Non Skeptical Essays On Success

Bertrand Arthur William Russell, 3rd Earl Russell (May 18, 1872 – February 2, 1970) was a British philosopher, logician, mathematician, historian, and social critic. In 1950, he was awarded a Nobel Prize in Literature.

See also:
The Problems of Philosophy (1912)
Political Ideals (1917)
Marriage and Morals (1929)
The Conquest of Happiness (1930)
Mortals and Others (1931-35)
A History of Western Philosophy (1945)
Unpopular Essays (1950)
The Impact of Science on Society (1952)
The Autobiography of Bertrand Russell (1967-1969)



  • I do wish I believed in the life eternal, for it makes me quite miserable to think man is merely a kind of machine endowed, unhappily for himself, with consciousness.
    • Greek Exercises (1888); at the age of fifteen, Russell used to write down his reflections in this book, for fear that his people should find out what he was thinking.
  • I should like to believe my people's religion, which was just what I could wish, but alas, it is impossible. I have really no religion, for my God, being a spirit shown merely by reason to exist, his properties utterly unknown, is no help to my life. I have not the parson's comfortable doctrine that every good action has its reward, and every sin is forgiven. My whole religion is this: do every duty, and expect no reward for it, either here or hereafter.
    • Greek Exercises (1888), written two days after his sixteenth birthday.


  • I am looking forward very much to getting back to Cambridge, and being able to say what I think and not to mean what I say: two things which at home are impossible. Cambridge is one of the few places where one can talk unlimited nonsense and generalities without anyone pulling one up or confronting one with them when one says just the opposite the next day.
    • Letter to Alys Pearsall Smith (1893); published in The Selected Letters of Bertrand Russell, Volume 1: The Private Years (1884–1914), edited by Nicholas Griffin
  • Thee will find out in time that I have a great love of professing vile sentiments, I don’t know why, unless it springs from long efforts to avoid priggery.
    • Letter to Alys Pearsall Smith (1894). Smith was a Quaker, thus the archaic use of "Thee" in this and other letters to her.
  • Thee might observe incidentally that if the state paid for child-bearing it might and ought to require a medical certificate that the parents were such as to give a reasonable result of a healthy child – this would afford a very good inducement to some sort of care for the race, and gradually as public opinion became educated by the law, it might react on the law and make that more stringent, until one got to some state of things in which there would be a little genuine care for the race, instead of the present haphazard higgledy-piggledy ways.
    • Letter to Alys Pearsall Smith (1894); published in The Selected Letters of Bertrand Russell, Volume 1: The Private Years (1884–1914), edited by Nicholas Griffin. It should be noted that in his talk of "the race", he is referring to "the human race". Smith married Russell in December 1894; they divorced in 1921.


  • Pure mathematics consists entirely of assertions to the effect that, if such and such a proposition is true of anything, then such and such another proposition is true of that thing. It is essential not to discuss whether the first proposition is really true, and not to mention what the anything is, of which it is supposed to be true. Both these points would belong to applied mathematics. We start, in pure mathematics, from certain rules of inference, by which we can infer that if one proposition is true, then so is some other proposition. These rules of inference constitute the major part of the principles of formal logic. We then take any hypothesis that seems amusing, and deduce its consequences. If our hypothesis is about anything, and not about some one or more particular things, then our deductions constitute mathematics. Thus mathematics may be defined as the subject in which we never know what we are talking about, nor whether what we are saying is true. People who have been puzzled by the beginnings of mathematics will, I hope, find comfort in this definition, and will probably agree that it is accurate.
  • [Unlike the] utilitarian... I judge pleasure and pain to be of small importance compared to knowledge, the appreciation and contemplation of beauty, and a certain intrinsic excellence of mind which, apart from its practical effects, appears to me to deserve the name of virtue. [For] many years it seemed to me perfectly self-evident that pleasure is the only good and pain the only evil. Now, however, the opposite seems to me self-evident.
    What first turned me away from utilitarianism was the persuasion that I myself ought to pursue philosophy, although I had (and have still) no doubt that by doing economics and the theory of politics I could add more to human happiness. It appeared to me that the dignity of which human existence is capable is not attainable by devotion to the mechanism of life, and that unless the contemplation of eternal things is preserved, mankind will become no better than well-fed pigs. But I do not believe that such contemplation on the whole tends to happiness. It gives moments of delight, but these are outweighed by years of effort and depression.
    • Letter to Gilbert Murray, April 3, 1902
  • It seems to me now that mathematics is capable of an artistic excellence as great as that of any music, perhaps greater; not because the pleasure it gives (although very pure) is comparable, either in intensity or in the number of people who feel it, to that of music, but because it gives in absolute perfection that combination, characteristic of great art, of godlike freedom, with the sense of inevitable destiny; because, in fact, it constructs an ideal world where everything is perfect and yet true.
    • Letter to Gilbert Murray, April 3, 1902
  • Again, in regard to actual human existence, I have found myself giving honour to those who feel its tragedy, who think truly about Death, who are oppressed by ignoble things even when they are inevitable; yet these qualities appear to me to militate against happiness, not only to the possessors, but to all whom they affect. And, generally, the best life seems to me one which thinks truly and feels greatly about human things, and which, in addition, contemplates the world of beauty and of abstract truths. This last is, perhaps, my most anti-utilitarian opinion: I hold all knowledge that is concerned with things that actually exist – all that is commonly called Science – to be of very slight value compared to the knowledge which, like philosophy and mathematics, is concerned with ideal and eternal objects, and is freed from this miserable world which God has made.
    [Utilitarians] have been strangely anxious to prove that the life of the pig is not happier than that of the philosopher – a most dubious proposition...
    • Letter to Gilbert Murray, April 3, 1902
  • What a monstrous thing that a University should teach journalism! I thought that was only done at Oxford. This respect for the filthy multitude is ruining civilisation.
    • Letter to Lucy Martin Donnely, July 6, 1902
  • Only in thought is man a God; in action and desire we are the slaves of circumstance.
    • Letter to Lucy Donnely, November 25, 1902
  • Philosophy seems to me on the whole a rather hopeless business.
    • Letter to Gilbert Murray, December 28, 1902
  • Pure Mathematics is the class of all propositions of the form “p implies q,” where p and q are propositions containing one or more variables, the same in the two propositions, and neither p nor q contains any constants except logical constants. And logical constants are all notions definable in terms of the following: Implication, the relation of a term to a class of which it is a member, the notion of such that, the notion of relation, and such further notions as may be involved in the general notion of propositions of the above form. In addition to these, mathematics uses a notion which is not a constituent of the propositions which it considers, namely the notion of truth.
  • The fact that all Mathematics is Symbolic Logic is one of the greatest discoveries of our age; and when this fact has been established, the remainder of the principles of mathematics consists in the analysis of Symbolic Logic itself.
    • Principles of Mathematics (1903), Ch. I: Definition of Pure Mathematics, p. 5
  • I may as well say at once that I do not distinguish between inference and deduction. What is called induction appears to me to be either disguised deduction or a mere method of making plausible guesses.
    • Principles of Mathematics (1903), Ch. II: Symbolic Logic, p. 11
  • What does not exist must be something, or it would be meaningless to deny its existence; and hence we need the concept of being, as that which belongs even to the non-existent.
    • Principles of Mathematics (1903), p. 450
  • Arithmetic must be discovered in just the same sense in which Columbus discovered the West Indies, and we no more create numbers than he created the Indians.
    • Principles of Mathematics (1903), p. 451
  • I have been merely oppressed by the weariness and tedium and vanity of things lately: nothing stirs me, nothing seems worth doing or worth having done: the only thing that I strongly feel worth while would be to murder as many people as possible so as to diminish the amount of consciousness in the world. These times have to be lived through: there is nothing to be done with them.
    • Letter to Gilbert Murray, March 21, 1903
  • It is true that numerous instances are not always necessary to establish a law, provided the essential and relevant circumstances can easily be disentangled. But, in history, so many circumstances of a small and accidental nature are relevant, that no broad and simple uniformities are possible. Where our main endeavour is to discover general laws, we regard these as intrinsically more valuable than any of the facts which they inter-connect. In astronomy, the law of gravitation is plainly better worth knowing than the position of a particular planet on a particular night, or even on every night throughout a year. There are in the law a splendour and simplicity and sense of mastery which illuminate a mass of otherwise uninteresting details... But in history the matter is far otherwise... Historical facts, many of them, have an intrinsic value, a profound interest on their own account, which makes them worthy of study, quite apart from any possibility of linking them together by means of causal laws.
  • The past alone is truly real: the present is but a painful, struggling birth into the immutable being of what is no longer. Only the dead exist fully. The lives of the living are fragmentary, doubtful, and subject to change; but the lives of the dead are complete, free from the sway of Time, the all but omnipotent lord of the world. Their failures and successes, their hopes and fears, their joys and pains, have become eternal—our efforts cannot now abate one jot of them. Sorrows long buried in the grave, tragedies of which only a fading memory remains, loves immortalized by Death's hallowing touch these have a power, a magic, an untroubled calm, to which no present can attain. ...On the banks of the river of Time, the sad procession of human generations is marching slowly to the grave; in the quiet country of the Past, the march is ended, the tired wanderers rest, and the weeping is hushed.
  • A logical theory may be tested by its capacity for dealing with puzzles, and it is a wholesome plan, in thinking about logic, to stock the mind with as many puzzles as possible, since these serve much the same purpose as is served by experiments in physical science.
    • "On Denoting", Mind, Vol. 14, No. 56 (October 1905), pp. 479–493; as reprinted in Logic and Knowledge: Essays, 1901–1950, (1956)
  • All's well that ends well; which is the epitaph I should put on my tombstone if I were the last man left alive.
    • Letter to Lucy Donnely, April 22, 1906
  • We tend to believe the premises because we can see that their consequences are true, instead of believing the consequences because we know the premises to be true. But the inferring of premises from consequences is the essence of induction; thus the method in investigating the principles of mathematics is really an inductive method, and is substantially the same as the method of discovering general laws in any other science.
    • "The Regressive Method of Discovering the Premises of Mathematics" (1907), in Essays in Analysis (1973), pp. 273–274
  • Take the question whether other people exist. ...It is plain that it makes for happiness to believe that they exist – for even the greatest misanthropist would not wish to be deprived of the objects of his hate. Hence the belief that other people exist is, pragmatically, a true belief. But if I am troubled by solipsism, the discovery that a belief in the existence of others is 'true' in the pragmatist's sense is not enough to allay my sense of loneliness: the perception that I should profit by rejecting solipsism is not alone sufficient to make me reject it. For what I desire is not that the belief in solipsism should be false in the pragmatic sense, but that other people should in fact exist. And with the pragmatist's meaning of truth, these two do not necessarily go together. The belief in solipsism might be false even if I were the only person or thing in the universe.
    • "William James's Conception of Truth" [1908], published in Philosophical Essays (London, 1910)
  • Ironclads and Maxim guns must be the ultimate arbiters of metaphysical truth.
    • Quoted in The Edinburgh Review: Or Critical Journal, Vol. 209 (1909), p. 387

