A Look at the Problem of Scepticism

Or the reduction of man to a plant.[1]


By Fr. Raymond Taouk



i. the schools


The history of Western philosophy shows a constant oscillation and temptation between the dogmatist position (truth can be reached) and scepticism.  Historically, scepticism dissolves alw. some dogmatism or other.


1.    The Greeks :

·      The Sophists (Protagoras, Gorgias) destroy one century of work of the first philosophers like Thales, Parmenides and Democritus.

·      Pyrrho, soon after the great Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, offers doubt as the only wisdom : “the greatest good is perfect apathy.  One must abstain from any judgement.”  His ideal is exuere hominem (= nirvana of the Buddhist pantheistic religion).

·      The empiricism of Sextus Empiricus is the last Greek sceptic movement.  It is the theory of phenomenalism (appearances).  If there are phenomena, we can observe them and see constant relations (empiricism).  The later empiricism of Hume and Comte adds nothing new to Sextus.


2.    After the Greeks

·      In the Middle Ages, the minds are too robust to have doubts on the validity of knowledge. 

·      Montaigne initiates the return of scepticism.

·      Hume, after Descartes’ reaction, dissolves Cartesianism and all thought.

·      Comte, after Kant’s new starting point of philosophy, dissolves Kantism by his positivism (science cannot go beyond the phenomena).

·      The existentialists, in reaction against the extreme dogmatist philosophy of Hegel, react by dissolving philosophy into the absurd.


ii.  The arguments of the sceptics


1.    Men in fact agree on nothing.  If they disagree, who is right?

2.    There are many errors, esp. of the senses; dreams are taken for reality; madness exists too.

3.    Knowledge is relative

·      since nothing is isolated in the universe, it is impossible to know one thing wo knowing others.  But in fact, no one pretends to know all things.

·      since the object is relative to a subject singular.  This subject is unknowable because it is both singular & changing.


4.    The diallelus (vicious circle) : if a proposition is not demonstrated we need not admit it.  If it is, it is demonstrated by recourse to a principle.  But if we do not demonstrate this principle, we commit a petitio principii, and if we do, we have recourse to another principle, and thus ad infinitum.


iii. refutation of the arguments


1.    Contradiction of opinions

·      If contradiction of opinions is an undeniable fact, it is a point where there is no contradiction (QED)

·      Men do not err regarding facts or principles, but only re. their interpretation.  All philosophers agree on the key principles, those of the philosophia perennis. Their unity is as real as their diversity.


2.    The fact of error

·      for this argument to be valid, error must exist & be perceived, i.e. it is true that I err, i.e. there is truth

·      error cannot be known except w. relation to truth (there is no such thing as a universal error or dream, since we would have no concept of erring or of dreaming).

·      re. the error of the senses : I deny that there be error in the senses since they register what affects them as such according to the given sensation (this argument is true even for malfunctioning of the organs or of the psyche).  In fact, error and truth exist properly in the affirmation or negation, i.e. in a judgement e.g. this tree is green.


3.    The relativity of knowledge

·      relation to another object.  Being relative, knowledge would be totally impossible if things were pure relations to others, which is absurd since there can be no relations without things related.  What this argument proves is that nothing can be known integrally and separately from others, which is obvious.  But between knowing nothing and everything, there is room for true knowledge.


·      relation to an individual subject.  If any knowledge is relative to a given subject, it is at least as much relative to the object/thing.  Thus even if we know a thing under a specific aspect, we know it imperfectly but truly as it is.


4.    The petition of principles ultimately undemonstrable. Undemonstrable principles are:

·      either postulates (mere hypotheses), and their consequences are only conditional.

·      or evident principles, and they do not need demonstrating since their truth is immediately known.


iv.  Discussion of scepticism


            Although history teaches us that there has never existed a perfect hard core Pyrrhonian, an ideal absolutely inaccessible, we still need to demonstrate that this ideal is not acceptable.


1.    insufficient arguments

·      the argumentum baculinum (strokes) is insufficient against the classic scepticism which does not put doubt on the existence of phenomena.

·      scepticism is contrary to common sense, but this is not sufficient to prove critically that it is wrong.

·      scepticism is a doctrine intrinsically contradictory. No, because it has no doctrine.  When one affirms nothing, the principle of contradiction has no grip on which it can be applied.


2.    Practical refutation

·      The absolute sceptical indifference is impossible in praxis, leading to inaction and proximate death.  “Why do we see him avoid the precipices as if he thought that it was not equally good or bad to fall into them?  It is obvious that he thinks that one thing is better and the other worse.”[2]

·      the intellectual indifference preferring the doubt to certitude is also setting a formal contradiction within man.  This also is neither thinkable nor realisable.


3.    Theoretical refutation

·      Re. the absolute or pyrrhonian scepticism

·      Per se, it is a sect of dumb & mute souls, and as such unbeatable.

·      De facto, since they speak and say at least “What do I know?”, they are dogmatising.  No one can use an expression/word wo defining and giving an objective sense and affirming what one means by : to be ignorant, to know, the principle of contradiction.  Worse if he tries to justify himself.

·      Re. the relative scepticism

·      What is probable and possible makes no sense without relation to what is certain and true : if nothing is certain, then nothing is probable.

·      pure probabilism is not viable because one representation is a better guide for life than another.

·      pure phenomenism is absurd because it denies that an appearance is the appearance of something. 


v.  the methodicAL scepticism


Although the universal doubt cannot be wisdom, could it not be the way to obtain it?  Not either because.


1.    to accept a useless and false sceptic system supposes an arbitrary decision of the will.

E.g. the blind act of faith of Luther, by the stroke of the will.  This is not the Catholic faith which is a reasonable assent (judgement) intellectually motivated.


2.    to remain within such a system is a subtle contradictionIt leads to :

·      the cartesian hypothesis of the evil genius which, setting the doubt on things evident, shuts us up forever into scepticism.  Descartes puts a doubt on the distinction between dreams and real life, on the existence of things outside the mind, doubts which are not reasonable.

·      the phenomenological reduction of Husserl, who puts into brackets the real being, gives a descriptive philosophy of essences while suppressing the philosopher, his description and essences are absurd.


3.     when St. Thomas Aquinas speaks of “universalis dubitatio de veritate” (Mph III,1) wants to justify the custom of Aristotle to begin all investigations with the Secundum quid, the aporia. It is universal since Metaphysics deals with universal truth.


[1]Aristotle, Mphc IV, c.3 and 4.

[2]Arist. Metaph IV,4.