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On Skepticism

This paper will attempt to accomplish three things: first, to deal with the basic motivators, both historical and philosophical, of the skeptical school, second, to deal with its basic principles and possible starting points and thirdly, to offer a refutation for skepticism using the work of the modern Greek philosopher Apostolos Makrakis. The basic literature on skepticism will be reviewed and dealt with in some detail, but ultimately, this paper will argue that the skeptical school can be dealt with though a variation on the Cartesian method pioneered by Makrakis.

1. The basic philosophical motivation for skepticism is as old as the Greek skeptic school: the inability to choose among equally coherent and a priori plausible theories of knowledge and the world (Groarte, 2008). The student of epistemology is confronted with the Platonic and Aristotelian schools, as well as the empirical and rationalist schools of early modernity. He is confronted by the coherence and relevance of these theories, and the impressive evidence they bring to bear on their philosophical preferences.

Hence, the student of epistemology can only be motivated by “gut” instincts and emotions rather than reason in leaning to one side or another. Hence, emotivism, the expression of attitudes and conditioning rather than context less truths, retains its relevance. The Marxist school might hold that the question of earthly justice is connected to the various strands of knowledge one might accept, in that radically njust societies will tend to externalize justice, allowing for a Platonic vision to prosper, while the revolutionary society in the future will be purely immanentist, holding to a purely empirical mode of knowledge.

Hence, in the Marxist case, the condition of the alienated individual is responsible for the various mutually exclusive schools of epistemology, having to do, at root, with the theft of the individual’s labor in various alienated systems prior to the proletarian revolution. Hence, for the Marxist, it is not a matter of skepticism per se, but that the history of philosophy up until now has been based on struggles not with truth or falsehood, but in contextualizing alienation (Hook, 1994).

But apart from this rather non-skeptical school of historicism (however attractive), that seeks to reduce the irreconcilability of theory to historical circumstance mediated by alienation, there is also the question, put forth by Foegelin (1994), the skepticism provides a “therapeutic” function in the history of philosophy. In holding this view, Foeglin makes the claim that the real historically important role of skepticism is to clear away old ideas, eliminate careworn theories and hence, “clear the ground” for a new school to emerge.

Foegelin holds that Descartes was not so much seeking to refute skepticism as he was in eliminating competitors to the new, mathematics based science that was developing with him. Hence, this view also takes skepticism to a historic level, seeing it as a cleanser to older theories, making way for the new. However, this approach to skepticism is unsettling. Similar to the “paradigm thesis” of Kuhn (Kuznar, 2008), the approach of Foeglin holds that skepticism is somehow “used” by modernity as a weapon to use against medieval theories of physics.

Truth does not seem to be the criterion here, but rather power, and the humiliation of previous theories by the rigorous application of skepticism while of course, refusing it as soon as the new science is established. Hence, skepticism seeks not to refute, but to ground something new. Then there is the eternal question of “starting points” the axiomatic nature of theories of knowledge that, by definition, themselves are not susceptible to proof. This is the major source of the problem.

All theories of knowledge must begin at an axiomatic point. For Plato, it was the existence of an immortal soul that alone can perceive the eternal forms. For Locke, it was the senses, whose data are to be processed by the intellect. For Hume, it was social utility. For Hegel, it was the expression of the spirit of the age. While simplified, for all the above, the starting point basically needs to be taken on faith. Seeing this, it is no surprise that the student of epistemology retreats into the comfortable seclusion of skepticism.

But this question brings up two more sub-questions concerning the axiomatic nature of philosophical theory in general. First, there is the question of the relation of senses to the world. The “common man” takes this for granted, but it is in the nature of philosophical inquiry that we leave that comfortable circle. Further, the question is a matter of faith: one can only assume that one’s senses are picking up what is actually there. While an elementary problem, it is a Gordian knot of issues that have vexed epistemologists since Plato.

The empiricist might pride himself on his “scientific rationality,” but asking him to give an account of matter becomes a serious problem. To give an account of the senses is yet another problem. Hence, faced with this, science retreats into technics: the Humian idea that “it is real because it works,” and the case is closed. Secondly, this question brings up a second sub-question, that of the relation of logical systems to the outside world.

How can one be sure that the logical system of Spinoza, for example, actually lines up to a) what we see, and b) what is actually out there. These relationships are based on faith and, lastly, a coherentist approach. In some ways, it seems an attractive approach to the idea of skepticism by rejecting catholicity in truth and contextualizing it. That coherence, rather than correspondence, be at the center of all truth claims. But this may be giving away too much (Philips, 1947, 452-454; also Feldman, 1999, 92).

