Jacques Maritain Center : The First Principles of Knowledge

Chapter VIII.
Universal Scepticism.


  1. Division of scepticism. (a) Dogmatic scepticism. (b) Non-dogmatic scepticism.
  2. Other sciences may refute themselves, but not so the philosophy of certitude.
  3. Scepticism is incapable of giving the promised rest from anxious questionings.
  4. A word on Hume, the father of English scepticism.
  5. Addenda.

THE next subject may be introduced by a character described in the Essays of Elia: "He hath been heard to deny that there exists such a faculty at all in man as reason, and wondereth how men first came to have the conceit of it -- enforcing his negation with all the might of reasoning he is master of. He has some speculative notions against laughter, and will maintain that laughter is not natural to him-when peradventure the next moment his lungs will crow like chanticleer. It was he who said, upon seeing the Eton boys at play in their grounds, What a pity to think that these fine, ingenuous lads, in a few years, will all be changed into frivolous Members of Parliament!"

The character of the sceptic has always been one of which jokers have made capital, and Lamb has taken his turn in the mockery. Against the existence of a complete sceptic, as a fact of real life, those who themselves have been supposed to be far gone in the same malady, have clearly pronounced. Hume{1} says that such a being is imaginary, for speculative doubts give way utterly before the pressure of practical life. Rather than have sceptics argued with, he would have them left alone, lest opposition should feed that perversity, which, abandoned to itself, would perish of its own weakness.

I. Nevertheless we must do a little in the way of argument, if not with sceptics, then against scepticism; and we may take, as a division of the matter, what is given by Sextus Empiricus. His account may not be historically accurate, but at least it furnishes two convenient headings under which to confute scepticism. "Many persons," writes Sextus,{2} "confound the philosophy of the Academy with that of the Sceptics. But although the disciples of the New Academy declare that all things are incomprehensible, yet they are distinguished from the Pyrrhonists in this very dogmatism. The Academicians affirm that all things are incomprehensible -- the Sceptics do not affirm even that. Moreover the Sceptics consider all perceptions perfectly equal as to the faithfulness of their testimony: the Academicians distinguish between probable and improbable perception." Here we have the suggestion of the partition of sceptics into dogmatic and non-dogmatic; those who make a dogma of their very doubt, saying that the one certainty is the uncertainty of all human opinions, and those who abstain from claiming even this one certitude. It should be observed, however, that unless a sceptic were extra strange among a class of strange beings, he would hardly pretend to doubt the facts of his own consciousness -- that he had those feelings which he experienced. What he would question would be the objective reality of his thoughts, not his subjective states as such.

(a) The fatal act of the dogmatic sceptics is their profession to have strictly proved their conclusion, and to hold it positively as a valid inference. Being, as John of Salisbury describes them, "Men whose whole endeavour is to prove that they know nothing,"{3} they elaborately argue out their case, and make quite a system of their views.

Now their conclusion is either proved or not. If it is not proved, then they have failed in their main object: if it is proved, then the many facts and principles, which went to build up the proof, are thereby declared invalid; for they imply a large mass of human certitudes. In the premisses the sceptics appeal to observed facts, within and without their own persons: these facts they discuss in connexion with the principles of reason, and draw inferences. Do they accept the observations and the principles as valid? If so, theirs cannot be the final conclusion to gather from them, for this conclusion, when drawn, at once turns round on the premisses and says, "Out upon you, you vile incapables, you are yourselves suspects, and can lead only to suspicious conclusions." The premisses retort, "That reproach does not come well from you." To affirm positively the invalidity of all reasoning, supposes a mind capable of a number of valid decisions: the one dogma of scepticism can never stand alone. The mistake of the dogmatic sceptics seems to be some lurking notion, that argument ending in denial need not imply fixed principles, but may be like simple nescience. Possibly they look to some false analogy, like that of a drunken man, with just sense enough left to see that he cannot transact business, and had better seek retirement; or, again, like that of an insane man, who sufficiently perceives his own state, to beg that he may be taken to an asylum; or, lastly, like that of a constitutionally feeble intelligence aware of its own imbecillity. In the inebriate, in the insane, in the imbecile, there may be intermittent gleams of right reason, and the examples form no true parallel to the case, in support of which they are supposed to be adduced. A light shining faintly and fitfully through a cloud, does not illustrate the paradox of a light showing itself to be absolute darkness.

