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

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…


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