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The History of Skepticism

In Search of Consistency

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Renata Zieminska

This book reconstructs the history of skepticism ranging from ancient to contemporary times, from Pyrrho to Kripke. The main skeptical stances and the historical reconstruction of the concept of skepticism are connected with an analysis of their recurrent inconsistency. The author reveals that this inconsistency is not a logical contradiction but a pragmatic one. She shows that it is a contradiction between the content of the skeptical position and the implicit presumption of the act of its assertion. The thesis of global skepticism cannot be accepted as true without falling into the pragmatic inconsistency. The author explains, how skepticism was important for exposing the limits of human knowledge and inspired its development.

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Conclusion: Pragmatic Inconsistency of Skepticism

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The historical survey of skepticism demonstrates that the internal problem of skepticism, constituting the main obstacle for its acceptance both in antiquity and in modern times, has been its inconsistency. Inconsistency is a kind of internal contradiction, but in the case of skepticism it does not consist in an explicit acceptance of two contradictory propositions, as skeptics often do not accept even their own theses (Sextus Empiricus) or seriously doubt their value (David Hume). The inconsistency of skepticism has a pragmatic character: it is not related and limited to the content of skeptical theses, but it concerns the relationship between these theses and tacit assumptions inherent in the act of speaking as such. Every attempt to formulate the skeptical thesis leads to the contradiction between its content (knowledge does not exist) and the act of its assertion, which necessarily presupposes that there is something we know.

Sextus Empiricus believed to have found a radical reply to this inconsistency charge by sternly proclaiming that he did not accept anything, including his own arguments. In this situation, there are no contents that can be logically inconsistent. However, it is evident that Sextus adopts a practical attitude, utters sentences, formulates arguments, draws conclusions and questions others’ beliefs. Therefore, his position is interpreted in many ways: as fallibilism, as behaviorism or as a process which involves shifts in the attitude. Contemporary fallibilism, however, does not fully correspond to Sextus’s radicalism that rejected all beliefs (including their weaker forms). The behaviorist...

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