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Tag: Pyrrhonism

Metaphilosophical Reflections V: Some Concluding Thoughts

by reichorn

“Finally, lest what is most important remain unsaid: from such abysses, from such severe illness, also from the illness of severe suspicion, one returns newborn…”

– Nietzsche, The Gay Science (Preface)

“The word ‘philosophy’ must mean something whose place is above or below the natural sciences, not beside them.”

– Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus


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

I’m also a would-be fantasy author.  Sections from my novel can be found here.


1.  The Skeptical Inversion

In my previous post, I argued that the skeptical dialectic returns us to the common life from which we set out on our search for truth, knowledge, or reality.  The return has a twofold origination, one that’s both logical and psychological.

Logically, the negative-epistemological arguments that drive us to nihilism are self-refuting in the sense that they depend on rational and normative commitments that themselves fall prey to the very negative-epistemological arguments they underwrite.  For thousands of years, but especially since Descartes, skepticism has tended to be associated not with doubt or suspension of judgment, but with denial; it is taken, primarily by those who are hostile to it, to be a substantive philosophical position, one that denies that we have (sometimes even that it is possible for us to have) knowledge either in some specific domain (e.g., religion, metaphysics, ethics) or globally, in all domains.  The latter is full-blown philosophical skepticism.  The philosophical-skeptical conclusion is that no one knows anything.  As philosophers have been pointing out for millennia, the problem with this claim is that, when applied to itself, it’s self-refuting.  If no one knows anything, then this proposition too must be something no one knows.

The self-refutation (peritropē) charge is typically deployed as part of an anti-skeptical argument.  Now, if it were true that skepticism is a philosophical position committed to the truth of self-refuting claims, then skepticism would indeed be in trouble.  (Note, however, that, even in that case, showing that the negative-epistemological conclusion is self-refuting does not suffice to demonstrate  that someone does after all know something.)  As a matter of fact, though, genuine skepticism—meaning the tradition that goes back to the original skeptics in Hellenistic times—is not committed to any self-refuting philosophical conclusions.  Rather, self-refutation is internal to genuine skepticism; it is, as we’ve seen, a ‘moment’ (that is, a phase) of the skeptical dialectic, not its end-point.

Ancient skepticism (Pyrrhonism in particular) is best understood—to borrow a helpful distinction from Robert Fogelin—not as a kind of philosophical skepticism, but rather as skepticism about philosophy.  What does it mean to be skeptical of philosophy?  As we’ve seen, ‘philosophy’ as such is not a specialized domain of inquiry with its own distinctive subject-matter and presupposition-set.  It is rather that mode of questioning that allows for even the most radical questions to be asked; it is where our childish wonder is given free rein, where no ‘Why?’ can be simply dismissed.  To be skeptical of philosophy, then, is to be skeptical of human reason as such, of its ability to achieve rational satisfaction solely on the basis of its own resources (i.e., without seeking justificatory shelter in tradition, or common sense, or the irrational or arational).  Positive dogmatists claim to have discovered the truth and thereby to have achieved rational satisfaction.  Negative dogmatists (i.e., philosophical ‘skeptics’) claim that the truth cannot be discovered.  This too affords us with a kind of rational satisfaction, for negative dogmatism is still a dogmatism; it still claims to expound a truth.  It may be an ugly or distasteful truth, but it’s satisfying to the extent that it settles the matter.  As Nietzsche says in a different context, it is “a basic fact of human will” that “it prefers to will nothingness rather than not will” (On the Genealogy of Morals, §3.1).  In epistemological terms, Nietzsche’s insight is that the human drive toward rational satisfaction is such that we prefer to know that knowledge is impossible than to suspend our judgment, to admit our ignorance and thereby leave open the possibility of knowledge.  Since the upshot of genuine skepticism is precisely suspension of judgment (epochē) rather than denial, we can recast Nietzsche’s insight: Human beings prefer nihilism to skepticism.

“What am I to choose?” Montaigne wonders.  “What you like, provided you choose!  There is a stupid answer, to which nevertheless all dogmatism seems to come, by which we are not allowed not to know what we do not know” (Apology for Raymond Sebond).