A Free Man's Worship (1903)[edit]

  • That Man is the product of causes that had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve individual life beyond the grave; that all the labors of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of Man's achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins – all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand. Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul's habitation henceforth be safely built.
  • In spite of Death, the mark and seal of the parental control, Man is yet free, during his brief years, to examine, to criticise, to know, and in imagination to create. To him alone, in the world with which he is acquainted, this freedom belongs; and in this lies his superiority to the resistless forces that control his outward life.
  • In action, in desire, we must submit perpetually to the tyranny of outside forces; but in thought, in aspiration, we are free, free from our fellowmen, free from the petty planet on which our bodies impotently crawl, free even, while we live, from the tyranny of death.
  • Indignation is a submission of our thoughts, but not of our desires.
  • Freedom comes only to those who no longer ask of life that it shall yield them any of those personal goods that are subject to the mutations of time.
  • The slave is doomed to worship time and fate and death, because they are greater than anything he finds in himself, and because all his thoughts are of things which they devour.
  • The life of man is a long march through the night, surrounded by invisible foes, tortured by weariness and pain, towards a goal that few can hope to reach, and where none may tarry long.
  • Brief and powerless is Man's life; on him and all his race the slow, sure doom falls pitiless and dark.

"The Study of Mathematics" (November 1907)[edit]

  • To those who inquire as to the purpose of mathematics, the usual answer will be that it facilitates the making of machines, the travelling from place to place, and the victory over foreign nations, whether in war or commerce. … The reasoning faculty itself is generally conceived, by those who urge its cultivation, as merely a means for the avoidance of pitfalls and a help in the discovery of rules for the guidance of practical life.
  • Mathematics, rightly viewed, possesses not only truth, but supreme beauty – a beauty cold and austere, like that of sculpture, without appeal to any part of our weaker nature, without the gorgeous trappings of painting or music, yet sublimely pure, and capable of a stern perfection such as only the greatest art can show. The true spirit of delight, the exaltation, the sense of being more than Man, which is the touchstone of highest excellence, is to be found in mathematics as surely as in poetry. What is best in mathematics deserves not merely to be learnt as a task, but to be assimilated as a part of daily thought, and brought again and again before the mind with ever-renewed encouragement.
  • Real life is, to most men, a long second-best, a perpetual compromise between the ideal and the possible; but the world of pure reason knows no compromise, no practical limitations, no barrier to the creative activity embodying in splendid edifices the passionate aspiration after the perfect from which all great work springs. Remote from human passions, remote even from the pitiful facts of nature, the generations have gradually created an ordered cosmos, where pure thought can dwell as in its natural home, and where one, at least, of our nobler impulses can escape from the dreary exile of the actual world.
  • The rules of logic are to mathematics what those of structure are to architecture.
  • Mathematics takes us still further from what is human, into the region of absolute necessity, to which not only the world, but every possible world, must conform.


  • The number of syllables in the English names of finite integers tends to increase as the integers grow larger, and must gradually increase indefinitely, since only a finite number of names can be made with a given finite number of syllables. Hence the names of some integers must consist of at least nineteen syllables, and among these there must be a least. Hence "the least integer not nameable in fewer than nineteen syllables" must denote a definite integer; in fact, it denotes 111, 777. But "the least integer not nameable in fewer than nineteen syllables" is itself a name consisting of eighteen syllables; hence the least integer not nameable in fewer than nineteen syllables can be named in eighteen syllables, which is a contradiction. This contradiction was suggested to us by Mr. G. G. Berry of the Bodleian Library.
  • I like mathematics because it is not human and has nothing particular to do with this planet or with the whole accidental universe – because, like Spinoza's God, it won't love us in return.
    • Letter to Lady Ottoline Morrell, March, 1912, as quoted in Gaither's Dictionary of Scientific Quotations (2012), p. 1318
      The above proposition is occasionally useful.
  • Life seems to me essentially passion, conflict, rage... It is only intellect that keeps me sane; perhaps this makes me overvalue intellect against feeling.
    • Letter to Lady Ottoline Morrell in 1912, as quoted in Clark The life of Bertrand Russell (1976), p. 174
  • The above proposition is occasionally useful.
    • Comment after the proof that 1+1=2, completed in Principia Mathematica, Volume II, 1st edition (1912), page 86
  • When people begin to philosophize they seem to think it necessary to make themselves artificially stupid.
    • Theory of Knowledge (1913)
  • People are said to believe in God, or to disbelieve in Adam and Eve. But in such cases what is believed or disbelieved is that there is an entity answering a certain description. This, which can be believed or disbelieved is quite different from the actual entity (if any) which does answer the description. Thus the matter of belief is, in all cases, different in kind from the matter of sensation or presentation, and error is in no way analogous to hallucination. A hallucination is a fact, not an error; what is erroneous is a judgment based upon it.
    • On the Nature of Acquaintance: Neutral Monism (1914)
  • In the revolt against idealism, the ambiguities of the word “experience” have been perceived, with the result that realists have more and more avoided the word. It is to be feared, however, that if the word is avoided the confusions of thought with which it has been associated may persist.
    • On the Nature of Acquaintance: Neutral Monism (1914)
  • Of all evils of war the greatest is the purely spiritual evil: the hatred, the injustice, the repudiation of truth, the artificial conflict.
    • Justice in War-Time (1916), p. 27
  • No nation was ever so virtuous as each believes itself, and none was ever so wicked as each believes the other.
    • Justice in War-Time (1916), p. 70
  • Righteousness cannot be born until self-righteousness is dead.
    • Justice in War-Time (1916), p. 192
  • It seems clear to me that marriage ought to be constituted by children, and relations not involving children ought to be ignored by the law and treated as indifferent by public opinion. It is only through children that relations cease to be a purely private matter.
    • Letter to Ottoline Morrell, January 30, 1916
  • I don't care for the applause one gets by saying what others are thinking; I want actually to change people's thoughts. Power over people's minds is the main personal desire of my life; and this sort of power is not acquired by saying popular things.
    • Letter to Lucy Martin Donnelly, February 10, 1916
  • I don't like the spirit of socialism – I think freedom is the basis of everything.
    • Letter to Constance Malleson (Colette), September 29, 1916
  • [One] must look into hell before one has any right to speak of heaven.
    • Letter to Colette O'Niel, October 23, 1916; published in The Selected Letters of Bertrand Russell: The Public Years, 1914-1970, p. 87
  • I hate the world and almost all the people in it. I hate the Labour Congress and the journalists who send men to be slaughtered, and the fathers who feel a smug pride when their sons are killed, and even the pacifists who keep saying human nature is essentially good, in spite of all the daily proofs to the contrary. I hate the planet and the human race – I am ashamed to belong to such a species.
    • Letter to Colette, December 28, 1916.
      It is preoccupation with possession, more than anything else, that prevents men from living freely and nobly.
  • How much good it would do if one could exterminate the human race.
    • A characteristic saying of Russell, reported in a letter of 8 October 1917 to Lady Ottoline Morrell, by Aldous Huxley (p. 395); Bibliography of Bertrand Russell (Routledge, 2013)
  • It is preoccupation with possession, more than anything else, that prevents men from living freely and nobly.
    • Principles of Social Reconstruction (1917)
  • The principal source of the harm done by the State is the fact that power is its chief end.
    • Principles of Social Reconstruction (1917)
  • That I, a funny little gesticulating animal on two legs, should stand beneath the stars and declaim in a passion about my rights – it seems so laughable, so out of all proportion. Much better, like Archimedes, to be killed because of absorption in eternal things...
    There is a possibility in human minds of something mysterious as the night-wind, deep as the sea, calm as the stars, and strong as Death, a mystic contemplation, the "intellectual love of God." Those who have known it cannot believe in wars any longer, or in any kind of hot struggle. If I could give to others what has come to me in this way, I could make them too feel the futility of fighting. But I do not know how to communicate it: when I speak, they stare, applaud, or smile, but do not understand.
    • Letter to Miss Rinder, July 30, 1918
  • What a queer work the Bible is.
    ...Some texts are very funny. Deut. XXIV, 5: "When a man hath taken a new wife, he shall not go out to war, neither shall he be charged with any business: but he shall be free at home one year, and shall cheer up his wife which he hath taken." I should never have guessed "cheer up" was a Biblical expression. Here is another really inspiring text: "Cursed be he that lieth with his mother-in-law. And all the people shall say, Amen." St Paul on marriage: "I say therefore to the unmarried and widows, It is good for them if they abide even as I. But if they cannot contain, let them marry: for it is better to marry than to burn." This has remained the doctrine of the Church to this day. It is clear that the Divine purpose in the text "it is better to marry than to burn" is to make us all feel how very dreadful the torments of Hell must be.
    • Letter to Colette, August 10, 1918
  • In the visible world, the Milky Way is a tiny fragment; within this fragment, the solar system is an infinitesimal speck, and of this speck our planet is a microscopic dot. On this dot, tiny lumps of impure carbon and water, of complicated structure, with somewhat unusual physical and chemical properties, crawl about for a few years, until they are dissolved again into the elements of which they are compounded. They divide their time between labour designed to postpone the moment of dissolution for themselves and frantic struggles to hasten it for others of their kind.
  • No man is liberated from fear who dare not see his place in the world as it is; no man can achieve the greatness of which he is capable until he has allowed himself to see his own littleness.

