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

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Notes

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

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…

Notes

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…

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

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…

Notes

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.

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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…

Notes

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…

Notes

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.

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Lenin: Is there Objective Truth? Part Four

Acceptance or rejection of the concept matter is a question of the confidence man places in the evidence of his sense-organs, a question of the source of our knowledge, a question which has been asked and debated from the very inception of philosophy, which may be disguised in a thousand different garbs by professorial clowns, but which can no more become antiquated than the question whether the source of human knowledge is sight and touch, hearing and smell. To regard our sensations as images of the external world, to recognise objective truth, to hold the materialist theory of knowledge—these are all one and the same thing. To illustrate this, I shall only quote from Feuerbach and from two textbooks of philosophy, in order that the reader may judge how elementary this question is.

“How banal,” wrote Feuerbach, “to deny that sensation is the evangel, the gospel (Verkündung) of an objective saviour.” (Feuerbach, Sämtliche Werke, X. Band, 1866, S. 194-95) A strange, a preposterous terminology, as you see, but a perfectly clear philosophical line: sensation reveals objective truth to man. “My sensation is subjective, but its foundation or cause (Grund) is objective” (S. 195). Compare this with the quotation given above where Feuerbach says that materialism starts from the sensuous world as an ultimate (ausgemachte) objective truth.

Sensationalism, we read in Franck’s dictionary of philosophy, (Dictionnaire des sciences philosophiques [Dictionary of the Philosophical Sciences], Paris, 1875) is a doctrine which deduces all our ideas “from the experience of the senses, reducing knowledge to sensations”. There is subjective sensationalism (skepticism and Berkeleianism), moral sensationalism (Epicureanism),1 and objective sensationalism. “Objective sensationalism is materialism, for matter or bodies are, in the opinion of the materialists, the only objects that can affect our senses (atteindre nos sens).”

“If sensationalism,” says Schwegler in his history of philosophy, (Dr. Albert Schwegler, Geschichte der Philosophie im Umriss [History of Philosophy in Outline], 15-te Aufl., S. 194) “asserted that truth or being can be apprehended exclusively by means of the senses, one had only [Schwegler is speaking of philosophy at the end of the eighteenth century in France] to formulate this proposition objectively and one had the thesis of materialism: only the sensuous exists; there is no other being than material being.”

These elementary truths, which have managed to find their way even into the textbooks, have been forgotten by our Machists.

V.I.Lenin, Materialism and Empirio-Criticism: Critical Comments on a Reactionary Philosophy, 1908, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1975, pp. 107-115

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Note

1. Skepticism: a philosophical trend that casts doubt on the possibility of knowing objective reality. It arose in ancient Greece as early as the 4th to 3rd centuries B. C. It was founded by Pyrrho and Aenesidemus and Sextus Empiricus were among its prominent exponents. The adherents of ancient skepticism drew agnostic conclusions from the premises of sensationalism. Making the subjectivity of sensation into an absolute, the skeptics insisted on the need to refrain from any definite judgments about things. They considered that man cannot go beyond his sensations and determine their truth.

During the period of the Renaissance, the French philosophers Michel Montaigne, Pierre Charron and Pierre Bayle made use of skepticism for combating medieval scholasticism and the Church.

In the eighteenth century skepticism was revived in the agnosticism of Hume and Kant, and an attempt to modernise ancient skepticism was made by Gottlieb Schulze (Aenesidemus). The arguments of skepticism were used by the Machists, neo-Kantians and other idealist philosophical schools from the middle of the nineteenth to the beginning of the twentieth century.

Epicureanism: the doctrine of the ancient Greek materialist philosopher Epicurus of the 4th to 3rd centuries B. C. and his successors. The aim of philosophy, according to this doctrine, was man’s happiness, freeing him from suffering and enabling him to attain a state of bliss. It taught that philosophy was called upon to overcome obstacles to happiness: the fear of death due to ignorance of the laws of nature and giving rise therefore to belief in supernatural divine forces.

According to Epicurus, there are only atoms and the void in the universe, in which atoms move down under their own weight. Falling with the same velocity, the atoms swerve from their rectilinear movement, collide and concatenate, forming various bodies. Epicurus recognised the objective character of the properties of things and regarded the universe as infinite, governed by natural and not by divine laws. He denied the immortality and non-materiality of the soul, and maintained that it was a material body of fine parts distributed through the whole body structure. His theory of the material nature of the soul was closely  linked with his atheism, which negated gods’ interference in the affairs of nature and man.

As regards the theory of knowledge, Epicurus was a sensationalist. He supposed that very subtle images proceed from things and penetrate the human soul through the sense-organs. Conceptions of things are formed on the basis of the sense perceptions of the soul, in which memory preserves only the general features of images. Epicurus regarded sense-perceptions themselves as the criterion of truth, and he considered that the source of errors lay in the accidental character of individual sensations or in the overhasty formation of judgments. Epicurus gave a materialist, though rather naïve, interpretation of the fundamentals of the cognitive process.

The idealists, who distorted the teaching of this great materialist of ancient Greece, made more attacks on Epicureanism than on the other philosophical theories of antiquity.

In the definition of sensationalism quoted by Lenin, Franck rightly regards Epicureanism as a variety of it, but he draws an incorrect distinction between Epicureanism and objective materialist sensationalism. In his conspectus of the Lectures on the History of Philosophy by Hegel who did not understand Epicurus’ theory and distorted it, Lenin showed that Epicureanism was a form of ancient Greek materialism.