by Dwight Furrow
Today “skepticism” has two related meanings. In ordinary language it is a behavioral disposition to withhold assent to a claim until sufficient evidence is available to judge the claim true or false. This skeptical disposition is central to scientific inquiry, although financial incentives and the attractions of prestige render it inconsistently realized. In a world increasingly afflicted with misinformation, disinformation, and outright lies we could use more skepticism of this sort.
In philosophy, “skepticism” refers to the theoretical position that no claim satisfies the requirements for genuine knowledge. It is a move in the long-standing debate about the nature of knowledge and justification. However, this modern, theoretical use of the term harkens back to an ancient philosophical tradition that viewed skepticism, not solely as a theoretical position, but as a way of life. As the debate about philosophy as a way of life has emerged in the past several decades, this ancient view of skepticism has received some discussion. It’s worth considering what it can contribute to that debate.
Is skepticism a coherent way of life?
Most of the discussion makes use of the argument provided by Sextus Empiricus, who lived in the second or third century CE somewhere in the Mediterranean region and whose works have survived largely intact. The basic argument is this:
A good life should be as free from psychological disturbance as possible. Thus, a good life is a life of tranquility. Philosophical argument is the means through which we can achieve tranquility.
If you have attended seminars in philosophy, you might question this claim but bear with me. Read more »