The Problems of Philosophy (1912)[edit]

Main article: The Problems of Philosophy

  • Is there any knowledge in the world which is so certain that no reasonable man could doubt it?
  • Philosophy, if it cannot answer so many questions as we could wish, has at least the power of asking questions which increase the interest of the world, and show the strangeness and wonder lying just below the surface even in the commonest things of daily life.
  • Philosophy is to be studied, not for the sake of any definite answers to its questions, since no definite answers can, as a rule, be known to be true, but rather for the sake of the questions themselves; because these questions enlarge our conception of what is possible, enrich our intellectual imagination and diminish the dogmatic assurance which closes the mind against speculation; but above all because, through the greatness of the universe which philosophy contemplates, the mind is also rendered great, and becomes capable of that union with the universe which constitutes its highest good.
  • For example, a man who had seen a great many white swans might argue, by our principle, that on the data it was probable that all swans were white, and this might be a perfectly sound argument. The argument is not disproved by the fact that some swans are black, because a thing may very well happen in spite of the fact that some data render it improbable. In the case of the swans, a man might know that colour is a very variable characteristic in many species of animals, and that, therefore, an induction as to colour is peculiarly liable to error. But this knowledge would be a fresh datum, by no means proving that the probability relatively to our previous data had been wrongly estimated. The fact, therefore, that things often fail to fulfill our expectations is no evidence that our expectations will not probably be fulfilled in a given case or a given class of cases. Thus our inductive principle is at any rate not capable of being disproved by an appeal to experience. The inductive principle, however, is equally incapable of being proved by an appeal to experience.

Our Knowledge of the External World (1914)[edit]

  • The conception of the necessary unit of all that is resolves itself into the poverty of the imagination, and a freer logic emancipates us from the straitwaistcoated benevolent institution which idealism palms off as the totality of being.
  • The true function of logic … as applied to matters of experience … is analytic rather than constructive; taken a priori, it shows the possibility of hitherto unsuspected alternatives more often than the impossibility of alternatives which seemed prima facie possible. Thus, while it liberates imagination as to what the world may be, it refuses to legislate as to what the world is.
  • In fact the opposition of instinct and reason is mainly illusory. Instinct, intuition, or insight is what first leads to the beliefs which subsequent reason confirms or confutes; but the confirmation, where it is possible, consists, in the last analysis, of agreement with other beliefs no less instinctive. Reason is a harmonising, controlling force rather than a creative one. Even in the most purely logical realms, it is insight that first arrives at what is new.
  • Every philosophical problem, when it is subjected to the necessary analysis and justification, is found either to be not really philosophical at all, or else to be, in the sense in which we are using the word, logical.
  • We are thus led to a somewhat vague distinction between what we may call "hard" data and "soft" data. This distinction is a matter of degree, and must not be pressed; but if not taken too seriously it may help to make the situation clear. I mean by "hard" data those which resist the solvent influence of critical reflection, and by " soft " data those which, under the operation of this process, become to our minds more or less doubtful.
  • Both in thought and in feeling, even though time be real, to realise the unimportance of time is the gate of wisdom.

Why Men Fight (1917)[edit]

  • There are three forces on the side of life which require no exceptional mental endowment, which are not very rare at present, and might be very common under better social institutions. They are love, the instinct of constructiveness, and the joy of life. All three are checked and enfeebled at present by the conditions under which men live—not only the less outwardly fortunate, but also the majority of the well-to-do. Our institutions rest upon injustice and authority: it is only by closing our hearts against sympathy and our minds against truth that we can endure the oppressions and unfairnesses by which we profit. The conventional conception of what constitutes success leads most men to live a life in which their most vital impulses are sacrificed, and the joy of life is lost in listless weariness. Our economic system compels almost all men to carry out the purposes of others rather than their own, making them feel impotent in action and only able to secure a certain modicum of passive pleasure. All these things destroy the vigor of the community, the expansive affections of individuals, and the power of viewing the world generously. All these things are unnecessary and can be ended by wisdom and courage. If they were ended, the impulsive life of men would become wholly different, and the human race might travel towards a new happiness and a new vigor.
  • The power of the State may be brought to bear, as it often is in England, through public opinion rather than through the laws. By oratory and the influence of the Press, public opinion is largely created by the State, and a tyrannous public opinion is as great an enemy to liberty as tyrannous laws. If the young man who will not fight finds that he is dismissed from his employment, insulted in the streets, cold-shouldered by his friends, and thrown over with scorn by any woman who may formerly have liked him, he will feel the penalty quite as hard to bear as a death sentence. A free community requires not only legal freedom, but a tolerant public opinion, an absence of that instinctive inquisition into our neighbors' affairs which, under the guise of upholding a high moral standard, enables good people to indulge unconsciously a disposition to cruelty and persecution. Thinking ill of others is not in itself a good reason for thinking well of ourselves. But so long as this is not recognized, and so long as the State can manufacture public opinion, except in the rare cases where it is revolutionary, public opinion must be reckoned as a definite part of the power of the State.
  • Men fear thought as they fear nothing else on earth – more than ruin, more even than death. Thought is subversive and revolutionary, destructive and terrible; thought is merciless to privilege, established institutions, and comfortable habits; thought is anarchic and lawless, indifferent to authority, careless of the well-tried wisdom of the ages. Thought looks into the pit of hell and is not afraid. It sees man, a feeble speck, surrounded by unfathomable depths of silence; yet it bears itself proudly, as unmoved as if it were lord of the universe. Thought is great and swift and free, the light of the world, and the chief glory of man.

Political Ideals (1917)[edit]

Main article: Political Ideals

  • Political ideals must be based upon ideals for the individual life. The aim of politics should be to make the lives of individuals as good as possible.
  • The best life is the one in which the creative impulses play the largest part and the possessive impulses the smallest.

