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Significance of philosophical scepticism


To: Gordon F.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Significance of philosophical scepticism
Date: 27 September 2006 11:35

Dear Gordon,

Thank you for your email of 21 September, with your essay for the Introduction to Philosophy program, in response to the question, 'Assess the significance of philosophical scepticism'.

I am fully in agreement with you, that if we give up the quest for certainty, and see our judgements and beliefs as provisional that does not lead to the conclusion that 'each of us is trapped in a solipsistic cave'.

I will qualify this statement slightly I don't really see much point in stating that when I move my hand towards the mug of tea on my desk, I am acting 'as if' the statement that there is a mug of tea on my desk is true. I brewed the tea myself, carried the mug upstairs and put it on my desk. Nothing sort of a fully-fledged Matrix scenario could undermine my belief that there is a mug of tea (OK, I have to allow for the possibility that someone substituted some other herbal infusion for the tea bags and didn't tell me) on my desk.

Vaihinger, in 'The Philosophy of 'As If'' is concerned with an idea first canvassed by Hume, that many or most of the concepts which we employ are 'fictions' rather than the literal truth. According to Hume, all I know is my own impressions and ideas. However, following 'human nature' (as Pyrrho advocated) we embrace the fictions which our minds create in order to make sense of our experience. It is as good as true that there is a mug of tea on my desk. Vaihinger extends this idea (I seem to recall, like you it is a long time since I saw the work) in a way which brings him close in some ways to the American Pragmatist tradition.

I would characterize your position not as 'philosophical scepticism' but rather as 'pragmatism.'

In the paragraph from unit 4 which you quoted from, I was considering the claim that it is possible to be a philosophical sceptic by claiming that we don't 'know' anything - while leaving everything else as it is. We can still talk of beliefs, we just can't talk of knowledge. (This is the point of my question about the Queen's speech in Parliament.) This is an incoherent position. The arguments which purport to undermine knowledge claims also undermine the notion that any given belief is more justified than the opposite belief, which in turn leads to the conclusion that no-one every has the right to make an assertion about anything.

Where does one go from there? A pragmatist, or a Humean, would say that what we do not do 'by right', we just do anyway. But this seems to require a difficult act of 'double think'. Amongst the things we 'do' are arguing for or against beliefs, evaluating knowledge claims, saying that this 'is true' or that that 'is false'. Which leads to the suspicion that philosophical scepticism, when fully thought through to its conclusion, amounts to no more than a verbal flourish. 'No-one knows anything, but we still "know" things for all intents and purposes.'

By contrast with 'modern' philosophical sceptics, from the time of Descartes and Hume onwards, Pyrrho saw scepticism as a way of life, not just a philosophical theory. This is what makes him particularly interesting.

Like you, I am happy to accept that talk of 'truth' is just a convenient way of placing emphasis. It is also a tool which enables one to generalize. In order to make the logical point that 'If X knows that P, then P is true', without the use of the term 'true' or a synonym, I would have to list every proposition expressible in the English language. So the term 'true' is rather useful after all.

What is the significance of philosophical scepticism? I think that there is a view which may be called 'sceptical' in a philosophical sense, which is not empty, nor requires the lifestyle of Pyrrho but has significant consequences for our grasp of what it is for there to be such a thing as 'reality'. There is no 'truth as such'. Truth is just a convenient abbreviation, nothing more. What is real, is our situation as agents in a world, who rely on day to day practical judgement. Along with our practical concerns, we also have the leisure to entertain theoretical interests, wonder about the heavens and so on. Such activities would have no significance, however, were it not for the fact that they are conducted by physical agents in a physical world.

All the best,