Michael Oakeshott in his (1933) Experience and Its Modes attempts to solve this issue by using a simplified neo-Hegelian approach to perception. The thesis of this little read work is that the world is not given ready made, but is shaped by the nature of the discipline under which the world is seen, i. e. its modes. There are scientific and economic modes, as well as poetic ones, each using the raw data given by the external world to create a coherent social system that “works” for the discipline involved.

Here, British idealism holds that tradition is at the root of epistemology rather than a certain form of realism, giving into the skeptical challenge by holding that it is the various central jobs of live that shape the raw data of perception. Kantian or Aristotelean categories are not given in consciousness, but rather created by the social live of a specific people. This is also an attractive option, taking a highly modified form of utilitarianism based on experience in order to make sense of the “manifold” of experience.

A similar approach is taken by Alistair McIntyre in his After Virtue (1981). One might term this approach the “conservative post-modernist” approach to the issue of skepticism, there is a certain relativism that is built into this, since different fields of endeavor will see the world differently. The paradigms that each area will “grid” over the world of sense is an objective phenomenon, since it develops over time and has created a useful and important discipline in relationship to the outside world.

Therefore, one can hold that this approach to skepticism shows the “outside” world to be an objective reality because successful fields of endeavor have brought their skill to bear on it, with positive results over all. Nevertheless, it should be held that in many ways, these approaches may well give too much to the skeptical idea, reducing knowledge to codified social experience rather than to any non-contextualized “catholic” truths. 2. The second major issue here is the basic principles and approaches of the skeptical school to the world.

While there are as many approaches as there are skeptics, this paper will attempt to reduce these approaches to five. The first is utilitarianism. This is the “residual” category of epistemology, shared by most skeptics in relation to what actually can be “known” in a weak sense. “What works” is the very idea of a “weak” epistemology, since only the area of non-contradiction can actually serve as a basis for knowledge, leaving social life with actually very few things it knows “for certain,” that is, knows on the basis of contradiction (Stone, 2000, 527-529).

The common phrase “for all practical purposes” is in fact the very axiomatic point of departure for the utilitarians from Hume to Stone himself. A “true belief,” in this approach, becomes something that “works,” or that is held to produce “positive results” relative to the issue under examination. The problem with this approach is that, while rejecting most typical forms of knowledge, it refuses to “get behind” those things “that work. ” If a certain machine works, that is, does what it is supposed to do, does this not imply an objective world that the machine in some respect “works on?

” Or is it just that this outside world cannot be conceptualized in the way that Spinoza would. This would be conceding more to Kant than we would like, since for Kant, the objective knowledge of the world is not possible, the things in themselves are unknowable in their essence, but known only in their effects. Hence, the more technical, utilitarian forms of knowledge are more Kantian than most give them credit for, since technics work on an unknowable outside world to produce useful results. If this is true, than how is the machine anything different than a Kantian category?

They have the same function. The utilitarian will hold that absolute truths about the world and nature are not possible, holding these things as “things in themselves,” while holding to the truth that truth claims must be utile, that is, they must be expressible in the pleasure principle, showing “truth” to be in the success of the manipulation of this “outside world” for the benefit of the user. The machine (broadly speaking) acts as a Kanitan category, “filtering” and making utile the rush of complexity that Kant called the “manifold.

” (Also cf. Philips, 1947, 452). Then there is a somewhat related question of emotivism, often used in ethical theory but equally applicable to basic epistemology. This view holds that views of the world, whether scientific or ethical, are the result of conditioning, or the function of the society around the observer socializing him to a certain way of life. The emotive response to the manifold may be the result of training (in which case Oakeshott would be useful here), or of upbringing, or of basic social altitudes.

Of course, the utilitarian would merely hold that such attitudes are held and disseminated because the society itself has chosen these due to the fact that they work, they produce results, an orderly society and ready answers to tough questions (Olson, 1959, 723-725). This is itself utile and hence, social life revolves around it. But this sort of emotivism is a form of skepticism for clear reasons: like utilitarianism, it holds that there is no objective truth, but merely contextualized realities that are helpful for daily tasks and the basic running of the institution: family, state, society, etc.

In addition to these two approaches that are closely related, there is the post-modern approach to social life and knowledge. This approach is rather well known, and acts as a form of existentialism. The basic post modern position is that the overarching narratives fo global history or ‘scientific progress” are myths, stories told to justify a certain constellation of power that exists at a certain time and place. Hence, “truth” is about power, not necessarily about utility (Grenz, 1999).

