Open Scepticism
Overview
Open scepticism is a kind of theoretical scepticism, an anti-dogmatic philosophy in respect of knowledge, which enjoins suspension of judgement in all matters, accepting only that things appear to be as they do.
Scepticism has a long history.
An analysis tailored to explication of our preferred varieties.
Open scepticism is extreme in its avoidance of dogma, but prefers the ongoing search for (tentative) knowledge rather than collapsing into an exercise in refutation of dogma. It rejects the demonstration of equipollence as itself dogmatic and emphasises the usefulness of refined elaborations of appearances. The combined effect of these features is to make open scepticism appear moderate, perhaps even vacuous.
An introduction to dogma, the distinction between positive and negative dogma, and some examples of each.
Benefits of Scepticism and Dogmatism
Doubt occurs at many levels and in many domains. The most fundamental and general doubt flows from the argument from regress of justification, which suggests that absolutely certain knowledge is not to be had. The doubt thus established is general but academic, and of little practical significance. Doubts of greater practical impact are obtained by more special arguments at higher levels.
Historical Notes on Scepticism
Scepticism has a long history.
Introduction to Sceptical Thought
Ancient and modern scepticism in a nutshell.
Pre-Socratic Scepticism
There was a great deal of sceptical thought in ancient Greece before scepticism became a self conscious philosophical stance. Here are one or two examples.
Socrates and Plato
Socrates and Plato contributed some significant elements to the development of sceptical thought, without themselves being full-blooded sceptics.
Greek Scepticism Proper
Scepticism proper may be considered as falling into four principle stages, the practical scepticism of Pyrrho of Elis, academic scepticism, pyrrhonean scepticism, and empiric scepticism.
Academic Scepticism
Academic scepticism is that of Plato's academy and occurs in several phases.
Pyrrhonean Scepticism
A pyrrhonean sceptic is one whose doubts are universal and who therefore makes no claims to knowledge.
Scepticism before the Enlightenment
During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, from the beginning of the reformation to the dawn of the enlightenment, pyrrhonean scepticism was a significant influence on European philosophy.
Positivist philosophy in its broadest sense is a general tendency in philosophy which embraces aspects of the thought of many philosophers including Humean scepticism, the work of Comte (who coined the term), elements of utilitarianism and pragmatism, and logical positivism.
Some Kinds of Scepticism and Speculation
An analysis tailored to explication of our preferred varieties.
scepticism
The kind of scepticism adopted is distinguished by the absence of certain defects and is therefore described via a description of the defects. Since the defects are all varieties of dogmatic pollution, the preferred variety of scepticism is called open scepticism and the undesirable varieties are kinds of dogmatic scepticism.
speculation
The kind of speculation which we favour is consistent with and complementary to the preferred scepticism. It differs from the most common kind of speculative philosophy and is defined both in relation to scepticism and also by contrast with the more common variety.
sceptical defects
scepticism as an end
dogmatic scepticism
First we must distance ourselves from dogmatic scepticism, which in a blatantly incoherent presentation claims to know that no knowledge is possible. A consistent scepticism merely doubts.
open scepticism
A pure scepticism is the reluctant (if pervasive) doubt of one who has genuinely sought and continues to seek knowledge and understanding. This scepticism is an open-mindedness which need not, however extreme, fall into incoherence.
speculation
dogmatic speculation
Complementary to dogmatic scepticism is dogmatic speculation, in which on the basis of tenuous evidence claims knowledge of implausible truths.
Speculative Metaphysics
The term speculative is used in philosophy to refer to metaphysics. In Kant's philosophy metaphysics is concerned primarily with truths which are synthetic a priori. This kind of speculative philosophy therefore results in purported conclusive demonstration of synthetic truths. This is therefore a form of dogmatism and incompatible with open scepticism.

Though the establishment of synthetic necessities is not admitted, synthetic possibilities are another matter.
open speculation
An open speculation involves the exploration of possibilities. Rather than being an opposite of scepticism it is another aspect of the same attitude.
Open Speculation
A synthetic possibility is the negation of a synthetic necessity, and is therefore in a sceptical spirit. To avoid incoherence (falling into dogmatism) scepticism must neither assert nor deny, there is a symmetry to be respected. However, the terminology is derived by contrast with the prevalent dogmatism. Thus we take what is commonly accepted without question and raise doubts about it, and by a kind of contrapositive allow speculative possibilities which would commonly have been rejected as incompatible with some restrictive dogmatic conception debarring such possibilities.
Dogma
An introduction to dogma, the distinction between positive and negative dogma, and some examples of each.
Dogma and Positivism
We motivate the discussion by reference to August Comte.
Dogma and Scepticism
We define dogma, describe its role in sceptical philosophy, and introduce the distinction between positive and negative dogma.
Positive Dogma
Negative Dogma
Elements of Open Scepticism
Open scepticism is extreme in its avoidance of dogma, but prefers the ongoing search for (tentative) knowledge rather than collapsing into an exercise in refutation of dogma. It rejects the demonstration of equipollence as itself dogmatic and emphasises the usefulness of refined elaborations of appearances. The combined effect of these features is to make open scepticism appear moderate, perhaps even vacuous.
What is Knowledge?

