Metaphilosophical Reflections II: The Entwinement of Skepticism and Philosophy

by reichorn

“… skepticism itself is in its inmost heart at one with every true philosophy.”

– Hegel, On the Relationship of Skepticism to Philosophy

“Whoever is believed in his presuppositions, he is our master and our God; he will plant his foundations so broad and easy that by them he will be able to raise us, if he wants, up to the clouds.”

–  Montaigne, Apology for Raymond Sebond

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This is the second in a series of guest-blogger posts by me, Roger Eichorn.  The first post can be found here.

I’m also a would-be fantasy author.  The first three chapters of my novel, The House of Yesteryear, can be found here.  I’ve also recently uploaded the first of what will be two ‘Bonus Scenes’ from later in the book.  You can find that here.  Now on to business…

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What is philosophy?

In asking this question, it is misguided—and probably hopeless—to insist upon a strict definition (i.e., a definition that specifies necessary and sufficient conditions for something to qualify as ‘philosophy’).  Chances are good that no such definition is possible.  Rather, it is likely that philosophy is what Wittgenstein called a ‘family resemblance’ concept, that is, a concept that picks out a number of importantly distinct things that are more or less loosely bound together by a resemblance-relation.  Wittgenstein’s most famous example is the concept game: it seems impossible to provide necessary and sufficient conditions for something to qualify as a game, yet it also seems that all the various things we refer to as ‘games’ bear some sort of resemblance to one another.

What I’m after, then, is not a strict definition, but a sort of physiognomy of philosophy.  What is/are the most salient or common feature(s) of the family resemblance?  The explanatory desideratum is to understand what makes philosophy distinct from other intellectual domains.  What distinguishes philosophy from, say, theology or the sciences?  In most cases, it does seem that, as with porn, we ‘know it when we see it.’  But I think that, in addressing the question “What is philosophy?”, we can do better than simply pointing to examples.  Indeed, I believe that there is a single feature of philosophy that both (a) stands out more prominently than any other and (b) provides the groundwork for a systematic explanation both of philosophy’s relation to other intellectual domains and of the apparent interminability of philosophical inquiries.  That feature is skepticism.

Philosophy and skepticism are, I want to argue, inextricably entwined.

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Now, what exactly I mean by ‘the entwinement of skepticism and philosophy’ will be the topic of this and the two posts that will follow.  Thus, my claim should not be prejudged.  In particular, it should not be dismissed out of hand.  Given what I’ve said so far, there are numerous ways of understanding the claim as meaning things I do not intend.

I began by asking “What is philosophy?”  Now, it seems, I’m forced to address first another nebulous question, namely, “What is skepticism?”  In fact, my answers to both questions will unfold together, over the course of this and subsequent posts.  The questions will be approached by way of a discussion of presuppositions, specifically the idea of freedom from presuppositions, or ‘presuppositionlessness.’

What do I mean by ‘presuppositions’?  It is important that we not over-intellectualize the concept, for doing so would obscure the sort of presupposition I’m most interested in.  I imagine that when many people think of presuppositions, they think first of something like (i) consciously developed and articulated hypotheses, such as those posited by scientists.  But there is also a deeper sense of presupposition, according to which presuppositions are (ii) the unreflective (or prereflective) commitments that frame or underlay our sayings and doings, our ‘situation’ as human-beings-in-the-world.  Presuppositions of this sort lie so far in the background—or, alternatively, saturate so completely—our cognitive lives as to be effectively invisible.  Such presuppositions can, at least in principle, be made visible; but such a process of explication involves thematizing commitments that were already there, rather than (as in the case of scientific hypotheses) developing new commitments.  A third sort of presupposition lies somewhere between the two: (iii) they are not hypotheses, but neither are they entirely unreflective.  In most cases, this third kind of presupposition will be taken, by those who hold them, as obviously true, perhaps as ‘self-evident.’  Thus, they will not be seen as presuppositions by those who hold them, but as something like fundamental, immovable, or indubitable beliefs/truths.

I shall refer in what follows to presupposition contexts.  A presupposition context is a ‘situation,’ with regard to our sayings and doings, that is framed and defined by either the second or the third sort of presupposition introduced in the previous paragraph.  Presupposition(ii) contexts define what I call ‘common life,’ i.e., the context into which we’re ‘thrown’ (as Heidegger would say), both as natural beings and as products of a particular culture.  Such contexts are the ‘background’ of our ‘everydayness’; their constitutive presuppositions determine to a large extent how the world shows up for us, in the sense of how things strike us, how they appear to us to be.  These presuppositions are expressed affectively as well as—indeed, perhaps more fundamentally than they are expressed—cognitively.

