Truth of scepticism: on the varieties of epistemological doubt
Item statusRestricted Access
Embargo end date04/12/2022
This research aims to analyse and investigate the character and philosophical strength of epistemological scepticism and whether contemporary anti-sceptical stances can conclusively refute its threat. It proposes an understanding of scepticism that differs from the traditional scenario-based model of possible deception and tries to capture scepticism as raising a legitimate philosophical question about the rational standings of our beliefs. The expected outcome of this analysis is twofold. Firstly, to establish scepticism as a bona fide philosophical issue that cannot be neglected in contemporary theories of knowledge. Secondly, the careful examination of the anti-sceptical attempts in the various chapters makes a case for the impossibility of refuting epistemological scepticism without simultaneously accepting some of its key insights. It is proposed that scepticism is not to be conceived as a foe of philosophy but as its rational and free side. The problem of scepticism is developed starting from the historical background and its standard reception within analytic epistemology. The analysis of the engagement with anti-sceptical endeavours supports the idea that scepticism raises a genuine epistemological question targeting the possibility of rational belief in general and the rational support that our knowledge-claims are presumed to possess. This will involve rejecting the idea that scepticism relies merely on error scenarios or that it can only be made intelligible appealing to uneliminated possibilities of deception. This strategy attempts to rehabilitate scepticism as a bona fide and essential philosophical question about rational belief. This question stems from the very demands of philosophical reflection, against the idea that scepticism is merely ‘a disease’ or an idle worry that we have no requirement to take seriously. The research is structured as a series of engagements with anti-sceptical perspectives in order to assess whether they mistakenly characterise the issue and if they manage to provide a conclusive refutation of the problem to epistemological standards. The analysis starts in chapter one by presenting the main characteristics of the two classical varieties of scepticism, Cartesian and Pyrrhonian. The scope of the first chapter is to highlight the rational and therapeutic element within scepticism that is often overlooked in contemporary treatments of the subject. Chapter two investigates the closure principle as the primary source for sceptical arguments in contemporary analytic epistemology, offering a defence of the sceptical argument based on it against recent objections. Chapter three introduces a radical answer to scepticism, neo-Moorean dogmatism, which will become a sort of sparring partner for the middle part of the thesis. It will be assessed whether it is a necessary requirement for the epistemologist to engage with scepticism for the proposed epistemological theory to be epistemically sound. This will set off the trajectory of both chapters four and five. It is shown that the neo-Moorean attempt fails because it cannot evade engaging with scepticism by simply waving it off as a dialectical concern. To develop this thesis adequately, in chapter four, the focus will shift on the classical Pyrrhonian dialectic of the Problem of the Criterion, which will then be carried on in chapter five into the problem of the Agrippan Modes and the problem of arbitrariness. The goal is to show how the dogmatic perspective cannot vindicate the status of our epistemic belief as being more than arbitrary and that this does not require any contentious assumption on behalf of the sceptic, nor placing scepticism outside of legitimate epistemological inquiry. If scepticism is tied to a philosophical demand concerning reasons for belief, it cannot be cast aside as irrelevant and must be confronted. This outcome is then generalised in the same chapter by appealing to the Underdetermination principle. The problem establishes scepticism as a justificatory challenge concerning the very possibility of offering non-arbitrary rational support for beliefs and knowledge-claims. In chapter six the sceptical argument based on underdetermination is understood as unveiling a semantic problem, underlying the implicit normativity of the common-sense picture of the world the dogmatist tries to defend, through a recourse to Sellars’ Myth of the Given. At the heart of the sceptical problem, this semantic challenge is then established under the guise of rule-following scepticism via Wittgenstein and Kripke. It is argued that the conceptual and normative demands of rational support pertain to, and ultimately establish, a distinctive Kantian question about the rational purport of our thoughts about the world. A sceptical solution is analysed and proposed in the last chapter. Kripke’s own communal solution is partly defended as individuating the right track to address scepticism as a problem properly, but it is found to be crucially wanting as a definitive answer. An amendment is proposed through appeal to Hegel’s integration of scepticism within the epistemological enterprise and his concept of normative mutual recognition as constituting the basis of justificatory statuses. It is argued that to salvage rational normative justification, we must understand it as a dialectical intersubjective practice, where what constitutes objective, rational support for our beliefs is the recognitive structure of those activities we engage in with other subjects. Knowledge and justification are conceived as immanent practices, normative all the way down, eschewing reductions to something non-normative. This solution aims at embodying the following insight: scepticism is not an epistemological foe but emerges as the rational side of philosophy and epistemology. It constitutes a standing philosophical question about the rational status purportedly possessed by our beliefs and knowledgeclaims. It acts as a reminder of the contingent and ineradicable fallible character of our reasons and attributions of knowledge and justification, which, however, does not impede us from claiming and endorsing our beliefs as objective and justified.