“… if reasoning is such a deceiver that it all but snatches even what is apparent from under our very eyes, surely we should keep watch on it in unclear matters, to avoid being led into rashness by following it.”
– Sextus Empiricus, Outlines of Pyrrhonism
I’m also a would-be fantasy author. Sections from my novel can be found here.
So what is philosophy? What distinguishes it from other domains of inquiry?
This is not a question that can be answered by appealing to the dictionary, any more than one can answer the question “What is the meaning of life?” by looking up the word ‘life’ in the OED. In an earlier post, I made it clear that I’m not after a strict definition, in the Socratic–Platonic sense of a set of necessary and sufficient conditions for something to qualify as ‘philosophy.’ Instead, I’ve attempted to present a physiognomy of philosophy, a description and analysis of fundamental features suited for conceptualizing the place of philosophy within the sphere of human cognitive life as a whole. I’ve identified presuppositionlessness as that defining feature.
The most obvious objection to this explanatory strategy is to point out that much—perhaps even all—inquiries that fall under the purview of philosophy do not proceed presuppositionlessly. Indeed, it may be the case that presuppositionlessness is at best a regulative epistemic ideal, that it is unachievable in practice and so cannot be used to distinguish philosophical inquiries from other sorts of inquiry. I think the premise is probably correct, but that the conclusion does not follow.
I’ve argued that presuppositionlessness is both (a) a defining ideal of much traditional philosophical practice, regardless of those practices’ (lack of) success, and, relatedly, (b) a global feature of philosophical inquiry as such, regardless of its (in)applicability to any particular philosophical inquiry or school-of-inquiry. At least as pressing as the question of what distinguishes philosophy from other domains of inquiry is the question of what unifies the various domains of inquiry categorized as ‘philosophy.’ It may be that no unifying element exists; but it seems to me that we should concede as much only if we have exhausted our explanatory resources. Presuppositionlessness, I want to argue, provides precisely the explanatory resource we need.
According to the metaphilosophical view I call presupposition contextualism, philosophy is distinguished from others domain of inquiry by the fact that it lacks any definitive presupposition-set. As a result, what unifies the various philosophical domains-of-inquiry is their allowing for the questioning of any of their presuppositions (no matter how deeply embedded the presupposition or abstract the mode of questioning) without changing the subject. Human reason, as Kant argued, naturally seeks the unconditioned: it continually asks ‘Why?’, over and over incessantly, and (unless stultified by some dogma or other) does not find satisfaction until and unless it reaches unconditioned, presuppositionless epistemic–cognitive ground. Philosophy is the domain of inquiry that is home to this seemingly endless string of ‘Whys?’
In a way, then, human reason is like a precocious child. Children, as we all know, are often unimpressed or dissatisfied by the rational grounds appealed to by dogmatic, authoritarian adults. Inevitably, it seems, the ‘Whys?’ of children run up against the following response: ‘Because I said so’—that is to say, no response at all, just an admonishment, an unjustified (though perhaps justifiable) rejection of the question. Philosophy, then, is the wide-open domain of inquiry we all (if we’re lucky) remember from our childhoods. As an old professor of mine, David Hills, puts it, philosophy is “the ungainly attempt to tackle questions that come naturally to children, using methods that come naturally to lawyers.” The problem—from the perspective of those who hope to make determinate, lasting progress in philosophy—is that in the fight between childish wonder and lawyerly rationalizations, the child in us always wins.
In what follows, I’m going to present two different, though compatible, models of presupposition contextualism. I call the first ‘the containment model.’
The primary purpose of the containment model is to situate specialized domains of inquiry in relation to two more general domains, that of common life and that of pure philosophy. Between the two is the area I associate with contextual questioning. By ‘contextual questioning’ I mean the calling-into-question of some but not all context-constitutive presuppositions. By ‘pure philosophy’ I mean the epistemic-ideal space of presuppositionlessness. ‘Common life’ is a notion I’ve already introduced: it is the largely invisible background of inherited prejudices and assumptions against which we carry out our everyday sayings and doings.
