A Materialist Critique of Skepticism: Part Three

‘The Illustrated Sutra of Cause and Effect’, ink, colour on paper, handscroll, 8th century, Japan. Artist not named. Woodblock reproduction published in 1941, University Museum, Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music, Tokyo.

‘The Illustrated Sutra of Cause and Effect’, ink, colour on paper, handscroll, 8th century, Japan. Artist not named. Woodblock reproduction published in 1941, University Museum, Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music, Tokyo.

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What runs through skepticism is a differentiation between philosophy as abstract reason or contemplation and a world of practical engagement – the world of ‘the common man’. Barnes defends Empiricus’s rejection of causality from his philosophy but acceptance of it in his discussion of the events of ‘ordinary’ Life, as Common Sense:

‘Sextus makes no attempt to avoid that ordinary vocabulary, the causal import of which he must surely have recognised. More specifically, Sextus from time to time permits himself an overtly causal sentence: a wound to the heart will cause death; motion and rest must have causes; good things may be the cause of misery.’23

Barnes writes that ‘Sextus’s causal utterances are not embarrassing flaws on the smooth body of his philosophical system…For Sextus presents himself as the champion of what he calls Life, bios. Life is contrasted with Philosophy.’24 Life ‘represents the wisdom of the plain man who is uncorrupted by esoteric and presumptuous speculation…the Skeptics are friends of Common Sense’25 And no doubt of the Common Man.

Empiricus wrote that it is easy to reject causality – ‘it is impossible to assert firmly that anything is a cause of anything’26 Barnes wrote ‘The Skeptic, then, attacks unobservable entities and judgements ostensibly made about them; he fixes his sights on what by nature escapes our sight, and on the Believers’ blind statements about such things’27

While the different treatment of causality in the realm of the philosopher and the world of the Common Man is most important, what underlies this (and much else) is the divorce of theory from its proper basis in practice and the absence in understanding of the necessary relation between the two.

In the latter, knowledge on the basis of sensory experience is intuitively accepted, in the former that connection is not questioned but denied because the relation between objective reality, sensation and brain is not understood.

To claim this difference is due to Empiricus’s acceptance of his society’s customs etc. does not deny the immense difference between philosophy and ‘bios’ – nor the revealing manner in which Barnes described it.

The materialist recognises the importance and nature of theorising to our knowledge of the world and distinguishes between the complete cause (the sum total of all the circumstances, the presence of which necessarily gives rise to the effect) and the specific cause. Causality is apprehended only through the revelation of essence and contradiction as the law of movement and development.

In his Meditations,28 Descartes did the same thing – first making himself comfortable, then severing philosophical (metaphysical) speculation from practical life29 and engaging in that human facility for self-reflection – consciousness reflecting on itself – to the furthest degree (which Plotinus had done in the first phenomenology and to the same extent, as Soul progressed through the hypostases of the Enneads, almost one and a half thousand years before) at the end of which, and in the most brazen manner – given his apparent agonising in the previous meditations – returned to ‘the world of the senses,’ stating he could clearly distinguish between dreaming and being awake and acknowledging his trust in the relations between his senses, memory and understanding.30

Yet no matter how well-reasoned the arguments of Descartes’ objectors (particularly those of Gassendi and Hobbes), they all missed the point – there can be no argument on the basis of or in relation to the physical world against Descartes’ meditations – because he utterly severed the physical from the ‘mental’ which comprised them.31 Descartes failed to counter skepticism because he too distinguished his contemplation from its basis in life and the world.32

Part three/to be continued…


23. Jonathan Barnes, ‘Ancient Skepticism and Causation,’ The Skeptical Tradition, Ed., Myles Burnyeat, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1983, pp. 149-203, 155

24. Ibid., 156

25. Ibid.

26. Sextus Empiricus Outlines of Scepticism, op. cit., 149

27. ‘Ancient Skepticism and Causation’ op. cit., 157

28. ‘the title “Meditations” presents the work as something other than a chain of philosophical argumentation, and links it, rather, to religious exercises. …The “withdrawal of the mind from the senses” Descartes recommends as a precondition of the search for truth may well seem more reminiscent of spiritual techniques than of scientific enquiry.’ Introduction to Réne Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy, Trans., Michael Moriarty, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2008, xiv-xv.

29. ‘Let us then suppose that we are dreaming, and that these particular things (that we have our eyes open, are moving our head, stretching out our hands) are not true; and that perhaps we do not even have hands or the rest of a body like what we see.’ Ibid., 14.

30. From Descartes’ Synopsis of the Meditations: ‘Finally (in the Sixth Meditation), all the reasons are put forward that lead us to conclude in the existence of material things: not that I think these are very useful when it comes to proving what they do prove, namely that a world really exists, and that human beings have bodies, and so forth, things which no one in their right mind has ever seriously doubted’ Ibid., 12. And from the end of his Sixth Meditation: ‘I need no longer fear that the things the senses represent to me in ordinary life are false: on the contrary, the hyperbolic doubts of these past days can be dismissed as ridiculous. …when things happen to me in such a way that I am distinctly aware of whence, where, and when they have come, and I connect the perception of them to the rest of my life, without any gaps, then I am well and truly certain that they are happening not in my sleep but when I am awake. Nor should I doubt even in the slightest degree of their truth, if after I have summoned all the senses, the memory, and the understanding to join in their examination, none of these reports anything that clashes with the report of the rest.’ Ibid., 63-64.

