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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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Chapter II. Ancient Skepticism

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1. Elements of Skepticism in the Pre-Pyrrhonian Philosophy

Ancient skepticism as a philosophical movement2 started by Pyrrho of Elis3 (ca. 365–275 BC) had its background in earlier Greek thought which questioned the truth of human perceptions and convictions. Such a critical appraisal can be found in, among others, Xenophanes, Heraclitus, Protagoras, Gorgias, Democritus, Socrates or Plato (Krokiewicz 2002: 34–64; Lee 2010: 13–35). However, it was the sophists who, by virtue of their radical relativism, occupied the most important position among the precursors of skepticism.

Xenophanes questioned human knowledge mainly on the basis of his critique of polytheistic beliefs, but he also tended to generalize: “And as for what is clear, no man has seen it, nor will there be anyone / Who knows about the gods and what I say about all things; / For even if one should happen to say what has absolutely come to pass / Nonetheless one does not oneself know; but opinion has been constructed in all cases.” (M 7.49 = DK 21 B 34). Xenophanes suspected that people could not know the truth – even if they knew it by accident, he believed, they would have no right to claim that they did (see also Lesher 1978: 1; Marcinkowska-Rosół 2004: 19).

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