For instance, I happen to think that incest is wrong.  The proposition is one I find that I cannot fail to assent to.  Why do I believe that incest is wrong?  I could, of course, marshal any number of reasons to support the belief, but (a) the belief, in its cognitive guise, is capable of withstanding devastating counterarguments, and (b) even if I were brought around, intellectually, to rejecting the belief (which happens when I stop and really think about it), the belief qua affective-disposition remains.  In other words, even if I ‘officially’ reject the proposition that incest is wrong, I continue to find incest repulsive.  (Regarding this example: see the study referenced and discussed by Jesse Prinz in The Emotional Construction of Morals, p. 30.)  This repulsion is, on my view, an expression of the sort of deep underlying commitment that constitutes the context of common life.  Common life is, as Wittgenstein put it, an inherited background:  “I did not get my picture of the world by satisfying myself of its correctness; nor do I have it because I am satisfied of its correctness.  No: it is the inherited background against which I distinguish between true and false” (On Certainty, §94).  Presupposition(ii) contexts, then, are similar to what Wittgenstein refers to as ‘world-pictures’: “The propositions describing this world-picture [= in my terms, context-constitutive presuppositions] might be part of a kind of mythology.  And their role is like that of rules of a game; and the game can be learned purely practically, without learning any explicit rules” (On Certainty, §95).

Presupposition(iii) contexts are specialized domains of inquiry.  Their constitutive presuppositions are more or less reflective on a case-by-case basis.  Often, their constitutive presuppositions are going to match, and arise from, presuppositions framing the more general context of common life, with which specialized domains of inquiry are (at least) going to overlap.  So, for instance, historians presuppose that the past existed (i.e., that the world didn’t pop into existence five minutes ago), that the past is unchanging, that certain kinds of presently existing artifacts are capable of informing us about what happened in the past, etc.  It may be that a given historian has never actually formulated the belief that the past existed, in which case it looks more like an unreflective Type-2 presupposition.  The important point, however, is that the claim that the world has existed for x number of years is constitutive of the very practice of historical inquiry.  The historical-inquiry domain is specialized for precisely this reason: it has more or less definite boundaries, the crossing of which constitutes something like a foul.  If a nosy ‘subversive epistemologist’ (to borrow a helpful phrase from Michael Forster)—or perhaps a moon-eyed metaphysician—butts into an historical debate to ask, “But how do you know the world didn’t pop into existence five minutes ago?”, the historians have to hand a principled rationale for rejecting the question, for it lies outside the limits of the game they’re playing.  The historical-inquiry game can only proceed on the basis of such presuppositions.  Calling these context-constitutive presuppositions into question would entail the cessation of historical inquiry.  One would begin, instead, to philosophize.

As I suggested above, it can be misleading to refer to Type-2 and Types-3 presuppositions as presuppositions.  Type-2 presuppositions can seem to run ‘deeper’ than any mere presupposition.  As for Type-3 presuppositions, they are taken to be true (and so not merely presupposed) by those who hold them.  In the first case, ‘presupposition’ can seem too intellectual a notion; in the second case, it can seem inappropriate insofar as ‘presupposing’ seems to imply a degree of doubt or tentativeness.  All of that is true enough.  The rationale for nevertheless referring to ‘presuppositions’ in these cases is that that is how they appear from a philosophical standpoint.

As I’ll argue in more detail in my next post, the practice of philosophy is both historically and conceptually predicated on an initial skepticism regarding the inherent epistemic and practical authority of common life.  It strives to provide, now on a purely rational basis, the explanations and justifications that it itself took away from common life.  Crucial to stripping common life of epistemic and practical authority involves thematizing, and subsequently calling into question, its presuppositions.  (This does not mean that philosophers are necessarily hostile to everyday presuppositions.  On the contrary, I find that they are generally apologists.  But qua philosophers, they seek—usually without outright admitting as much—simply to transplant everyday presuppositions into richer, more solid, and, above all, more rational ground.  We can engage in combat in order to strengthen as well as to overthrow.)  Philosophy adopts the same sort of attitude toward the more reflective presuppositions of specialized contexts: what the historian takes to be self-evident or indubitable, the philosopher reduces to the status of a mere presupposition.

