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date: 28 January 2021


Abstract and Keywords

This introductory article explains the coverage of this book, which is about scepticism. It discusses some varieties of skepticism and provides commentaries on the way scepticism has been approached in different philosophical periods. This volume examines some historically important responses to skepticism such as pragmatism, the commonsense view, and idealism. It also discusses contemporary epistemologists' creation of new strategies for responding to skepticism, often based on recent developments in other fields such as metaphysics, the philosophy of language and the philosophy of mind.

Keywords: skepticism, philosophical periods, pragmatism, commonsense view, idealism, metaphysics, philosophy

Philosophers have long been concerned with various kinds of skepticism. They have explored reasons for and against various skeptical positions, and they have argued about the consequences of adopting various skeptical stances. Today's philosophers are no exception. In fact, in recent years there has been renewed interest in skepticism and skeptical arguments. New work has been done on the nature and structure of various skeptical arguments and on historically important responses to skepticism. Contemporary epistemologists have also crafted new strategies for responding to skepticism, often drawing on recent developments in other fields, such as metaphysics, the philosophy of mind, and the philosophy of language.

This volume explores the results of this new work. Part I of the volume looks at several varieties of skepticism, including some important varieties of skeptical argument. Part II examines some historically important responses to skepticism, such as Berkeley's idealism, Reid's “commonsense” view, and Peirce's pragmatism. Part III reviews several contemporary issues, including some new strategies for responding to skepticism of various sorts. Each chapter is self‐contained and offers a detailed but accessible treatment of its topic. The volume as a whole will serve as a fairly comprehensive introduction to skeptical thought and thought about skepticism.

The remainder of this introduction is structured as follows. Section 1 briefly discusses some varieties of skepticism. Section 2 offers some remarks about how skepticism has been approached in different philosophical periods. Section 3 frames skepticism as a theoretical problem, as is the usual approach today.

(p. 4) 1. Varieties of Skepticism

Skepticism involves doubt, or at least a reluctance to commit. If I am skeptical about what my government is telling me about the war, then I have my doubts that the government's claims are true. If you are skeptical that the Red Sox will win the pennant, then you have your doubts that they will. Or perhaps you are a rabid Red Sox fan and psychologically incapable of entertaining doubts about your team's chances. Nevertheless, you might be reluctant to commit, for example with a bet.

These kinds of skepticism are limited in scope and, as such, are commonplace. Skepticism is of philosophical interest when it becomes more general. For example, some people are moral skeptics, claiming that no one can know what is right or wrong. Other people are religious skeptics, claiming that no one can know what God is like, what God wills, or whether God exists at all. Here we have more general claims, about the possibility of a general kind of knowledge: “There is no moral knowledge,” or “There is no knowledge of God.” Skepticism can be more general still. Some skeptics claim that there is no knowledge beyond how things appear, or of the world “outside our minds.” Even more generally, some skeptics claim that there is no knowledge at all.

The different kinds of skepticism just mentioned differ in their scope. Skeptical positions can also differ in their degree. For example, some skeptics claim that there is no knowledge of some general kind. Others claim, less strongly, that there is no certainty. Others claim, more strongly, that there is no reasonable or rationally preferable belief. Varieties of skepticism can also differ in their “level.” Thus some skeptics claim that no one knows, whereas others claim that no one knows that one knows. All these varieties will be discussed in the chapters that follow.

2. Skepticism through the Ages

In the ancient world, skepticism was recommended as a way of life. The general claim was that living with an attitude of skeptical doubt is superior to living with an attitude of dogmatic certainty. This recommendation might be framed in practical terms: a life lived in skeptical doubt is happier than a life lived in dogmatic certitude, perhaps because skepticism involves a more peaceful or tranquil state of mind. Alternatively, the recommendation might be framed as moral: a skeptical life is morally superior to a dogmatic one, perhaps because the former is more openminded and tolerant. Ironically, skepticism in the modern world (i.e., the 1600s through the 1800s) was more often treated as a practical problem. Skeptical doubt was considered a state of mind to be avoided or overcome, and considerable philosophical energy was put into strategies for doing so.

