Metaphilosophical Reflections III: The Skeptical Dialectic
“Human reason is a two-edged and dangerous sword.”
– Montaigne, “Of Presumption”
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 it here, if you’re into that sort of thing.
In my previous post, I argued that skepticism and philosophy are inextricably entwined. Following Hegel, Michael Forster has made a similar argument, and I’ve benefited a great deal (and cribbed) from his discussion. But whereas Forster stops with the claim that an engagement (direct or indirect) with skepticism is a defining feature of philosophy, I’ve gone farther and tried to develop a conceptual framework for understanding why this is the case. My explanation turns on the notion of presuppositions. The view, in short, is this:
- Intellectual inquiry can make determinate progress only against a background of unquestioned fundamental premises, propositions, or assumptions (what I call ‘presuppositions’).
- These fundamental presuppositions provide contexts for inquiry; they are like boundary-markers or the rules of a game, in that overstepping or questioning them entails ceasing to play the ‘discursive game’ they enclose or constitute.
- Calling into question context-constitutive presuppositions involves a kind of skepticism.
- Stepping outside of a presupposition context entails ‘going meta,’ i.e., it entails transitioning into a more abstract domain of inquiry.
- Given (3) and (4), it is skepticism that pushes us to ever-greater levels of discursive–epistemological abstraction.
- In ‘going meta,’ we end up—either immediately or after some intermediary steps—within the domain of philosophy.
- Given (5) and (6), it is skepticism that leads us to philosophy, i.e., philosophy begins in skepticism.
- There is no uncontroversial rationale that is both global and principled for forestalling the possibility of ‘going meta,’ i.e., of calling into question any presupposition. (Principled rationales are always context-specific or ‘local.’ The claim I’m making here, then, is that there are no principled meta-contextual, i.e., global, rationales for forestalling the questioning of a presupposition or set of presuppositions.)
- Given (8), according to which any presupposition can be called into question, and (6), according to which philosophy is the domain of inquiry one occupies (sooner or later) in calling presuppositions into question, it follows that philosophy as such possesses no definitive presupposition-set of its own.
- Given (1) and (9), philosophy can make no determinate progress.
- Given (10), philosophy ends in skepticism.
This argument can, of course, be challenged on any number of fronts. I have not, for instance, made a sufficient case for (1). I touched on it in my previous post (where I mentioned Stalnaker and Wittgenstein), but I did not attempt to defend the view in any detail. Nor, in the interests of space, am I going to do so here. It should be enough for now to note (1)’s extreme plausibility. If we visualize intellectual progress as involving forward movement, and the act of questioning presuppositions as involving backward movement, then it’s easy to see that we can make progress only if we’re not calling presuppositions into question: we have to stop moving backward before we can move forward. Given (8)—which is itself a plausible view, though with its own complications—these presuppositions-of-inquiry must remain unquestioned, either in the sense of (a) never having been thematized or (b) being set aside, “apart from the route travelled by enquiry” (Wittgenstein, On Certainty, §88), whether (i) they are recognized as questionable though necessarily unquestioned (just as the rules of a game are questionable, but cannot be questioned from within the game itself) or (ii) they are (mis)taken as lying beyond all question (as in the form of indubitable first principles, the supposedly self-evident, etc.).
In this post, I want to elaborate—and with any luck buttress—my case for (3), (4), and (6). I want, in other words, to get clearer on the dialectical relations among presuppositions, skepticism, and philosophy.
In earlier posts, I introduced the idea of ‘common life,’ which I’m conceptualizing here as the general, usually invisible presupposition context that frames our everyday sayings and doings. Common life is our twofold inheritance as beings who are both embodied in nature and embedded in a society; it is our natural medium, the subcognitive water for us cognitive fishes. When we are, as Hubert Dreyfus or Richard Rorty (influenced by Heidegger and pragmatism) would put it, smoothly and effortlessly ‘coping with the world,’ the fact of common life’s inherent questionability—its possible contingency—never presents itself. At such times, common life is (to borrow some Heideggerian terminology) ‘inconspicuous’ (see: Being and Time, §§15–6). Common life becomes ‘conspicuous’ only as a result of disruptions in the orderly flow of our everyday lives. Such disruptions can be relatively minor (what Heidegger called the mode of ‘obtrusiveness’). But they can also be more significant (what Heidegger called the mode of ‘obstinacy’). The deeper the disruption, the more the presuppositional structure of common life comes into view. The more the presuppositional structure of common life comes into view, the higher its ‘index of questionability’ climbs (cf., Luciano Floridi, Scepticism and the Foundation of Epistemology, Ch. 4).