The position of the dogmatic sceptics, when they have done and said all remains worse than that of the dumb man who tries to speak out and declare his own condition: or that of those who had to solve the old puzzle, how to believe, on a own testimony, that he is an unmitigated liar. Concerning this latter knotty point, we are told that Chrysippus wrote six volumes, and that Philetas so overtaxed his energies as to die of consumption and deserve the epitaph:

Stranger, Philetas am I; that fallacy called "The Deceiver,"
Killed me, and here I sleep, wearied of lying awake.{4}

The problem of dogmatic scepticism is calculated to prove equally killing. The dogmatic sceptic need not maintain his power to determine grades of probability; but since the New Academicians are said to have added this burden to their charge, and since the matter, when investigated, throws more light upon the position of scepticism, we shall do well to put in a word about the sceptic's probabilities. When a probability is declared by moralists to justify a certain course of conduct, they still admit that an action, only probably permissible, would be illicit: for a man is not allowed to act at a venture. But falling back upon a principle which they regard not as merely probable, but as certain, namely, that under some circumstances, where the obligation is not clear, it is no obligation at all, they succeed in establishing the maxim, Qui probabiliter agit, tuto agit. The safety is not simply in the probability, but in the certainty as to how they may act, where what stands in the way of action is only a probability against its being allowed.{5} What is thus illustrated in morals has an analogous illustration in intellectual matters. Here also a probability requires the aid of some certainty. To calculate probabilities and assign their several grades, needs a mind which knows, by its experience, how to discriminate the state of doubt from the state of certainty, and which has many certainties whereby to fix the probabilities. It is simply ridiculous for dogmatic sceptics to claim that skill which the Academicians claimed, in the nice adjustment of a scale of probabilities.{6}

(b) The non-dogmatic sceptics have the greatest difficulty in describing themselves, for they are not allowed definitively to declare anything, not even their universal scepticism. One Greek philosopher tried to evade the difficulty by pointing out his meaning with his finger; but there is a limit to communication by this means, nor does the device exactly fulfil its purpose. The boasted "dumbness" or "suspension of judgment"{7} cannot be maintained. Indeed, the non- dogmatic sceptics make long discourses and write big books, in spite of the obvious objection, that in their case there is special force in the malicious wish, "O that mine enemy had written a book." To their books they try to sign the name of their school of thought. Now without any insult to them, let us, merely as an illustration, compare their procedure with the case of the animal that is really an ass; how is the poor brute to write itself down accordingly? A bray is about the best sign it can give as "its mark." Similarly, a non-dogmatic sceptic, who for reasons set down in his book, takes up his position, is forbidden, by the very terms of his profession, to say positively what his intellectual stand-point is. To say "I am a non-dogmatic sceptic," would be as clear a piece of dogmatism as to say, "I am a dogmatic sceptic;" for it would imply that dogmatic scepticism was wrong, and that the right attitude was to be without any affirmation whatever. Yet so to teach is itself an affirmation, resting on many others.

Briefly, the non-dogmatic sceptic either keeps to his profession of inability to speak (aphasia) and affirms nothing, in which case there is nothing to refute, but at most we can complain of faculties unused; or else, breaking loose from his engagements, he makes an affirmation, and so refutes himself. This suffices to end the general attack on the position of universal scepticism: attacks in detail must follow afterwards, as occasions successively offer themselves.

2. The peculiar position of the Philosophy of Certitude is not appreciated by the sceptic. Another science might be held to furnish its onvn refutation by presenting manifest contradictions; but there cannot, in the same way, be a sceptical refutation of the Philosophy of Certitude by that philosophy itself, for there would no longer be an umpire left to give the award of victory or defeat. If in a theory of light the application to phenomena of reflexion and refraction belies the application to phenomena of diffraction, then a mind is still by to judge of the contradiction, and of its fatal consequences to the theory: but if the very mind itself is to be proved essentially contradictory, how is it to establish the result? Mill{8} seems to share with the sceptics their want of appreciation for the position, when he writes: "If the reality of thought can be subverted, why is there any particular enormity in doing it by the means of thought itself? In what other way can we imagine it to be done?" Surely this argument is fallacious: because there is repugnancy in supposing anything but thought to work a certain effect, therefore there can be no repugnancy in supposing thought to work it. Mill, however, continues unembarrassed: " If it be true that thought is an invalid process, what better proof can be given, than that we could in thinking arrive at the conclusion, that our thoughts are not to be trusted? The scepticism would be complete even as to the validity of its own want of belief." As men, after execution, cannot sign a document testifying that sentence has been carried out neither can reason sign a valid testification to her own proof of her own universal invalidity. A man may with one eye see that the other is hopelessly injured, whether he use a mirror for the purpose, or employ the faculty which a celebrated Greek philosopher is said to have possessed, of making the eyes converge till they looked into one another; but a single blind eye will never literally see its own destruction. Mill, though sometimes patronizing the man who never believed in dreams because he dreamt that he must not, yet in a better fram of mind himself confesses, that "denying all knowledge is denying none."