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It’s hardly surprising, then, that philosophy has traditionally striven to free itself from presuppositions.  We simply accept, without reasons, all sorts of things in common life as well as in other, less ‘radical’ domains of inquiry.  Moreover, as context-constitutive, such presuppositions form the ground of our presupposition-contextual epistemic–doxastic practices.  Given this picture, it can seem that, barring the establishment of presuppositionless knowledge, we’re doomed to irrationality—to playing mere games in the upper stories of the citadel of reason while failing, or even refusing, to investigate its foundations, to see whether the building is sound, whether it rests upon the ground of truth.

In the Republic, Plato argues that genuine knowledge must be presuppositionless: it must descend from the top of the Divided Line down.  If we try to make progress bottom-up, we’re “compelled to work from assumptions, proceeding to an end-point, rather than back to an origin or first principle” (510b).  He considers the example of geometry and arithmetic: “[T]here are some things they take for granted in their respective disciplines.  Odd and even, figures and the three types of angle.  That sort of thing.  Taking these as known, they make them into assumptions.  They see no need to justify them either to themselves or to anyone else.  They regard them as plain to anyone.  Starting from these, they then go through the rest of the argument, and finally reach, by agreed steps, that which they set out to investigate” (510c–d).  Plato associates this sort of inquiry with what he simply calls “thinking” (534a).  ‘Thinking’ deals with objects of knowledge, but cannot arrive at genuine knowledge itself, precisely because it cannot dispose of its presuppositions.  “As for the subjects which we said did grasp some part of what really is [i.e., geometry and arithmetic]… we can now see that as long as they leave the assumptions they use untouched, without being able to give any justification for them, they are only dreaming about what is.  They cannot possibly have any waking awareness of it.  After all, if the first principles of a subject are something you don’t know, and the endpoint and intermediate steps are interwoven out of what you don’t know, what possible mechanism can there ever be for turning a coherence between elements of this kind into knowledge?” (533b–c).  Knowledge, on the other hand, is acquired only when one achieves freedom from presuppositions: the soul “goes from an assumption to an origin or first principle which is free from assumptions” (510b).  Reason “uses assumptions not as first principles, but as true ‘bases’—points to take off from, entry-points—until it gets to what is free from assumptions, and arrives at the origin or first principle of everything.  This it seizes hold of, then turns round and follows the things which follow from this first principle, and so makes its way down to an end-point” (511b–c).  The method of achieving presuppositionlessness Plato calls ‘dialectic’:  “The dialectical method is the only one which in its determination to make itself secure proceeds by this route—doing away with its assumptions until it reaches the first principle itself” (537d).

The same commitment to presuppositionlessness can be found in Kant.  As in Plato, this commitment pushes Kant to reject experience as capable of providing rational satisfaction.  “[E]xperience never fully satisfies reason; it [i.e., reason] directs us ever further back in answering questions and leaves us unsatisfied as regards their full elucidation” (Prolegomena).  “[R]eason does not find its satisfaction in experience, it asks about the ‘why,’ and can find a ‘because’ for a while, but not always.  Therefore it ventures a step out of the field of experience and comes to ideas.”  Unfortunately, the move to ‘ideas’ doesn’t help; even here, “one cannot satisfy reason,” for the ‘whys?’ never let up (Metaphysik Mrongovius).  As he puts it in the first introduction to the Critique of Pure Reason, “Reason falls into this perplexity through no fault of its own.  It begins from principles whose use is unavoidable in the course of experience and at the same time sufficiently warranted by it.  With these principles it rises (as its nature also requires) ever higher, to more remote conditions.  But since it becomes aware in this way that its business must always remain incomplete because the questions never cease, reason sees itself necessitated to take refuge in principles that overstep all possible use in experience, and yet seem so unsuspicious that even ordinary common sense agrees with them.  But it thereby falls into obscurity and contradictions” (Avii–viii).  In other words, the common understanding makes use of principles that, although they are taken to be unproblematic in the course of everyday life, reason (i.e., philosophy) unmasks as objectively unjustified presuppositions (cf., Critique of Pure Reason, A473/B501).  Reason, which is not held in check by experience or by the contingencies of common life, strives after, and is satisfied by nothing less than, presuppositionlessness or, in Kant’s terms, the unconditioned.  “[R]eason in its logical use seeks the universal condition of its judgment…  [T]he proper principle of reason in general (in its logical use) is to find the unconditioned for conditioned cognitions of the understanding” (Critique of Pure Reason, A307/B364).  “[R]eason demands to know the unconditioned, and therewith the totality of all conditions, for otherwise it does not cease to question, just as if nothing had yet been answered” (“What Real Progress Has Metaphysics Made…?”).

