A Materialist Critique of Skepticism: Part Six

Frede wrote that the skeptic ‘thinks of himself as following Socrates…What I want to suggest is that Arcesilaus and his followers thought of themselves as just following Socratic practice’54 They may have thought that, but their approach was vastly different to that of Socrates.

Although Socrates relentlessly questioned others and stated that he knew nothing, he never said that the truth could not be known. Rather, his life was committed to what was an uncompromising essentialist pursuit, and he gave his life for it. Skepticism, on the other hand, is inherently conservative.

Refusing to ‘take a position’ on the truth of their views, the skeptic lives according to the laws and customs of their society. Empiricus wrote ‘we live in accordance with everyday observances, without holding opinions…By the handing down of customs and laws, we accept, from an everyday point of view, that piety is good and impiety bad.’55 Montaigne expressed it more colourfully ‘“since I am not capable of choosing, I accept other people’s choice and stay in the position where God put me.”’56

The relationship between skepticism and Neoplatonism (the great hidden – and when raised, denied – influence in philosophy), particularly from the early modern period requires research. In his book, Popkin several times mentioned Neoplatonism and Nicholas of Cusa and with regard to a 1652 Dutch study of skepticism in which Cusanus was discussed, he referred to him as a ‘modern skeptic.’57 In his introduction to Montaigne’s essays, Screech also referred to Cusanus.

In her 1935 essay on Montaigne and Melville, Camille La Bossière stated that Montaigne owned a copy of the 1576 edition of Cusanus’ single most important treatise De docta ignorantia (On Learned Ignorance). Montaigne’s skepticism is inseparable from his religious perspective which he powerfully exemplified in the closing section of his Apology, quoting at length from Plutarch and Seneca.

His adopted son summarised this ‘The only possible way of knowing God is to know him negatively, knowing what he is not. Positively, “True knowledge of God is a complete ignorance of Him. To approach God is to be aware of the inaccessible light and to be absorbed by it.”’58

The materialist acknowledges the importance of skepticism (doubt, self-criticism), but this is a skepticism which is not absolutised to the point of agnosticism and which recognises that theorising about the world is always a reflection of the world in thought and therefore must be anchored in the world, as the key element of cognition. In science this is the ‘the scientific method.’

Philosophical skepticism distinguishes between us and the world – in its prioritising of consciousness over objective reality through its concepts ‘mind’ and a ‘truth’ which is formal and absolute. In its treatment of our senses and reason. In its response to appearance as a barrier to knowledge rather than its entrance. In its denial of causality and inability to understand contradiction and its effect – change.

Philosophical skepticism fails to recognise and acknowledge that we have developed in order to know the world, as every part of our material structure, on the basis of engagement with the world, is the most astonishing evidence of. We are of the world (matter), will never leave it, and will vanish back into it. The very self-doubt that made philosophical skepticism so useful as a weapon makes it so useful ideologically. As Paul Lafargue wrote of the workingman’s sausage

‘The workingman who eats sausage and receives a hundred sous a day knows very well that he is robbed by the employer and is nourished by pork meat, that the employer is a robber and that the sausage is pleasant to the taste and nourishing to the body. Not at all, say the bourgeois sophists, whether they are called Pyrrho, Hume or Kant. His opinion is personal, an entirely subjective opinion; he might with equal reason maintain that the employer is his benefactor and that the sausage consists of chopped leather, for he cannot know things-in-themselves.

The question is not properly put, that is the whole trouble…In order to know an object, man must first verify whether his senses deceive him or not…The chemists have gone deeper – they have penetrated into bodies, they have analysed them, decomposed them into their elements, and then performed the reverse procedure, they have recomposed them from their elements. And from the moment that man is able to produce things for his own use from these elements, he may, as Engels says, assert that he knows the things-in-themselves. The God of the Christians, if he existed and if he had created the world, could do no more.’59



54. ‘The sceptic’s two kinds of assent and the question of the possibility of knowledge’ op. cit., 258

55. Sextus Empiricus Outlines of Scepticism, op. cit., 9

56. The History of Scepticism: From Savonarola to Bayle, op. cit., 52 For Montaigne, Pyrrhonism annihilates man’s ‘judgement to make more room for faith; neither disbelieving nor setting up any doctrine against the common observances; humble, obedient, teachable, zealous; a sworn enemy of heresy…He is a blank tablet prepared to take from the finger of God such forms as he shall be pleased to engrave on it.’ ‘Montaigne and Scepticism’ op. cit., 187

57. Ibid., 162. Also ‘Prior to the period I shall deal with, there are some indications of a sceptical motif, principally among the antirational theologians, Jewish, Islamic, and Christian. This theological movement, culminating in the West in the work of Nicholas of Cusa in the fifteenth century, employed many of the sceptical arguments in order to undermine confidence in the rational approach to religious knowledge and truth.’ xix. Skepticism is not the same as apophaticism – the primary difference being that where the skeptic holds that the truth cannot be known, the apophaticist holds that while the truth (meaning God) cannot be known linguistically, through ‘reason’, it (He) can be known (attained) intuitively. Cusanus wrote with profound foresight about the world.

58. Ibid., 58 Popkin added ‘Once having joined the negative theologian’s contention that God is unknowable because he is infinite to the skeptic’s claim that God is unknowable because of man’s inability to know anything, Charron employed this double-barrelled fideism to attack the atheists.’ 58-9

59. Paul Lafargue, ‘Le matérialisme de Marx et l’ idéalisme de Kant,’ Le Socialiste, February 25, 1900

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