Progress in Philosophy — II

philosophy[for a brief explanation of this ongoing series, as well as a full table of contents, go here]

More, much more, on epistemology

There is, of course, much more to be said about epistemology, and as usual the proper SEP entry (an extremely valuable peer reviewed resource that has accompanied us throughout this book) is an excellent starting point for further exploration (in this case, Steup 2005). Before leaving the field to move on to philosophy of science, I want to briefly sketch a number of other debates in epistemology that lend themselves to the same kind of analysis I just went into some detail in the case of the concept of knowledge. I have not drawn concept maps for the remaining examples in this chapter, but doing so is an excellent exercise for the interested reader, both to make sure one is able to reconstruct how the various moves and countermoves are logically connected, and to develop a first-hand feeling for philosophical progress so understood. It will help to think of each position to be briefly examined below as a peak in the proper conceptual landscape, whose height depends on how justified the pertinent position happens to be.

A couple of times already in our preceding discussion we have gotten to the point where we really needed to unpack the idea of justification. As it turns out, much has been written about it. To begin with, epistemologists recognize two major approaches to justification: deontological and non-deontological. Deontological Justification (DJ) looks something like this (Steup 2005): “S is justified in believing that p if and only if S believes that p while it is not the case that S is obliged to refrain from believing that p” — which is how, for instance, Descartes and Locke thought of justification. Non-Deontological Justification (NDJ), instead, takes the form: “S is justified in believing that p if and only if S believes that p on a basis that properly probabilifies S’s belief that p” (Steup 2005). Most epistemologists seem to agree that DJ is not suitable for their purposes, at least in part because we have come to understand (post-Hume) that beliefs are not the sort of things over which we have much voluntary control, a high degree of which is required by a deontological approach to justification. Of course, much is packed in the concept of “properly probabilified,” but the point is that assessments of probabilities are more conducive to epistemically valid justification than deontological approaches (which tend to be more suitable — naturally — for moral, or even prudential, situations).

A second way to approach the issue of justification is from the point of view of its sources. In this case the two major positions are evidentialism (Conee and Feldman 1985) and the already mentioned reliabilism (Greco 1999). According to the first, a belief is justified if there is evidence in its favor, where the sources of evidence may be varied — including but not limited to perception, memory, introspection, intuition, etc. Following the latter, evidence is necessary but not sufficient, and it also has to be gathered by reliable means, which is more restrictive then the previous view. Again, a reliable source is then defined as one that “properly probabilifies” a given belief.

There is a third area of conceptual space that allows us to discuss justification, dealing with whether the latter is internal or external in nature (Kornblith 2001). Internalism (Steup 1999) takes it to be the case that whatever justifies a given belief boils down to a particular mental state we are in; this means, incidentally, that evidentialists tend to be internalists, because our evidence for one belief or another is always assessed by introspection of our own mental states. Fine, say the externalists, but the reliability of such evidence is not an internal (or purely internal) matter, which means that reliabilists tend simultaneously to be externalists. [2] The difference between the two positions is perhaps best fleshed out in cases in which someone has good reasons to accept a belief that is, as a matter of fact, false, as a result of radical deception. Consider, in the typical example, a brain in a vat who thinks he has hands (while he, obviously, doesn’t). In that case, the belief is justified from an internalist/evidentialist perspective (the mental states that form the basis for the belief are accessible), but not from an externalist/reliabilist point of view (since those mental states are, as it turns out, an unreliable source of belief).

We can also go back to the idea of knowledge itself and talk not about its most proper conceptualization, but its structure. Here the two main contenders in contemporary epistemology are foundationalism and coherentism. The first approach (DePaul 2001) — as the name implies — thinks of knowledge as structured like a building, with foundations upon which further knowledge is accumulated. Which implies that some beliefs are doxastically basic, i.e. they do not require any additional justification. It is, however, surprisingly difficult to find unchallenged examples of basic beliefs (give it a try, just as a mind stretching exercise). One proposal often advanced in this context is something along the lines of “It seems to me that the table is round,” which at least some foundationalists would argue is an example of a properly basic belief that cannot be successfully challenged — even if it turned out that the table is, in fact, oval. The problem is that, even if we agree that cases like the above do represent properly basic beliefs, they don’t get us very far unless we can extend the property of basicality to stronger statements, such as: “the table is round.” But the latter belief can be challenged on epistemic grounds, so one has to make a further move, invoking perceptual experience as evidence of both beliefs. Which in turn raises the thorny issue of why we should take perceptual experience to be a proper source of justification of some basic beliefs, given that we know it is not always reliable. [3] If we can get past these issues, foundationalists then can keep building their edifice of knowledge by deploying non-deductive methods, since to require further growth of knowledge by deductive approaches only would be too demanding — as Descartes quickly found out after engaging in his famous Cogito exercise (Descartes 1637/2000).