Post-modernism is a radical skeptical challenge to modern liberalism and social science, since it holds that reality is unknowable, but can be shaped by the experience of specific communities. The fact that a certain community, such as the scientific one, has proven itself “useful” to society, and hence has “won” the wars for truth, does not make it true, it only makes it powerful. Hence, this power drive permits the community that comes to dominate to create its own reality, within which truth can be found.

This is more than a language game, though language s a part of it, but language itself is the expression of power, since certain utterances have been taken as true over others, hence, some utterances are privileged over others (Grenz, 1999, 42). Hence, as Grenz notes, there are two inescapable axioms concerning the post-modern challenge to objectivism: first, that all explanations of the world around us are social constructions. They have been proven useful, but not true.

They, even more importantly, have been able to take power, and hence, have been able to manipulate language in their direction, embedding their own truth claims in the nature of the language itself. But given this, the second axiom, and this is a bit more difficult to swallow, that postmodernism holds that one cannot step outside of one’s community of language, similar to Wittgenstein’s position. In terms of science, the postmodern approach holds that part of the myth, the narrative, of the scientific technique has been in holding that it has performed the “therapeutic” action of skepticism described briefly above.

In other words, the scientific establishment prides itself in the fact that it does not use “myth” in the construction of its theories or conclusions. But this is false both on philosophical and historical grounds: the idea that scientific rationality was an objective, merely “truth seeking” phenomenon sweeping away the “lies” of the medieval world is itself a myth, precisely the object that the scientific establishment holds it does not use.

In other words, by shifting language from “science” to “the scientific establishment” the mystification of the scientific technique is effected: science is a wealthy, powerful set of establishments that have, naturally become defensive and self-interested. Hence, the modern project has chinks in its armor that the postmodern project seeks to exploit (Grenz, 1999, 47). But even more than this, the entire question of the “mechanistic” idea of the universe so dear to the scientific establishment itself has also been called into question.

Not to get too detailed here, but the notion of a universe of mutual dependency rather than being based on interlocking particles like a machine are gaining in popularity. The epistemological idea here is that the mechanistic approach to the universe of classical physics was not a truth claim, but part of the ability of a scientific establishment to gain power over its religious and metaphysical rivals. In other words, the insight here for epistemology is that mechanism is not a mechanistically provable entity, and hence, it is an axiom that is itself non-scientific.

The basic question is then, that what made the modern scientific project succeed is that such objects like the mechanistic theory of the universe simplified external reality into a series of interlocking parts. This, in turn, meant that theory building could now commence in a rather simple and easy to understand and popularize basis. This is the root of the power of modern science, along with the utilitarian approach of technics. Either way, truth as an objective reality is not part of the equation: the paradigm had to come first, then the results could be judged on their utility.

Beyond the utilitarian, emotivist and post modern approaches to skepticism, there is the general reaction to Hegel that crated the existentialist school. Existentialism is not an element of skepticism since the existentialists all hold that the universe is made up of selves, and that these selves are indubitably true and verifiable. Nevertheless the “reaction to Hegel” might be summarized as the rejection of the all-embracing schools of thought. This is similar to the rejection of meta-narratives so beloved of the postmodernist school, but it is more empirically motivated.

Hegel held that the individual is the product of history, so is science and technics, as well as morality and the state. Human beings, given this oversimplification, are not ends, but means, human beings are means to the development of the spirit of civilization in crating true freedom and total knowledge. The reaction to this project, which might be called existentialism, was a reclamation of the ego over this radical “objectivist” approach of the Hegelians and Marxists.

Dostoyevsky is one of the more famous of this school, who in his Notes from Underground, has his main character equating freedom with the rejection of 2+2=4. In other words, the true liberation of the ego is the rejection of all totalizing projects that seek to make the individual a slave to a system, including systems of knowledge. If a system of knowledge is true, then the individual is false. All system of epistemology are false relative to the free will, since a system fo knowledge makes the ego a slave to it, and this slavery is a fact even if the system is completely true.

Systems, as such, seek to destroy the individual, making him a cog in a larger machine. The nature of the machine is not important, it’s the fact that it is a machine that matters (Dostoyevsky, 1986). Hence, from this approach, the reaction against Hegel, the idea is that truth or falsehood do not matter if they impinge on the freedom of the person. Dostoyevsky and Kierkegaard were united in their fear of the “system,” since all systems, by definition, demand to be served by the people who accept them or work within them.