Some specialized presupposition-contexts are situated entirely within the more general domain of common life. The example I’ve provided here is history. It seems to me that the definitive presuppositions of historical inquiry (e.g., that the past existed, that it is unchanging, etc.) are all also constitutive presuppositions of common life (at least, of our common life). As a specialized domain, however, the history presupposition-set is smaller than that of common life. For instance, certain socio-historical variants of common life might also include commitments to certain doctrinal histories that the history-domain does not constitutively presuppose. In such cases, historical inquiry might end up calling into question those doctrinal everyday presuppositions; but doing so would not mean that the history-domain opens onto that of contextual questioning, for it is not constitutive of the historical-inquiry domain as such that it stand opposed to any particular doctrinal-historical presupposition, i.e., any presupposition of common life.
The same cannot be said, it seems to me, of physics. From its earliest beginnings, physics has been in the business of getting above or behind what Wilfrid Sellars calls the ‘manifest image’ of the world in order to replace it with a ‘scientific image.’ The notion of the manifest image corresponds roughly to my notion of common life: it is “the pre-reflective orientation [to ourselves, the world, and others] which is our common heritage” (“Philosophy and the Scientific Image of Man,” in Science, Perception, and Reality, p. 3); it is “the framework in terms of which… man first encountered himself” (p. 6); it arises not merely from interactions with the (manifest) physical world, but also from “the mediation of the family and the community” (p. 16). Thus, Sellars contrasts “man as he appears to the theoretical physician—a swirl of physical particles, forces, and fields” with “man as he appears to himself in sophisticated common sense” (p. 20); he contrasts “the common sense conception of physical objects” with “that of theoretical physics” (p. 19).
Sellars does not mean to imply that the manifest image is “uncritical” or “naïve,” for it is partly constituted by and adaptable to sophisticated deployments of rationality. The key difference he notes between the sort of ‘scientific’ rationality exercised within common life and that which gives rise to the scientific image is that the rationality of common life “does not include… that [form of rational explanation] which involves the postulation of imperceptible entities, and principles pertaining to them, to explain the behaviour of perceptible things” (p. 7). To the extent that physics rejects the manifest image as “an ‘inadequate’ but pragmatically useful likeness of a reality which first finds its adequate… likeness in the scientific image” (p. 20)—the sort of rejection that can be traced as far back as the ancient Greek atomists (p. 26)—then physics stands in opposition to certain fundamental (context-constitutive) presuppositions of common life. For this reason, it seems to me that physics as such, unlike history, opens onto the domain of contextual questioning.
The third example I give of a specialized domain is that of ethics. Here, we can see the relationships among (a) common life, (b) a specific philosophical domain-of-inquiry, and (c) philosophy-as-such, i.e., what I’m calling ‘pure philosophy.’ Ethics straddles common life, the domain of contextual questioning, and pure philosophy. Thus, one might carry out an ethical inquiry without calling into question any presupposition constitutive of common life. But one might also engage in an ethical inquiry that enters the domain of contextual questioning. Likewise, since the domain of ethics as such opens onto pure philosophy, it has no determinate presupposition-contextual boundaries: this is what makes ethics as such philosophical.
The characteristic of ‘opening onto’ pure philosophy is illustrated even more vividly in the case of the relationship between physics and the philosophy of physics. I’ve described physics as a domain that as such rejects certain presuppositions constitutive of common life. Yet it itself is a presupposition-contextual domain of inquiry. That this is the case is indirectly demonstrated by the mere fact that there exists—that it is possible for there to exist—a meta-domain called ‘the philosophy of physics.’ Philosophy of physics encompasses the presupposition-set of physics, but extends further in all directions: it can both question physics in the direction of common life, or it can question physics in the direction of pure philosophy. The latter is what makes it philosophical. If the philosophy of physics as such did not open onto pure philosophy, then the possibility would remain of a distinctive domain of inquiry that we could call the philosophy of the philosophy of physics. There is, in fact, no such domain, and given presupposition-contextualism, it is clear why that is the case.
