Lately I’ve been reading Outline of Pyrrhonism by Sextus Empiricus. Sextus collects the arguments for Skepticism as practiced by ancient Greek and Roman philosophers. Since the notion of “skepticism” seems to play some small role here, I thought it would be fun to take a look at what Sextus means by it.
Sextus situates skepticism as the only reasonable response to “dogmatism”. The dogmatists he has in mind are Platonism, Stoicism, Epicureanism, and Aristotelianism (“the Peripatetics”).
He observes, firstly, that the dogmatists all contradict one another — if Stoicism is right, then Epicureanism must be false; if Epicureanism is right, then Aristotelianism must be wrong, etc. What are we to do when dogmatism contradicts dogmatism?
Sextus then observes that none of these positions is “self-evident”, because all of them requires “going beyond the appearances” by making claims about what is “nonevident”. In order to do make claims about what is nonevident, the dogmatist must always either make a circular argument that assumes what they purport to establish or commit themselves to an infinite regress. On this basis he concludes that it is not reasonable to make claims about reality one way or the other. Instead the Skeptic endeavors to live only according to the appearances, and be guided only by what is immediately evident to the senses.
A nice corollary of Sextus’s arguments is that one cannot be a naturalist and a skeptic, since the naturalist does make positive claims about the nature of reality. Naturalism and theism effectively cancel each other out.
The dialectic between dogmatism and skepticism stretches out across the whole history of philosophy. The re-discovery of Stoicism and Epicureanism during the Renaissance re-activated the ancient quarrels between competing dogmatisms (though with a different political dimension, since by this time Aristotelianism had become, thanks to Aquinas and subsequent theologians, the official doctrine of the Catholic Church, which its entrenched power structure). So the quarrel between competing dogmatisms had a political dimension that it seemed to have lacked in antiquity. The revival of Skepticism, most notably (to my mind) with Montaigne, then leads to renewed efforts to establish dogmatism by refuting Skepticism. (This did not prevent some philosophers from attempting to integrate Christianity and skepticism, as Pierre Gassendi did.)
Descartes was, as we know, the most famous (or infamous) of attempts to refute skepticism. But as was pointed out even then, Descartes’ arguments do not avoid circularity. (I believe it was Antonin Artaud who first made this point in first, in his Objections to the Meditations. Descartes’ Reply is, to put it mildly, not convincing.)
The inconsistencies within Cartesian dogmatism led to multiple and contradicting attempts to repair it: Spinoza, Leibniz, Malebranche, and Berkeley being the attempts that have since made it into the Canon (largely because they were all men). At the same time, Pierre Bayle is collecting the new Skepticism into what amounted to a new version of Outlines of Pyrrhonism for the modern era. Following on the heels of all of them, it fell to Hume in his Treatise on Human Nature to demolish all permutations of modern dogmatism by destroying their basis in Cartesianism.
Since then, the dialectic runs back and forth between competing dogmatisms and between dogmatism and skepticism. Kant was perhaps the first philosopher to even attempt a genuine via media between dogmatism and skepticism, but the fatal problems with Kant’s solution are well-known to most casual students of philosophy.
To this day it remains unclear whether there is a via media between dogmatism and skepticism. Some philosophers, including myself, think that the historical arc of pragmatism that runs from Hegel through Peirce and Dewey to Sellars should be understood as precisely an alternative to both dogmatism and skepticism. Others, of course, are not convinced. And so we have the persistence of both multiple forms of dogmatism — naturalism and theism alike — as well as new forms of skepticism.
Can a naturalist be a skeptic? Is skepticism more reasonable than any competing dogmatism? Is skepticism a viable philosophy as a way of life? Is pragmatism a dialectically stable alternative to dogmatism and to skepticism, or must it collapse into one or the other?