Unlike Plato, however, Kant rejects the possibility at arriving at any sort of transcendent ground of truth.  Instead, he argues that we can only have knowledge within the sphere of experience.  Still, experience is structured in such a way, he argues, that we can have certain knowledge of what must be the case for experience to be possible at all.  (Kant calls this approach transcendental, which refers to conditions of possibility, not to ‘transcendence.’)  For Kant, the quest for presuppositionless knowledge ends not in transcendence, but in the uncovering of the determinate limits of knowledge.  As he puts it, reason will only be satisfied with “complete certainty”—which entails presuppositionlessness, since any lingering presuppositions could be doubted—“whether it be one of the cognition of the objects themselves or of the boundaries within which all of our cognitions of objects is enclosed” (Critique of Pure Reason, A761/B789).

There is a quite different tradition in Western philosophy, going back at least to Aristotle, that can be seen as furnishing a counterexample to my claim that philosophy strives for presuppositionlessness.  It is often thought that Aristotle was not concerned with skeptical problems, that he did not consider them worthy or requiring of response or refutation.  He is often taken to preempt skeptical philosophers by claiming that some of what they call ‘presuppositions’ are known to be true even though their truth cannot be demonstrated.  There’s clearly something right about the latter claim at least: as Aristotle says in the Posterior Analytics, “We contend that not all knowledge is demonstrative: knowledge of the immediate premises is indemonstrable” (72b).  The ‘immediate premises’ are what Aristotle calls ‘first principles.’  His argument, then, is that the truth of first principles cannot be demonstrated, yet nevertheless we can know them.

First off, I think it is clear that Aristotle’s philosophy is indeed entwined with skepticism, broadly construed (i.e., ‘subversive epistemologies’).  As we’ve just seen, he presents in the Posterior Analytics an anti-skeptical argument.  A similar anti-skeptical intent can be found elsewhere in the Aristotelian corpus, such as in the defense of logical laws in Metaphysics Book Gamma.  And while he has far more regard than Plato does for common, prephilosophical opinion (endoxa)—often using them as starting-points for the development of his own positions—he is ultimately skeptical of endoxa, for he displays both a willingness to reject it (when it happens to be wrong) and a desire to provide it with a more rational foundation (when it happens to be right).  If this is right, and if I’m right to conceptualize the entwinement of skepticism and philosophy as I’ve been doing so far, then we should find in Aristotle a commitment to the epistemic ideal of presuppositionlessness.  But just as it has seemed to many that Aristotle is unconcerned with skepticism, so it may seem that he lacks a commitment to the epistemic ideal of presuppositionlessness.  Addressing this issue in anything approaching a thorough way is impossible here.  All I’m going to do is focus on the anti-skeptical position we’ve looked at from the Posterior Analytics, according to which first principles are known immediately and indemonstrably.  Does this mean that Aristotle contents himself with presuppositional knowledge?

Aristotle’s argument in the Posterior Analytics anticipates—and may well have been the source of—the most powerful of all skeptical arguments, namely, the Agrippan Trilemma, according to which any attempt to justify a claim will end either in vicious circularity, infinite regress, or brute hypothesis.  Aristotle rejects outright the possibility of an infinite chain of justifications.  He also rejects circularity, for on his view, demonstrative knowledge relies on premises that are both prior to and better known than the conclusions derived from them.  In the case of circular justifications, though, the same propositions would have to be alternatively prior and subsequent to each other, alternatively better and worse known than each other.  Finally, he denies that immediately known first principles are mere hypotheses; if they were, then the most that could be concluded from them is that “if the primary things [the first principles] obtain, then so too do the things derived from them.”  His way of avoiding the Trilemma is to reject the assumption that all knowledge must be demonstrable: there is a type of indemonstrable knowledge, namely, knowledge of first principles.  But how do we know first principles?  On this, Aristotle’s remarks are cryptic, to say the least.  Such knowledge is not innate, but is said to “come to rest in the soul” as a result of “induction” from various instances of “perception” (100a–b).  Are these first principles merely presupposed, or are they known?  The skeptic—as well as many a dogmatist, such as Plato—will claim that they’re merely presupposed.  Aristotle, however, is going to deny this.  As we’ve seen, he holds that the first principles can be known, not merely hypothesized.  In fact, he holds that all demonstrative knowledge rests on prior knowledge: “All teaching and all learning of an intellectual kind proceed from pre-existent knowledge” (71a).  Aristotle, then, is not content with presuppositional knowledge.  We can disagree over the effectiveness of his strategy, but that his strategy evinces a commitment to presuppositionlessness should be clear.