Again, none of this should be taken to imply that the philosophy of physics invariably proceeds presuppositionlessly. In other words, I am not claiming that there is no possibility of calling into question the presuppositions of a philosophy-of-physics inquiry. The containment model clearly illustrates that the majority of the domain of philosophy of physics is presupposition-contextual. The point is simply that, in calling into question the presuppositions of a particular inquiry carried out in the philosophy of physics, one will still be doing philosophy. Indeed, it is likely that one will still be doing philosophy of physics.
I call the second model of presupposition contextualism the ‘continuum model.’
The continuum model complements the epistemic-ideal of presuppositionlessness with its opposite, which for the sake of symmetry I call ‘pure everydayness.’ Whereas pure philosophy is characterized by a sort of maximal degree of reflectiveness, pure everydayness is characterized by the total lack of reflection upon one’s situation in the world. It may be that pure everydayness does not describe a properly ‘human’ way of being; but it is certainly a possible way of being simpliciter.
Moving from right to left along the continuum, we enter the domain of naïve common life. Naïve common life is characterized by a mostly unreflective acquiescence in whatever situation one has been thrown into. I take it that Hegel is describing naïve common life in the following passage: “The natural man has no consciousness of the presence of opposites; he lives quite unconsciously in his own particular way, in conformity with the morality of his town, without ever having reflected on the fact that he practices this morality” (Lectures on the History of Philosophy, vol. 2). Here, Hegel is not saying that the ‘natural man’ does not stand in a reflective relation to (what we would think of as) the morality of his town. He is sure, for instance, to recognize and censure deviations from the customary morality. Rather, Hegel is saying that the ‘natural man’ does not have a reflective relation to his moral code qua moral code, i.e., qua one alternative among others. It might be that even thinking of customary morality as a ‘morality’ (rather than as ‘what we do’ or ‘the way things are’) requires an awareness of it as mutable, as ‘questionable.’ In a similar vein, Bruno Snell has argued that Homeric-era Greeks “looked upon their gods as so natural and self-evident that they could not even conceive of other nations acknowledging a different faith or other gods” (The Discovery of the Mind). It is only when we enter the domain of intra-contextual questioning that our reflective repertoire comes to include the mode of reflection I’ve been referring to as ‘calling-into-question.’
Intra-contextual questioning involves calling-into-question within the presupposition-context of common life. This is the segment of the continuum that most of us occupy most of the time. The next stage is what I call non-philosophical contextual questioning. By ‘contextual questioning’ I mean the calling-into-question of context-constitutive presuppositions, specifically those of common life. Recalling that common life is to a large extent associated with an authoritative tradition, there are two fundamentally different outcomes of contextual questioning: first, acquiescing in the inherent authority of tradition qua traditional, the upshot of which is to terminate the search for justifications (reasons); second, seeking for the tradition-independent rational ground of common life. The first option entails remaining within the domain of non-philosophical contextual questioning; the second option entails going further, into the domain of philosophy.
To count as properly philosophical, then, it is not enough to have a reflective relation to one’s epistemic–doxastic context; one must have the proper sort of reflective relation to it, namely, one that sees the authority of reason as both distinct from and superseding that of tradition. From a pure-philosophical perspective, it is insufficient to accept an everyday presupposition on the grounds that it is certified by tradition. In my previous post, I described this move in terms of the transition from an acquiescence in the ‘everyday dogmatisms’ of common life to a commitment to autonomous reason. The initial stages of philosophy remain presupposition-contextual, however. Philosophers might suppose, for instance, that their discipline is partly defined by a commitment to the laws of logic. But reason is such that it pushes ever outward, questioning everything (even the laws of logic), until it falls into the realm of pure philosophy.
