14 June 2005

The Unreasonability of Skepticism

It's fair to say that Dissoi Blogoi has so far been concerned largely with ethics and psychology. For this reason I especially wish to comment briefly on a review published today in NDPR, which raises questions of epistemology.

The review--you've probably seen it (if not, you may see it here)--is of a collection of essays edited by Walter Sinnott-A(a Festschrift? I don't know) of Robert Fogelin's work. The collection is divided into half a dozen historical essays and roughly the same number of non-historical essays --although, as I've argued, I'm doubtful that that distinction is coherent (and just look at the title of the anthology!).

If I were asked to summarize that main point of the lively and vigorous review by Jose Comesaña, I would say it's that skepticism, although appearing to take reason seriously--to be clever, steeped in argument, sophisticated in argument, savvy of all the dialectical moves, etc.--at some point simply has to walk away from reasoning. Skepticism is in this sense, by the nature of the case, unreasonable.

Comesaña's ostensible position, in a nutshell, is that one either argues for skepticism or not. If not, it's unreasonable. If so, then one must affirm the conclusion of the argument and therefore not suspend judgment. If the conclusion is that no arguments are justified (not even this one), then, still, one affirms that no arguments are justified. If one says (as does Fogelin) that a true pyrrhonian skeptic merely wishes to affirm the conditional claim, that if the premises are true, then the conclusion follows (leaving it to dogmatists to affirm that the premises are true), still, as Roy Sorensen points out in his contribution, a conditional claim is still a claim (or judgment).

Given that this is his position, I wish that
Comesaña had given more attention to Gisela Striker's contribution to the volume, which he describes in one sentence only:

In "Historical Reflections on Classical Pyrrhonism and Neo-Pyrrhonism," Gisela Striker argues that, unlike the Neo-Pyrrhonism of Fogelin, ancient Pyrrhonists did not suspend judgment on epistemological grounds, but rather, they welcomed suspension of judgment as a side-effect of their inability to resolve the epistemological disputes: the relation between that inability and the suspension of judgment was for them, so to speak, merely causal, not rational.
But this seems exactly the right strategy for a skeptic, in the face of Comesaña's critique: admit outright that one's skepticism isn't the conclusion of an argument but rather something accidental, which one came to value, not as an inference from reasons. (Whether this in turn is 'reasonable' then becomes a concern without any force: "It's something I want. Don't you want it as well?")