by Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse
Skepticism is the view that knowledge is unattainable. It comes in varying strengths. In the strongest version, it is a thesis about all knowledge, the global denial that anyone has ever known anything. More commonly, though, skepticism is constrained. It is the denial of the possibility of knowledge of some specific kind. Moral skepticism, for example, is the view that there is no such thing as knowledge of right and wrong, good and bad. External world skepticism is the thesis that there could be no knowledge with respect to matters outside of one’s mind. You get the idea.
When you think about it, we’re all skeptics in at least some of these constrained senses. You’re likely a skeptic with respect to some kind of purported knowledge or other. And most folks think that being skeptical is a healthy attitude to have when people make striking claims. Still, skepticism gets a bad rap among philosophers. So much so that entire intellectual programs have been devised solely for the purpose of defeating the skeptic.
Yet there’s a virtue to skepticism, at least in its ancient varieties. And this virtue is both crucial to a healthy democracy and presently under attack in our politics.
The insight of the ancient skeptical tradition, exemplified in both the Academic and Pyrrhonian schools, is that intellectual humility is a virtue. It is not a weakness to admit you do not know, that you don’t have the answers. In fact, with this humility and the skills of inculcating it, we not only have the ability to cut through the bullshit of others, but also our own bullshit. Read more »