As I argued in earlier posts, the problem with pure philosophy—that is, the problem with philosophy as such—is that it seems as though determinate discursive progress can only be made presupposition-contextually. Far from making progress, the movement of reason has pushed us back and back, searching for immovable epistemic–cognitive ground. But no such ground appears. Philosophy ends in skepticism. Being presuppositionless, this skepticism is entirely indiscriminate: it leaves nothing standing. The epistemic ground falls away under our feet.
I noted in my previous post that the skeptical dialectic is animated by a commitment to truth and rationality, in particular a commitment to the view that truth is only arrived at (at least consciously or reflectively) by means of reasoning or rationality. (For more on this point, see the note marked [*] at the bottom of this post.) It was this commitment that pushed us beyond non-philosophical contextual questioning into the domain of philosophy. This commitment is also responsible for the rejection any number of other putative sources of knowledge that would forestall or override the search for rational knowledge, e.g., mysticism, the direct revelation of a divine power, astrology, the reading of tea-leaves, and so on. Such putative sources of knowledge may be authoritative in some instantiations of common life—but they can be called into question by skeptical challenges. The important point, again, is that skepticism can only get an epistemic–doxastic foothold against traditional sources of knowledge such as astrology given a prior commitment to reason or rationality—and not just any sort of commitment. Practices such as astrology have their own internal logic and rationality; they are not simply or globally irrational. The sort of commitment to reason or rationality that is required for skepticism to get an epistemic–doxastic foothold involves a commitment to the demonstrability of a practice’s rational ground such that a failure to demonstrate that a practice is rationally grounded undermines (and, if carried far enough, destroys, at least temporarily) that practice’s epistemic authority. Reason can be (and is) exercised within the limits of the presupposition-context of astrology; but to feel the sting of dissatisfaction with astrology on the basis of skeptical challenges to its epistemic merits requires a commitment to viewing astrology’s presupposition-context itself as demonstrably rational and hence as vulnerable to skeptical attack.
I call this higher-order commitment the philosophical epistemic–doxastic norm (PEN). According to PEN, we are at least required as rational beings to give precedence to the conclusions of reasoning, with the result, inter alia, that we cannot simply ignore skeptical challenges to our beliefs. A stronger version of PEN would enjoin us as rational beings to assent to (and thereby believe) only those propositions that rational reflection has determined to be true. The latter entails a kind of preemptive strike against false beliefs: Descartes’s overturning of the apple-cart. The former entails an openness to challenges as they arise.
Without a commitment to PEN, whether explicit or implicit, the skeptical dialectic could not get off the ground. In the face of rational challenges to, say, the belief that the Bible is the word of God, a person uncommitted to PEN could both (a) persist in that belief without making any attempt to defend or justify it and (b) nonetheless continue to think that her belief is rational and justified. (Alternatively, of course, she could simply give no credence to all that ‘fancy talk.’) Such a person would remain outside of the domain of contextual questioning. It is clearly possible to do so. Those who do not, however—or so I’m contending—are motivated by an implicit or explicit commitment to PEN. It is a commitment to PEN that drives them off the cliff of presuppositions into the free-fall of pure philosophy.
My next question should be obvious by now: What, then, of PEN? Is PEN itself justified? We’ve already seen that the presuppositionless skepticism of pure philosophy is indiscriminate. As such, it undermines even the rational standards that support its negative-epistemological conclusions and the normative commitments that bind us to those standards. It seems, in short, that the most radical exercise of human reason—that mode of reflection in which, as Sellars puts it, “no intellectual holds are barred” (“Philosophy and the Scientific Image of Man,” p. 1)—ends up overthrowing itself. The question is: Where does this leave us? Where are we left, or what are we left with, after having repudiated both common life and autonomous reason?