The second approach mentioned above is coherentism (BonJour 1999), according to which knowledge is structured more like a web (whiff-o-Quine, Chapter 3) than like a vertical structure with foundations. This means that there is no such thing as properly basic beliefs, as the strength of any given belief depends on its connections to the rest of the web (as well as on the strength of the other strands in the web). A major tool in the coherentist epistemic arsenal is the idea of inference to the best explanation (Lipton 2004). Consider again my belief that the table is round. Is it justified? Well, I could be hallucinating, I could be a brain in a vat, etc.. But, most likely my senses are working properly for a human being, I find myself under decent conditions of illuminations, not too far from the table, etc.. All of which allows me to inferentially converge on what appears to be the best explanation for what I see: the table really is round! Of course, the Cartesians amongst us (are there any left?), might object: couldn’t you being deceived by an evil demon (or, in more modern parlance, couldn’t you be in the Matrix)? Sure, I could, but — given what we think we know about how the world works (i.e., given our web of knowledge!) — that’s just not the best explanation available for my belief that the table is round, although it surely is a logically possible one.

Just like in any other area of philosophical conceptual space there are arguments pro and con both foundationalism and coherentism. Foundationalists, for instance, often deploy a regress argument: without foundation, one is forced to keep looking for justifications for one’s beliefs, and that search can only lead to an infinite regress or to a loop, neither of which are particularly satisfying prospects. However, not all circularity is bad (philosophers often make a distinction between circularity and vicious circularity). After all, one could argue that all deductive knowledge (i.e., great parts of logic and mathematics) is circular, and yet it is hardly to be dismissed on such grounds. Foundationalists can also buttress their position by attacking coherentism from a different angle: a system of beliefs could be entirely coherent and yet make no contact with reality. A well thought out fictional story, for instance, would fit the bill. But here the coherentist has a pretty straightforward response, I think: the web of belief that structures our knowledge of the world includes perceptual experience, and thereby does make contact with empirical reality. Foundationalists better accept this response, because if they retreat to the much more demanding position that knowledge needs logical (as opposed to empirical) guarantees, that would have to apply also to any properly basic (foundational) belief. That would result in a Pyrrhic victory. [4] Conversely, coherentists can counterattack against foundationalists by asking why (fallible) perceptual experience should be considered as justifying properly basic beliefs. And so on with successive refinements and counter-refinements of each position.

All this said and done, one can simply not leave even such a brief discussion of epistemology without posing the obvious question: if there has been progress in the study of epistemology, does this imply that we then have also made progress against skepticism (DeRose and Warfield 1999)? Skepticism has a long and venerable (some would say irritating) history in philosophy, dating back to the pre-Socratics. Plenty of valiant attempts have been made to overcome it. A modern version of the skeptic argument uses — again — the metaphor of the brain in the vat (BIV), and is therefore referred to by Steup (2005), from which the following discussion is adapted, as the BIV argument. It goes something like this:

(1)  I don’t know that I’m not a BIV.

(2)  If I don’t know that I’m not a BIV, then I don’t know that I have hands. 


(3) I don’t know that I have hands.

This is a valid argument, so any viable response needs to challenge one of its premises — that is, challenge its soundness. Before proceeding, though, we must note (as Steup does) that premise (2) is tightly linked to (indeed, it is the negative version of) the so-called Closure Principle: “If I know that p, and I know that p entails q, then I know that q” — a principle that is definitely prima facie eminently reasonable. The application to our case looks like this: If I know that I have hands, and I know that having hands entails not being a BIV, then I know that I’m not a BIV. But — says the skeptics — the consequent of this “BIV closure” is false, hence its antecedent must be false too: you just don’t know whether you are a BIV or not!