But nihilism’s ability to provide rational satisfaction depends on inconsistency, in particular a self-reflexive failure, i.e., the failure to apply its negative-epistemological arguments to itself.  The mature skeptic goes further than the nihilist, by calling into question nihilism’s own rationalistic presuppositions.  By doing so, the nihilistic conclusion is transformed from, “No one knows anything,” to “Relative to these rational standards, no one knows whether or not anyone knows anything.”  The difference between these two claims is enormous, especially given that skepticism calls into question the rational standards it has made explicit.

The result is the return to common life.  But why?  Here we get the other half of the answer.  Psychologically, human beings are such that we naturally believe all sorts of things, usually for no good reason whatsoever.  (Note that there is an important difference between having a reason to believe something and believing something because of that reason.)  As such, achieving a belief-free state is either impossible or else the result of some sort of intervention in the ordinary course of our cognitive processes.  The skeptical dialectic, animated by a commitment to what I called, in my previous post, the philosophical epistemic–doxastic norm, gradually rids us of beliefs by eroding their rational foundation.  This process is either merely ideal, in the sense that we don’t actually cease to believe (even if we claim otherwise), or it is psychologically actual.  (I imagine real-life cases would be a mix of the two: we cease to believe some things, while maintaining other beliefs though recognizing their questionability.)  Either way, the process is predicated on certain epistemic standards and doxastic norms, which are taken, either implicitly or explicitly, to belong to the framework of any ‘search for the truth.’  But in the end, skepticism undermines these very standards and norms, thereby eliminating them as obstructions in the ordinary course of our cognitive processes.  We end up more or less where we started, at least regarding the content of our beliefs.

The Pyrrhonian claim—the basis of its ‘philosophical therapy’—is that, having undergone this process for ourselves, we will no longer assent to our beliefs dogmatically.  We’ll acquire a philosophical attitude toward our own beliefs, in something like the colloquial sense: calm, somewhat detached, thoughtful, perhaps slightly reticent, slow to denounce, open to contradiction.  (More precisely, the Pyrrhonian will claim only that the skeptical therapy seems to have had this effect on certain people and that it may have a similar effect on you.)

Some people have claimed that Pyrrhonism would doom us, at best, to an entirely ‘passive’ intellectual life.  Pyrrhonians, having suspended judgment on all their beliefs, can have no recourse to reason.  They’ll simply ‘go along’ with whatever external force is acting upon them at the time.  The charge, in other words, is that the Pyrrhonians’ version of ‘giving themselves up to nature’ entails giving up on reason, rational agency, etc.—all those features of human beings that are traditionally supposed to distinguish us from lesser animals.  These claims are frequently leveraged in arguments to the effect that Pyrrhonism is “morally pernicious”: the Pyrrhonian may act morally, but only by accident; we cannot count on the Pyrrhonian (e.g.) to oppose tyranny and stand up for human rights.

These charges—both the ‘impassivity’ and the ‘immorality’ charges—are based on the same misunderstanding of the practical upshot of the Pyrrhonian skeptical therapy.  The misunderstanding follows from failing to appreciate the richness of the Pyrrhonian notion of ‘appearances.’  Sextus Empiricus tells us that mature skeptics will live “in accordance with appearances.”  The life adoxastōs is precisely such a life.  To understand what this means, we need to understand the following.

First, ‘appearances’ (phainomena) must be contrasted with ‘reality’ (ousia).  In the first instance, ‘appearances’ are associated with the sensory realm (the kosmos aisthetos), whereas ‘reality’ belongs to the intelligible realm (the kosmos noetos; later Kant’s ‘noumenal’).  We have access to appearance simply by virtue of our natural embodiment, but our access to the intelligible is a gift of our reason.  The most influential statement of the appearance–reality distinction in the history of Western philosophy is to be found in Plato’s Republic, in the sections that include his discussion of the Divided Line.