The Philosophy of Logical Atomism (1918)[edit]

  • An extra-terrestrial philosopher, who had watched a single youth up to the age of twenty-one and had never come across any other human being, might conclude that it is the nature of human beings to grow continually taller and wiser in an indefinite progress towards perfection; and this generalization would be just as well founded as the generalization which evolutionists base upon the previous history of this planet.
  • The process of philosophizing, to my mind, consists mainly in passing from those obvious, vague, ambiguous things, that we feel quite sure of, to something precise, clear, definite, which by reflection and analysis we find is involved in the vague thing that we start from, and is, so to speak, the real truth of which that vague thing is a sort of shadow.
  • I do not pretend to start with precise questions. I do not think you can start with anything precise. You have to achieve such precision as you can, as you go along.
  • My desire and wish is that the things I start with should be so obvious that you wonder why I spend my time stating them. This is what I aim at because the point of philosophy is to start with something so simple as not to seem worth stating, and to end with something so paradoxical that no one will believe it.
  • The reason that I call my doctrine logical atomism is because the atoms that I wish to arrive at as the sort of last residue in analysis are logical atoms and not physical atoms. Some of them will be what I call "particulars" – such things as little patches of color or sounds, momentary things – and some of them will be predicates or relations and so on.
  • To understand a name you must be acquainted with the particular of which it is a name.
  • In a logically perfect language, there will be one word and no more for every simple object, and everything that is not simple will be expressed by a combination of words, by a combination derived, of course, from the words for the simple things that enter in, one word for each simple component.

Mysticism and Logic and Other Essays (1918)[edit]

  • Mysticism is, in essence, little more than a certain intensity and depth of feeling in regard to what is believed about the universe.
    • Ch. 1: Mysticism and Logic
  • The facts of science, as they appeared to him [Heraclitus], fed the flame in his soul, and in its light, he saw into the depths of the world.
    • Ch. 1: Mysticism and Logic
  • Reason is a harmonising, controlling force rather than a creative one.
    • Ch. 1: Mysticism and Logic
  • The theoretical understanding of the world, which is the aim of philosophy, is not a matter of great practical importance to animals, or to savages, or even to most civilized men.
    • Ch. 1: Mysticism and Logic
  • When the intensity of emotional conviction subsides, a man who is in the habit of reasoning will search for logical grounds in favour of the belief which he finds in himself.
    • Ch. 1: Mysticism and Logic
  • A truer image of the world, I think, is obtained by picturing things as entering into the stream of time from an eternal world outside, than from a view which regards time as the devouring tyrant of all that is.
    • Ch. 1: Mysticism and Logic
  • A process which led from the amœba to man appeared to the philosophers to be obviously a progress – though whether the amœba would agree with this opinion is not known.
    • Ch. 1: Mysticism and Logic
  • Those who forget good and evil and seek only to know the facts are more likely to achieve good than those who view the world through the distorting medium of their own desires.
    • Ch. 1: Mysticism and Logic
  • In science men have discovered an activity of the very highest value in which they are no longer, as in art, dependent for progress upon the appearance of continually greater genius, for in science the successors stand upon the shoulders of their predecessors; where one man of supreme genius has invented a method, a thousand lesser men can apply it.
    • Ch. 2: The Place of Science in a Liberal Education
  • A life devoted to science is therefore a happy life, and its happiness is derived from the very best sources that are open to dwellers on this troubled and passionate planet.
    • Ch. 2: The Place of Science in a Liberal Education
  • Such... but even more purposeless, more void of meaning, is the world which Science presents for our belief. Amid such a world, if anywhere, our ideals henceforward must find a home. That Man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labours of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of Man's achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the débris of a universe in ruins—all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain, that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand. Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul's habitation henceforth be safely built.
    • Ch. 3: A Free Man's Worship
  • The scientific attitude of mind involves a sweeping away of all other desires in the interests of the desire to know—it involves suppression of hopes and fears, loves and hates, and the whole subjective emotional life, until we become subdued to the material, able to see it frankly, without preconceptions, without bias, without any wish except to see it as it is, and without any belief that what it is must be determined by some relation, positive or negative, to what we should like it to be, or to what we can easily imagine it to be.
  • Every great study is not only an end in itself, but also a means of creating and sustaining a lofty habit of mind.
    • Ch. 4: The Study of Mathematics
  • The Calculus required continuity, and continuity was supposed to require the infinitely little; but nobody could discover what the infinitely little might be.
    • Ch. 5: Mathematics and the Metaphysicians
  • If any philosopher had been asked for a definition of infinity, he might have produced some unintelligible rigmarole, but he would certainly not have been able to give a definition that had any meaning at all.
    • Ch. 5: Mathematics and the Metaphysicians
  • Thus mathematics may be defined as the subject in which we never know what we are talking about, nor whether what we are saying is true.
    • Ch. 5: Mathematics and the Metaphysicians
  • An extra-terrestrial philosopher, who had watched a single youth up to the age of twenty-one and had never come across any other human being, might conclude that it is the nature of human beings to grow continually taller and wiser in an indefinite progress towards perfection; and this generalisation would be just as well founded as the generalisation which evolutionists base upon the previous history of this planet.
    • Ch. 6: On the Scientific Method in Philosophy.
      Ethics is in origin the art of recommending to others the sacrifices required for co-operation with oneself.
  • Organic life, we are told, has developed gradually from the protozoon to the philosopher, and this development, we are assured, is indubitably an advance. Unfortunately it is the philosopher, not the protozoon, who gives us this assurance.
    • Ch. 6: On the Scientific Method in Philosophy
  • Ethics is in origin the art of recommending to others the sacrifices required for co-operation with oneself.
    • Ch. 6: On the Scientific Method in Philosophy
  • The law of causality, I believe, like much that passes muster among philosophers, is a relic of a bygone age, surviving, like the monarchy, only because it is erroneously supposed to do no harm.
    • Ch. 9: On the Notion of Cause

Proposed Roads To Freedom (1918)[edit]

  • The great majority of men and women, in ordinary times, pass through life without ever contemplating or criticising, as a whole, either their own conditions or those of the world at large. They find themselves born into a certain place in society, and they accept what each day brings forth, without any effort of thought beyond what the immediate present requires. Almost as instinctively as the beasts of the field, they seek the satisfaction of the needs of the moment, without much forethought, and without considering that by sufficient effort the whole conditions of their lives could be changed.
  • My own opinion—which I may as well indicate at the outset—is that pure Anarchism, though it should be the ultimate ideal, to which society should continually approximate, is for the present impossible, and would not survive more than a year or two at most if it were adopted. On the other hand, both Marxian Socialism and Syndicalism, in spite of many drawbacks, seem to me calculated to give rise to a happier and better world than that in which we live. I do not, however, regard either of them as the best practicable system. Marxian Socialism, I fear, would give far too much power to the State, while Syndicalism, which aims at abolishing the State, would, I believe, find itself forced to reconstruct a central authority in order to put an end to the rivalries of different groups of producers. The best practicable system, to my mind, is that of Guild Socialism, which concedes what is valid both in the claims of the State Socialists and in the Syndicalist fear of the State, by adopting a system of federalism among trades for reasons similar to those which are recommending federalism among nations.
  • Whatever bitterness and hate may be found in the movements which we are to examine, it is not bitterness or hate, but love, that is their mainspring. It is difficult not to hate those who torture the objects of our love. Though difficult, it is not impossible; but it requires a breadth of outlook and a comprehensiveness of understanding which are not easy to preserve amid a desperate contest. If ultimate wisdom has not always been preserved by Socialists and Anarchists, they have not differed in this from their opponents; and in the source of their inspiration they have shown themselves superior to those who acquiesce ignorantly or supinely in the injustices and oppressions by which the existing system is preserved.
  • [T]he plan we are advocating amounts essentially to this: that a certain small income, sufficient for necessaries, should be secured to all, whether they work or not, and that a larger income, as much larger as might be warranted by the total amount of commodities produced, should be given to those who are willing to engage in some work which the community recognizes as useful.
    • Ch. IV: Work and Pay, discussing Universal Basic Income (UBI)
  • [Freedom] is the greatest of political goods. I do not say freedom is the greatest of all goods: the best things come from within—they are such things as creative art, and love, and thought. Such things can be helped or hindered by political conditions, but not actually produced by them; and freedom is, both in itself and in its relation to these other goods the best thing that political and economic conditions can secure.
    • Ch. V: Government and Law, p. 75
  • Many of the actions by which men have become rich are far more harmful to the community than the obscure crimes of poor men, yet they go unpunished because they do not interfere with the existing order.
    • Ch. V: Government and Law
  • If a man is offered a fact which goes against his instincts, he will scrutinize it closely, and unless the evidence is overwhelming, he will refuse to believe it. If, on the other hand, he is offered something which affords a reason for acting in accordance with his instincts, he will accept it even on the slenderest evidence. The origin of myths is explained in this way.
    • Ch. VI: International relations, p. 97
  • I believe that the abolition of private ownership of land and capital is a necessary step toward any world in which the nations are to live at peace with one another.
    • Ch. VI: International relations, p. 99
  • A world full of happiness is not beyond human power to create; the obstacles imposed by inanimate nature are not insuperable. The real obstacles lie in the heart of man, and the cure for these is a firm hope, informed and fortified by thought.
    • Ch. VI: International relations, p. 106
  • Those who have been inspired to action by the doctrine of the class war will have acquired the habit of hatred, and will instinctively seek new enemies when the old ones have been vanquished. But in actual fact the psychology of the working man in any of the Western democracies is totally unlike that which is assumed in the Communist Manifesto. He does not by any means feel that he has nothing to lose but his chains, nor indeed is this true. The chains which bind Asia and Africa in subjection to Europe are partly riveted by him. He is himself part of a great system of tyranny and exploitation. Universal freedom would remove, not only his own chains, which are comparatively light, but the far heavier chains which he has helped to fasten upon the subject races of the world.
    • Ch. VI: International Relations
  • One of the most horrible things about commercialism is the way in which it poisons the relations of men and women. The evils of prostitution are generally recognized, but, great as they are, the effect of economic conditions on marriage seems to me even worse. There is not infrequently, in marriage, a suggestion of purchase, of acquiring a woman on condition of keeping her in a certain standard of material comfort. Often and often, a marriage hardly differs from prostitution except by being harder to escape from. The whole basis of these evils is economic. Economic causes make marriage a matter of bargain and contract, in which affection is quite secondary, and its absence constitutes no recognized reason for liberation. Marriage should be a free, spontaneous meeting of mutual instinct, filled with happiness not unmixed with a feeling akin to awe: it should involve that degree of respect of each for the other that makes even the most trifling interference with liberty an utter impossibility, and a common life enforced by one against the will of the other an unthinkable thing of deep horror.
    • Ch VIII: The World As It Could Be Made, p. 129-130
  • Government by majorities can be made less oppressive by devolution, by placing the decision of questions primarily affecting only a section of the community in the hands of that section, rather than of a Central Chamber. In this way, men are no longer forced to submit to decisions made in a hurry by people mostly ignorant of the matter in hand and not personally interested.
    • Ch VIII: The World As It Could Be Made