The short answer is that the dialectical spiral illustrated above—a spiral consisting of twin dialectical circles, one at the level of common life, the other at the level of autonomous reason—join together to form a larger-scale circular dialectic, one that moves from dogmatic common life, through dogmatic autonomous reason, back to common life transformed. The progress of reason as I’ve described it involves a movement through ever-greater levels of abstraction until reason arrives at a state free of presuppositions. The result, however, is not to free us of presuppositions, but to free us of dogmatism. The common life to which the dialectical spiral returns us is what Sextus called ‘undogmatic common life’—bios adoxastōs. This large-scale circular movement can be illustrated as follows:
We can also illustrate the circular character of the skeptical dialectic, and the new cognitive standpoint it opens up, by bending the continuum model of presupposition contextualism so that its end-points overlap.
The life adoxastōs involves an acquiescence in common life that is overlain with a philosophical skepticism such that common life is no longer understood dogmatically, i.e., our relationship to common life—our commitment to it—is no longer dogmatic. Common life has been transformed. The skeptical dialectic, then, is dialectical in the Hegelian sense: it involves the reconciliation of (at least apparent) opposites, in this case ‘common life’ (tradition) and ‘autonomous reason’ (philosophy). The dialectic differs from Hegel’s, though, in that the reconciliation takes the form not of a newly emergent term, but rather of a return to the first term such that the first term incorporates elements of (= is transformed as a result of its dialectical interaction with) the second term. (For more on the notion of circular dialectic, see Ann Hartle, Michel de Montaigne: Accidental Philosopher.) In the case of the dialectical reconciliation of common life and autonomous reason, the result is the incorporation into common life of the freedom from dogmatism that is a concomitant of presuppositionlessness.
In the remainder of this post, I’d like to start fleshing out the idea of the life adoxastōs. Let me begin by addressing the question: What do I mean by dogmatism?
The ancient Greek dogmata is often translated simply as ‘beliefs’ or ‘opinions.’ Although this translation is not outright wrong, it loses the connotations that distinguish dogmata from doxai (which is also usually translated as ‘beliefs’ or ‘opinions’). In his article “The Beliefs of a Pyrrhonist,” Jonathan Barnes has shown that dogmata refer to “weighty, substantial beliefs—tenets, doctrines, principles.” Philosophical dogmata, as Diego Machuca has put it, tend to be the sort of beliefs that result from “theoretical reflection which purports to grasp the structure of reality or the real nature of things” (“Argumentative Persuasiveness In Ancient Pyrrhonism”). Paradigm examples include “the Epicurean’s belief in invisible atoms, or [the] Platonist’s belief in eternal unchanging forms” (Tad Brennan, “Criterion and Appearance in Sextus Empiricus”). What Barnes has shown, then, is that dogmata carried from the beginning the primary meaning that ‘dogma’ has in modern English, namely, “An opinion, a belief” but “spec. a tenet or doctrine authoritatively laid down,” such as in the case of religious doctrine: “The body of opinion , esp. on religious matters, formulated or laid down authoritatively or assertively” (OED). Only secondarily, as a result of the ‘authoritative’ nature of dogma, do we get the second, explicitly pejorative meaning, which the OED describes this way: “an imperious or arrogant declaration of opinion.”
In Outlines of Pyrrhonism (PH), Sextus Empiricus initially characterizes dogmatists neutrally, simply as those who “think they have discovered the truth” as a result of a philosophical investigation (PH §1.1–3). It is clear, though, that for him ‘dogmatist’ is a pejorative term: he characterizes them throughout his texts as ‘rash and conceited.’ (Montaigne will later refer to them as ‘presumptuous.’) The goal of the Pyrrhonian skeptical therapy, Sextus tells us, is “to cure by argument, as far as they can, the conceit and rashness of the Dogmatists” (PH §3.280). The Pyrrhonian skeptical arguments provide the bridge between the pejorative and the non-pejorative meaning of ‘dogmatist’: given the power and scope of the skeptical arguments—that is, given their success relative to the epistemic standards endorsed by dogmatists themselves (as a whole)—it can only be ‘rash and conceited’ to continue claiming that one has discovered the truth. (The fact that dogmatic sects of all kinds are endlessly at odds with one another is significant in this connection.)
