Three Pound Brain

No bells, just whistling in the dark…

Tag: skepticism

Back to Square One: Toward a Post-intentional Future

by rsbakker


Can be found at the esteemed Scientia Salon. Spread the link far and wide. For those who follow the blog, the arguments will be familiar: what should be interesting is watching what a far different, and far less charitable, group of philosophers make of them.

Scanners 2


The Crux

by rsbakker

Aphorism of the Day: Give me an eye blind enough, and I will transform guttering candles into exploding stars.


The Blind Brain Theory turns on the following four basic claims:

1) Cognition is heuristic all the way down.

2) Metacognition is continuous with cognition.

3) Metacognitive intuitions are the artifact of severe informatic and heuristic constraints. Metacognitive accuracy is impossible.

4) Metacognitive intuitions only loosely constrain neural fact. There are far more ways for neural facts to contradict our metacognitive intuitions than otherwise.

A good friend of mine, Dan Mellamphy, has agreed to go through a number of the posts from the past eighteen months with an eye to pulling them together into a book of some kind. I’m actually thinking of calling it Through the Brain Darkly: because of Neuropath, because the blog is called Three Pound Brain, and because of my apparent inability to abandon the tedious metaphorics of neural blindness. Either way, I thought boiling BBT down to its central commitments would be worthwhile exercise. Like a picture taken on a rare, good hair day…


1) Cognition is heuristic all the way down.

I take this claim to be trivial. Heuristics are problem-solving mechanisms that minimize computational costs via the neglect of extraneous or inaccessible information. The human brain is itself a compound heuristic device, one possessing a plurality of cognitive tools (innate and learned component heuristics) adapted to a broad but finite range of environmental problems. The human brain, therefore, possesses a ‘compound problem ecology’ consisting of the range of those problems primarily responsible for driving its evolution, whatever they may be. Component heuristics likewise possess problem ecologies, or ‘scopes of application.’


2) Metacognition is continuous with cognition.

I also take this claim to be trivial. The most pervasive problem (or reproductive obstacle) faced by the human brain is the inverse problem. Inverse problems involve deriving effective information (ie., mass and trajectory) from some unknown, distal phenomenon (ie., a falling tree) via proximal information (ie., retinal stimuli) possessing systematic causal relations (ie., reflected light) to that phenomenon. Hearing, for instance, requires deriving distal causal structures, an approaching car, say, on the basis of proximal effects, the cochlear signals triggered by the sound emitted from the car. Numerous detection technologies (sonar, radar, fMRI, and so on) operate on this very principle, determining the properties of unknown objects from the properties of some signal connected to them.

The brain can mechanically engage its environment because it is mechanically embedded in its environment–because it is, quite literally, just more environment. The brain is that part of the environment that models/exploits the rest of the environment. Thus the crucial distinction between those medial environmental components involved in modelling/enacting (sensory media, neural mechanisms) and those lateral environmental components modelled. And thus, medial neglect, the general blindness of the human brain to its own structure and function, and its corollary, lateral sensitivity, the general responsiveness of the brain to the structure and function of its external environments–or in other words, the primary problem ecology of the heuristic brain.

Medial neglect and lateral sensitivity speak to a profound connection between ignorance and knowledge, how sensitivity to distal, lateral complexities necessitates insensitivity to proximal, medial complexities. Modelling environments necessarily exacts what might be called an ‘autoepistemic toll’ on the systems responsible. The greater the lateral fidelity, the more sophisticated the mechanisms, the greater the surplus of ‘blind,’ or medial, complexity. The brain, you could say, is an organ that transforms ‘risky complexity’ into ‘safe complexity,’ that solves distal unknowns that kill by accumulating proximal unknowns (neural mechanisms) that must be fed.

The parsing of the environment into medial and lateral components represents more a twist than a scission: the environment remains one environment. Information pertaining to brain function is environmental information, which is to say, information pertinent to the solution of potential environmental problems. Thus metacognition, heuristics that access information pertaining to the brain’s own operations.