There are several responses to the skeptic’s so-called “closure denial.” Steup examines a whopping five of them (concept map, anyone?): relevant alternatives, the Moorean response, the contextualist response, the ambiguity response, and what one might call the knowledge-that response. Let’s take a look.

A first attack against the BIV argument — a first peak in the relevant conceptual space — is to claim that being a BIV is not a relevant alternative to having hands; a relevant alternative would be, for instance, having had one’s hand amputated to overcome the effects of disease or accident. This sounds promising, but the skeptic can very well demand a principled account of what does and does not count as a relevant alternative. Perhaps relevance logic (Chapter 5) could help here.

Second attack/peak: G.E. Moore’s (1959) (in)famous response. This is essentially an argument from plausibility: the BIV goes through if and only if its premises are more plausible than its conclusions. Which Moore famously denied by raising one of his hands and declaring “here is one hand.” But why, asks (reasonably, if irritatingly) the skeptic? To make a long story short, Moore’s counter to the BIV argument essentially reduces to simply asserting knowledge that one is not a BIV. Which pretty much begs the question against the skeptic. [5]

Third branch in anti-skeptic conceptual space: the contextualist response. The basic intuition here is that what we mean by “know” (as in “I know that I have hands,” or “I don’t know that I’m not a BIV”) varies with the context, in the sense that the standards of evidence for claiming knowledge depend on the circumstances. This leads contextualists to distinguish between “low” and “high” standards situations. Most discussions of having or not having hands are low standards situations, where the hypothesis of a BIV does not need to be considered. It is only in high standards situations that the skeptical hypothesis becomes salient, and in those cases we truly do not know whether we have hands (because we do not know whether we are BIVs). This actually sounds most plausible to me (pretty high peak on the landscape?), though I would also like to see a principled account of what distinguishes low and high standard situations (unless the latter are, rather ad hoc, limited only to the skeptical scenario). Perhaps things are a bit more complicated, and there actually is a continuum of standards, and therefore a continuum of meanings of the word “know”? [6]

Fourth: the ambiguity response. Here the strategy is to ask whether the skeptic, when he uses the word “know,” is referring to fallible or infallible knowledge. (This is actually rather similar to the contextualist response, though the argument takes off from a slightly different perspective, and I think is a bit more subtle and satisfying.) Once we make this distinction, it turns out that there are three versions of the BIV argument: the “mixed” one (“know” refers to infallible knowledge of the premises but to fallible knowledge of the conclusion), “high standards” (infallible knowledge is implied in both premises and conclusion), and “low standards” (fallible knowledge assumed in both instances). Once this unpacking is done, we have to agree that the mixed version is actually an instance of invalid reasoning, since it is based on an equivocation; the high-standards version is indeed sound, but pretty uninteresting (okay, we don’t have infallible knowledge concerning our hands, so what?); and the low-standards version is interesting but unsound (because we would have to admit to the bizarre situation of not having even fallible knowledge of our hands!).

Finally: the knowledge-that response, which is a type of evidentialist approach. The idea is to point out to the skeptic that the BIV argument is based on a number of highly questionable unstated premises, such as that it is possible to build a BIV, and that someone has actually developed the technology to do so, for instance. But we can deny these premises on grounds of implausibility, just like we would deny, say, the claim that someone has traveled through time via a wormhole on the ground that we don’t have sufficient reasons to entertain the notions that time travel is possible and that someone has been able to implement it technologically. Yes, the skeptics can deny the analogy, but now the burden of proof seems to have shifted to the skeptic, who needs to explain why this is indeed a disanalogy.

Hopefully the above has allowed us to develop at least a general sense of the epistemological landscape and of how people have been exploring and refining it. It is now time to examine another area of philosophical inquiry which, in my mind, clearly makes progress.


[2] You can see how you can generate concept maps of different aspects of discussions about justification, and then proceed to connect distinct conceptual peaks on each map to positions on other maps with which they cohere. I suspect someone could turn this into a really nerdy video game…

[3] How are you doing with that concept map, so far?

[4] The Greek King Pyrrhus of Epirus was one of my favorite historical villains when I was in elementary school and studied ancient Roman history (the Romans, of course, were the good guys for someone growing up in the Eternal City). He did manage the then inconceivable feat of defeating the Roman legions in open battle, especially thanks to his innovation of bringing in elephants — monsters that were hitherto unknown to the Romans. But his victory at Asculum in 279 BCE caused him so many casualties that he had to acknowledge having lost the war.