These considerations suggest that there are two primary features of dogmatism. The first is epistemic, and concerns the place of dogmas in larger, more or less systematic bodies of beliefs. The idea here is that positive epistemic status accrues to dogmas at least partly in virtue of their place within a system. The second is doxastic, and concerns the second-order nature of dogmatism. What transforms a mere belief into a dogma is that it is “laid down authoritatively or assertively.” It is “an imperious or arrogant declaration of opinion.” If we internalize the OED’s focus on assertion or declaration, we can say that dogmatism is a metadoxastic state or attitude relative to an opinion or belief such that one considers that opinion or belief to be authoritative. This point is sharpened by one of the OED’s definitions of ‘dogmatic’: “Of a person…: that asserts or imposes dogmas or opinions in an authoritative, imperious, or arrogant manner; inclined to lay down principles as undeniably true” (emphasis added).
Dogmatism, then, is not a matter of holding certain beliefs, but rather of the manner in which one holds them. One can hold the same belief either dogmatically or undogmatically without the propositional content of the belief (the first-order belief) changing in any way whatsoever. It is possible (indeed, I think common) to believe that p without believing that p is undeniably true. Stated in general terms, what I’m suggesting is that, contrary to most if not all analyses, ‘belief’ is best understood as a two-tiered phenomenon such that ‘x believes that p’ is a fundamental (first-order) attitude that underdetermines its second-order accompaniment to such an extent that it is possible accurately to describe someone as both believing that p and not believing that p (perhaps even both believing that p and believing that not-p).
Before I say more about the two-tiered conception of belief, it needs to be pointed out that although Sextus is focused on philosophical dogmatists, he rightly does not hold the view that only philosophers can be dogmatists. Indeed, he seems to be of the opinion that virtually everyone is a dogmatist. I think Martha Nussbaum is right when she says, “Most people hold many of their beliefs about the world firmly and dogmatically, even without the guidance of the philosopher” (The Therapy of Desire, p. 284). For Sextus, common life is shot through with more or less implicit dogmatisms. As we’ve seen, the skeptical dialectic as I’ve characterized it is equally (indeed, more fundamentally) opposed to ‘everyday dogmatism’ as it is to ‘philosophical dogmatism.’
That everyday beliefs can be dogmatic is clear given the metadoxastic analysis I’ve just offered. It is perhaps less clear that the epistemic feature, according to which dogmas fit into a systematic body of beliefs, applies to everyday beliefs. I think, however, that a strong case can be made on this score. Although common beliefs are undoubtedly not as highly or explicitly systematized as, say, a body of religious or philosophical doctrine, they do form a more rudimentary sort of system. This is why I refer to common life as a presupposition context: it has a more or less definite shape, the same as do specialized domains of inquiry. Granted, it is more diffuse, more fluid, and above all more ‘inconspicuous’ (to bring back a Heideggerian term) than specialized domains are, but it nonetheless has a systematic shape.
(To object that the ‘system’ of common life is bound to be inconsistent is beside the point, for the same can be said of many other systems. An inconsistent system is still a system.)
What does it mean, then, to live ‘undogmatically’?
Given the two features of dogmas discussed above, it would mean both (a) not holding the view that positive epistemic status accrues to beliefs in virtue of their fitting into systematic bodies of beliefs, and (b) not holding a metadoxastic attitude toward one’s beliefs such that (i) one believes that one’s beliefs are invariably true and (ii) one is inclined to declare as much in an imperious or arrogant (‘presumptuous,’ ‘rash and conceited’) manner.