Initially, then, we occupy the standpoint of common life as what I call ‘everyday dogmatists.’ This means that we acquiesce, usually unconsciously, in everyday dogmatisms: we (mis)take (again, usually only implicitly) the presuppositions of common life for known truths.
Michel de Montaigne wrote that “[p]resumption is our natural and original malady” (Apology for Raymond Sebond). Everyday dogmatism is, in his terms, ‘everyday presumption.’ In her book on Montaigne, Ann Hartle characterizes everyday presumption as “the unreflective milieu of prephilosophical certitude, the sea of opinion in which we are immersed” (Montaigne: Accidental Philosopher, p. 106). Human beings are, as I like to put it, natural-born dogmatists.
Common life provides us not only with first-order beliefs, but also with more or less established means of adjudicating many, even most, sorts of dispute. For instance, authoritative scriptures belong to the presupposition-framework of the common life into which many people are born. For such people, appeal to scripture is capable of settling certain kinds of dispute: in these cases, common life itself provides the resources that allow for the resolution of conflicts that arise within common life.
An initial challenge to an everyday dogmatism is issued. Here we encounter the most rudimentary form of skepticism. The skeptical challenge gives rise to a state of dissatisfaction: there is a felt need to resolve the conflict, to ‘refute’ the skeptic and restore our earlier confidence in the dogmatisms of common life. In many cases of such skeptical challenges, the dissatisfaction in question can be resolved simply by drawing more water from the well of everyday dogmatisms. In more extreme cases, the skeptical challenges can be resolved only by appealing to the context-constitutive presuppositions of common life. Either way, what we have is a kind of circular dialectic of skepticism and dogmatism.
In time, though, the skeptical challenges grow more sophisticated. They reach their apogee when they call into question not just intracontextual everyday dogmatisms, nor just one or another context-constitutive presupposition of common life, but rather common life as a whole. When that happens, it becomes clear that no appeal to everyday dogmatisms can satisfactorily answer the skeptical challenge, for the skeptical challenge now calls into question the entire domain of everyday dogmatisms.
Consider a simple case of perceptual skepticism. You see a tree. You think you know it’s a tree, precisely because you can see it (and you know what trees are, what they look like, etc.). This is an entirely acceptable everyday judgment, accompanied by an entirely acceptable everyday justification. Then a skeptic comes along and asks you how you know that what you think you see is actually a tree. At this point, no dissatisfaction arises, since you have to hand your everyday justification. But the skeptic presses the point: “How do you know it’s not an extraordinarily lifelike papier-mâché tree?” This might be enough to give rise to dissatisfaction; if not, then imagine that the skeptic has some further story to tell about how the city in which you both live has funded an art project that involves the creation of amazingly lifelike papier-mâché trees. Now you’re prepared to call into question your belief that it’s a tree (along with the sufficiency of your everyday justification). What do you do now? Obviously, you walk up to the tree and inspect it. The skeptic has hardly deprived you of all your everyday means of settling disputes. You poke the tree, peel back its bark, pluck off a leaf, and conclude that, clearly, this is not a papier-mâché tree. But what do you do when the skeptic smiles and asks, “Fair enough. But how do you know you’re not dreaming?”
Now, most of us would, most of the time, simply dismiss this question as nonsense. We’d say, “‘O, rubbish!’ to someone who wanted to make objections to the propositions that are beyond doubt. That is, not reply to him but admonish him” (Wittgenstein, On Certainty, §495). But the problem of justification remains. Most of us are going to believe that we’re justified in claiming to know that we’re not dreaming (even more so that we’re not dreaming all the time) and that we therefore know all sorts of things about the world as a result of our present and past experiences. Nothing is easier, in the course of our everyday lives, than to dismiss this sort of worry. But if it nags at us—if it persists as a source of dissatisfaction—then we’re going to want to find an answer to the skeptic. But, ex hypothesi, we’ve accepted the fact that we cannot answer the skeptical challenge by appealing to our experience (in the broader case: to common life or its presuppositions), since the skeptical challenge has called into question the veridicality of our experience in toto (in the broader case: the veridicality of common life and its presuppositions in toto). What do we do?