Introduction to Mathematical Philosophy (1919)[edit]

  • The method of "postulating" what we want has many advantages; they are the same as the advantages of theft over honest toil.
    • Ch. 7: Rational, Real and Complex Numbers
  • The question of "unreality," which confronts us at this point, is a very important one. Misled by grammar, the great majority of those logicians who have dealt with this question have dealt with it on mistaken lines. They have regarded grammatical form as a surer guide in analysis than, in fact, it is. And they have not known what differences in grammatical form are important.
  • For want of the apparatus of propositional functions, many logicians have been driven to the conclusion that there are unreal objects. It is argued, e.g., by Meinong, that we can speak about "the golden mountain," "the round square," and so on; we can make true propositions of which these are the subjects; hence they must have some kind of logical being, since otherwise the propositions in which they occur would be meaningless. In such theories, it seems to me, there is a failure of that feeling for reality which ought to be preserved even in the most abstract studies. Logic, I should maintain, must no more admit a unicorn than zoology can; for logic is concerned with the real world just as truly as zoology, though with its more abstract and general features.
  • In obedience to the feeling of reality, we shall insist that, in the analysis of propositions, nothing "unreal" is to be admitted. But, after all, if there is nothing unreal, how, it may be asked, could we admit anything unreal? The reply is that, in dealing with propositions, we are dealing in the first instance with symbols, and if we attribute significance to groups of symbols which have no significance, we shall fall into the error of admitting unrealities, in the only sense in which this is possible, namely, as objects described.
  • So much of modern mathematical work is obviously on the border-line of logic, so much of modern logic is symbolic and formal, that the very close relationship of logic and mathematics has become obvious to every instructed student. The proof of their identity is, of course, a matter of detail: starting with premisses which would be universally admitted to belong to logic, and arriving by deduction at results which as obviously belong to mathematics, we find that there is no point at which a sharp line can be drawn, with logic to the left and mathematics to the right. If there are still those who do not admit the identity of logic and mathematics, we may challenge them to indicate at what point, in the successive definitions and deductions of Principia Mathematica, they consider that logic ends and mathematics begins. It will then be obvious that any answer must be quite arbitrary.
    • Ch. 18: Mathematics and Logic


  • People seem good while they are oppressed, but they only wish to become oppressors in their turn: life is nothing but a competition to be the criminal rather than the victim.
    • Letter to Ottoline Morrell, 17 December, 1920
  • I must confess that I am unable to appreciate the merits of Confucius. His writings are largely occupied with trivial points of etiquette, and his main concern is to teach people how to behave correctly on various occasions. When one compares him, however, with the traditional religious teachers of some other ages and races, one must admit that he has great merits, even if they are mainly negative. His system, as developed by his followers, is one of pure ethics, without religious dogma; it has not given rise to a powerful priesthood, and it has not led to persecution. It certainly has succeeded in producing a whole nation possessed of exquisite manners and perfect courtesy. Nor is Chinese courtesy merely conventional; it is quite as reliable in situations for which no precedent has been provided. And it is not confined to one class; it exists even in the humblest coolie. It is humiliating to watch the brutal insolence of white men received by the Chinese with a quiet dignity which cannot demean itself to answer rudeness with rudeness. Europeans often regard this as weakness, but it is really strength, the strength by which the Chinese have hitherto conquered all their conquerors.
    • The Problem of China (1922), Ch. XI: Chinese and Western Civilization Contrasted
  • The typical Westerner wishes to be the cause of as many changes as possible in his environment; the typical Chinaman wishes to enjoy as much and as delicately as possible.
    • The Problem of China (1922), Ch. XII: The Chinese Character
  • Nine-tenths of the activities of a modern Government are harmful; therefore the worse they are performed, the better.
    • The Problem of China (1922), Ch. XII: The Chinese Character
  • The Chinese are a great nation, incapable of permanent suppression by foreigners. They will not consent to adopt our vices in order to acquire military strength; but they are willing to adopt our virtues in order to advance in wisdom. I think they are the only people in the world who quite genuinely believe that wisdom is more precious than rubies. That is why the West regards them as uncivilized.
    • The Problem of China (1922), Ch. XIII: Higher education in China
  • Mystery is delightful, but unscientific, since it depends upon ignorance.
  • There is no logical impossibility in the hypothesis that the world sprang into being five minutes ago, exactly as it then was, with a population that "remembered" a wholly unreal past. There is no logically necessary connection between events at different times; therefore nothing that is happening now or will happen in the future can disprove the hypothesis that the world began five minutes ago.
    • The Analysis of Mind (1921), Lecture IX: Memory, p. 159
  • The supreme maxim in scientific philosophising is this: wherever possible, logical constructions are to be substituted for inferred entities.
    • Quoted in Hawes The Logic of Contemporary English Realism (1923), p. 110; cf. Ockham's maxim: entia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitatem.
      Most people would die sooner than think – in fact they do so.
  • All traditional logic habitually assumes that precise symbols are being employed. It is therefore not applicable to this terrestial life but only to an imagined celestial existence... logic takes us nearer to heaven than other studies.
    • 'Vagueness', first published in The Australasian Journal of Psychology and Philosophy, 1 June, 1923
  • It seems to me that science has a much greater likelihood of being true in the main than any philosophy hitherto advanced (I do not, of course, except my own). In science there are many matters about which people are agreed; in philosophy there are none. Therefore, although each proposition in a science may be false, and it is practically certain that there are some that are false, yet we shall be wise to build our philosophy upon science, because the risk of error in philosophy is pretty sure to be greater than in science. If we could hope for certainty in philosophy, the matter would be otherwise, but so far as I can see such a hope would be chimerical.
  • We all have a tendency to think that the world must conform to our prejudices. The opposite view involves some effort of thought, and most people would die sooner than think – in fact they do so.
    • The ABC of Relativity (1925), p. 166
      • Variant: "Most people would rather die than think; many do."
  • Neither acquiescence in skepticism nor acquiescence in dogma is what education should produce. What it should produce is a belief that knowledge is attainable in a measure, though with difficulty; that much of what passes for knowledge at any given time is likely to be more or less mistaken, but that the mistakes can be rectified by care and industry. In acting upon our beliefs, we should be very cautious where a small error would mean disaster; nevertheless it is upon our beliefs that we must act. This state of mind is rather difficult: it requires a high degree of intellectual culture without emotional atrophy. But though difficult, it is not impossible; it is in fact the scientific temper. Knowledge, like other good things, is difficult, but not impossible; the dogmatist forgets the difficulty, the skeptic denies the possibility. Both are mistaken, and their errors, when widespread, produce social disaster.
    • On Education, Especially in Early Childhood (1926), Ch. 2: The Aims of Education, p. 36.
      No one gossips about other people's secret virtues.
  • The instinctive foundation of the intellectual life is curiosity, which is found among animals in its elementary forms. Intelligence demands an alert curiosity, but it must be of a certain kind. The sort that leads village neighbours to try to peer through curtains after dark has no very high value. The widespread interest in gossip is inspired, not by a love of knowledge but by malice: no one gossips about other people's secret virtues, but only about their secret vices. Accordingly most gossip is untrue, but care is taken not to verify it. Our neighbour's sins, like the consolations of religion, are so agreeable that we do not stop to scrutinise the evidence closely.
    • On Education, Especially in Early Childhood (1926), Ch. 2: The Aims of Education, p. 50
  • An irrational fear should never be simply let alone, but should be gradually overcome by familiarity with its fainter forms.
    • On Education, Especially in Early Childhood (1926), Ch. 4: Fear
  • Written words differ from spoken words in being material structures. A spoken word is a process in the physical world, having an essential time-order; a written word is a series of pieces of matter, having an essential space-order.
    • An Outline of Philosophy Ch.4 Language (1927)
  • Our words tend to conceal what is private and particular in our impressions, and to make us believe that different people live in a common world to a greater extent than is in fact the case.
    • An Outline of Philosophy Ch.15 The Nature of our Knowledge of Physics (1927)
  • The tendency of our perceptions is to emphasise increasingly the objective elements in an impression, unless we have some special reason, as artists have, for doing the opposite.
    • An Outline of Philosophy Ch.15 The Nature of our Knowledge of Physics (1927)
  • It must not be supposed that the subjective elements are any less 'real' than the objective elements; they are only less important... because they do not point to anything beyond ourselves...
    • An Outline of Philosophy Ch.15 The Nature of our Knowledge of Physics (1927)
  • The camera is as subjective as we are.
    • An Outline of Philosophy Ch.15 The Nature of our Knowledge of Physics (1927)
  • There is a connected set of events (light-waves) travelling outward from a centre... there are some respects in which all events are alike, and others in which they differ... We must not think of a light-wave as a 'thing', but as a connected group of rhythmical events. The mathematical characteristics of such a group can be inferred by physics, but the intrinsic character of the component events cannot be inferred.
    • An Outline of Philosophy Ch.15 The Nature of our Knowledge of Physics (1927)
  • Modern physics... reduces matter to a set of events which proceed outward from a centre. If there is something further in the centre itself, we cannot know about it, and it is irrelevant to physics.
    • An Outline of Philosophy Ch.15 The Nature of our Knowledge of Physics (1927)
  • Physics is mathematical not because we know so much about the physical world, but because we know so little: it is only its mathematical properties that we can discover.
    • An Outline of Philosophy Ch.15 The Nature of our Knowledge of Physics (1927)
  • I went to Salt Lake City and the Mormons tried to convert me, but when I found they forbade tea and tobacco I thought it was no religion for me.
    • Letter to C. P. Sanger, 23 December, 1929

