The Modes of Scepticism: Ancient Texts and Modern Interpretations


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Under the pressure to conform to the demands of post-modernists and Marxists on campus, these students, feeling helpless to address an increasingly aggressive and often violent ideologies of oppression and intersectionality, are not content to drift in eddies of esotericism. In the absence of Straussian teachers who speak to them with familiarity with the science and technology, they will turn to other teachers; and there can be no assurance those guides will be distinguished by the moderation and sobriety that characterizes classical political rationalism.

Philosophy provides guidance how research must be done. Not because philosophy can offer a final word about the right methodology of science contrary to the philosophical stance of Weinberg and Hawking.

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But because the scientists who deny the role of philosophy in the advancement of science are those who think they have already found the final methodology, they have already exhausted and answered all methodological questions. They are consequently less open to the conceptual flexibility needed to go ahead. They are the ones trapped in the ideology of their time…. Just as the best science listens keenly to philosophy, so the best philosophy will listen keenly to science.

This has certainly been so in the past: from Aristotle and Plato, to Descartes and Hume, Kant and Hegel, Husserl and Lewis, the best philosophy has always been closely tuned into science. No great philosopher of the past would ever have thought for a moment of not taking seriously the knowledge of the world offered by the science of their times. Rovelli rightly argues that science and philosophy need each other to flourish.

We would go further and say that they need each other to survive.


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To defend political philosophy means perpetually to assert its relevance and worth against the claims of religion—those universal human impulses toward the intelligible divine and the revealed divine that are coeval with human longing for eternity. In the 13th century, Thomas Aquinas—after the pattern of Islamic falsafa—attempted to reconcile philosophy with Christianity. That medieval solution was appropriate when revealed religion dominated almost every aspect of life. Today, Rome has been replaced by Silicon Valley. Apart from a receding minority of orthodox believers, religion now takes the form of scientism—a degraded expression of modern science that seeks salvation through the singularity.

Has not the discrimination of the lifeless and the living first made possible the distinct articulation of what is peculiar to life? If matter was left dead on one side, then surely consciousness, brought into relief against it on the other side and becoming heir to all animalistic vitality, should be the repository, the distillate of life?

But life does not bear distillation; it is somewhere between the purified aspects—in the concretion. The abstractions themselves do not live. In truth, we repeat, pure consciousness is as little alive as pure matter, standing over against it—and, by the same token, as little, mortal. It lives as departed spirits live and cannot understand the world anymore.

To it the world is dead as it is dead to the world. Moreover, unlike most of his colleagues, Rovelli appreciates the importance of philosophy for physics. If survival is written in the architecture of matter and energy which make up living things—which are part of all things—there is reason to suppose that understanding is as well.

Kesler, Saving the Revolution , p. Each discipline has its experts and indeed sub-experts whose work is inescapably recondite. No person can reasonably suggest they are competent to critique theoretical physics and, say, biochemistry. But as final judges of their own subjects and issuing their own credentials , such experts become ripe for corruption.

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The allegedly insuperable complexity of modernity is the despotic claim made jointly on behalf of administrative bureaucracy and technocratic elitism. For Aristotle, the argument on behalf on political philosophy as the guiding discipline did not require the philosopher to be a master shipwright or bronze-worker; but only to ensure that the development of technology is not left to the interests of shipwrights and metalworkers.

The extreme specialization of the sciences today, and the high level of formal training needed to master certain fields, does represent a challenge to political philosophy—but it is one that can be met by seriously examining the experiences and opinions in each field. Everything is unintelligible to the uncurious. Plebiscitary democracy will almost certainly bring much sharper ideological, geographical, racial, and religious divisions. You can unsubscribe anytime. Eric Wise. Essay The Crisis of Liberalism and Science There is a single discipline that can do so: the skeptical political philosophy that originated with Plato and Aristotle, and was recovered in the 20th century by scholars such as Eric Voegelin, Jacob Klein, and, most influentially, Leo Strauss.

Leo Strauss and the Rebirth of Classical Political Rationalism Let us return to how the current condition of classical political philosophy came to pass. Nature Strikes Back In fact, the critique of Aristotelian physics by modern science is greatly overstated; and even if this were not the case, none of Newtonian, relativistic, or quantum mechanics have disposed of the possibility of natural right. Classical Political Rationalism, Rightly Understood This leads us to the method of classical political rationalism, which proceeds from opinions and speculatively examines those opinions by means of identifying contradictions to proceed by inductive reasoning to first principles and then to apply such principles to further observations.