31. ‘my doubts are metaphysical, and have nothing to do with practical life. Bourdin thus gives the unwary reader the impression that I am so mad as to doubt, in ordinary life, whether the earth exists, and whether I have a body.’ Ibid., 215. Stroud, writing in support of Descartes got it right: ‘how could a test or a circumstance or a state of affairs indicate to him that he is not dreaming if a condition of knowing anything about the world is that he knows he is not dreaming? It could not. He could never fulfil the condition.’ ‘The Problem of the External World’ op. cit., 15.

32. Hume, who held that argument from experience must be without rational foundation was another who made the same distinction between philosophy and ‘common life.’ ‘He seems nevertheless to have felt few scruples over the apparent inconsistency of going on to insist, first, that such argument is grounded in the deepest instincts of our nature, and, second, that the rational man everywhere proportions his belief to the evidence – evidence which in practice crucially includes that outcome of procedures alleged earlier to be without rational foundation…Argument from experience should be thought of not as an irreparably fallacious attempt to deduce conclusions necessarily wider than available premises can contain, but rather as a matter of following a tentative and self-correcting rule, a rule that is part of the very paradigm of inquiring rationality – that one would think that other A’s have been and will be the same, until and unless a particular reason is discovered to revise these expectations.’ Antony Flew, Ed., A Dictionary of Philosophy, London: Pan, 1984, 172. Davidson likewise not only argued for a divorce of the senses from what takes place in consciousness – i.e. reason and belief (for him only beliefs can justify other beliefs since ‘beliefs are by nature generally true’) – but ‘abandoning the search for a basis for knowledge outside the scope of our beliefs.’ Like Descartes, he writes that our senses and observations might be lying to us – we can’t swear them to truthfulness. Donald Davidson, ‘A Coherence Theory of Truth and Knowledge’ in Epistemology An Anthology, op. cit., pp. 162, 156, 157.


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…


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.

A Materialist Critique of Skepticism


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‘…all the early philosophers (said) that nothing could be cognised, apprehended, or known, because the senses were limited, our minds weak, and the course of our lives brief, while the truth had been submerged in an abyss’1

Philosophical skepticism, though derived from skepsis – ‘enquiry’, is a doubting – not of the world, that it exists, but of us – of the faculties that bind us to the world, of our abilities to sense and reason with regard to it. Skeptical self-doubting ranges from a perceived unreliability of sensation and reason to whether one can know anything about the world on the basis of them.

Rather than focusing on one period or philosopher, I will critique elements of skepticism which function throughout its history – elements often shared by both its proponents and those who believed they had a counter to it, in their arguing against it. My critique will be dialectical materialist, holding that ‘matter’ or objective reality is prior to its product consciousness and that objective reality functions according to laws of motion and change cognised scientifically.

The core of my argument will be that philosophical skepticism is a failure to understand our relationship with the world, which was summarised by Lenin: ‘From living perception to abstract thought, and from this to practice, – such is the dialectical path of the cognition of truth, of the cognition of objective reality.’2 I aim to bring out the meaning of this sentence through my critique of skepticism.

Two concepts which profoundly orient and limit skeptical debate, as with philosophy generally, are ‘mind’ and ‘truth.’ In Annas and Barnes’s translation of Empiricus’s Outlines of Skepticism, for ‘mind’ they use the word ‘intellect.’3 For Cicero the ‘mind’ is the source of and identical to the senses.4 Montaigne wrote of ‘our minds.’5 Descartes wrote of his.6

Not only are there no ‘minds,’ only brains in bodies, the concept ‘mind’ is burdened with a history of separation and patriarchy with its associated dualisms7 and its use prevents philosophical discussion from fully engaging with and absorbing scientific developments. ‘Mind’ directs away from the world. Of our brains, of what we do not know or understand, it is appropriate to say that we do not know or understand now, thereby leaving future research open.8

Part one/to be continued…


1. Cicero, On Academic Scepticism, Trans., Charles Brittain, Hackett Publishing, Indianapolis, 2006, 106

2. V.I. Lenin, Collected Works, Vol., 38 (Philosophical Notebooks), Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1976, 171

3. For example ‘Suspension of judgement is a standstill of the intellect…’ Sextus Empiricus, Sextus Empiricus: Outlines of Scepticism, Trans., Julia Annas and Jonathan Barnes, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1994, 5.

4. ‘For the mind, which is the source of the senses and is even itself identical to the senses, has a natural power it directs at the things by which it is moved.’ On Academic Scepticism, op. cit., 19-20.

5. Michel de Montaigne, ‘An Apology for Raymond Sebond’ The Complete Essays, Trans., M.A. Screech, Penguin, London, 2003, 667

6. ‘it is certain that I, that is to say my mind, by which I am what I am, is entirely and truly distinct from my body, and may exist without it.’ ‘For it is, it seems to me, the function of the mind alone, and not of the composition of mind and body, to know the truth of these things.’ René Descartes, Discourse on Method and The Meditations, Trans., F.E. Sutcliffe, Penguin, London, 1968, pp. 156, 161. Also ‘I never asked “Am I a mind?” I begin with the discovery of myself as a thinking thing, which then provides a content for the concept of ‘mind’. …Nor have I assumed that mind is incorporeal. I demonstrate that it is, in the Sixth Meditation.’ Réne Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy, Trans., Michael Moriarty, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2008, 222.

7. Anaxagoras believed that nous put motion into the world but remained apart; there is the obvious Christian history of the ‘Mind’ of ‘our Father’ God; the dualisms, including reason/emotion, nature/nurture are all a denigration of the female.

8. That Helios drove the chariot of the sun was at least poetic.