The Practice and Theory of Bolshevism (1920)[edit]

  • I believe that Communism is necessary to the world, and I believe that the heroism of Russia has fired men's hopes in a way which was essential to the realization of Communism in the future. Regarded as a splendid attempt, without which ultimate success would have been very improbable, Bolshevism deserves the gratitude and admiration of all the progressive part of mankind.
  • A fundamental economic reconstruction, bringing with it very far-reaching changes in ways of thinking and feeling, in philosophy and art and private relations, seems absolutely necessary if industrialism is to become the servant of man instead of his master. In all this, I am at one with the Bolsheviks; politically, I criticize them only when their methods seem to involve a departure from their own ideals.
My whole religion is this: do every duty, and expect no reward for it, either here or hereafter.
Cambridge is one of the few places where one can talk unlimited nonsense and generalities without anyone pulling one up or confronting one with them when one says just the opposite the next day.
Mathematics may be defined as the subject in which we never know what we are talking about, nor whether what we are saying is true.
Brief and powerless is Man's life; on him and all his race the slow, sure doom falls pitiless and dark.
Mathematics, rightly viewed, possesses not only truth, but supreme beauty.
To realise the unimportance of time is the gate of wisdom.
Freedom is the greatest of political goods.
Often and often, a marriage hardly differs from prostitution except by being harder to escape from.
Mystery is delightful, but unscientific, since it depends upon ignorance.

1. Philosophical Skepticism vs. Ordinary Incredulity

Even before examining the various general forms of skepticism, it is crucial that we distinguish between philosophical skepticism and ordinary incredulity because doing so will help to explain why philosophical skepticism is so intriguing. Consider an ordinary case in which we think someone fails to have knowledge. Suppose Anne claims that she knows that the bird she is looking at is a robin and that I believe that if Anne were to look more carefully, she would see that its coloration is not quite that of a robin. Its breast is too orange. Further, it seems that it flies somewhat differently than robins do, i.e., this bird seems to flitter more than a typical robin.

Thus, there are two grounds for doubting that Anne knows that it is a robin:

  1. The color of this bird isn't typical of robins.
  2. The flight pattern of this bird is not typical of robins.

This is a case of ordinary doubt because there are, in principle, two general ways that are available for removing the grounds for doubt:

  1. The alleged grounds for doubt could be shown to be false; or
  2. It could be shown that the grounds for doubt, though true, can be neutralized.[1]

Taking alternative (1), Anne could show that there are many robins with the coloration of the bird in question by citing the Audubon Field Guide for Birds in which many of the pictured robins have very orange breasts. In other words, Anne could show that (a) is false.

But in order to remove grounds for doubt, it is not necessary that Anne show that the alleged grounds are false. Alternative (2) is available. Consider ground (b). It could be granted that the bird in question flies in a way that is not at all typical of robins. But suppose that on closer inspection we see that some of its tail feathers have been damaged in a way that could cause the unusual flight pattern. Because the bird has difficulty gliding and flying in a straight line, it flaps its wings much more rapidly than is typical of robins. Thus, although we can grant that (b) is true, we would have explained away, or neutralized, the grounds for doubt.

The point here is that in this case, and in all ordinary cases of incredulity, the grounds for the doubt can, in principle, be removed. As Wittgenstein would say, doubt occurs within the context of things undoubted. If something is doubted, something else must be held fast because doubt presupposes that there are means of removing the doubt.[2] We doubt that the bird is a robin because, at least in part, we think we know how robins typically fly and what their typical coloration is. That is, we think our general picture of the world is right—or right enough—so that it does provide us with both the grounds for doubt and the means for potentially removing the doubt. Thus, ordinary incredulity about some feature of the world occurs against a background of sequestered beliefs about the world. We are not doubting that we have any knowledge of the world. Far from it, we are presupposing that we do know some things about the world. To quote Wittgenstein, “A doubt without an end is not even a doubt” (Wittgenstein 1969, ¶ 625).

In contrast, philosophical skepticism attempts to render doubtful every member of some class of propositions that we think falls within our ken. One member of the class is not pitted against another. The grounds for either withholding assent to the claim that we can have such knowledge or denying that we can have such knowledge are such that there is no possible way either to answer them or to neutralize them by appealing to another member of the class because the same doubt applies to each and every member of the class. Thus, philosophical doubt or philosophical skepticism, as opposed to ordinary incredulity, can not, in principle, be removed. Or so the philosophical skeptic will claim!

To clarify the distinction between ordinary incredulity and philosophical doubt, let us consider two movies: The Truman Show and The Matrix. In the former, Truman is placed, without his knowledge, in a contrived environment so that his “life” can be broadcast on television. But he begins to wonder whether the world surrounding him is, in fact, what it appears to be. Some events seem to happen too regularly and many other things are just not quite as they should be. Eventually, Truman obtains convincing evidence that all his world is a stage and all the men and women are merely players. The crucial point is that even had he not developed any doubts, there is, in principle, a way to resolve them had they arisen. Such doubts, though quite general, are examples of ordinary incredulity.

Contrast this with the deception depicted in The Matrix. When everything is running as programmed by the machines, there is no possible way for the “people” in the matrix to determine that the world as experienced is only a “dream world” and not the real world (the world of causes and effects). The only “reality” that it is possible to investigate is a computer generated one. (See Irwin 2002, 2005 for collections of articles on The Matrix.)