To live undogmatically (adoxastōs) does not entail living without beliefs. Nor does it entail living without certain sorts of beliefs; rather, it is to have a certain attitude or relation toward one’s beliefs.
But what beliefs does the skeptical dialectic leave us with? We’ve repudiated the beliefs of common life as well as philosophical beliefs. Indeed, the dialectic led to the global undermining of all beliefs across the board. It might seem—many people have claimed and continue to claim as much—that this would leave us adrift in the moral and epistemic vacuum of nihilism, in the all-is-permitted world of Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor. It should be evident by now, however, how radically mistaken this conclusion is.
As we’ve seen, the skeptical dialectic undermines the epistemic standards that themselves undermined all beliefs, as well as the doxastic norm that would enjoin us thereby to reject the authority of all beliefs. Nihilism, it turns out, is covertly committed to various unjustified rational norms and standards. In other words, nihilism—at least as we’re thinking about it here, i.e., as a sort of philosophical nihilism—is an expression of despair at the futility of autonomous reason, at our inability to uncover the ultimate rational ground of our beliefs. The nihilistic conclusion is that, therefore, our beliefs are groundless. But that conclusion stands only if one fails to follow through on the logic of the skeptical dialectic. To be a nihilist, one must hold on to the last shreds of rationalistic hubris, to maintain that beliefs not grounded in autonomous reason are thereby groundless and ought to be rejected.
Skeptical arguments are, as Sextus puts it, like purgative drugs that drain themselves away along with the humors they were administered to treat. The result is that we return to where, in fact, we never left, namely, common life. But in the process we have been cured of the dogmatism that previously infected our everyday being-in-the-world. The mature skeptic will retain most or even all of the (first-order) beliefs she had before undergoing the skeptical therapy, but she’ll not mistake the degree of her doxastic commitment to a belief for that belief’s degree of objective justification. She’ll see everyday beliefs as precisely that, everyday beliefs, justified and justifiable within the presupposition context of common life, but unjustified and (apparently) unjustifiable independently of that context. When the mature skeptic encounters people whose everyday presupposition contexts differ radically from her own, she may be curious, may find their beliefs and their justificatory procedures baffling, even perverse; she may attempt to dissuade them of their beliefs, may attempt to demonstrate the superiority of her own presupposition-set. What she will not do is denounce the other person as “a heretic and a fool” (Wittgenstein, On Certainty, §611). She’ll see the situation for what it is: an encounter between two incompatible presupposition-sets, not the Truth facing off against Falsehood or Lies, not God facing off against the Devil.
The mature skeptic will hold to relativism in its uncontroversial descriptive guise. She will even hold the crude relativist thesis—namely, not just that norms, standards, etc., are culturally relative, but that all norms, standards, etc. are thereby equally valid—but only philosophically. That is, the mature skeptic will accept that there is (= appears to be) no rational, context-independent means of adjudicating between rival presupposition-sets. But that does not mean that, as a human-being-in-the-world, she will think that all presupposition-sets are equally valid. This can be understood in terms of the bent continuum model, above, in which philosophy and naïve common life overlap: when the mature skeptic thinks philosophically, she is a skeptic and a relativist; but as a mature skeptic, she believes—she makes judgments and commitments and decisions—within the common lifeworld in which she lives and moves and has her being.
Again, what distinguishes her from her fellows is not her beliefs but her attitude toward those beliefs. As Montaigne puts it, “I consider myself one of the common sort, except in that I consider myself so” (“Of Presumption”; emphasis added). Elsewhere, he characterizes what I’m calling ‘the life adoxastōs’ in the following ways: “It may be said with some plausibility that there is an abecedarian ignorance that comes before knowledge, and another, doctoral ignorance that comes after knowledge: an ignorance that knowledge creates and engenders, just as it undoes and destroys the first” (“Of vain subtleties”). “Anyone who wants to be cured of ignorance must confess it… Wonder is the foundation of philosophy, inquiry its progress, ignorance its end. I’ll go further: There is a certain strong and generous ignorance that concedes nothing to knowledge in honor and courage, an ignorance that requires no less knowledge to conceive it than does knowledge” (“Of Cripples”). It is this ‘doctoral ignorance’ that is the characteristic of the mature skeptic and that allows her to live life adoxastōs.