[5] Although an argument could be made that this is not the most charitable reading of Moore. One could read him instead as putting forth an evidentialist argument: we have evidence that we have hands, but no evidence that we are being deceived.

[6] I know, I know, this is becoming to sound rather Clintonesque. Then again, the former President of the United States did study philosophy at Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar…


BonJour, L. (1999) The Dialectic of Foundationalism and Coherentism. In J. Greco and E. Sosa (eds.), The Blackwell Guide to Epistemology. Blackwell, pp. 117–142.

Conee, E. and Feldman, R. (1985) Evidentialism. Philosophical Studies 48:15–35.

DeRose, K., and Warfield, T. (1999) Skepticism. A Contemporary Reader. Oxford University Press.

Descartes, R. (1637 / 2000) Discourse on Method and Related Writings. Penguin Classics.

DePaul, M. (ed.) (2001) Resurrecting Old-Fashioned Foundationalism. Rowman and Littlefield.

Greco, J. (1999) Agent Reliabilism. Philosophical Perspectives 19:273–96.

Kornblith, H. (2001) Epistemology: Internalism and Externalism. Blackwell.

Lipton, P. (2004) Inference to the Best Explanation. Psychology Press.

Moore, G.E. (1959) Philosophical Papers. Allen and Unwin.

Steup, M. (1999) A Defense of Internalism. In: L.P. Pojman (ed.) The Theory of Knowledge: Classical and Contemporary Readings. Wadsworth, pp. 373–384.

Steup, M. (2005) Epistemology. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (accessed on 26 June 2012).

40 thoughts on “Progress in Philosophy — II

  1. Paul Braterman

    Many thanksfor thhe rest of the series.

    I have learnt here that I am a coherentist, which I suppose is fitting for a natural scientist, when it comes to adopting beliefs, and a contextualist when it comes to justifying them. So it seems to me obvious that there are degrees of strengths of claim to knowledge. I know who the Prime Minister is (but would have to admit that there is a greater than one in a million chance that he has resigned or dropped dead since I last checked the news). With much greater certainty, I know that I have hands (although there is always the possibility that I lost them in an accident, and am hallucinating or dreaming). I would not claim to know that I am not a BIV, because in asking me that question, you are demanding levels of justification that are unattainable. Reading this, I discover that I am treading familiar ground for philosophers; I find this unsurprising and reassuring.

    I do not, however, see how I could invoke plausibility as a criterion for rejecting the suggestion that I am a BIV, without just tying myself up in even tighter knots (how can I justify my claim to know what is, or is not plausible, without begging the question?)

    Liked by 2 people

  2. synred

    how can I justify my claim to know what is, or is not plausible, without begging the question?



  3. brodix

    What if circularity is foundational? That everything is balanced by everything else and even basic premises lack context and completeness without the structures emerging from them. ?

    Another issue with BIV is that in order for there to be the concept of hands, or any larger reality beyond the vat, some process or program must have been run to create and express the need for hands, as an interactive feature of the relationship between the brain and some larger reality. As such this program would have a contrasting relationship between brain and the vat/context. Which would, at some level, require the vat to be as sentient and responsive as the brain. Then the vat would logically be in a larger vat…..

    Which brings to mind a link I posted previously(hopefully not a no no to repost, but it is pertinent to the BIV;

    “One part of this consciousness structure is a set of all possible experiences. When I’m having an experience, based on that experience I may want to change what I’m doing. So I need to have a collection of possible actions I can take and a decision strategy that, given my experiences, allows me to change how I’m acting. That’s the basic idea of the whole thing. I have a space X of experiences, a space G of actions, and an algorithm D that lets me choose a new action given my experiences. Then I posited a W for a world, which is also a probability space. Somehow the world affects my perceptions, so there’s a perception map P from the world to my experiences, and when I act, I change the world, so there’s a map A from the space of actions to the world. That’s the entire structure. Six elements. The claim is: This is the structure of consciousness. I put that out there so people have something to shoot at.

    Gefter: But if there’s a W, are you saying there is an external world?

