reformation in France.’ Ibid., 66, ‘The intellectual crisis brought on by the Reformation coincided…with the rediscovery and revival of the arguments of the ancient sceptics, and so scepticism was available as a means for combatting the innovations of the reformers. …the traditional, i.e., Catholic side finds an ally in scepticism, especially in the skeptical determination to submit to custom. This solution might be characterised as “conformist fideism” or “skeptical fideism.”’ ‘Montaigne and Scepticism’ op. cit., 185-86

51. ‘Although the traditional interpretation of Descartes saw him as the scientific enemy of Scholasticism and orthodoxy fighting to found a new era of intellectual freedom and adventure, this is gradually giving way to a more conservative interpretation of Descartes as a man who tried to reinstate the medieval outlook in the face of Renaissance novelty, and a thinker who sought to discover a philosophy adequate for the Christian worldview in light of the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century.’ The History of Scepticism: From Savonarola to Bayle, op. cit., 143

52. Ibid., 147

53. ‘The marriage of the Cross of Christ and the doubts of Pyrrho was the perfect combination to provide the ideology of the French Counter-Reformation.’; ‘Descartes, in the tradition of the greatest medieval minds, sought to provide this basis by securing the superstructure, man’s natural knowledge, to the strongest possible foundation, the all-powerful, eternal God.’ Ibid., 51, 147

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