Since metacognition is continuous with cognition, another part of the environment engaged in problem solving the environment, it amounts to the adaptation of neural mechanisms sensitive in effective ways to other neural mechanisms in the brain. The brain, in other words, poses an inverse problem for itself.


3) Metacognitive intuitions are the artifact of severe informatic and heuristic constraints. Metacognitive accuracy is impossible.

This claim, which is far more controversial than those above, directly follows from the continuity of metacognition and cognition–from the fact that the brain itself constitutes an inverse problem. This is because, as an inverse problem, the brain is quite clearly insoluble. Two considerations in particular make this clear:

1) Target complexity: The human brain is the most complicated mechanism known. Even as an external environmental problem, it has taken science centuries to accumulate the techniques, information, and technology required to merely begin the process of providing any comprehensive mechanistic explanation.

2) Target complicity: The continuity of metacognition and cognition allows us to see that the structural entanglement of metacognitive neural mechanisms with the neural mechanisms tracked, far from providing any cognitive advantage, thoroughly complicates the ability of the former to derive high-dimensional information from the latter. One might analogize the dilemma in terms of two biologists studying bonobos, the one by observing them in their natural habitat, the other by being sewn into a burlap sack with one. Relational distance and variability provide the biologist-in-the-habitat quantities and kinds (dimensions) of information simply not available to the biologist-in-the-sack. Perhaps more importantly, they allow the former to cognize the bonobos without the complication of observer effects. Neural mechanisms sensitive to other neural mechanisms* access information via dedicated, as opposed to variable, channels, and as such are entirely ‘captive’: they cannot pursue the kinds of active environmental engagement that permit the kind of high-dimensional tracking/modelling characteristic of cognition proper.

Target complexity and complicity mean that metacognition is almost certainly restricted to partial, low-dimensional information. There is quite literally no way for the brain to cognize itself as a brain–which is to say, accurately. Thus the mind-body problem. And thus a good number of the perennial problems that have plagued philosophy of mind and philosophy more generally (which can be parsimoniously explained away as different consequences of informatic privation). Heuristic problem-solving does not require the high-dimensional fidelity that characterizes our sensory experience of the world, as simpler life forms show. The metacognitive capacities of the human brain turn on effective information, scraps gleaned via adventitious mutations that historically provided some indeterminate reproductive advantage in some indeterminate context. It confuses these scraps for wholes–suffers the cognitive illusion of sufficiency–simply because it has no way of cognizing its informatic straits as such. Because of this, it perpetually mistakes what could be peripheral fragments in neurofunctional terms, for the entirety and the crux.


4) Metacognitive intuitions only loosely constrain neural fact. There are far more ways for neural facts to contradict our metacognitive intuitions than otherwise.

Given the above, the degree to which the mind is dissimilar to the brain is the degree to which deliberative metacognition is simply mistaken. The futility of philosophy is no accident on this account. When we ‘reflect upon’ conscious cognition or experience, we are accessing low-dimensional information adapted to metacognitive heuristics adapted to narrow problem ecologies faced by our preliterate–prephilosophical–ancestors. Thanks to medial neglect, we are utterly blind to the actual neurofunctional context of the information expressed in experience. Likewise, we have no intuitive inkling of the metacognitive apparatuses at work, no idea whether they are many as opposed to one, let alone whether they are at all applicable to the problem they have been tasked to solve. Unless, that is, the task requires accuracy–getting some theoretical metacognitive account of mind or meaning or morality or phenomenology right–in which case we have good grounds (all our manifest intuitions to the contrary) to assume that such theoretical problem ecologies are hopelessly out of reach.

Experience, the very sum of significance, is a kind of cartoon that we are. Metacognition assumes the mythical accuracy (as opposed to the situation-specific efficacy) of the cartoon simply because that cartoon is all there is, all there ever has been. It assumes sufficiency because, in other words, cognizing its myriad limits and insufficiencies requires access to information that simply does not exist for metacognition.

The metacognitive illusion of sufficiency means that the dissociation between our metacognitive intuition of function and actual neural function can be near complete, that memory need not be veridical, the feeling of willing need not be efficacious, self-identity need not be a ‘condition of possibility,’ and so on, and so on. It means, in other words, that what we call ‘experience’ can be subreptive through and through, and still seem the very foundation of the possibility of knowledge.