A sceptic is someone who seeks for but fails to find knowledge. What this means is sensitive of course to the meaning of the word "knowledge". In ordinary language, in appropriate contexts, we will say that someone knows something even if his evidence for it is very weak, but nevertheless such as might be expected to suffice for belief. (e.g. having been told something, even if the source was not authoritative, or having seen it, even if there was a possibility of having been mistaken) In special contexts however, especially if they word "know" has been intoned with emphasis, the standard is raised very considerably. In such a context having evidence for a proposition which is less than conclusive suffices for a denial of knowledge. The standard of conclusiveness at stake is itself context sensitive. In the context of philosophical discussion it may be as strong as logically conclusive (i.e. it may be expected that the evidence logically entail the supposed knowledge) or even stronger (e.g. that the evidence be known conclusively to entail the supposed knowledge). In particular, in the context of Pyrrhonean scepticism the standard is that of being beyond doubt. Something is known only if it can be shown to be beyond doubt, or absolutely certain.

The Search for Knowledge

Though a sceptic is nominally one who seeks knowledge, it is evident from the literature that predominantly phyrrhonean sceptics have replaced the search for knowledge by a preoccupation with the systematic refutation of all claims to knowledge.

In open scepticism the availability of general arguments against the possibility of absolutely certain knowledge makes it unnecessary to engage in systematic detailed refutations, which in any case is a highly undesirable perversion of the search for knowledge.

Sceptics accept that though we can know nothing, some things appear to be true.

Avoidance of Dogma

The word "open" here emphasises the sceptical repudiation of dogma. Particular emphasis is placed on the avoidance of various dogmas which are peculiar to scepticism.

The most trivial example of a dogma of scepticism is that of claiming to know that knowledge is impossible. The incoherence of this was observed by the very earliest sceptics, and so few sceptics have fallen into this error, though some have adopted the most simplistic resolution of the obvious contradiction by claiming to know that nothing can be known except this sceptical conclusion. Even if this version is carefully formulated so as to avoid incoherence, it remains a dogma and one can conceive a more extreme scepticism in which not even this is affirmed.

A more substantive example of sceptical dogmatism is in the method of demonstrating "equipollence". This is more substantive, since it seems to have been an important method, and considerable space is given to such demonstrations in Sextus Empiricus.

I am in some doubt as to the true meaning of "equipollence", which might possibly be because there were different conceptions of it in the Greek sceptics. There are two possible interpretations:

  1. A proposition is equipollent if it and its converse are equi-probable
  2. A proposition is equipollent if neither it nor its converse is known
The first is of course much stronger than the second, and its possibility and desirability is doubted in open scepticism. Rather than demonstrating equipollence, open scepticism seeks the refinement of appearances, which is a more plausible fallback from the search for knowledge in the face of doubt. The refinement of appearances involves the gathering and assessment of evidence in a manner similar to that in normal (non-sceptical) research, differing primarily from normal research in being less dogmatic. This means that the presentation of results avoids definite conclusions, but presents information about the extent of experimental confirmation for various theories. More practically oriented research may present information about the applicability of various models under investigation.

Provocation to Doubt
Doubt occurs at many levels and in many domains. The most fundamental and general doubt flows from the argument from regress of justification, which suggests that absolutely certain knowledge is not to be had. The doubt thus established is general but academic, and of little practical significance. Doubts of greater practical impact are obtained by more special arguments at higher levels.
Regress of Justification

We cannot be said to know a proposition without some grounds or justification. A justification consists in offering some kind of evidence supposed to establish the proposition under contention. However, this evidence must itself be known, and there is therefore a problem of regress, we cannot get off the ground.

The supposition that we might have knowledge without justification depends on there being some state of mind which we recognise as infallible indication of truth. This idea is familiar to us from Descartes. Even if there were such a state of mind, however, we might be mistaken about which state of mind it is, we might suppose that we were experiencing this special state when we were in fact experiencing a state which almost never marks a falsehood.

The strength of this general sceptical doubt is not important, because any doubt which is completely general must be considered an academic doubt. It applies to all conjectures, and therefore gives no information about truth, and has no practical consequences.

Significant doubts are those which are less general, and which therefore contribute materially to an assessment of what appears to be the case by suggesting that some propositions are more doubtful than others.


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