For example, Theoretical physics, and its alternatives such as string theory and quantum loop gravity, involve basic questions of time and being.

Filling in the gaps

Gassendi, in what Descartes called the "objections of objections," pointed out that for all anyone could ascertain, the whole Cartesian system of truths might be only a subjective vision in somebody's mind and not a true picture of reality. Huet argued that since all the fundamental Cartesian data consisted of ideas, and ideas are not real physical things, the Cartesian world of ideas, even if clear and distinct, cannot represent something quite different from itself. As Cartesianism was attacked from many sides, adherents modified it in various ways.

The radical revision of Nicolas Malebranche, designed partially to avoid skeptical difficulties involved in connecting the world of ideas with reality, was immediately attacked by the skeptic Simon Foucher. The orthodox Cartesian Antoine Arnaud claimed that Malebranchism could only lead to a most dangerous Pyrrhonism. Foucher, who wished to revive Academic skepticism, applied various skeptical gambits to Malebranche's theory, one of which was to be important in subsequent philosophy. He argued that the skeptical difficulties which Descartes and Malebranche used to deny that sense qualities the so-called secondary qualities — color, sound heat, taste, smell were features of real objects, applied as well to the mathematically describable primary qualities like extension and motion, which the Cartesians considered the fundamental properties of things.


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These mathematical qualities, as perceived, are as variable and as subjective as the others. If the skeptical arguments are sufficient to cause doubt about the ontological status of secondary qualities, Foucher contended, they are also sufficient to lead us to doubt that primary ones are genuine features of reality. Various English philosophers, culminating in John Locke , tried to blunt the force of skepticism by appealing to common sense and to the "reasonable" man's inability to doubt everything.

They admitted that there might not be sufficient evidence to support the knowledge claims extending beyond immediate experience. But this did not actually require that everything be doubted; by using standards of common sense, an adequate basis for many beliefs could be found. This theory of limited certitude was articulated especially by two figures, John Wilkins and Joseph Glanvill. The theory is a development from the earlier solution to the skeptical problems advanced by Sebastian Castillio and William Chillingworth.

Wilkins set forth the theory of limited certainty as both an answer to dogmatism and to excessive skepticism. Wilkins completely rejected the dogmatists' outlook, and then offered a way of defusing the potentially disastrous results of complete skepticism. In order to find a moderate skeptical stance from which religion and science could flourish, Wilkins felt it was necessary to analyze what kind of certainty human beings could actually attain. The highest level of certainty, absolute infallible certainty, which could not possibly be false, is beyond human attainment.

Only God has such certainty. The highest human level Wilkins called conditional infallible certainty. This requires that "our faculties be true, and that we do not neglect the exerting of them. Glanvill saw the reliability of our faculties as central for avoiding any ultimate and overwhelming skepticism. Glanvill, like Wilkins, saw that the kind of certainty we would need to be absolutely sure of our faculties is unattainable — "for it may not be absolutely impossible, but that our Faculties may be so construed, as always to deceive us in the things we judg most certain and assured.

This is indubitable in two senses — one, that we find we have to believe them, and, two, that we have no reason or cause for doubting them. In terms of this distinction, Wilkins, Glanvill, and their colleagues built up a theory of empirical science and jurisprudence for studying nature and deciding human problems within the limits of "reasonable doubt.

They believed that by applying their probabilistic empirical method to religious questions they could justify a tolerant, latitudinarian form of Christianity. Other answers were offered to the skeptics and to their challenge of some of the basic tenets of the new philosophy.

Thomas Hobbes had admitted the force of the problem of finding the criterion for judging what was genuinely true, and he insisted that the solution was ultimately political — the sovereign would have to decide. Blaise Pascal in his scientific works gave one of the finest expositions of the hypothetical probabilistic nature of science and mathematics.


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  5. Lacking rational answers to complete skepticism, man's only recourse lies in turning to God for help in overcoming doubts. Spinoza, on the other hand, with his completely rational vision of the world, could not regard skepticism as a serious problem. If one had clear and adequate ideas, there would be no need or excuse for doubting. Doubt was only an indication of lack of clarity, not of basic philosophical difficulties. The philosopher who took the skeptics most seriously was Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz, and he was regarded as a closer friend intellectually by the skeptics of his age than any of the other metaphysicians of the period.

