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Another line of thinking that included skeptical elements was that of the followers of William of Ockham — , who explored the logical consequences of the belief that God is the origin of all knowledge. They examined puzzles about whether God could deceive humankind, regardless of the evidence, and about whether he could render all human reasoning open to doubt. Modern skepticism emerged in part from Okhamite medieval views, but its main source was the rediscovery of the skeptical classics.
Very little of the Pyrrhonian tradition had been known in the Middle Ages, but in the 15th century the texts of Sextus Empiricus in Greek were brought from the Byzantine Empire into Italy. Interest in Cicero was also revived, and his Academica and De natura deorum were also published in the 16th century. Later, during the Reformation and Counter-Reformation , the doctrinal controversies between Protestants and Roman Catholics raised fundamental epistemological issues about the bases and criteria of religious knowledge.
During the 15th century, scholars in the Florentine convent of San Marco, where the Christian reformer Girolamo Savonarola was a lecturer, examined the views of Sextus in some manuscripts on deposit there.
Savonarola urged two of his monks to translate Sextus into Latin as a way of showing the vanity of all pagan philosophy. Before they could complete this task, however, Savonarola was tried and executed as a heretic. One of his disciples , Gianfrancesco Pico—the nephew of the Italian Platonist Pico della Mirandola —published Examen Vanitatis , the first work to employ skepticism as a means of challenging the whole of philosophy.
It was also the first work to discuss Sextus in Latin for a European audience. Skeptical arguments were central to the 16th-century debate between Erasmus and Martin Luther. Using Academic skeptical materials, Erasmus insisted that the issues in dispute could not be resolved and that one should therefore suspend judgment and remain within the Roman Catholic church.
Luther insisted, on the other hand, that true and certain religious knowledge could and must be gained through conscience. This new concern with skepticism was given a general philosophical formulation in the 16th century by Michel de Montaigne and his cousin Francisco Sanches.
Montaigne recommended living according to nature and custom and accepting whatever God reveals, and Sanches advocated recognizing that nothing can be known and then trying to gain what limited information one can through empirical scientific means. His followers in France— Pierre Charron , J. Camus, and La Mothe Le Vayer , among others—further popularized his views. In the s efforts to refute or mitigate this new skepticism appeared.
A Christian Epicurean, Pierre Gassendi , himself originally a skeptic, and Marin Mersenne , one of the most influential figures in the intellectual revolution of the times, while retaining epistemological doubts about knowledge of reality, nevertheless recognized that science provided useful and important information about the world. The constructive skepticisms of Gassendi and Mersenne, and later of members of the Royal Society of England such as Bishop John Wilkins and Joseph Glanvill , developed the attitude of Sanches into a hypothetical , empirical interpretation of the new science.
Using this criterion, one could then establish a number of truths: Thus Descartes, starting from skepticism, claimed to have found a new basis for certitude and for knowledge of reality.
Throughout the 17th century, skeptical critics—Mersenne, Gassendi, the reviver of Academic philosophy Simon Foucher , and Pierre-Daniel Huet , one of the most learned men of the age—sought to show that Descartes had not succeeded, and that, if he sincerely followed his skeptical method, his new system could only lead to complete skepticism. Nicolas Malebranche , the developer of occasionalism the view that all interaction between mind and body is mediated by God , revised the Cartesian system to meet skeptical attacks only to find his efforts challenged by the new skeptical criticisms of Foucher and by the contention of Antoine Arnauld that Malebranchism led to a most dangerous Pyrrhonism.
They admitted that there might not be sufficient evidence to support 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. Lacking rational answers to complete skepticism, humans must turn to God for help in overcoming doubt.
The culmination of 17th-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, Malebranche, Benedict de Spinoza , and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz , when skeptically analyzed, cast in doubt all beliefs about the world, even the belief that the world exists. 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. He suggested that humans should abandon rational activity and turn blindly to faith and revelation; they can therefore only follow their conscience without any criterion for determining true faith.
Bayle showed that the various conceptions of religious knowledge were so implausible that even the most heretical views, such as Manichaeism known for its cosmic dualism of good and evil and atheism , made more sense. Although Bayle indicated in later works that he did hold some positive views, he presented no answers to his skepticism.
There is still much scholarly debate as to what his actual position was. The Irish bishop George Berkeley , an empiricist and idealist, fought skeptical doubts by identifying appearance and reality and offering a spiritualistic metaphysics.
He was immediately seen as just another skeptic, however, since he effectively denied the existence of a world beyond experience. Combining empirical and skeptical arguments, Hume asserted that neither inductive nor deductive evidence can establish the truth of any matter of fact. Knowledge can consist of intuitively obvious matters or demonstrable relations of ideas but not of anything beyond experience; the mind can discover no necessary connections within experience nor any root causes of experience.
Beliefs about the world are based not upon reason or evidence, nor even upon appeal to the uniformity of nature, but only on habit and custom see induction, problem of. Beliefs cannot be justified. Belief that there is an external world, a self, and a God is common, but there is no adequate evidence for it; and although it is natural to hold these convictions , they are inconsistent and epistemologically dubious.