    Hoffman: Here’s the striking thing about that. I can pull the W out of the model and stick a conscious agent in its place and get a circuit of conscious agents. In fact, you can have whole networks of arbitrary complexity. And that’s the world.”

    Which is to say that WE very much are a brain in a vat, but not as individuals. As individuals, we would be incomplete premises, without the context.

    The feedback is foundational to any feature.


  4. Daniel Kaufman

    A few things:

    1. Coherentists may want to include observation statements as part of their coherent set — so that coherence *does* indicate truth — but do so at the expense of their Coherentism. Observation statements cannot be justified by appeal to coherence. Hence Quine’s two-tiered, quasi-Foundationalist epistemology.

    Not saying the Foundationalist is better off, but that the Coherentist isn’t, either.

    2. There is much more to Moore’s proof than you give it credit for. Indeed, Moore himself, mysteriously, acknowledges in the paper that he has no answer to Cartesian skepticism, even while claiming that he nonetheless knows he has a hand. Wittgenstein recognized that the essay was pregnant with further ideas and not to be taken on its face, which is why he wrote the material that became “On Certainty,” virtually the whole of which is to bring these below-the-surface ideas to the top.

    3. To the extent that you cover the anti-skeptical landscape, I am surprised that there is no mention of the Scottish Naturalist/Philosophy of Common Sense tradition of David Hume and Thomas Reid, one that has interesting and close affinities with the strategy employed by Wittgenstein in “On Certainty.” It is, in my view, by far the most successful way of coping with the skeptic and is described quite nicely by PF Strawson in “Skepticism and Naturalism: Some Varieties.”

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Daniel Kaufman

    On (3), I guess you could lump Wittgenstein in with the contextualists, as I see the SEP does, though I think this is a mistake. And it certainly doesn’t represent the tradition connected to Hume and Reid.


  6. garthdaisy

    Knowledge is like a wave function. Everyone knows what it is until philosophers observe it and then the whole thing collapses. 😉


  7. SocraticGadfly

    I am a non-deontologist, and already knew that, as somewhat a Humean. I’m also a reliabilist and an externalist, which leads back to the problem of skepticism that Massimo tackles later. Finally, I’d say I tilt coherentist, but not totally, in the way that Dan lines it out.

    On the skepticism issue, I’m with him there …. the “as if,” to put it in nonphilosophical terminology is the answer. (I remember reading a small bit of, and more about, Reid, long ago in divinity school.)


    Skepticism … 🙂

    Moore’s response, and reliabilism as the second original justification “working space,” have problems themselves, partially contra Dan. That is, to be precise, are we talking about Academic or Pyrrhonic Skepticism? A true Pyrrhonist rejects probablistic thinking. This, in turn, gets to old debates as to whether Hume was an Academic or a Pyrrhonist in his skepticism, with subarguments about how well he did, or did not, understand the distinction. (Descartes, whether accidentally or willfully, misconstrues aspects of Pyrrhonism, among other things.)

    None of the five “moves,” arguably, work well against Pyrrhonism, and the “knowledge-that” move risks ruling out Gedankenexperimenten in informal logic from philosophy entirely, if pushed too far. The “contextualist” stance would be rejected by a strong Pyrrhonist on the grounds that “high” and “low” standards are normally based on probabilistic lines. Moore’s, I’e already addressed.


  8. Imad Zaheer

    Been out for a while and so much reading to catch up on!

    With regards to this and the previous entry, I’m not entirely sure I agree with the way progress is defined for philosophy even though I’m not quite able to articulate exactly why at the moment. I think part of it is that I think philosophy, like other forms of inquiry is about answering meaningful questions, some of which can be about conceptual spaces but I would want it to go beyond simply exploring peaks.

    I also would like to see the progress more grounded in human activity, in the sense of what conception of knowledge is even important? While I find some of the literature on knowledge and Gettier interesting, as a thorough going fallibilist, I don’t see why it’s so important (I realize that doesn’t undermine the question itself but just a statement of my interest in it). I would much rather focus on how epistemology can give us an account of how “knowledge” is actually gained, how evidence is weighted, etc. It seems to me that knowledge in an infallible sense is very limited and of the interesting variety.

    Skepticism I think is a more interesting topic and one that is brought up a lot in my experience. I don’t really have much to add here as I think fallibilism escapes many of the sharper criticisms of skepticism and stronger forms of skepticism are just disguised dogmatism.