Bearing in mind that this whole process is animated by a commitment to truth and rationality (by what Nietzsche called our ‘intellectual conscience’), without which our capacity for epistemico-existential crises would be severely limited, there seems only one path open to us: that is, to repudiate the inherent authority of common life in favor of what I call autonomous reason.
I borrow the phrase ‘autonomous reason’ from Donald Livingston’s book on Hume (Hume’s Philosophy of Common Life). Livingston claims that, for Hume, philosophy is committed to autonomous reason, according to which “it is philosophically irrational to accept any standard, principle, custom, or tradition of common life unless it has withstood the fires of critical philosophical reflection” (23). We can quibble about whether or not this applies to every philosopher or even every philosophical tradition; but that’s beside the point if the claim is correct in the main—and I think it is. Moreover, I think it’s not just superficially correct (‘in the main’), but that it illuminates a deep and important feature of philosophy that goes back to its very earliest manifestations.
Philosophy is, at least initially, predicated on skepticism regarding common life. Thus, it seeks autonomy. The philosophy–common life distinction can be understood in terms of the familiar dichotomy between reason and tradition. Reason’s autonomy from tradition is often taken to be a necessary feature of any properly critical enterprise. As Kenneth Westphal has noted in referring to a “dichotomy, pervasive since the Enlightenment, that reason and tradition are distinct and independent resources”: “because tradition is a social phenomenon, reason must be an independent, individualistic phenomenon. Otherwise it could not assess or critique tradition, because criticizing tradition requires an independent, ‘external’ standpoint and standards” (Hegel’s Epistemology, p. 77). Westphal rejects this view, but it is common enough. Nicholas Wolterstorff, for example, gives voice to it when he writes, “Traditions are still a source of benightedness, chicanery, hostility, and oppression… In this situation, examining our traditions remains for many of us a deep obligation, and for all of us together, a desperate need” (John Locke and the Ethics of Belief, p. 246). Enlightened reason, in other words, must be able to rise above the soup of prejudices that is common life; otherwise, it will be unable to establish the distance needed to criticize those traditions.
These metatheoretical concerns are usually articulated without any reference to skepticism. Even when it is separated from the Kantian project, however, critique is best understood as a response to skepticism, an attempt to forge a middle way between skepticism and dogmatism. The repudiation of the inherent authority of common life and the subsequent commitment to autonomous reason is predicated on a kind of skepticism. And this is not, as is commonly claimed or implied, unique (whether as a whole or just in character) to the modern period. Rather, this kind of skepticism was a precondition of the emergence of philosophical thought itself, 2,500 years ago. The motto for this transition is von Mythos zum Logos—from myth to reason.
In his fascinating book The Discovery of the Mind—a study of conceptions of the self in archaic and ancient Greece—Bruno Snell refers to the emergence of a “social scepticism” that opened up a space within which individuals could call into question the epistemic and practical authority of the traditions into which they’d been born. Given this sort of social skepticism, according to Snell, “[r]eality is no longer something that is simply given. The meaningful no longer impresses itself as an incontrovertible fact, and appearances have ceased to reveal their significance directly to man. All this really means that myth has come to an end” (p. 24). The repudiation of myth was, on my picture, a repudiation by philosophers of common life, of the world of their fathers. Malcolm Schofield has written that “[t]he transition from myths to philosophy… entails, and is the product of, a change that is political, social and religious rather than sheerly intellectual, away from the closed traditional society… and toward an open society in which the values of the past become relatively unimportant and radically fresh opinions can be formed both of the community itself and of its expanding environment… It is this kind of change that took place in Greece between the ninth and sixth centuries B.C.” (The Presocratic Philosophers, pp. 73–4).