But why does the mature skeptic acquiesce in the beliefs of common life, specifically the common life into which she was born? Isn’t it more plausible that the skeptical dialectic leaves us with an ‘all-is-permitted’ that simply goes deeper than that of nihilism, in the sense that it does not foreclose the possibility of genuine belief and commitment, but rather opens the door for us to believe anything?
The answer to this—which I can address only briefly—concerns the nature of the human being that is brought to light by skepticism. Hume famously argued that radical skepticism is psychologically impossible to maintain, because “Nature is always too strong for principle” (Enquiry). That is, our natural tendency to believe all sorts of things will overcome any skeptical scruples we may have. Hume arrived at this anti-rationalistic conception of belief by way of his skepticism regarding human reason, and I think that his recognition of the connection between skepticism (i.e., the light it throws on the nature of human reason as such) and what Heidegger would later call ‘fundamental ontology’ (i.e., the ontology of human-being-in-the-world) was one of his most profound insights, despite the fact that it is frequently misunderstood as constituting an argument against skepticism.
The picture of the human that emerges from skeptical considerations is that of a creature embodied in nature and embedded in a particular society. To a large extent, it seems, our beliefs are not our own.
The idea here is that the twin forces of biology and culture give rise to sub-doxastic processes, of which we are unaware and of which, at least initially, we have no control. These sub-doxastic processes give rise to beliefs, both in their affective and their cognitive aspects. To the extent that these beliefs are products of sub-doxastic processes of which we have no control, the beliefs themselves are out of our control as well: they simply happen to us. As Nietzsche put it, “A thought comes with it wants, not when ‘I’ want.”
Given my two-tiered model of belief, there is another level, that of our metadoxastic attitude. It might seem that much of what I’ve said implies that, at the metadoxastic level, we are free (or at least that we exert some control there). This may be true. I think it’s certainly the case that the metadoxastic level is the likeliest candidate for ‘free’ (not-causally-determined) cognition. The possibility that metadoxastic attitudes can affect beliefs and even sub-doxastic processes is represented by the dotted arrows. But it should be noted that my account of the transformation in metadoxastic attitude effected by the skeptical therapy does not depend on metadoxastic freedom: it depends merely on the possibility of the adoption of different metadoxastic attitudes. Whether those attitudes were ‘freely’ arrived at is an open question about which mature skeptics, qua philosophers/theoreticians, will suspend judgment.
This model of the human doxastic system allows us to see another sense in which nihilism is covertly principled: for it seems to assume that what we believe is up to us, that human beings are free simply to abandon their ‘natural’ beliefs (both biological and cultural). Once again, then, we can see the ironic sense in which nihilism depends on a commitment to an overly rationalistic conception of human beings.
* This claim is easily misunderstood. It might be thought, for instance, that bare perception provides access to truth, i.e., provides us with propositional knowledge. But, on reflection, such a view would seem to lead to the conclusion that thermometers literally know what the temperature is. Perception may be the causal ground of our knowledge, but it is not in itself sufficient for knowledge. This point is often supported by claiming that knowledge is a normative matter and so cannot be reduced to its underlying causal mechanisms. The contrary view has come to be known, following Sellars, as the ‘naturalistic fallacy’ in epistemology, the view that an ‘ought’ can arise from an ‘is.’ I’m not sure that this ‘fallacy’ is not itself fallacious; but it does seem to me that whatever else it is, propositional knowledge (i.e., knowledge that something is so-and-so) is the exclusive possession of reflective (and self-reflective) beings and so cannot, strictly speaking, be attributed to creatures or machines that perceive but do not reflect upon their perceptions.