It means that, all things being equal, the thoroughgoing neuroscientific overthrow our manifest self-understanding is far, far more likely than even its marginal confirmation.

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.

Metaphilosophical Reflections III: The Skeptical Dialectic

by reichorn

“Human reason is a two-edged and dangerous sword.”

– Montaigne, “Of Presumption”


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

  1. Intellectual inquiry can make determinate progress only against a background of unquestioned fundamental premises, propositions, or assumptions (what I call ‘presuppositions’).
  2. 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.
  3. Calling into question context-constitutive presuppositions involves a kind of skepticism.
  4. Stepping outside of a presupposition context entails ‘going meta,’ i.e., it entails transitioning into a more abstract domain of inquiry.
  5. Given (3) and (4), it is skepticism that pushes us to ever-greater levels of discursive–epistemological abstraction.
  6. In ‘going meta,’ we end up—either immediately or after some intermediary steps—within the domain of philosophy.
  7. Given (5) and (6), it is skepticism that leads us to philosophy, i.e., philosophy begins in skepticism.
  8. 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.)
  9. 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.
  10. Given (1) and (9), philosophy can make no determinate progress.
  11. 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.

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


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…


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.


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.


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.”


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).

The Philosopher and the Cuckoo’s Nest

by rsbakker

Definition of Day – Introspection: A popular method of inserting mental heads up neural asses.


Question: How do you get a philosopher to shut up?

Answer: Pay for your pizza and tell him to get the hell off your porch.

I’ve told this joke at public speaking engagements more times than I can count, and it works: the audience cracks up every single time. It works because it turns on a near universal cultural presumption of  philosophical impracticality and cognitive incompetence. This presumption, no matter how much it rankles, is pretty clearly justified. Whitehead’s famous remark that all European philosophy is “a series of footnotes to Plato” is accurate so far as we remain as stumped regarding ourselves as were the ancient Greeks. Twenty-four centuries! Keeping in mind that I happen to be one of those cognitive incompetents, I want to provide a sketch of how we theorists of the soul could have found ourselves in these straits, as well as why the entire philosophical tradition as we know it is almost certainly about to be swept away.

In a New York Times piece entitled “Don’t Blink! The Hazards of Confidence,” Daniel Kahneman writes of his time in the Psychology Branch of the Israeli Army, where he was tasked with evaluating candidates for officer training by observing them in a variety of tests designed to isolate soldiers’ leadership skills. His evaluations, as it turned out, were almost entirely useless. But what surprised him was the way knowing this seemed to have little or no impact on the confidence with which he and his fellows submitted their subsequent evaluations, time and again. He was so struck by the phenomenon that he would go on to study it as the ‘illusion of validity,’ a specific instance of the general role the availability of information seems to plays in human cognition–or as he would later term it, What-You-See-Is-All-There-Is, or WYSIATI.

The idea, quite simply, is that because you don’t know what you don’t know, you tend, in many contexts, to think you know all that you need to know. As he puts it in Thinking, Fast and Slow:

An essential design feature of the associative machine is that it represents only activated ideas. Information that is not retrieved (even unconsciously) from memory might as well not exist. [Our automatic cognitive system] excels at constructing the best possible story that incorporates ideas currently activated, but it does not (cannot) allow for information it does not have. (2011, 85)

As Kahneman shows, this leads to myriad errors in reasoning, including our peculiar tendency in certain contexts to be more certain about our interpretations the less information we have available. The idea is so simple as to be platitudinal: only the information available for cognition can be cognized. Other information, as Kahneman says, “might as well not exist” for the systems involved. Human cognition, it seems, abhors a vacuum.