Divided Line 2

The Divided Line has both ontological and epistemological implications.  Ontologically, the ordo essendi (order of being) goes top-down: the highest section of the Divided Line, which contains the invisible, immaterial, noumenal Forms (of which the multiplicity of phenomenal objects are mere copies), are the ontological ground of appearances.  Epistemologically, although the ordo cognoscendi (order of understanding) goes bottom-up, from the appearances to reality, the order of justification follows the ordo essendi.  We only get knowledge at the top of the Line.  The world of appearances affords us, at best, with mere belief (pistis, a subdivision of doxa).  Thus, until and unless we ascend to the top of the Line, we will have no knowledge, no justification; we will be sunk in “a kind of morass of philistinism” (533d), unable to distinguish true beliefs from false.

Few philosophers are Platonists these days, nor have they been for some time; but elements of these metaphysico-epistemological commitments continue to live on in a great deal of philosophical thinking.  Indeed, I’ve suggested that something like this picture is intrinsic to philosophical inquiry as such, for, as we saw in my second post, is it part of Plato’s conception of justification that it must be presuppositionless, which requires, according to him, that we go top-down on the Divided Line.  The rejection of ‘appearances’ corresponds with the rejection of ‘common life’ I discussed in my third post.  The move from pistis to dianoia corresponds to the point at which skeptical challenges become sophisticated enough to call into question common life as a whole.  The example I used involved calling into question the senses as a whole, and it’s precisely that which Plato has in mind.  At the bottom of the line are mere images (eikōni), by which Plato has in mind shadows, reflections, etc.  One step up, we have physical objects, which are the source of those images.  The move from the sensory world to the intelligible world involves coming to treat physical objects (qua objects-of-sense) as mere images of a truer reality behind or above them; it is to reject the appearances altogether.

I argued in my second post that philosophy as such is predicated on a ‘social skepticism’ that calls into question the epistemic and practical authority of common life in favor of autonomous reason.  This move involved an inversion of the order of explanation.  Where before, appearances (common life) was the ground of explanation, now that ground is sought in some immaterial rational order.  This philosophical inversion engenders a host of rational and normative commitments that have proven difficult—to say the least—to live up to.  The skeptic is in the business of righting the inverted world, of seeing appearances as ontological and epistemological ground, with the ‘higher’ levels of the Divided Line as abstractions from the world of appearances, abstractions that, as such, grow increasingly tenuous the further they move from the relatively solid ground of common life.

This is the skeptical inversion.  Skepticism of philosophy leads to the restoration of the appearances.  For Sextus, ‘appearance’ is no longer the anemic notion we find in Plato; the notion is freed from its pejorative connotations that accrue to it in philosophical discourse.  As Julia Annas and Jonathan Barnes have written,

When the Pyrronists talk of appearances or of how things appear they are not indulging in technical philosophical jargon…  There is no suggestion that ‘appearances’ are somehow entities distinct from the objects which purportedly produce them.  The Pyrrhonists are not assuming that when we attend to ‘the appearances’ we are attending to a peculiar sort of entity, a mental image of a sense-datum, say,  On the contrary, to attend to the appearances is simply to attend to the way things appear…  Appearing is not something which only perceptible objects can do: music may sound, and hence appear, loud; sandpaper may feel, and hence appear, rough; but equally an argument may appear valid, a statement may appear true, an action may appear unwarranted…  To say how things appear is to say how they impress us or how they strike us…  (Modes of Scepticism, p. 23)

The life lived in accordance with appearances, then, is normally rich in intellectual and moral content, regardless of the ontological (e.g., physiological) facts of the matter with respect to ‘rational agency’ and so on.  Continuing to refer to appearances as ‘appearances’ has a twofold purpose: first, it is a characteristically undogmatic mode of assertion, in that it does not make definite claims about the way things necessarily are; and more specifically, second, it serves to establish distance between the assertions of mature skeptics and the assertions of philosophical dogmatists who would claim access to some supersensible beyond, some privileged ontologico-epistemic ground that raises their proclamations above those of others.

