Scepticism is a way of life that allows democracy to flourish

By | March 25, 2022

Nicholas Tampio writes:

Think about a time when you changed your mind. Maybe you heard about a crime, and rushed to judgment about the guilt or innocence of the accused. Perhaps you wanted your country to go to war, and realise now that maybe that was a bad idea. Or possibly you grew up in a religious or partisan household, and switched allegiances when you got older. Part of maturing is developing intellectual humility. You’ve been wrong before; you could be wrong now.

We all are familiar, I take it, with people who refuse to admit mistakes. What do you think about such people? Do you admire their tenacity? Or do you wish that they would acknowledge that they jumped to conclusions, misread the evidence, or saw what they wanted to see? Stubborn people are not just wrong about facts. They can also be mean. Living in society means making compromises and tolerating people with whom you disagree.

Fortunately, we have a work of philosophy from antiquity filled with strategies to counter dogmatic tendencies, whether in ourselves or in other people. The book makes one laugh out loud with questions about whether we know that grass is green, that scorpion stings are deadly, or if it is wrong for parents to tattoo their babies. The French writer Michel de Montaigne read the book in the 16th century and used the strategies in his essay ‘An Apology for Raymond Sebond’. Through Montaigne, many European Enlightenment philosophers came to see a link between scepticism and toleration. Plato’s Republic is more renowned, but the book from antiquity that people ought to read right now is Sextus Empiricus’ Outlines of Pyrrhonism.

Sextus was a physician who wrote in Greek and lived in the 2nd or 3rd century CE. He worked in a tradition that originated with the Greek philosopher Pyrrho, a contemporary of Aristotle. Outlines of Pyrrhonism, according to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, is ‘the best and fullest account we have of Pyrrhonian scepticism’. In The History of Scepticism (1960), Richard Popkin identifies the beginning of modern scepticism with the Dominican friar Girolamo Savonarola’s decision to have Sextus translated from Greek to Latin. Sceptics could dethrone pagan philosophers who extolled the powers of reason; sceptics could also, it became clear, raise doubts about religious claims.

The sceptical way of life, on Sextus’ presentation, follows a certain rhythm. You feel puzzlement about something. You search for knowledge about it. You arrive at two equally weighty considerations about what is happening. You let go trying to find an answer. And once you recognise that you might not find a solution, it brings some mental tranquility. [Continue reading…]

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