    Leibniz, although certainly not a philosophical skeptic, agrees with some of the major contentions of the skeptics, and is willing to admit, unlike other metaphysicians of the seventeenth century, that there are general, and perhaps unanswerable, objections that can be raised against any philosophical theory. The skeptics and Leibniz could agree on the major failings of Cartesianism, although they were hardly in agreement as to what to do about them.

    Leibniz and the skeptics were all humanists and found great value in the tradition of man's effort to understand his universe; hence they rejected the Cartesian attitude towards the past. In his discussions, especially with Simon Foucher and Pierre Bayle , Leibniz agreed that there are first principles of philosophical reasoning that have not been satisfactorily demonstrated.

    Leibniz was willing to regard metaphysics as a hypothetical enterprise, that is, as an attempt to present theories which agree with the known facts, which avoid certain difficulties in previous theories, and which give a satisfactory or adequate explanation of the world that is experienced.

    In the debate with Pierre Bayle over the article "Rorarius," in Bayle's Dictionnaire historique et critique , Leibniz does not argue for his theory as the true picture of reality, but rather as the most consistent hypothesis to explain the known scientific facts and the general conclusions of the "new philosophers" about the relation of the mind and the body, and to avoid the "unfortunate" complications or conclusions of the views of Descartes, Malebranche, or Spinoza.

    Leibniz was unwilling to see these limitations on our knowledge as a reason for skeptical despair or to see these points as constituting a radical skepticism that cast whatever knowledge we had in any serious doubt. For Leibniz, whatever merits the skeptical arguments had, they did not have to lead to negative or destructive conclusions.

    At best, skepticism should be a spur to constructive theorizing, and not a reason for doubting or despairing of the possibility of knowledge. The culmination of seventeenth-century skepticism appears in the writings of Pierre Bayle, especially in his monumental Dictionnaire historique et critique — Bayle, a superb dialectician, challenged philosophical, scientific, and theological theories, both ancient and modern, showing that they all led to perplexities, paradoxes, and contradictions. He argued that the theories of Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, and Malebranche, when skeptically analyzed, cast in doubt all information about the world, even whether a world exists.

    Project MUSE - The Modes of Scepticism. Ancient Texts and Modern Interpretations (review)

    Bayle skillfully employed skeptical arguments about such things as sense information, human judgments, logical explanations, and the criteria of knowledge in order to undermine confidence in human intellectual activity in all areas. Bayle suggested that man should abandon rational activity and turn blindly to faith and revelation; he can therefore only follow his conscience without any criterion for determining true faith. Bayle showed that the interpretations of religious knowledge were so implausible that even the most heretical views, like Manichaeism — known for its cosmic dualism of good and evil — and Atheism made more sense.

    As a result Bayle's work became "the arsenal of the Enlightenment," and he was regarded as a major enemy of religion. Bayle, in his later works, indicated that he held some positive views even though he presented no answers to his skepticism. There is still much scholarly debate as to what his actual position was, but he influenced many people in the eighteenth century.

    His skeptical arguments were soon applied to traditional religion by Voltaire and others. But in place of Bayle's doubts or his appeal to faith, they offered a new way of understanding man's world — that of Newtonian science — and professed an inordinate optimism about what man could comprehend and accomplish through scientific examination and induction.

    The Modes of Scepticism: Ancient Texts and Modern Interpretations The Modes of Scepticism: Ancient Texts and Modern Interpretations
    The Modes of Scepticism: Ancient Texts and Modern Interpretations The Modes of Scepticism: Ancient Texts and Modern Interpretations
    The Modes of Scepticism: Ancient Texts and Modern Interpretations The Modes of Scepticism: Ancient Texts and Modern Interpretations
    The Modes of Scepticism: Ancient Texts and Modern Interpretations The Modes of Scepticism: Ancient Texts and Modern Interpretations
    The Modes of Scepticism: Ancient Texts and Modern Interpretations The Modes of Scepticism: Ancient Texts and Modern Interpretations
    The Modes of Scepticism: Ancient Texts and Modern Interpretations The Modes of Scepticism: Ancient Texts and Modern Interpretations
    The Modes of Scepticism: Ancient Texts and Modern Interpretations The Modes of Scepticism: Ancient Texts and Modern Interpretations
    The Modes of Scepticism: Ancient Texts and Modern Interpretations The Modes of Scepticism: Ancient Texts and Modern Interpretations

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