Pragmatic Scepticism
pragmatic scepticism is a variant of practical scepticism, an anti-dogmatic philosophy in relation to what should be done. It is a personally liberating philosophical position, liberating through the denial that logic (or anything else) provides conclusive grounds for any particular course of action.
Pyrrhonean scepticism was in its beginnings as much a practical as a theoretical enterprise.
Pragmatic scepticism is optimistic, constructive and liberating, rather than resignedly pessimistic.
Here I outline what I consider the most important sources of confusion, error and irrelevance, and mention some possible remedies.
Practical Roots of Pyrrhonean Scepticism
Pyrrhonean scepticism was in its beginnings as much a practical as a theoretical enterprise.
Note that the meaning of practical in this context is its technical meaning in philosophy contrasting with theoretical. Theoretical scepticism is scepticism about knowledge, e.g. doubts about whether we have any true knowledge. Practical scepticism is scepticism about morals and action, e.g. doubts about whether there can be any rational basis for choosing one course of action rather than another.
The word sceptic comes from the Greek word skepsis meaning "enquiry". In the context of ancient Greek philosophy it was used to describe someone who sought knowledge but failed to find it. Thus it describes someone engaged on an enterprise, the search for knowledge, rather than a body of doctrine, and begins in this rather limited sense as a practical concept.
Pyrrho of Ellis (c 360-270 BCE)
Though Pyrrho gave his name to the most substantial sceptical tradition, he left no writings and it is therefore uncertain how much of Pyrrhonean Scepticism is attributable directly to him rather than his followers. What seems most certain is his practical scepticism, which consisted in advocating suspension of judgement as a way to peace of mind, and indifference toward external things.
Social Context
Thoroughgoing scepticism, Pyrrhonean or Academic, appears in ancient Greece only during its period of decline after the crowning achievements of Plato and Aristotle. Other philosophical schools of this lengthy period of decline, such as Epicurianism, and Stoicism have, like scepticism, a primary aim in providing a philosophy to guide their adherents on how to live their lives. Greek philosophy has become introspective and pessimistic.

Scepticism is in this context a philosopher's consoling philosophy. The philosophers sees, if he has no more pressing problems, a long history of philosophical disputation in which every conceivable philosophical position has been essayed (so it must have seemed) but none can be seen to have prevailed. The philosopher is too pessimistic to venture on a new philosophy, but is tormented by the problem of deciding which of the positions of his predecessors are true and which false.

Scepticism preaches resignation in the face of this impossible task. One can never really know.

Despite its preoccupation with theory (mainly with the refutation of prior theory), its purpose is practical. To give peace of mind.
Elements of Pragmatic Scepticism
Pragmatic scepticism is optimistic, constructive and liberating, rather than resignedly pessimistic.
We proceed as follows.
  1. objection to the practical doctrines of Pyrrho.
  2. some parallels with theoretical scepticism to yield a pragmatic position
  3. a first statement of pragmatic scepticism
  4. a refinement of pragmatic scepticism
  5. relations with Tao, Zen and Anarchism
1. A Practical Defect in Pyrrhonean Scepticism
A sceptic doubts that there is any conclusive reason for taking one course of action rather than another. The question then arises how a sceptic can decide what to do. While suspension of judgement on theoretical might possibly give peace of mind, it does not obviate the need to decide what (if anything) to do (there being no conclusive argument in favour of doing nothing either).

Pyrrhonean sceptics have tended to answer this difficulty by advocating adherence by sceptics to local cultural norms. This is a lapse into dogmatism at the moment of truth.
2. A parallel with theoretical scepticism
In theoretical scepticism we doubt all but that "appearances appear". In observing the world we have sensory experiences, which certainly are what they are, and which provide evidence for something beyond themselves which is invariably inconclusive. In open scepticism the notion of appearance is interpreted in a completely general way, so that when something appears to be the case, even though this appearance is an intuition far removed from senses, possibly about some abstract or mathematical topic, this too is a datum, if still a fallible indication of anything other than itself. Note also, in relation specifically to sense data, that conscious appearances will in general be also removed from the primitive data of the senses. If there are sense data which represent the evidence presented to mind by the senses, they need not be conscious, and the appearances of which we are consciously aware may be the result of much processing of that primitive data.

Just as there is in theoretical scepticism a gulf between the appearances and the judgements which we might like to make from them, there is in practical scepticism a gulf between our judgements about what we should do, and the actions which we then perform. Just as sensory appearances fail to determine beliefs or judgements, so beliefs and judgements fail to provide a conclusive determination of what should be or in fact is done.
3. The Pragmatic Alternative
In pragmatic scepticism the unjustifiable endorsement of local conventions is replaced by a recognition and endorsement of appearances. A pragmatic sceptic will consider practical questions in good faith, but will fail to find conclusive grounds for any course of action.

Notwithstanding this lack of conclusive ground, the sceptic acknowledges that some courses of action appear to be better than others. The way things appear to be, in these practical matters (as well as in theory) should be the sceptics guide.

A pragmatic sceptic may do whatever, under the circumstances, seems to him best. However, he need not. The deliberations which might have lead to a determination of the best course of action might instead be thought of as a prelude to action, in the face of indecision. We never know which course is best, but life goes on.
4. Scepticism and Tao
It may help in understanding pragmatic scepticism to think of it as sharing aspects of the Chinese way of enlightenment known as Taoism, one of the ingredients of Zen Buddhism. One of the elements of Tao is spontaneity, and the liberation from the tyranny of rationality which appears in pragmatic scepticism is a kind of spontaneity. Where we say above that the pragmatic sceptic should do what seems best, this is a crude approximation to our intent, for one might consider matters carefully and come to feel that a particular course of action seems appropriate, and yet do something different.

Pragmatic scepticism goes the extra mile, which makes it seem like Tao. Rather than merely rejecting rational determination of a course of action, in favour of accepting appearances even if they contradict supposedly rational considerations, the practical sceptic accepts what he does even if it appears not to be the right thing to do.
Bacon on Sources of Error
Here I outline what I consider the most important sources of confusion, error and irrelevance, and mention some possible remedies.
Roger Bacon's views on what was wrong and on what needed to be done didn't fit together. In describing sources of error, bad influences predominated. But the path to truth is through the application of scientific method.

There is a gap here which we have to fill in for ourselves. We must first be influenced by his critique not to follow either fashion or authority, but to enquire into the truth using our own resources. Then we may adopt the experimental method he describes for that purpose.

If this caricature of Bacon wasn't unrealistic in his day it certainly is now. However great we may think the problems with accepted authority, or with the institutions which shape our perception of the world, we can't ignore them and come to our own views.

There are then at least two distinct kinds of ailment to be diagnosed here. One concerns the accepted methods of arriving at "the truth" in various domains. The other concerns the ways in which these methods, good or bad, are subverted by human nature and our social institutions.
Philosophical Method
A century ago the primary source of bad philosophy was thought by positivists to be metaphysics, and the solution was thought to be to confine philosophy to an appropriate kind of analysis. By mid century positivism was falling into decline, and the character of analysis changed radically. Most importantly, the change was from making meaning clear, possibly by adopting new language, to understanding language as it is.
Scientific Method

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