    Oh and disappointed at no mention of foundherentism here but I think it is at the very least part of a new conceptual peak (I’d argue the higher peak using your language). I would think most scientists would find foundherentism to be far more satisfying of an account than either foundationalism or coherentism.

    Liked by 2 people

  9. Robin Herbert

    The problem for me is that a BIV , does have hands He can hold them up and look at them. His word ‘hands’ is referring to those things he is holding up, in other words, his language refers to things that the computer is modelling and not to something in a world where that computer is running.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. SocraticGadfly

    Per one of the essays (a follow-up, and a correction, in some ways, to one by Dennett), in the Dennett-Hofstadter book of philosophical essays, “The Mind’s I,” the way the BIV is normally presented takes a narrow view of consciousness. If one speaks, as Massimo has regularly, of embodied cognition, then there’s no real problem.

    Well, not until the electronics connecting the brain to the body go awry.


    As the likes of Ramachandran and Sacks have both shown, that happens with actual human brains inside actual human body skulls, usually in cases of post-stroke hemispheric neglect. (Technically, in such cases, the person believes they still have a hand, but not hands in the plural.)

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Daniel Kaufman

    “This, in turn, gets to old debates as to whether Hume was an Academic or a Pyrrhonist in his skepticism…”


    He is neither, as he is not a skeptic but a naturalist. The skepticism in the Treatise and Enquiry is there to set up the naturalism. It is not a position Hume takes, as he makes quite explicit at the end of the first Enquiry.

    Liked by 2 people

  12. garthdaisy

    For me, epistemology moving forward is a valley. It’s good we got as far as noticing that we can never seem to know anything for certain, but until scientists figure out what the intrinsic nature of matter is, if ever, I don’t see consensus or progress coming in epistemology.

    If you somehow found out that you most definitely are a BIV, how would it change your life? I’d bet my BIV life the answer is not one damn bit. So why all this concern about whether or not we can know it? It’s good that this valley has been explored, but it’s all valley from here I think. The highest peak in the land of philosophy still seems to be ethics. Some of those peaks disappear into the clouds. Who knows how high they go? First ascents lie ahead me thinks.


  13. brodix


    We might want to know how deep in the valley ethics go as well. To what extent can man fall, before any further becomes meaningless. When even the desire is lost. That might give some clue as to how far he can rise, as well.


  14. SocraticGadfly

    Oh, I’ll certainly disagree with that, and since I’ve seen plenty of discussions about Hume’s skepticism and what type of skeptic he was, I’m not alone. Was Hume’s skepticism tempered by his naturalism? Sure. Was it thrown away by it? No.

    Note, for example, the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s entry on Hume:


  15. Daniel Kaufman

    I believe the skeptical reading of Hume is a substantial misreading. He certainly *employs* skepticism, but he is not, himself, a skeptic.

    This was the great accomplishment of Norman Kemp Smith and pretty much transformed Hume studies since the middle of the last century.

    I posted a number of links, but unfortunately, they got caught in Massimo’s spam catcher. Here they are:

    Norman Kemp Smith, The Philosophy of David Hume: A Critical Study of Its Origins and Central Doctrines (London: Macmillan, 1941)

    H.O. Mounce, Hume’s Naturalism (Routledge, 1999).

    P.F. Strawson, Skepticism and Naturalism: Some Varieties (Columbia University Press, 1985).


  16. Daniel Kaufman

    While at Michigan I took a senior seminar entirely on Hume’s Treatise. The secret to understanding it is to understand that the first Book “Of the Understanding” is subordinate to the second Book “Of the Passions.”


  17. SocraticGadfly

    Well, we’ll probably agree to disagree on this. As noted earlier, I’m re-reading Burnyeat’s “The Skeptical Tradition,” which includes a chapter on “The Tendency of Hume’s Skepticism” by Robert Fogelin. Again, I don’t think Hume should be seen as only a skeptic, but even beyond the Treatise, I don’t think he can be seen post-Treatise without seeing him in part through the lens of skepticism.


  18. SocraticGadfly

    More broadly, I agree with Fogelin, and others, that what happened is that, by the end of the Treatise, Hume basically abandoned Pyrrhonism, but did not totally abandon Skepticism in general. This, in turn, is how arguments arise about “what type of Skeptic was Hume,” because it depends about when in Hume’s life one is talking about.