Hamilton is another ,who has let himself be caught in the same trap, when he puts hypothesis which he ought to have seen to be contradictory: " The mendacity of consciousness is proved if its data, immediately in themselves or mediately in their consequences, be shown to stand in mutual contradiction." Glad to agree with one from whom we often differ, we may let Mr. Spencer{9} answer here: "It is useless to say that consciousness is to be presumed trustworthy until proved mendacious. It cannot be proved mendacious in this primordial act, Nay, more, the very thing supposed to be proved cannot be expressed without recognizing the primordial act as valid; since, unless we accept the verdict of consciousness that they differ, mandacity and trustworthiness become identical," or at least not distinguishable. "Process and product of reasoning both disappear in the absence of this assumption."

3. Scepticism, being so clearly a sin against the right use of intelligence could not lawfully be paid as the price of rest from all anxious questionings, even if the bargain were possible. But it is impossible. For the complete sceptic is, as Mill{10} says, "an imaginary being," never to be actualized: while such scepticism as man can actualize, certainly doe not bring the promised quietude, or "absence disturbance" (ataraxia). The case is as with drink. If drink could perfectly drown care, still we ought not to turn drunkards: besides, drink does not effectually drown care, for it brings in its train alternations of great suffering. Our true peace is to be sought in a right use of that reason, in which is the great root of our responsibility, and the alternative source of our highest happiness or misery. And when we remember that our reason is not our own independent property, but a gift and entrusted talent we shall be far indeed from calling her calumniously, with Bayle, "the old destroyer," "the cloudgatherer," and far from adopting the pernicious sentiment of the verses:

Rather we shall recoil from intellectual nihilism as a Russian Czar abhors social nihilism: for the loss of all belief a intellect tends to paralyze action, and to take the energy out of life by robbing it of its hope.

4.Unfortunately, though not going under the name of sceptics, but rather of agnostics, there is a large party of our philosophers in this country, who are pledged to the fundamental principles of scepticism in accepting substantially the doctrine of Hume. The irresoluteness of their chief might warn them to distrust him. While his principles are sceptical, he claims, in spite of them, to retain his belief: he finds comfort in setting up practice against theory, and declares, "as an agent I am not a sceptic:" he adds that there is no real sceptic. Ferrier goes so far as to suppose that Hume was not serious in his work, but was aiming at the reductio ad absurdum of the philosophic principles prevalent in the England of his day. Dr.Symon, taking up a like view, says that Hume was "merely and undisguisedly sarcastic, and in jest, never in earnest, when he wrote on metaphysics." Even one who has no little sympathy with Hume, Mr. Bain,{11} declares, "As he was a man fond of literary effects, as well as of speculation, we do not always know when he is in earnest." The fair estimate of Hume seems to be, that he is not quite as bad as he appears: that many of his efforts were tentative: that he began to destroy, and then, alarmed at his own vandalism, set himself to build up again: that his avowed principles were sceptical, but that lie dared not, and could not, rush them to their extreme conclusions. Hamilton tries, but not apparently with full success, to save Hume's consistency by the plea that to arrive at an inconsistency was the very object of his aim, it being "the triumph of scepticism to show that speculation and practice are irreconcilable."{12} In agreement with this view stands Hume's oft-quoted account of Berkeley's sceptical arguments, that they "admit of no answer, and produce no conviction."{13} Finally, Hume's recent editor, Professor Green, decides that "when we get behind the mask of concession to popular prejudice, partly ironical, partly due to his undoubted vanity, we find much more of the ancient sceptic than of the positive philosopher."{14} At any rate this is certain, that Hume should have no influence with a well balanced mind, which references itself as the greatest natural power upon earth, and as the only means of entering into moral communication with the highest Power of all. Mind is our mightiest possession: nous panta kratei.