Truth is a bad thing if it leads to worshiping the idol of a system. Even worse is the question, more significant to Marx than to Hegel, of being a slave to history. For Marx, those who live prior to the revolution served a purpose solely in their creation of the material conditions necessary for the revolution to develop much later. Hence, his view of history dooms millions of people to mere slaves to material necessity–they lived and died solely in order to make Marx’s theory of history come true.

They were not real persons historically, since they were alienated, and they are not real persons ethically, since they did not live a full life, they lived as slaves to a “system. ” Marx’s system, however, will be different. Regardless, all the above are forms of skepticism. The skepticism of Dostoyevsky is the most radical, since it does not so much reject the nature of truth, but holds that truth can be a positive evil if it forces the ego to become part of a broader system of power. This is true of science, of Marxist ideology, of capitalist ideology and all its forms.

The individual is not an individual, but is part of a “project” of making some far off goal come true. The individual must be satisfied with his small role. 3. How to respond to the above? This paper deliberately used skeptics and skeptical schools from all over the ideological and religious spectrum to show the power and significance of this school. However, in an obscure article by modern Greek Philosopher Apostolos Makrakis comes a very interesting approach to skepticism and its eventual refutation. Makrakis makes the strong claim that if truth does not exist, then objects do not exist.

IN other words, if one is to deny context-less truth, then one denies the independence of the outside world and the objects in it: there is either objective truth or solipsism. But context less truth is not arrived at by the reason alone. It exists, but we can approach it in three overlapping ways: the first is the testimony of consciousness, the second is reason, and the third is the inborn yearning to know. Makrakis holds that no internal yearning, especially cross-culturally and historically, can be denied its object.

In other words, if there is a universal yearning for objective and “catholic truth” then its object, truth itself, exists. But this is merely an approach. The truly catholic truth is something that is both approached and apprehended by these three realities–they are not faculties–in Makrakis’ thought. They work together and, once truth is found, they all represent it in the ways they are most suited (Makrakis, 1956, 3-4). Note the three entities above do not include the ego: consciousness is not to be identified with the ego, which is a negative principle.

The ego is the principle of temporary desire and arrogant self-assertion, it does not admit to truth, but must be trained to recognize it when the other realities of the human person do so. He writes: Ego and reason reside in our consciousness as two things of a different nature which we cannot confuse or mistake for one another. That which we call the ego is something that I am conscious of as an active being about to think and act freely, and which as a result of its own reflections and acts experiences feelings of joy or sorrow.

But what is reason? I answer in one word: It is law. It is a law of thinking and acting: a necessary, absolute, catholic, ever existent law; whereas the ego is a transient being. . . Evil and error are two monestrous offspring of the ego [freedom] brought from whenever she thinks and acts from other motives than those by which reason urges her; they are monsters which attack their own mother [reason] with a view to devouring her (Makrakis, 1956, 7-8)

But just as the human person has three vehicles by which absolutes can be seen, that of reason, yearning and consciousness, human nature as a social animal has three corresponding approaches to the world around it: religious, political and philosophical. Even there, there are three entities that seek for truth: the consciousness socially is religion, the reason socially is the political, and the yearning socially is the philosophical. These six entities then work together, overlapping at two levels of analysis, to seek and recognize truth, and after that, make it real in social life (Makrakis, 1956, 13).

But, more specifically to the task at hand, what is the fundamental truth that consciousness and reason yearn for? Descartes held that the basic fundament is his famous phrase, I think, therefore I am. This means, of course, that there must be a thinker if all around me is to be doubted. If I deny this, then I deny the very reality of the doubt that I am engaging in. But Makrakis calls this a dishonest answer. For one thing there are many propositions located in the phrase, I think, therefore, I am.

But what does reason and consciousness see when it begins to doubt all that cannot be seen clearly and distinctly, i. e. from the law of contradiction. For Makrakis, the fundament of epistemological absolutism is not merely the existence of the doubter. If we were to stop there, everything else in the world would remain doubtful. But the mere existence of a doubter says nothing about the basis of reality or the fundament of epistemology. Makrakis “unpacks” the methodological doubt of Descartes with a better eye to detail. These can be summarized in 4 points.