The Truman Show is a depiction of a case of ordinary incredulity because there is some evidence that is, in principle, available to Truman for determining what's really the case; whereas The Matrix depicts a situation similar to that imagined by a typical philosophical skeptic in which it is not possible for the Matrix-bound characters to obtain evidence for determining that things are not as they seem (whenever the virtual reality is perfectly created). Put another way, the philosophical skeptic challenges our ordinary assumption that there is evidence available that can help us to discriminate between the real world and some counterfeit world that appears in all ways to be identical to the real world. Ordinary incredulity arises within the context of other propositions of a similar sort taken to be known, and, in principle, the doubt can be removed by discovering the truth of some further proposition of the relevant type. On the other hand, philosophical skepticism about a proposition of a certain type derives from considerations that are such that they cannot be removed by appealing to additional propositions of that type—or so the skeptic claims.

These movies illustrate one other fundamental feature of the philosophical arguments for skepticism, namely, that the debate between the skeptics and their opponents takes place within the evidentialist account of knowledge which holds that knowledge is at least true, sufficiently justified belief. The debate is over whether the grounds are such that they can make a belief sufficiently justified so that a responsible epistemic agent is entitled to assent to the proposition.[3] The basic issue at stake is whether the justification condition of knowledge can be fulfilled. A corollary of this is that strictly reliabilist or externalist responses to philosophical skepticism constitute a change of subject. A belief could be reliably produced, i.e., its causal pedigree could be such that anything having that causal etiology is sufficiently likely to be true, but the reasons available for it could fail to satisfy the standards agreed upon by both the skeptics and their opponents.

2. Two Basic Forms of Philosophical Skepticism

Consider some proposition, p. There are just three possible propositional attitudes one can have with regard to p's truth when considering whether p is true. One can either assent to p, or assent to ~p (that is, deny p), or withhold assenting both to p and to ~p. For example, consider the belief that there is a god. The three possible propositional attitudes are: to be a believer, to be an atheist, or to be an agnostic. Of course, there are other attitudes one could have toward p when not considering whether p is true. One could just be uninterested that p or be excited or depressed that p. But, typically, those attitudes are either ones we have when we are not considering whether p is true or they are attitudes that result from our believing, denying or withholding p. For example, I might be happy or sorry that p is true when I come to believe that it is true.

I just spoke of “assent” and I mean to be using it to depict the pro-attitude, whatever it is, toward a proposition that is required for knowing that proposition. Philosophers have differed about what that attitude is. Some take it to be something akin to being certain that p or guaranteeing that p (Malcolm 1963, 58–72). Others have taken it not to be a form of belief at all because, for example, they claim that one can know that p without believing p as in a case in which I might in fact remember that Queen Victoria died in 1901 but not believe that I remember it and hence might be said not to believe it (Radford 1966). For the purposes of this essay we need not attempt to pin down precisely the nature of the pro-attitude toward p that is necessary for knowing that p. It is sufficient for our purposes to stipulate that assent is the pro-attitude toward p required to know that p.

Let us use “EI-type” propositions to refer to epistemically interesting types of propositions. I will take such types of propositions to contain tokens some of which are generally thought to be known given what we ordinarily take knowledge to be. Thus, it would not be epistemically interesting if we did not know exactly what the rainfall will be on March 3 in New Brunswick, NJ, exactly ten years from now. That kind of thing (a fine grained distant future state) is not generally thought to be known given what we ordinarily take knowledge to be. But it would be epistemically interesting if we cannot know anything about the future, or anything about the contents of someone else's mind, or anything about the past, or anything at all about the “external world.” We think we know many propositions about those types of things.

Now, consider this (meta) proposition concerning the scope of our knowledge, namely: We can have knowledge of EI-type propositions. Given that there are just three stances we can have toward any proposition when considering whether it is true, we can:

  1. Assent that we can have knowledge of EI-type propositions.
  2. Assent that we cannot have knowledge of EI-type propositions. (That is, deny that we can have knowledge of EI-type propositions.)
  3. Withhold assent to both the proposition that we can have knowledge of EI-type propositions and withhold assent to the proposition that we cannot have such knowledge.

Let us call someone with the attitude depicted in 1 an “Epistemist.”[4] Such a person assents to the claim that we can have knowledge of EI-type propositions.

The attitude portrayed in 2 has gone under many names. I will follow the terminology suggested by Sextus Empiricus. He used the term “Academics” to refer to the leaders of the Academy (founded by Plato) during the 3rd to 1st century BCE. According to Sextus, they assented to the claim that we cannot have knowledge of what I have called EI-type propositions—although it is far from clear that this was an accurate description of their views. (See the entry on ancient skepticism.) Perhaps the prime example was Carneades (214–129 BCE). Other philosophers refer to this view as “Cartesian skepticism” because of the skeptical arguments investigated by Descartes and his critics in the mid-17th century. And still others refer to it as “switched world skepticism” or “possible world skepticism” because the arguments for it typically involve imagining oneself to be in some possible world that is both vastly different from the actual world and at the same time absolutely indistinguishable (at least by us) from the actual world. What underlies this form of skepticism is assent to the proposition that we cannot know EI-type propositions because our evidence is inadequate.

Those assenting neither to the proposition that knowledge of EI-type propositions is possible nor to the proposition that such knowledge is not possible can be called “Pyrrhonian Skeptics” after Pyrrho who lived between ca 365–ca 275 BCE. The primary source of Pyrrhonian Skepticism is the writing of Sextus Empiricus who lived at the end of the second century CE. The Pyrrhonians withheld assent to every non-evident proposition. That is, they withheld assent to all propositions about which genuine dispute was possible, and they took that class of propositions to include both the (meta) proposition that we can have knowledge of EI-type propositions and the (meta) proposition that we cannot have knowledge. Indeed, they sometimes classified the Epistemists and the Academic Skeptics together as dogmatists because the Epistemists assented to the proposition that we can have knowledge, while the Academic Skeptics assented to the denial of that claim.[5]

Another difference between Academic and Pyrrhonian Skepticism is closely related to the charge by the latter that the former is really a disguised type of dogmatism. The Academic Skeptic thinks that her view can be shown to be the correct one by an argument (or by arguments). The Pyrrhonian would point out that the Academic Skeptic maintains confidence in the ability of reason to settle matters—at least with regard to the extent of our knowledge of propositions in the EI-class. One way of understanding the so-called problem of the “Cartesian Circle” illustrates the Pyrrhonian point: Descartes is relying throughout the Meditations on his power of reasoning to remove the skeptical doubts that he raises, but to do so requires that he exempt at least some of the propositions obtained through reasoning from the doubts that he raised in the “First Meditation” about the epistemic reliability of our faculties. A possible Cartesian reply could be as simple as paraphrasing Luther: Here I stand, as a philosopher with confidence in reason, and as such I can do no other.[6] We will consider another way to respond to this objection later. But regardless of the adequacy of either of the responses, the point here is that the Pyrrhonians did not claim that they had a compelling argument whose conclusion was that withholding assent to non-evident propositions was the appropriate epistemic attitude to have.

Although recently there has been a renewed interest in Pyrrhonism, it is fair to say that when contemporary philosophers write or speak about skepticism they usually are referring to some form of Academic Skepticism. Thus, we will now turn to that form of skepticism, and it is that form that will be the primary focus of this essay, although we will consider some aspects of Pyrrhonism later.

3. Academic Skepticism

A way to motivate Academic Skepticism and to clearly distinguish it from ordinary incredulity is to trace the way in which Descartes gradually expanded the realm of what was doubtful (and hence not worthy of assent) in the “First Meditation.”[7] Descartes begins by noting that the senses have deceived him on some occasions and, in the voice of his skeptical interlocutor, he conjectures that it is never prudent to trust what occasionally misleads. So, we don't have “certain” knowledge of the external world based upon the testimony of our senses. However, in the voice of the non-skeptical interlocutor, he replies that even though the senses have misled him, he can neutralize that purported basis for doubt by pointing out that we are able to determine when our senses are not trustworthy. Thus, this is a case of ordinary incredulity because he appeals to some knowledge of the world gained through our senses to neutralize this basis for doubt. For example, in looking at a straight stick in water, even though it appears bent, we know from past sense experiences not to accept the testimony of our senses at face value in such situations because we have learned that straight sticks look bent in water. Thus, we can neutralize the potentially knowledge-robbing proposition that my senses have deceived me on some occasions by conjoining it with another proposition to which we assent, namely, that I can distinguish between the occasions when my senses are trustworthy and those when they are not. In other words, some propositions of the EI-type (propositions about the “external” world) can be used to neutralize the grounds for ordinary incredulity. Thus, no basis for (philosophical) Academic Skepticism has been located.