A posthumous work, sent out in the name of the famous French Bishop, Huet, is a combination of the tenets of non-dogmatic scepticism with the assertion the dogmatically sceptical academics, that there are degrees of probability in our opinions about things. There were not wanting in France, about his time, abundant seeds of scepticism, diffused by Montaigne, Charron, Francis Sanchez, Bayle, Pascal, and others. Furthermore Huet might feel that he was not the first prelate to put forth the style of doctrine which he was maintaining; for about two centuries before, Cardinal Nicholas of Cusa, had written his works, De Docta Ignorantia, and De Conjecturis, to show the impotence of human reason, and to affirm the need of some sort of intuition of God. Huet's Feebleness of the Human Mind appeals to isolated passages of Scripture, and of the Fathers, which seem, in their naked form, to give some countenance to the view, that man's intellect is incompetent, and that knowledge must be given from on high. But these utterances, separated from their original accompaniments, ought to have been taken in their context, and with the light shed upon them from other passages, expressly declaring the prerogatives of human reason. As to Scripture, it is its style not to put in qualifying clauses, but to take one side of truth and speak for the time as though this were the only side. Now faith alone, now works alone, are spoken of as efficacious : the full truth being, when its elements are fused together, that works done in faith are requisite. The Fathers likewise do not think it always needful cautiously to balance one truth by its counterpart.

Huet thus endeavours to state his position of non-dogmatic scepticism: "In saying that nought is either true or false, I enunciate a proposition which refutes itself, as it is not excepted from the general law, which says that nothing is either true or false."{a} About sceptical arguments in proof of the position, he says: "They subvert other propositions, while subverting themselves, it is for this sole purpose they are enunciated, and not with a view to proving them."{b} Other authors make the same statement in another shape, saying that scepticism is like a drug which purges out everything, itself included.

Huet places what he conceives to be the superiority of his standpoint over that of ordinary mortals in this: "They know nothing, and we are aware of the fact, though we feel uncertain about our nescience. Further, while they do not question our probability, we do deny to them the possession of the truth which they seek after."{c} The case is not so at all: for Huet cannot more vigorously deny to us our certitudes, than we deny to him his probabilities, if the probabilities are to be calculated on his principles.

{1} Inquiry, Part II. sec. xii, in fine, et alibi passim.

{2} Ueberweg's History of Philosophy, Vol. I. Second Period of Greek Philosophy, §60, p. 213. (English Translation.)

{3} "Quorum labor in co versatur, ne quid sciant."

{4} Xeine, Philetas eimi logôn ho pseudominos me
Ôlese, kui nuktôn phrontides hesperioi

{5} Mill is a probabilist in his Subjection of Women, p. 3. "The a priori presumption is in favour of freedom. Those who deny in women any privilege rightly allowed to men, must be held to the strictest proof of their case, so as to exclude all doubt."

{6} Hume teaches "that all our knowledge resolves itself into probability:" and that he "had almost said this was certain," but refrains on reflexion "that it must reduce itself, as well as every other reasoning, and from knowledge degenerate into probability." (Treatise, Bk. I. Part IV, sec. 1.)

{7} aphasia or epochê.

{8} Examination of Sir W. Hamilton's Philosophy, c. ix. pp. 132, seq. (2nd Ed.)

{9} First Principles, Part II. c. ii. §41.

{10} Examination, c. ix. in initio.

{11} Mental Science, Bk. II. c. vii.

{12} Hamilton's Reid, p. 437. Cf. pp. 129, 144, 489.

{13} Inquiry, Part I. sec. xii.

{14} Introduction, §202. See Hume's account of his own feelings, Treatise, Bk. I. Part IV. sec. vii.

{a} "Lorsque je dis qu'il n'y a rien de vrai ni de faux, cette proposition s'enferme elle même, et elle n'est pas exceptée de la loi générale qui prononce qu'il n'y a rien de vrai ni de faux." (De La Faiblesse de L'Esprit Humain, Liv. III. ch. xiiii.)

{b} "Elles détruisent les autres propositions, en se détruisant elles- mêmes; car c'est seulement pour cela qu'on les emploie et non pour les établir." (Ib.)

{c} "Ils ne savent rien et nous le savons, quoique incertainement et en doutant. De plus, il ne nous contestent la vraisemblance que nous suivons, et nous leur refuson la vérité qu'ils recherchent."

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