    This is Fogelin’s thesis in “Hume’s Skeptical Crisis.”


  19. Daniel Kaufman

    He employs skeptical arguments to reveal the bankruptcy of Lockean Empiricism. That’s what the whole thing is about. Once that is cleared away, he then presents an entirely naturalistic account of human thought and behavior.

    This is not a skeptic:

    “Man is a reasonable being; and as such, receives from science his proper food and nourishment: But so narrow are the bounds of human understanding, that little satisfaction can be hoped for in this particular, either from the extent of security or his acquisitions. Man is a sociable, no less than a reasonable being: But neither can he always enjoy company agreeable and amusing, or preserve the proper relish for them. Man is also an active being; and from that disposition, as well as from the various necessities of human life, must submit to business and occupation: But the mind requires some relaxation, and cannot always support its bent to care and industry. It seems, then, that nature has pointed out a mixed kind of life as most suitable to the human race, and secretly admonished them to allow none of these biasses to draw too much, so as to incapacitate them for other occupations and entertainments. Indulge your passion for science, says she, but let your science be human, and such as may have a direct reference to action and society. Abstruse thought and profound researches I prohibit, and will severely punish, by the pensive melancholy which they introduce, by the endless uncertainty in which they involve you, and by the cold reception which your pretended discoveries shall meet with, when communicated. Be a philosopher; but, amidst all your philosophy, be still a man.”

    And neither is this:

    “The great subverter of Pyrrhonism or the excessive principles of scepticism is action, and employment, and the occupations of common life. These principles may flourish and triumph in the schools; where it is, indeed, difficult, if not impossible, to refute them. But as soon as they leave the shade, and by the presence of the real objects, which actuate our passions and sentiments, are put in opposition to the more powerful principles of our nature, they vanish like smoke, and leave the most determined sceptic in the same condition as other mortals…”


    But the real story doesn’t lie just in the quotes. It lies in the entire orientation of his philosophy. Time and time again, Hume shows that the rational investigation into fundamental concepts, such as causality, identity, the external world, obligation, and the like, lead to nothing but skepticism. Were he a skeptic, he would stop there. But he does not. Rather, he goes on to show the natural mechanisms from which we acquire these concepts and then goes even farther and explains why it is folly to resist them.

    That is a naturalist, not a skeptic. Yes, he *employs* skeptical arguments, but he does *not* embrace skeptical conclusions.

    Liked by 2 people

  20. synred

    GarthDasisy: but until scientists figure out what the intrinsic nature of matter is, if ever, I don’t see consensus or progress coming in epistemology.

    I’d love to get to the intrinsic nature of matter, but doubt it will help wit epistemology.

    It’ll be very mathy, and we still won’t know we know, even if we know. We still won’t know the Bayesian priors.

    Liked by 1 person

  21. SocraticGadfly

    Well, I’ll still disagree. And, I’ve read enough Hume myself. And, per your timeline, Fogelin has written repeatedly about Hume in specific, and the empiricists in general, in the second half of the 20th century. Sorry, Dan, but you’re not converting me.


  22. Daniel Kaufman

    Well, all I can do is quote, describe, characterize and explain. If that doesn’t do it, there isn’t much else to do. Certainly playing the “whose experts are better?” game settles nothing.

    So, I will leave you to your Hume-qua-skeptic, and I will return to teaching Hume-qua-naturalist to my students. =)

    Liked by 1 person

  23. SocraticGadfly

    No, there’s not much else to do, since I believe I understand Hume well enough. And, while you teach Hume that way to your students, Fogelin will teach Hume as skeptic but not only skeptic (as I am) …

    to his students at Dartmouth.


  24. Robin Herbert

    Hi garthdaisy,

    “If you somehow found out that you most definitely are a BIV, how would it change your life? I’d bet my BIV life the answer is not one damn bit.”

    The point, as I understand it, is not to cast doubt on reality, but to explore the nature of knowledge.

    However, the answer to your question would seem to hinge on the nature of the world simulation. Are the other people in my life conscious beings who have subjective experience and feelings as I do? Or does the computer just employ tricks to make them seem so, so that they are like characters in a dream with no consciousness or feelings of their own?

    That would appear to make quite a considerable difference.


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