The nihilist as well as the dogmatist insist on maintaining the appearance–reality distinction.  As Jay Garfield puts it, “the nihilist challenges us to explain the apparently problematic [i.e., appearances] by reference to what, according to the reificationist [i.e., the dogmatist], should be the unproblematic [i.e., reality], and argues that we cannot.  The skeptic grants the force of this argument but demonstrates that in fact the explanans [i.e., reality]… is what is problematic and obscure.  Moreover, the skeptic argues, the very reality—such as it is—of that explanans is in fact grounded in what was originally problematized by the skeptical challenge [i.e., the appearances]” (Jay Garfield, “Epochē and Śūnyatā,” p. 10).  (Montaigne makes a similar observation about philosophical dogmatists when he points out that we try to use our reason “to arrive at apparent things from things obscure.”)  Consider the case of causation.  Garfield describes the skeptical inversion of casual explanation this way: “The reificationist with regard to causation argues that the regularities we observe in nature are to be explained by a fundamental causal power that causes have to bring about their effects—a necessary connection.  The nihilist argues that because we can have no clear idea of such a causal power or natural necessity, causal explanation is impossible.  The skeptical solution to the problem thus posed regarding the possibility of scientific explanation… is, rather than to understand regularity as vouchsafed by causation, to understand causal explanation as grounded in regularities” (p. 8).

Garfield clearly recognizes the sense in which the skeptical inversion involves a return to common life.  He writes that “an appeal to social conventions is central to the skeptical reconstruction of our heretofore metaphysically or epistemologically confused discourse” (p. 11).  But the upshot of Pyrrhonism, on this view, is not naively to accept social conventions, but “to understand the conventional as conventional, and as [apparently] empty of any reality or foundation beyond convention” (p. 12), i.e., to invert the Divided Line.

Moreover, Garfield recognizes that what he calls ‘reificationism’ is both an ‘everyday’ as well as a ‘philosophical’ phenomenon: “… reificationism comes in two versions.  We might call these… ‘ordinary’ and ‘philosophical.’  For arguably, the person on the street thinks of the physical as substantial, thinks of causation as a real force, thinks of personal identity as grounded in a soul, and so forth.  But these views are probably in the typical case rather inchoate.  Philosophical reificationism can be seen as a careful conceptual refinement of this fallacy of everyday metaphysics.  It is the job of the skeptic to cure both the ordinary and the sophisticated form of the disease” (p. 262–3).  I would add that this relationship goes both ways: yes, philosophical reflection refines everyday metaphysics, but the everyday is itself shot through with metaphysics derived from philosophical reflection.  Thus, the two ‘inversions’ form a kind of recursive loop.  It is impossible to trace this back to its earliest beginnings.  My diagram of the skeptical dialectic suggests that when skepticism overthrows everyday dogmatism, it gives rise to the philosophical inversion, and that when it overthrows philosophical dogmatism, it gives rise to the skeptical inversion.  But now we can see that ‘philosophy’ and ‘common life’ intertwine, so that there is no pure ‘philosophical’ or ‘skeptical’ inversion: each inversion is partly one, partly the other.


2.  Science, Truth, and Life

In this final section, I will at long last address the question of science.  I will do so much too quickly and to the satisfaction of few if any readers of this blog, I am sure.

The short answer is simply this:  When we try to think ‘philosophically’ about science or mathematics—when we try to account for their success, etc.—we reach the point where we just don’t know what to say.

There is no satisfactory philosophical account of science.  Philosophizing about science falls into the same sorts of aporia as any other philosophical inquiry.  Science is simply not something we can make sense of—except in the sort of descriptive way in which I’ve attempted to make sense of philosophy in these posts.  That is, we can try to look at what it does, see how it works, and try to find the best means of conceptualizing it.  The most convincing conceptualization of science with which I’m familiar is Scott’s: that science is best thought of as a prosthetic for our Stone Age brains.  It provides a systematic, institutionalized means of attempting, as far as possible, to bypass or short-circuit the quagmire of everyday human cognition.  The emphasis here has to be placed on ‘systematic’ and ‘institutionalized,’ for science’s impressiveness is inversely related to how closely one investigates it.  But, contra sociologists of knowledge and the like, this is merely part of what makes science as a whole so impressive: the fact that, up close, it’s precisely the god-awful mess you would expect from any human intellectual endeavor… and yet it works.

