Skepticism

25Jan08

This term, we suspend our questions about ethics and move on to another traditional area of philosophy. Rather than being a school of thought (or a set of beliefs) skepticism is better understood as a kind of method of questioning that attempts to show that a claim or belief is unsubstantiated. The skeptic prizes logical argument and tries to show that beliefs which do not survive scrutiny should be disregarded. The skeptic embraces doubt in order to get closer to the truth.

The tradition of skepticism in philosophy goes back to the Ancient Greeks (indeed, the word “skeptic” is derived from a Greek verb meaning “to examine carefully”). Ancient skeptics such as Pyrrho, Agrippa and Sextus Empiricus were typically concerned with the trustworthiness of claims made by others, but rather than offering alternative positions they stress the difficulties inherent in such a position. The skeptic is not committed to showing that they themselves are right in a substantive sense: rather, the skeptic need only show that some areas of inquiry are simply too problematic for us to have knowledge of, or that a particular claim is unjustified.

The skeptic is more than just an untrusting or wary person. There’s a kind of everyday scepticism we all practice… we don’t believe everything we see on TV, we know that sometimes politicians can’t be trusted to tell the truth and advertisers want something from us, no matter what they say. But when we take this kind of everyday scepticism to a philosophical level we are trying to find a principle that can stand up to the most sceptical of assaults. If it can do this, it surely is true, isn’t it?

Underlying all this is the idea that knowledge is understood as ‘sufficiently justified belief’. Thus, skepticism allows us to preserve those beliefs that are in fact justified while losing those that are not. While this idea of justifed belief might seem plausible enough at first (and indeed, there seems not to be a good reason for rejecting the skeptical project out of hand) it does raise a number of questions. Just what is a ‘sufficiently’ justified belief? What kind of sufficiency is needed? Does the skeptic have to concede anything in order to make their deflationary claims (such as a committment to logic or argument) or can they act outside the rules, as it were?

A fuller account of philosophical scepticism can be found here.

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