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Different Sorts of Skepticism

Sextus EmpiricusAmong Victorians, apparently, it was a kind of minor sport to Name That Hellenic Philosophical Movement. Your friend Charles the glutton would of course be the epicurean, pious William the stoic, and your father, deep down, a cynic. And so on. Since, as Alfred North Whitehead put it, all philosophy is really just footnotes on Plato, it stands to reason that everybody should be reducible to one Greek movement or another.

If that is so, I’d have to pin The Row Boat down as a skeptic.

But what does that mean? The term first became associated with the followers of Pyrrho of Elis, a traveling sage who spent his time refuting the certainty of whatever claims people tried to make about the world. Several hundred years later, his legacy was developed and preached by the Roman physician Sextus Empiricus in books with titles like Against the Professors, Against the Mathematicians, Against the Musicians, and so on. Despite being such a Negative Nelly, Sextus’s writings have a certain appeal. Like Pyrrho, he hedged most of his doubts on the recognition that people in different parts of the world from different cultures have different convictions about how the world works. How seriously, therefore, can we take our own convictions? And he carefully marked the limits of being skeptical. Just because you call into question the custom of eating three meals a day doesn’t mean you stop eating entirely and starve to death. You just don’t get so uppity next time you encounter a village that insists on having four.

European skepticism after the rise of Christianity was never quite the same. Being a skeptic could get a person in real trouble. The effort to throw off all that irrational dogmatism made it a rather deranged thing, prone to extremes. Descartes got it to a start, humbly suggesting that he could think himself to the point of making no assumptions except the fact of his own thinking. Hume came along , shunning miracles and special revelations. In the modern period their ideas have lead into a series of spin-offs in popular culture, all also under the banner of skepticism, though often forgetting the Classical sources. There is, for instance, the “stoner epistemology” that refuses to believe in the existence of the outside world and stays up all night arguing about it—this has become a favorite of Anglophone analytic philosophers before and after Wittgenstein. Or the Skeptical Enquirer folks who make it their mission to disavow others of their interesting beliefs about UFOs and paranormal powers in the name of scientific triumphalism. Then, at its opposite, is the brand of religiously-motivated skepticism of science that Phillip E. Johnson has so masterfully built into the intelligent design movement—all knowledge is so doubtful, why not give up trying and become a Christian? There are enough versions out there that a quick Google search comes up with a variety of varieties of skepticism.

In claiming a brand of skepticism for The Row Boat, however, I want to entertain my own taxonomy. By “my own,” rather, I mean to borrow a Heideggerian distinction: the worldless subject (which Heidegger associated with Descartes) and being-in-the-world (the Dasein of Being and Time). Non-Heideggerians, don’t get scared away—let me explain. I propose that there are two kinds of skepticism:

The first is a lonely skepticism. It treats the lone cowboy of a person, unsure about whether to trust the dusty world about him. Not even his horse. He points his gun at everything, shooting first and asking later. The truth of mirage-like appearances may be not what it seems. He is driven to search out the realities that lurk beneath, yet feels uncertain that his mind is capable of comprehending them. While skeptical of the world outside, he believes he can depend on himself—his instincts with a six-shooter and his convictions. This is the form of most scientific skepticism, as well as its anti-scientific outgrowths like intelligent design. It is analytic philosophy generally, with the possible exception of Wittgenstein, if only because of his ambiguity.

The second is busy skepticism—or cosmopolitan. Its mascot is a full-time city socialite, so immersed in clever conversation that she doesn’t think to question the reality or unreality of her world. She is thoroughly embedded in a social, artificial world, and can make no pretension of existing apart from it. In the course of her experience, she encounters people of all different sorts at fancy benefits and listens to their stories. As she takes a break from it all in the opera house bathroom, staring into a mirror, her existential crisis is not one of questioning the existence of the without, but of the within. Surrounded by the appearances of others, she recognizes herself as only appearance too. She is her world, bewildering as it is, and knows nothing apart from it. Rather than pretending otherwise, she throws herself into its contradictions. Her skepticism is of her own capacity to act authentically, though the actions of others are fascinating.

For better or worse, The Row Boat is more socialite than cowboy. As such, the goal is an empathetic posture that wants to grasp the perspectives of others because one’s own life depends on it. For that reason, her skepticism is worth struggling for. It is political. (See the treatment of political empathy in “Grounding Liberalism in Something.”) Rather than Pyrrho and Sextus Empiricus, who made it their business to dissect the fallacies of others, The Row Boat’s socialite prefers to enjoy listening. The fallacies aren’t what’s important (though she assumes they’re everywhere); curious stories are.

But she’d love to have a fling with a cowboy.