A General Account of SkepticismSkepticism

A General Account of Skepticism

Skepticism involves a denial of knowledge, but not every denial of knowledge constitutes a skeptical act. It is even possible to deny knowledge of almost the whole universe, and still not be considered a skeptic. Plato, for example, would deny that anyone could have knowledge of the material world; and Aristotle would deny that we can have any direct* knowledge of the material world as material. These two men would further claim that even when we descend from the universal unintelligibility of the material world, we are confronted with innumerable examples of unintelligibility: we can understand no reason for the innumerable things that happen by chance; we do not understand the specific difference of any species; we define the first things of philosophy largely by negation; we have exponentially less intellectual certainty the further we get from universal predicates, and approach the thing itself in its concretion; we can grasp many fundamental things only by using proportionate analogies, etc. All these facts, and others, make our prospects of attaining knowledge at best bleak. Error, as Aristotle says, is the natural state of man.

These extreme denials of knowledge, however, do not make people call Aristotle and Plato “skeptics”. Even though both men place a great deal of things outside the grasp of certainty, and both set a very high bar for what counts as knowledge, both of them allow for knowledge fundamentally, both in fact and in principle. A skeptic, then, is one who denies knowledge fundamentally in fact, and/or in principle. But since anyone who fundamentally denied that we in fact had any knowledge would naturally seek to give a reason for this, we are left with the skeptic as the one who ends up as denying the possibility of knowledge in principle. The first such man seems to be Xenophanes.

Xenophanes was, by ancient opinion, the father of skepticism. His most telling skeptical fragment is this:

No man has seen nor will anyone know
the truth about god and the things I speak of.
For even if a man were to say something that was absolutely true,
still, he does not know,
But belief is fashioned over all things

The first sentence states the fact of “the truth about…the things I speak of”, and the second sentence gives the principle of the fact. Note first that the fact is stronger than a statement that no one has attained knowledge yet, it goes further to state that no one ever ever will attain this knowledge. The reason for this, as Xenophanes sees it, is that there is a sort of impassable wall between what we claim is true, and what is in fact true. Now in one way or another, everyone has to agree that there is a difference between what we think is the case, and what is the case (things do not, for example, become true because we think they are) but Xenophanes’ claim is stronger than this. On his account, the distinction between our thoughts and the things themselves must be insurmountable, for this is the only way to account for why no one ever will know the truths he speaks of.

Skepticism, therefore, seems rooted in the distinction between what is now called subject and object. But since not everyone who believes that there is a subject and an object is a skeptic, we are forced to make a few distinctions:

1.) The skeptic holds that the subject is capable only of belief, while truth is something said exclusively of the object. One argument for this would be as follows: Truth belongs to objects alone, but no subject is an object, therefore there can be no truth belonging to a subject.

2.) Skeptics are disposed to see the distinction between subject and object as leading to an infinite regress of belief. This happens because it is rational to see certain beliefs as better than others, as Xenophanes does when he says: “in time, by searching, [mortals] discover better”. The regress occurs when we try to justify this position- for how do we judge one belief as better than another? What can we appeal to that is not ex hypothesi simply another belief? Xenophanes leaves open the possiblity of this infinite regress when he says “by no means did the gods reveal all things to man from the beginning” for since Xenophanes can be read in other places as denying the existence of the gods, this fragment might be read as leaving open the possibility that there are no gods, and no beginning, i.e. there was no moment at which we were given some sort of divine principle of knowledge.

3.) Skeptics tend to view the primary goal of what is now called “epistemology” as verifying the beliefs of the subject. Since only belief belongs to the subject, but no belief is capable of evincing its own truth, then it must always be judged by another. Since beliefs admit of an infinite regress, the attempts to verify them will likewise be infinite. What we now call “epistemology” never reaches some fixed point, according to the skeptic.

4.) The Skeptic may or may not set a certain “fixed belief” for the subject, but if he sets one, he will have to do so by an act if the will. Xenophanes seems to do this when he says- in what was taken to be the conclusion of his work- “Let these things be believed as resembling the truth”.

If we put together all that has been said so far, a skeptical philosophy is one that denies a subject’s access to truth/ knowledge, for the truth belongs to the object (if it even exists at all). The subject is then left with only beliefs, and since beliefs as such are things that cannot evince their own truth (by “truth” we mean “it must be”, but a belief by its very nature is something we hold that can either be or not be) then beliefs admit of a certain infinite regress, perhaps continually getting closer to the truth by means of an infinite verification process. Any fixed point in a skeptical philosophy (say, for example, the beginning or the end of a book) is not set by the mind fixing itself on something that “must be”, but rather on the will asserting “let this be”.

Skeptical philosophy can be rooted not only in a certain undertanding of the distinction between the subject and the object, but also in a certain undertanding of the distinction between the divine mind and the human mind. The skeptic often says that the very difference between the divine mind and the human one is that the one knows truth, while the other does not. In light of this distinction, the skeptic sees skepticism as pious, and the denial of skepticism as impious and promethean. A position similar to this was taught by the poet Simonides, who Aristotle speaks of in the Metaphysics:

…According to Simonides “God alone can have this privelege [of knowing first philosophy]” and it is unfitting that man should not be content to seek the knowledge suited to him. If then there is something in what the poets say, and jealousy is natural to the divine power, it would probably occur in this case above all…

This justification of skepticism as pious is not opposed to the justification of septicism that is grounded in the distinction between subject and object, and in fact this latter distinction is necessary to explain the former one. For to say that the gods have access to the truth, whereas we do not, is simply to say that the gods have access to the things in themselves (objects) whereas we (human subjects) do not. Skeptics may or may not take the jealosy of the gods as a principle, but at some point they must posit an insurmountable wall betwen subject and object, a wall which leaves only belief on the human subject’s side.
* I use the modifier “direct” as opposed to “analogous”


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