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Significance of philosophical scepticism


To: Kathleen C.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Significance of Philosophical Scepticism
Date: 22 June 2004 11:21

Dear Kay,

Thank you for your email of 9 June, with your second essay for the Possible World Machine, in response to the question, 'Assess the significance of philosophical scepticism'.

This is a neat, well argued essay which succeeds in giving a structured response to this admittedly vague question. Your answer, in a nutshell, is that philosophical scepticism has valuable consequences in the philosophical debates which it provokes. In addition, a moderate degree of scepticism has practical utility in helping us to avoid fanaticism.

Both James and Husserl, as you argue, respond to scepticism by aiming lower. For James, the truth we aim at is a practical truth, the truth which 'works'. For Husserl, the reality in question is the world of my experience in all its richness and variety, not a shadowy unknowable 'beyond'.

I agree with you that James makes truth 'relative' but I'm not so sure about describing Husserl as making truth 'subjective'. Husserl's response is not kind of subjectivism that arises from phenomenalism (advocated by A.J. Ayer in the 30's as a response to the problem of our knowledge of the external world) nor, for that matter, the 'logical atomism' of Russell which constructs the world out of sense data. We are describing objects in the world, not our subjective feelings, only as objects-for-us rather than things-in-themselves. The distinction between objectivity, which Husserl emphasises is the goal of knowledge, and mere subjectivity is to be discovered by analysing the structures of consciousness whereby objects become distinguished as objects.

In the case of both James and Husserl, the sceptic could argue that his case has been conceded. However, the concession has been made in such a way that *no practical consequences follow*. We carry on as before. The only thing that changes are the things that we say in a philosophy seminar room.

'So what?' is the obvious response. Who cares about 'ultimate knowledge' anyway if its lack does not impinge on our lives in any way?

Pyrrho is much more interesting. Here is a man who sees the evils of false presumption of knowledge all around us. I take your point that in order to live a life of lazy inactivity, we require the efforts of others to make up the slack. Clearly, Pyrrho cannot allow this. To rely on someone else would be a false presumption of knowledge. They might let you down.

Pyrrho is difficult for us because we are so accustomed to looking at scepticism through the eyes of Descartes. When Pyrrho takes a step forward, the Cartesian sceptic will point out that he is *assuming* that the ground will not open up beneath him. If statements such as, 'the ground will not open up when I step forward' are to be included in the range of things not to be 'believed' then life would truly become impossible.

This is not a consistent position. The point of Pyrrhonic scepticism is supposed to be that it *is* liveable, although the lives of sceptics will be rather different from the rest of us.

This leads me to speculate about how Pyrrho would have drawn the line between beliefs like, 'The ground will not open up' which our very nature makes unavoidable, and beliefs which can, and ought to be doubted.

Suppose you are invited to visit a friend who lives on an island. To get there you have to go by boat. Scepticism says don't go, because you can never be sure that the boat won't sink. But suppose that unavoidable circumstances have led you to take a voyage on a boat and the boat runs into a terrible storm. Then scepticism tells you not to panic. You don't know what the outcome will be, so there is no point in worrying about it.

In other words, the hall marks of the Pyrrhonic sceptic are an extreme aversion to risk-taking combined with a strong tendency to be phlegmatic when facing imminent danger. If you can do something to reduce risk, then do it, but if you can't then don't worry.

David Hume can be read in two contrasting ways, as an extreme metaphysical sceptic who denied the meaningfulness of any assertion which implies that objects continue to exist when we are not perceiving them ('Treatise of Human Nature' Section on 'Scepticism With Regard to the Senses') but also as the theorist of 'human nature' who accounted for human action in terms of associationist psychology, as the outcome of the 'force of custom'. His response seems to be a combination of James and Husserl.

All the best,