Before he goes mad with doubts, however, Nature brings him back to common sense, to unjustifiable beliefs. The religious context of skepticism from Montaigne to Bayle had thus been removed, and humanity was left with only its natural beliefs, which might be meaningless or valueless. The French Enlightenment philosophers, the philosophes , built upon their skeptical readings of Locke and Bayle and on their interpretation of Berkeley as a radical skeptic.
While they produced vast amounts of new knowledge, they also placed alongside this a skepticism about whether one could ever establish knowledge of an external reality. Perhaps the most skeptical of the philosophes was the great French mathematician Condorcet —94 , who held that mathematics , physics , and moral philosophies were all merely probable.
He also raised the possibility that the mental faculties by which people judge their knowledge might change over time, and hence that what is judged true today might not be judged true tomorrow.
Such disastrous assumptions, he urged, should be abandoned for commonsensical principles that have to be believed. This provided neither a theoretical basis for belief nor a refutation of skeptical arguments. Kant saw that Hume had posed a most fundamental challenge to all human knowledge claims. Kant combined a skepticism toward metaphysical knowledge with the contention that certain universal and necessary conditions are involved in having experience and describing it.
In terms of these conditions it is possible to have genuine knowledge about the forms of all possible experience—space and time—and about the categories in which all experience is described. Any effort to apply these categories beyond possible experience, however, leads to contradictions and skepticism.
Although Kant thought that he had answered the challenge of skepticism, some of his contemporaries saw his philosophy as commencing a new skeptical era.
The Jewish critic Salomon Maimon contended that, though there are such things as a priori concepts concepts that can be known independently of experience , their application to experience is always problematical, and whether they apply can be determined only through experience itself. Hence, the possibility of knowledge can never be established with certainty. Assured truth on the basis of concepts is possible only of human creations, like mathematical ideas, and it is questionable whether these have any objective truth.
The thesis that human creativity is the basis of truth, however, was soon developed by Johann Gottlieb Fichte , a leading German idealist, as a new way of transcending skepticism.
If knowledge of reality cannot be gained by rational means, then one must turn to faith. In the 19th century, irrational skepticism was developed into existentialism , a school of philosophy that emphasizes the concrete and problematic character of human existence. Nonreligious forms of this view were developed in the 20th century by existentialist writers such as Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus , both of whom combined the epistemological skepticism of Kierkegaard with the religious and ethical skepticism of Friedrich Nietzsche.
Yet it is necessary to struggle with it. It is thus through action and commitment that one finds whatever personal meaning one can, though it has no objective significance. Other kinds of skepticism appeared in various schools of modern and contemporary philosophy. The English idealist F. Bradley used classical skeptical arguments in his Appearance and Reality: A Metaphysical Essay to argue that the world cannot be understood empirically or materialistically; true knowledge can be reached only by transcending the world of appearance.
The American philosopher George Santayana , in Scepticism and Animal Faith , presented a naturalistic skepticism. Any interpretation of immediate or intuited experience is open to question.
The resulting beliefs, though unjustified and perhaps illusory, enable them to persevere and to find meaning in their lives. Types of skepticism also appeared in 20th-century logical positivism and linguistic philosophy. The attack on speculative metaphysics—developed by Ernst Mach , by Bertrand Russell , and by Rudolf Carnap —incorporated a skepticism about the possibility of gaining knowledge of anything other than mere logical tautologies.
Russell and the important philosopher of science Karl Popper further stressed the unjustifiability of the principle of induction , and Popper criticized theories of knowledge based upon empirical verification see verifiability principle. Fritz Mauthner , a founder of linguistic analysis, set forth a skepticism according to which there are no objective connections between language and the world; word meaning in a language is relative to its users and thus subjective.
Every attempt to determine what is true leads back to linguistic formulations, not to objective states of affairs. The result is a complete skepticism about reality—a reality that cannot even be expressed except in terms of what Mauthner called godless mystical contemplation. A different way of dealing with skepticism was set forth by the Cambridge philosopher G.
A new, radical form of skepticism emerged in the last half of the 20th century: This view questioned whether there can be any rational, objective framework for discussing intellectual problems, or whether instead the intellectual frameworks that people use are inherently determined by their life situations.
Developing out of 20th-century literary criticism and psychological theory, postmodernism undermined confidence in the validity of any kind of human investigation of the world by showing that such an investigation itself would need to be investigated.
Psychologists and sociologists sympathetic to postmodernism stressed how intellectual frameworks vary according to sexual orientation , race , gender , and other features of human identity. A general skepticism resulted from seeing that there is no objective standpoint from which to compare or evaluate these different points of view.
Critics of postmodernism regarded it as confused and pernicious , insofar as it seemed to imply a thoroughgoing epistemological relativism. We welcome suggested improvements to any of our articles. You can make it easier for us to review and, hopefully, publish your contribution by keeping a few points in mind.
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