The problem with platitudes, however, is that they are all too often overlooked, even when, as I shall argue in this case, their consequences are spectacularly profound. In the case of informatic availability, one need only look to clinical cases of anosognosia to see the impact of what might be called domain specific informatic neglect, the neuropathological loss of specific forms of information. Given a certain, complex pattern of neural damage, many patients suffering deficits as profound as lateralized paralysis, deafness, even complete blindness, appear to be entirely unaware of the deficit. Perhaps because of the informatic bandwidth of vision, visual anosognosia, or ‘Anton’s Syndrome,’ is generally regarded as the most dramatic instance of the malady. Prigatano (2010) enumerates the essential features of the syndrome as following:

First, the patient is completely blind secondary to cortical damage in the occipital regions of the brain. Second, these lesions are bilateral. Third, the patient is not only unaware of her blindness; she rejects any objective evidence of her blindness. Fourth, the patient offers plausible, but at times confabulatory responses to explain away any possible evidence of her failure to see (e.g., “The room is dark,” or “I don’t have my glasses, therefore how can I see?”). Fifth, the patient has an apparent lack of concern (or anosodiaphoria) over her neurological condition. (456)

Obviously, the blindness stems from the occlusion of raw visual information. The second-order ‘blindness,’ the patient’s inability to ‘see’ that they cannot see, turns, one might suppose, on the unavailability of information regarding the unavailability of visual information. At some crucial juncture, the information required to process the lack of visual information has gone missing. As Kahneman might say, since our automatic cognitive system is dedicated to the construction of ‘the best possible story’ given only the information it has, the patient confabulates, utterly convinced they can see even though they are quite blind.

Anton’s Syndrome, in other words, can be seen as a neuropathological instance of WYSIATI. And WYSIATI, conversely, can be seen as a non-neuropathological version of anosognosia. What I want to suggest is that philosophers all the way back to the ancient Greeks have in fact suffered from their own version of Anton’s Syndrome–their own, non-neuropathological version of anosognosia. Specifically, I want to argue that philosophy has been systematically deluded into thinking their intuitions regarding the soul in any of its myriad incarnations–mind, consciousness, being-in-the-world, and so on–actually provides a reliable basis for second-order claim-making. The uncanny ease with which one can swap the cognitive situation of the Anton’s patient for that of the philosopher may be no coincidence:

First, the philosopher is introspectively blind secondary to various developmental and structural constraints. Second, the philosopher is not aware of his introspective blindness, and is prone to reject objective evidence of it. Third, the philosopher offers plausible, but at times confabulatory responses to explain away evidence of his inability to introspect. And fourth, the philosopher often exhibits an apparent lack of concern for his less than ideal neurological constitution.

What philosophers call ‘introspection,’ I want to suggest, provides some combination of impoverished information, skewed information, or (what amounts to the same) information matched to cognitive systems other than those employed in deliberative cognition, without–and here’s the crucial twist–providing information to this effect. As a result, what we think we see becomes all there is to be seen, as per WYSIATI. If the informatic and cognitive limits of introspection are not available for introspection (and how could they be?), then introspection will seem, curiously, limitless, no matter how severe the actual limits may be.

Now the stakes of this claim are so far-reaching that I’m sure it will have to seem preposterous to anyone with the slightest sympathy for philosophers and their cognitive plight. Accusing philosophers of suffering introspective anosognosia is basically accusing them of suffering a cognitive disability (as opposed to mere incompetence). So, in the interests of making my claim somewhat more palatable, I will do what philosophers typically do when they get into trouble: offer an analogy.

The lowly cuckoo, I think, provides an effective, if peculiar, way to understand this claim. Cuckoos are ‘obligate brood parasites,’ which is to say, they exclusively lay their eggs in the nests of other birds, relying on them to raise their chick (who generally kills the host bird’s own offspring) to reproductive age. The entire species, in other words, relies on exploiting the cognitive limitations of birds like the reed warbler. They rely on the inability of the unwitting host to discriminate between the cuckoo’s offspring and their own offspring. From a reed warbler’s standpoint, the cuckoo chick just is its own chick. Lacking any ‘chick imposter detection device,’ it simply executes its chick rearing program utterly oblivious to the fact that it is perpetuating another species’ genes. The fact that it does lack such a device should come as no surprise: so long as the relative number of reed warblers thus duped remains small enough, there’s no evolutionary pressure to warrant the development of one.