So when it comes to accounting for science’s success, my response is that there is no accounting for it, not in any rationally satisfying way.  (Notice that philosophy doesn’t present us with this problem: my metaphilosophical account can be rationally satisfying, for there are no conspicuous successes that it must account for.  Indeed, its primary purpose is to account for philosophy’s failures.)

In closing, I’d like to make some further remarks about science as it relates to issues I’ve brought up in these posts.

First, modern history has demonstrated the extent to which science is capable of transforming ‘common life’ in a way that is (a) out of anyone’s control, and (b) not strictly rational.  This is, potentially, a deeply troubling trend.  It relates to the point I just made about the ‘recursive loop’ between common life and philosophy.  The beliefs of common life—the ‘world-picture’ it provides us with—is for the most part something we simply inherit.  Thus, it is shot through with various dogmas that have filtered down from various specialized domains of inquiry.  It is commonly claimed, for instance, that contemporary Westerners are commonsense Cartesian dualists.  I think this is probably accurate.  The way we think about ourselves, our ‘minds’ or ‘souls’ and their relation to our bodies, is shaped and conditioned by centuries- (or millennia-)old philosophizing of which most people are entirely unaware.  These once ‘hard-won’ conclusions becomes common sense, what ‘everybody knows.’  These views filter down into common life not because they’re true or because everyone agreed, but because they somehow spread through the intellectual world of our forebears, like a virus—one that has been passed on to us.

Science, I want to suggest, exerts this same sort of influence over common life.  It works generation-by-generation such that it is not a matter of convincing people, but of waiting for the old to die and the young to be born into the new world science has created.  As I often put it, you can lock up Galileo, but sooner or later your descendants will exonerate him.  Science alters our view of the world in astounding—and sometimes frightening—ways, and these changes are in an important sense irrational even if the scientific enterprise as a whole is rational; indeed, even if the views themselves are correct.  For it is possible to believe what is true for irrational reasons—and hence not to know that it is true.

The question is: What further changes does science have in store?


I’m going to end, as I so often do, with Nietzsche.

The ethics of skepticism, I would argue, is the ethics of life.  It is an ethics that is built up out of our lived experience in the world.  Emidio Spinelli has convincingly argued that Sextus’s “polemical targets” in the moral sphere are “the dogmatists” who insist that a moral theory or action “can be counted as legitimate if and only if it rests on strong theoretical conclusions regarding the nature of reality” (“Beyond the Theoretikos Bios,” p. 102).  The skeptic “places [his] trust not in the strength of any philosophical logos or in the rigid norms of theoretical rationality; rather, [he] makes [his] choices and rejections on the basis of non-philosophical observances…  This sensibility arises in accordance with [his] repeated and consolidated experiences” (p. 112).  The skeptic will not make any claims of necessity here, but it is plausible to suppose that this kind of ‘moral skepticism’ will tend to lead one to embrace ‘moral naturalism’—a morality rooted in our experience as embodied creatures, not one subservient to some otherworldly ideal.

It was precisely this sort of subservience that disgusted Nietzsche everywhere he found it.  Just as I’ve spoken of nihilism as committed to rational norms, Nietzsche too smells morality everywhere.  And not just any morality, but the rot-stink of life-opposing moralities.  He lumps these together under the heading of the ‘ascetic ideal.’  He associates the ascetic ideal most strongly with Judaism and Christianity, but he argues that it has reached into virtually every facet of human life, most conspicuously every facet of human intellectual life, including the life of science.

In my previous post, I argued that nihilism was covertly rational, in that it depends on maintaining commitments that it itself ought to call into question.  Nietzsche adopts a similar strategy, by which I mean that he approaches the problem of science—the problem of its disenchanting of the world, its “unchaining of this earth from its sun”—by asking the question that science does not, and perhaps cannot, ask: What is the value of truth?