(p. 5)

Whatever the merits of the ancient and modern approaches, nowadays skepticism is more often framed as a theoretical problem than as a practical or moral one. For contemporary philosophers, skepticism is of interest insofar as there are good arguments or reasons for thinking that skepticism might be true. Contemporary philosophers tend to focus on the merits of those arguments rather than on the practical or moral value of a skeptical way of life. The chapters in this volume reflect this contemporary point of view. That is, their emphasis is on the merits of skeptical arguments or skeptical reasoning. Their concern is to closely consider the best arguments for skepticism and to explore how best to respond to them.

How should we understand this shift toward the theoretical and away from the practical and moral? First, it should be noted that this is a shift in emphasis. Certainly, ancient and modern writers were concerned with the merits of skeptical arguments and with the truth or falsity of skeptical conclusions. And certainly, contemporary writers, including ones in this volume, are concerned with the moral and practical consequences of various forms of skepticism. Second, the shift to a theoretical focus can be partly understood as professional: contemporary philosophers, especially in English‐speaking traditions, take arguments to be the proper focus of philosophical inquiry in general. Qua philosophers, they consider themselves better qualified to examine and evaluate arguments than to offer psychological advice or recommendations for living.

However, there is perhaps a more important explanation for the shift to a theoretical focus. Namely, contemporary philosophers tend to be unimpressed with both the ancient recommendations and the modern worries. Put differently, contemporary philosophers tend to be unimpressed with the efficacy of skeptical arguments either to engender doubt or to inspire behavior. This attitude can be traced back to Hume, who noted that his skeptical doubts held sway only in the study. The activities of ordinary life are sufficient to dispel skeptical doubt. In a famous passage, Hume writes:

The intense view of these manifold contradictions and imperfections in human reason has so wrought upon me, and heated my brain, that I am ready to reject all belief and reasoning, and can look upon no opinion even as more probable or likely than another.…Most fortunately it happens, that since reason is incapable of dispelling these clouds, nature herself suffices for that purpose, and cures me of this philosophical melancholy and delirium.…I dine, I play a game of back‐gammon, I converse, and am merry with my friends; and when after three or four hour's amusement, I wou'd return to these speculations, they appear so cold, and strain'd, and ridiculous, that I cannot find in my heart to enter into them any farther.

(A Treatise of Human Nature,bk.1, pt.4, sec.7)

More generally, and again following Hume, contemporary philosophers hold “reason” in less regard than did many of their ancient or modern counterparts. Perhaps most important, the power of reason to control thought and action is seen as far more restricted. From this general point of view, the impotence of skeptical reasoning is merely a special case.

(p. 6) 3. Skepticism as a Theoretical Problem

Suppose, then, that skepticism is more properly of theoretical interest than of moral or practical interest. Or less strongly, suppose that skepticism is primarily of theoretical interest. What does it mean to say that skepticism is theoretically interesting? One thing that it means has already been suggested: skepticism is theoretically interesting (or philosophically interesting) insofar as there are good arguments that skepticism might be true. Suppose that someone were to claim that no one knows anything. Or somewhat less radically, that you do not know that you have two hands, or that there is a table in front of you. Such claims by themselves would not be interesting. But suppose that there were good reasons for thinking that no one knows anything, or that you do not know that you have two hands. That is, suppose that there were reasons that looked good, and that it was not obvious where or why they were wrong. Now that would be interesting even if we were not inclined to take the skeptical claims seriously. It would be interesting to examine the skeptical reasons more closely and to see if we could find a mistake in them. Of course, there is a flip side to this: having seen the skeptical arguments in question, some people (including some in this volume) will want to take some skeptical claims very seriously, and will want to defend the arguments in their favor.

There is another sense in which skepticism is theoretically interesting. As things turn out, responding to skeptical arguments often requires substantive theoretical commitments. Suppose that we are faced with a skeptical argument that concludes that no one knows anything. Somewhat less radically, suppose that we are faced with an argument that no one knows right from wrong, or that other persons exist, or that any scientific claim is true. Presumably something is wrong with any such skeptical argument. But what is wrong? Where exactly is the mistake? In many cases, that turns out to be very hard to say. And in trying to say, philosophers end up making surprising and controversial philosophical claims—they make claims about the nature of reality, the nature of mind, the nature of morality, and much more. To a surprising extent, the history of philosophy is the history of philosophical theory in response to skeptical arguments. Put differently, thinking about skepticism inspires philosophical theory. As we will see in the chapters to come, it can inspire epistemology, ontology, philosophy of mind, philosophy of language, moral philosophy, and philosophy of religion. That being the case, skepticism is interesting indeed. (p. 7)