What I’m basically saying here is that humans lack a corresponding ‘imposter detection device’ when it comes to introspection. There is no doubt that we developed the capacity to introspect to discharge any number of adaptive behaviours. But there is also no doubt that ‘philosophical reflection on the nature of the soul’ was not one of those adaptive behaviours. This means that it is entirely possible that our introspective capacity is capable of discharging its original adaptive function while duping ‘philosophical reflection’ through and through. And this possibility, I hope to show, puts more than a little heat on the traditional philosopher.

‘Metacognition’ refers to our ability to know our knowledge and our skills, or “cognition about cognitive phenomena,” as Flavell puts it. One can imagine that the ability of an organism to model certain details of its own neural functions and thus treat itself as another environmental problem requiring solution would provide any number of evolutionary benefits. It pays to assess and revise our approaches to problems, to ask what it is we’re doing wrong. It likewise pays to ‘watch what we say’ in any number of social contexts. (I’m sure everyone has that one friend or family member who seems to lack any kind of self-censor). It pays to be mindful of our moods. It pays to be mindful of our actions, particularly when trying to learn some new skill.

The issue here isn’t whether we possess the information access or the cognitive resources required to do these things: obviously we do. The question is whether the information and cognitive resources required to discharge these metacognitive functions comes remotely close to providing us with what we need to answer theoretical questions regarding mind, consciousness, or being-in-the-world.

This is where the shadow cast by the mere possibility of introspective anosognosia becomes long indeed. Why? Because it demonstrates the utter insufficiency of our intuition of introspective sufficiency. It demonstrates that what we conceptualize as ‘mind’ or ‘consciousness’ or ‘being-in-the-world’ could very well be a ‘theoretical cuckoo,’ even if the information it accesses is ‘warbler enough’ for the type of metacognitive practices described above. Is a theoretically accurate conception of ‘consciousness’ required to assess and revise our approaches to problems, to self-censor, to track or communicate our moods, to learn some new skill?

Not at all. In fact, for all we know, the grossest of distortions will do.

So how might we be able to determine whether the consciousness we think we introspect is a theoretical cuckoo as opposed to a theoretical warbler? Since relying on introspection simply begs the question, we have to turn to indirect evidence. We might consider, for instance, the typical symptoms of insufficient information or cognitive misapplication. Certainly the perennial confusion, conundrum, and intractable debate that characterize traditional philosophical speculation on the soul suggest that something is missing. You have to admit the myriad explananda of philosophical reflection on the soul smack more than a little of Rorschach blots: everybody sees something different–astoundingly so, in some cases. And the few experiential staples that command any reasonable consensus, like intentionality or nowness, continue to resist analysis, let alone naturalization. One need only ask, What would the abject failure of transcendental philosophy look like? A different kind of perennial confusion, conundrum, and intractable debate? Sounds pretty fishy.

In other words, it’s painfully obvious that something has gone wrong. And yet, like the Anton’s patient, the philosopher insists they can still see! “What of the apriori?” they cry. “What of conditions of possibility?” Shrug. A kind of low-dimensional projection, neural interactions minus time and space? But then that’s the point: Who knows?

Meanwhile it seems very clear that something is rotten. The audience’s laughter is too canny to be merely ignorant. If you’re a philosopher, you feel it I suspect. Somehow, somewhere… something…

But the truly decisive fact is that the spectre of introspective anosognosia need only be plausible to relieve traditional philosophy of its transcendental ambitions. This particular skeptical ‘How do you know?’ unlike those found in the tradition, is not a product of the philosopher’s discursive domain. It’s an empirical question. Like it or not, we have been relegated to the epistemological lobby: Only cognitive neuroscience can tell us whether the soul we think we see is a cuckoo or not.

For better or worse, this happens to be the time we live in. Post-transcendental. The empirical quiet before the posthuman storm.

In retrospect, it will seem obvious. It was only a matter of time before they hung us from hooks with everything else in the packing plant.

Fuck it. The pizza tastes just as good, either way.