The will to truth that still seduces us into taking so many risks, this famous truthfulness that all philosophers so far have talked about with veneration: what questions this will to truth has already laid before us!  What strange, terrible, questionable questions!…  Is it any wonder if we finally become suspicious, lose patience, turn impatiently away?  That we ourselves are also learning from this Sphinx to pose questions?  Who is it really that questions us here?  What in us really wills the truth?  In fact, we paused for a long time before the question of the cause of this will—until we finally came to a complete standstill in front of an even more fundamental question.  We asked about the value of this will.  Granted, we will truth: why not untruth instead?  And uncertainty?  Even ignorance?  (Beyond Good and Evil, §1.1)

Indeed, why not?  Because, Nietzsche argues, we are committed to the ascetic ideal: “[T]he compulsion towards [truth], that unconditional will to truth, is faith in the ascetic ideal itself, even if, as an unconscious imperative, make no mistake about it,—it is the faith in a metaphysical value, a value as such of truth as vouched for and confirmed by that ideal alone (it stands and falls by that ideal)…  From the very moment that faith in the God of the ascetic ideal is denied, there is a new problem as well: that of the value of truth. —The will to truth needs a critique—let us define our own task with this—, the value of truth is tentatively to be called into question” (Genealogy of Morals, §3.24).

If we abandon truth as our goal, our yardstick, our ideal, how do we find our way about?  If not truth, what should we strive for?  In what direction should be pour the energy that we previously expended in our will to truth?  Nietzsche’s answer: Life.  The problem with science, with ‘truth,’ is that it seems to tear us away from life.  “The trust in life is gone: life itself has become a problem.”  Nietzsche’s notoriously indeterminate appeals to ‘life,’ and his many cryptic remarks about what awaits us on the other side of the ‘ascetic ideal’ and the ‘will to truth,’ can be understood, I would argue, in terms of precisely the picture I’ve presented in this and previous posts, as the return to common life adoxastōs that results from questioning further even than the ‘skeptics’ (i.e., the nihilists).

The trust in life is gone: life itself has become a problem. Yet one should not jump to the conclusion that this necessarily makes one sullen. Even love of life is still possible—only one loves differently…  [T]he attraction of everything problematic, the delight in an X, is so great in highly spiritual, spiritualized people such as these that this delight flares up like bright embers again and again over all the distress of what is problematic, over all the danger of uncertainty, and even over the jealousy of the lover.  We know a new happiness…  (Gay Science, Preface, §3)

Finally, lest what is most important remain unsaid: from such abysses, from such severe illness, also from the illness of severe suspicion, one returns newborn…  [W]e have grown sick of this bad taste, this will to truth, to ‘truth at any price’, this youthful madness in the love of truth: we are too experienced, too serious, too jovial, too burned, too deep for that…  We no longer believe that truth remains truth when one pulls off the veil; we have lived too much to believe this.  Today we consider it a matter of decency not to wish to see everything naked, to be present everywhere, to understand and ‘know’ everything.  ‘Is it true that God is everywhere?’ a little girl asked her mother; ‘I find that indecent!’—a hint for philosophers!  One should have more respect for the bashfulness with which nature has hidden behind riddles and iridescent uncertainties.  Perhaps truth is a woman who has grounds for not showing her grounds?

We must learn from the Greeks.

They knew how to live: what is needed for that is to stop bravely at the surface, the fold, the skin; to worship appearance, to believe in shapes, tones, words—in the whole Olympus of appearance!…  Those Greeks were superficial—out of profundity!  And is not this precisely what we are coming back to, we daredevils of the spirit who have climbed the highest and most dangerous peak of current thought and looked around from up there, looked down from up there?  Are we not just in this respect—Greeks?  Worshippers of shapes, tones, words?  And therefore—artists?  (Gay Science, Preface, §4)

Why truth?  Why not—art?  The return to appearances (to shapes, tones , words), to sensation and celebration and life?  This choice lies before us, to whatever extent it does, precisely because the will to truth is itself questionable.

Metaphilosophical Reflections IV: Skepticism and the Life Adoxastōs

by reichorn

“… 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


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

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.’

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.’

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.

Bent Continuum

 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” butspec. 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.