When I doubt all around me as false except that which I can know “clearly and distinctly,” I arrive to know: 1. That I exist. But this says nothing. For there to be an I, there must (equally as clearly and distinctly), many other things in the universe that must exist. Hence, in the process of realizing that the “I” exist, I also know, equally as clear and distinct, that, 2. I am not the author of my own existence. That is just as clear and distinct as the idea that I exist. The fact that I exist says nothing about how this “I” got here.

Hence, I cannot be the cause of my own existence. If I were the cause of my own existence, then I would be able to cognize myself though myself. I cannot do this, hence, I am not the cause of my own existence. 3. If I am certain of my own existence through methodological doubt, I am equally certain that I did not create myself. But in being certain of my own existence, I am also equally certain of the existence of the outside world, as part and parcel of the same methodological doubt, without any diminution in clarity and distinction.

This is because if methodological doubt makes me certain of my own existence, it must also testify to the reality of that which was abstracted from in the first place that acted as the condition of my certainty. Hence, I know clearly and distinctly that I exist, that I am not the creator of myself, but “at the same time, my consciousness testifies in addition that I am not existent as one of whom I myself am the creator; I likewise observe that neither is the world the creator of itself” Hence, 4.

“Then reason, above every contingent being not self-subsisting, gives me to understand the existence of a necessary and absolute being, one which is self-sufficient and equally sufficient unto all other beings, those which are of a contingent nature” (Makrakis, 1956, 20). Therefore, this is all that is contained in the Cartesian method of doubt. Hence, this is the absolute fundament of epistemology that it cannot deny without falling into contradiction. To summarize: the critique of skepticism of Makrakis was important in Greece, but for some reason, never found its way to the English speaking world.

It is based on an unpacking of the Cartesian cogito ergo sum, by holding that if the cogito is true, than three other things are true by definition, as analytic truths (in Kantian language): first, that I am not the cause of my own existence (am not sufficient unto myself), second, that the world around me is real, since it led me to realize the truth of the cogito, and that it also is not the cause of its own existence, finally leading us to the existence of God, or an absolutely necessary being who is subsisting to himself and cognizes Himself through Himself, and not some other, like the logical design of the cogito.

Therefore, epistemology, to make any sense, must begin from these starting points, though these are not axioms, since they can be demonstrated. The final conclusion here is that if I exist, then the world, and God necessarily and analytically exist. If these things do not exist, the world and God, then I make no sense, since there is no understanding of how this ego came to be or came to care about his being. In fact, if God and the world do not exist, then I cannot exist.

In conclusion, this paper has sought to fully understand and appreciate the basic schools and approaches of skepticism, to see them in their most impressive and inspiring light. The basic philosophical causes of the school was discussed, as well as its basic postulates, beginning from the major and most important schools of its development: utilitarianism, emotivism and post-modernism, and their derivatives. However, the completely unread work of Makrakis has never been applied to this subject in the English language to date.

His Foundations of Philosophy never made it with any force to the Anglo-American mind and exists in English only on a tiny and long-defunct publishing house. He exists only in used copies on amazon. com, and there are only 10 or 12 of those. Indeed, Makrakis’ large literary output in epistemology and logic deserves a wider audience, and this brief paper could only deal with a minute portion of his inheritance. Nevertheless, this essay will conclude that in holding and modifying Makrakis’ epistemology and his elucidation of the cogito, those who oppose epistemological skepticism have the best chance of succeeding in refuting it.

Bibliography: Dostoyevsky, Fedor (1986/1864). Notes from Underground. Trans. Mary Tattham. Plain Label Books. Feldman, Richard. (1999) Contextualism and Skepticism Nous 33: 91-114 Foegelin, Robert (1984) Taking Skepticism Seriously. Journal of Philosophy, 81: 552 Grenz, Stanley James (1999) A Primer on Postmodernism. Eerdmanns Publishing. Hook, Sidney (1994) From Hegel to Marx. Columba University Press. Kuzar, Lawrence (1998) Reclaiming a Scientific Anthropology. Rowman and Littlefield. Makrakis, Apostolos (1956) “A Refutation of Skepticism.

” in The Foundations of Philosophy. Orthodox Historical Society Press, 1-75. McIntyre, Alasdair (1981) After Virtue. University of California press. Oakeshott, Michael (1933) Experience and its Modes. Cambridge University Press. Olson, Robert. (1959) Emotivism and Ethical Skepticism. Journal of Philosophy, 56: 722-730. Philips, Herbert (1947) Historical Skepticism. Journal of Philosophy, 44: 449-459 Stone, Jim. (2000) Skepticism as a Theory of Knowledge. Philosophical and Phenomenonological Research 60: 527-545

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