Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Ancient Scepticism: An Introduction.

Sceptics were the Internet trolls of the classical philosophical world spending their time interrogating passing philosophers and dismantling his basic believes. However very few people were appreciative of their efforts.     
Carneades
Certainly the Romans didn’t appreciate the sceptic philosopher Carneades delivering a brilliant series of arguments establishing the independant existence of Justice only to argue the following day with equal elegance that justice was merely a social construct necessary for the functioning of a well ordered society. The Roman Senate promptly ejected him under the charge of corrupting youth. 

But unlike our Internet trolls, the ancient sceptics did not troll simply to elicit emotion; theirs was a philanthropic cause to free people from the conceit and rashness of false dogma. Minds must be cured by argument as bodies must be cured by medicine. In what follows I give a brief outline of ancient scepticism and in future posts I will explore the philosophical tools they deployed to cure minds. The reader should be beware that everything about scepticism is controversial and open to interpretation (and perhaps that is how the Sceptics would have wanted it). 

We begin, like most of philosophy, with Socrates. Socrates did not consider himself a wise man and so was puzzled by the Delphic oracles pronouncement that no one is wiser than Socrates. He decided to resolve the puzzle by seeking out the wise men of Athens and subjecting their believes to philosophical investigation to discover this wisdom he allegedly possessed. Eventually having never encountered a man whose knowledge he could not refute, Socrates came to understand the oracle as declaring him the wisest of all because he understood what he did not know. It is from this interpretation (and they are many) that the Sceptics drew their inspiration. 

All of philosophy is a search for truth. Scepticism, whose Greek word skepsis means 'enquriy', is unique in that the outcome of their enquiries is not truth but a suspension of judgement. Over time this suspension of judgement would bring tranquility or peace of mind since we would become free from shaping our lives around false dogma and harming our mental health through the pursuit of unanswerable questions. 

Common criticisms against Scepticism include the charge of inconsistency and impractically. Inconsistency because to claim "knowledge is impossible" or "we believe we should have no believes" is in fact claiming positive knowledge.  We cannot rationally establish nothing can be known rationally without falling into a fatal contradiction. 

The charge of impractically rests upon the premise of us humans requiring believes to guide our actions and to live well. Without believes, we fall into inaction (apraxia). Sceptics devoted considerable time to refuting these claims as they saw scepticism as a practical guide to life. I will outline their responces in future posts.

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