Aristotle’s brand of anti-skeptical foundationalism can be found not only in later Aristotelians, but also, I would argue, in such philosophically distant groups as the so-called commonsense philosophers.  Like Aristotle, commonsense philosophy, from Thomas Reid to G.E. Moore to Jim Pryor, maintain that some things (indeed, a great many things) are simply and irrefutably known and so cannot be genuinely called into question.  These privileged bits of knowledge are indubitable, immovable, self-evident.

The problem—as Ambroise Beirce underlines in the entry on “Self-Evident” in The Devil’s Dictionary—is that, when scrutinized, self-evident seems to mean merely that which is “[e]vident to one’s self and to nobody else.”

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More recently, many philosophers have questioned the viability or necessity of attaining freedom from presuppositions.  It has been argued, for instance by Robert Stalnaker, that ‘pragmatic presuppositions’ are a necessary condition for discourse (see his Content and Context, p. 49).  In On Certainty, Wittgenstein seems to make a similar argument: “[T]he questions that we raise and our doubts depend on the fact that some propositions are exempt from doubt, are as it were like hinges on which those turn” (§341).  But, Wittgenstein adds, “[I]t isn’t that the situation is like this: We just can’t investigate everything, and for that reason we are forced to rest content with assumption.  If I want the door to turn, the hinges must stay put” (§343).  “It may be that all enquiry on our part is set so as to exempt certain propositions from doubt, if they are ever formulated.  They lie apart from the route travelled by enquiry” (§88).

I’ll return to some of these ideas in subsequent posts.  For now, I want merely to point out that, on the picture I’m presenting, all domains of inquiry are presupposition-contextual from a philosophical standpoint.  It may be that determinate intellectual or dialogic progress can only be made against a fixed background of unquestioned commitments.  If this is so, and if I’m right that philosophy is traditionally committed to the ideal of presuppositionlessness, then we would have the beginnings of an explanation of the apparent interminability of philosophical inquiries.  Philosophy, even when explicitly committed to presuppositionlessness, often proceeds presupposition-contextually, such as when it mistakes its presuppositions for self-evident first principles.  If progress cannot be made presuppositionlessly, then the only way for philosophy to make progress would be somehow to forestall the possibility of calling into question the presuppositions structuring a given philosophical discourse.  The problem with this is that philosophy does not appear to have any determinate boundaries, such as those that structure historical inquiries.  Philosophy, in short, lacks a principled means of calling “Foul!”  Philosophers are free, qua philosophers, to call into question any presupposition whatsoever.  It seems, in fact, that the task of securing a determinate set of presuppositions for philosophy—a presupposition-set that would allow philosophy to make determinate progress—is actually incoherent, for it seems that the only rational way to forestall the possibility of calling into question context-constitutive presuppositions is to ground or justify those presuppositions; yet doing so is tantamount to stripping those presuppositions of their status as presuppositions.

In the Apology for Raymond Sebond, Michel de Montaigne wrote that “[i]t is very easy, upon accepted foundations, to build what you please…  Whoever is believed in his presuppositions, he is our master and our God; he will plant his foundations so broad and easy that by them he will be able to raise us, if he wants, up to the clouds…  If you happen to crash this barrier in which lies the principal error, immediately [philosophical dogmatists] have this maxim in their mouth, that there is no arguing against people who deny first principles.”  In Montaigne’s view, “there cannot be first principals for men,” given the limits of our reason.  “To those who fight by presupposition, we must presuppose the opposite of the same axiom we are disputing about.  For every human presupposition and every enunciation has as much authority as another, unless reason shows the difference between them.  Thus they must all be put in the scales, and first of all the general ones, and those which tyrannize over us.”  For as Kant wrote, “[R]eason has no dictatorial authority; its verdict is always simply the agreement of free citizens, of whom each one must be permitted to express, without holding back, his objections and even his veto” (Critique of Pure Reason, A738–9/B766–7).