Going beyond the Eurocentrism of Snell and Schofield, Karl Jaspers developed the idea of what he calls ‘the Axial Age,’ a period of sudden social, political, and philosophical enlightenment that, he claimed, occurred nearly simultaneously and yet independently in Greece (with the Presocratics), India (with the Buddha), and China (with Confucianism and Daoism). In this period, Jaspers writes, “hitherto unconsciously accepted ideas, customs and conditions were subjected to examination, questioned and liquidated. Everything was swept into the vortex. In so far as the traditional substance still possessed vitality and reality, its manifestations were clarified and thereby transmuted” (The Origin and Goal of History, p. 2). As though to confirm Jaspers’s theory—though he was writing decades earlier—S. Radhakrishnan tells us that
[t]he age of the Buddha represents the great springtide of philosophical spirit in India. The progress of philosophy is generally due to a powerful attack on a historical tradition when men feel themselves compelled to go back on their steps and raise once more the fundamental questions which their fathers had disposed of by the older schemes. The revolt of Buddhism and Jainism… finally exploded the method of dogmatism and helped to bring about a critical point of view… Buddhism served as a cathartic in clearing the mind of the cramping effects of ancient obstructions. Scepticism, when it is honest, helps to reorganise belief. (Indian Philosophy, Vol. 2, p. 18)
The notion of a clear-cut transition ‘from myth to reason’ is deeply entrenched in our cultural narrative, yet it is clearly problematic if understood in an overly simplistic way. Just as Aristotle was not the first person to use logic, so the presocratic philosophers were not the first Greeks to use reason or to think reasonably. Still, I think it is clear that something important occurred during the Axial Age. It may not have been unprecedented, as some commentators want to claim, but its effects were, for (it seems to me) we are still feeling those effects today. The fundamental transition, I want to argue, is best understood not as being from myth to reason, but as being from common life to autonomous reason.
The ability of reasoning to call into question—to radically disrupt—common life was recognized very early. Plato worries about it in the Republic
We all have strongly held beliefs, I take it, going back to our childhood [i.e., our pretheoretical certainties], about things which are just and things which are fine and beautiful… When someone… encounters the question ‘What is the beautiful?’, and gives the answer he used to hear from the lawgiver [i.e., from tradition], and argument shows it to be incorrect, what happens to him? He may have many of his answers refuted, in many different ways, and be reduced to thinking that the beautiful is no more beautiful or fine than it is ugly or shameful. The same with ‘just’, ‘good’, and the things he used to have more respect for. At the end of this, what do you think his attitude to these strongly held beliefs will be, when it comes to respect for them and obedience to their authority?… I imagine he’ll be thought to have changed from a law-abiding citizen into a criminal. (538c–539a)
We find the same recognition of the cultural–existential (as opposed to merely epistemological) threat of skepticism in Hegel.
The need to understand logic in a deeper sense than that of the science of mere formal thinking is prompted by the interest we take in religion, the state, the law and ethical life. In earlier times, people had no misgivings about thought… But while engaging in thinking… it turned out that the highest relationships of life are thereby compromised. Through thinking, the positive state of affairs was deprived of its power… Thus, for example, the Greek philosophers opposed the old religion and destroyed representations of it… In this way, thinking made its mark on actuality and had the most awe-inspiring effect. People thus became aware of the power of thinking and started to examine more closely its pretensions. They professed to finding out that it claimed too much and could not achieve what it undertook. Instead of coming to understand the essence of God, nature and spirit and in general the truth, thinking had overthrown the state and religion. (Encyclopedia Logic, §19)
The transition to autonomous reason, then, is in many respects a desperate gamble, an attempt to salvage by way of reason what reason itself has taken away from us, namely, the certainty and stability of common life.
Thus, the move to autonomous reason gives rise to a new kind of dogmatism, not the simple, inchoate or prereflective dogmatisms of common life, but sophisticated philosophical dogmatisms. The hope of most developers of philosophical dogmatisms is to refute the skeptical challenges that led to the repudiation of common life, to restore common life on a more solid foundation. Unfortunately for philosophical dogmatists, skepticism does not obediently remain at the level of common life, waiting to be overthrown; rather, it follows them up to the level of autonomous reason, continuing to attack them where they live.
As at the level of common life, the initial response to skeptical challenges to philosophical dogmas will involve a circular return to those same philosophical dogmas, hoping to marshal more resources with which to overthrow the skeptic. But, again as at the level of common life, eventually the skeptical challenges will becomes sophisticated enough to call into question the entire epistemological project. The result is metaepistemological skepticism. Its most conceptually powerful, and historically influential, expression is found in the Agrippan Trilemma, which I briefly discussed in the previous post. The fundamental challenge of the Trilemma at the epistemological level is this: How do you justify that which makes justification possible? Just as the skeptical challenges at the level of common life ended up calling into question the presupposition context of common life as a whole, likewise skeptical challenges at the level of autonomous reason end up calling into question the presupposition context of autonomous reason as a whole. The question, of course, is where this leaves us.
I’ll take up that question, among others, in my next post.