Descartes next seriously considers dreaming.[8] What if he were dreaming at that very moment? Would he still have some knowledge of the external world? Yes; because in dreams and in waking life there are some common general features. So, if he were dreaming, he would not know in particular what is going on about him at that moment, but that does not imply that he fails to have any knowledge of the external world at that moment. For example, he might not be certain that he has hands, nevertheless, even more simple things about nature “in general” are not thereby made doubtful. We have not found any reason for doubting that there are material objects in general or that they have a spatial location, or are in motion or at rest, or can exist for a long or short period of time. Again, no basis for Academic Skepticism has been established. For we can neutralize this apparent ground for doubting all of our beliefs about material objects because there are some truths about material objects and their properties that remain unchallenged in both our experiences while dreaming and our experiences while being awake. Thus, he sums up his reply to a skeptic's claim that for all we know, we might be dreaming now, as follows:

… although these general things, to wit, [a body], eyes, a head, hands, and such like, may be imaginary, we are bound at the same time to confess that there are at least some other objects yet more simple and more universal, which are real and true… (Meditations, 146)

But then Descartes proposes a ground for doubt for which he says he “certainly has no reply.” He puts it this way:

… In whatever way [it is supposed] that I have arrived at the state of being that I have reached—whether [it is attributed] to fate or to accident, or [made] out that it is by a continual succession of antecedents, or by some other method—since to err and deceive oneself is a defect, it is clear that the greater will be the probability of my being so imperfect as to deceive myself ever, as is the Author of my being to whom [is assigned] my origin the less powerful. (Meditations, 147)

In other words, at this point in the Meditations, because he lacks an argument for the claim that whatever is causally responsible for his “state of being” is capable of making it such that to err would be unnatural for it, assenting to propositions resulting from using his epistemic equipment or “state of being” is not legitimate. Thus, Descartes believes that he has located a basis for doubting each of his supposed former pieces of knowledge about the external world that cannot be repulsed by locating another proposition to which he is entitled. He has found a proposition that, if true, would (by itself) defeat the justification he has for his assenting to propositions about the external world and (at this point in the Meditations) which is such that (1) he does not have a way to deny it and such that (2) he has no way to neutralize its effect. That proposition can be put this way: My epistemic equipment is not reliable. A basis for philosophical skepticism has been found because an entire class of EI-type propositions—propositions that his “state of being” has led him to assent to—is now thrown into doubt because he cannot use one member of the class to reject or neutralize the basis for doubting another member of the class because they could all have been generated by an insufficiently perfect mechanism. It could be argued that the rest of the Meditations is designed to provide a way of showing that the Author of his being is perfect and, although he (Descartes) has made errors in the past, if his epistemic equipment is deployed properly and his will is constrained, error can be avoided. Thus, the rest of the Meditations can be seen as a search for a way to deny, or at least neutralize, the doubt posed in the “First Meditation.”

Descartes is depending on the claim that a proposition is worthy of assent (where “assent” is the pro-attitude required for knowledge) only if there are no genuine grounds for doubting it. The characterization of genuine grounds for doubt could be put as follows:

Some proposition, d, is a genuine ground for doubt of p for S iff:
  1. d added to S's beliefs makes assent to p no longer adequately justified;
  2. S is not justified in denying d;
  3. S has no way to neutralize d.[9]

Note that, given this characterization of genuine grounds for doubt, S need not have any evidential support for d. It could be any proposition that S entertains. In addition, it could be false. Finally, it could be a ground for doubt for one person but not for another person (or the same person at another time), depending upon what each believes (at the time). For only one of them might have a belief that is adequate evidence for denying d or neutralizing d (at the time). That explains why, as Descartes meditates, he can have a genuine ground for doubting the testimony of his senses at an early point in the Meditations and be able to neutralize and/or reject the ground at a later point in the Meditations. That assumes, of course, that meditation can produce new adequately justified beliefs; but that seems reasonable enough for a philosopher to believe!

The final step in arriving at the basis for Academic Skepticism is to claim that some proposition, say p, is not worthy of assent, or the pro-attitude required for knowledge, whenever there there is a genuine ground for doubting p. Indeed, Descartes grants that even after d is located, p might still be more reasonable to believe than to deny (Meditations, 148). His point, though, is that the pro-attitude should not rise to the level required for knowledge because there is a genuine ground for doubt. Further, given the interpretation of the Meditations that we are now considering, the Cartesian-style argument for Academic Skepticism employs a very stringent requirement on the type of evidence required for knowledge. In order for our beliefs to rise to the level of knowledge, they must be such that there remain no un-eliminated or non-neutralized defeaters, d, regardless of whether there is any evidence for believing that d.

To make that clear, let us state the epistemic principle being employed here, which we can call the “Eliminate All Doubt Principle,” that apparently informs the Cartesian-style argument:

Eliminate All Doubt Principle [EADP]: For all propositions x and d, if (i) d satisfies condition (1) in the definition of genuine grounds for doubt of x for S and (ii) if assenting to x is adequately justified for S, then S is adequately justified in eliminating d (either by denying or neutralizing d).

In more contemporary terminology, the ground for doubt proposed by Descartes can be put like this:

U: My epistemic equipment is not reliable.

There is a plausible way to weaken the requirement for genuine doubt by adding a fourth condition to conditions (1) – (3) (above), namely, that d must have some evidential support; for example, it must have sufficient support to make it plausible enough so as to require that it be shown to be false or at least neutralized. Call this view the “minimal counter-evidence requirement.” In support of taking Descartes to be employing the weaker principle that includes the fourth condition, it could be pointed out that, at least at this early point in the Meditations, Descartes does have a reason for thinking that whatever is causally responsible for his “state of being,” is not sufficiently “perfect” so as to have made that equipment reliable. The reason that is available to him is that he makes mistakes. (Consider this analogy: A perfect potter would not make a pot with cracks.) Interestingly enough, if I believe that I make mistakes, my belief must be true! For, if I have made mistakes, the belief is true; and if I haven't made mistakes, the belief is true (because I am making one now).

The minimal counter-evidence requirement seems quite plausible. Why should any far-fetched hypothesis be worthy of serious consideration? We will return to the minimal counter-evidence requirement later. But at this point, let us continue to take a genuine ground for doubt to be a proposition that only needs to satisfy conditions (1) – (3).

With that in mind, the Cartesian-style template for the argument for Academic Skepticism can now be put like this:

  1. If I know that p, then there are no genuine grounds for doubting that p.
  2. U is a genuine ground for doubting that p.
  3. Therefore, I do not know that p.

I say “template” for the argument rather than the unqualified “the Cartesian-style argument” in order to avoid appearing to be employing an argument that seems to be self-undermining because any person giving the argument would be using the very equipment that is held to be untrustworthy. In other words, just let “p” stand for any one of the individual EI-propositions under discussion, e.g., I have a hand. This avoids that objection because the academic skeptic is neither assenting to the proposition that her equipment is untrustworthy nor assenting to the claim that there is an argument which shows that her equipment is untrustworthy. She is merely assenting to the claim that U is a genuine ground for doubt for p. Thus, neither is she holding contradictory beliefs nor is her practice somehow inconsistent with what she assents to.

The Cartesian-style argument for Academic Skepticism should be contrasted with what many contemporary philosophers take to be the canonical argument for Academic Skepticism which employs the Closure Principle (CP).[10] Letting “h” stand for an EI-type proposition, for example, G. E. Moore's famous “here's a hand” (Moore 1962a, 146) and letting “sk” stand for “I am in a switched-world in which there are no hands, but it appears just as though there were hands,” we can state the contemporary canonical CP-style argument for Academic Skepticism as follows:

CP1. If I am justified in believing that h, then I am justified in believing that ~sk.

CP2. I am not justified in believing that ~sk.

Therefore, I am not justified in believing that h.

This contemporary argument appeals to a form of the Closure Principle in Premise 1. Letting “Jsx” stand for S is justified in assenting to x, that principle could be stated as:

Closure Principle [CP]: For all propositions x and y, if x entails y, and Jsx, then Jsy.

(In the CP-style argument: x = h and y = ~sk.)

A crucial feature of CP is that it does not depend upon employing a stringent notion of justification. Suppose that (positive) justification comes in degrees, where the lowest degree is something like mere plausibility and the highest degree is absolute certainty. Letting “J*sx” stand for x has some degree of positive epistemic status for S, CP could be recast as follows:

CP*: For all propositions, x and y, if x entails y, and J*sx to degree u, then J*sy to degree v (where uv).

Thus, when the Academic Skeptic employs CP (or CP*), she need not be employing a very stringent notion of justification. That is a primary difference between the CP-style and what we have called the Cartesian-style argument for Academic Skepticism.

Another difference is that the Cartesian-style argument concerns knowledge, whereas the CP-style argument concerns justification (to whatever degree). Nevertheless, that difference is unimportant in this context because the debate about the merits of skepticism takes place within the evidentialist account of knowledge. Knowledge is taken to entail adequately justified assent and, hence, “knowledge” could be replaced by “adequately justified assent” in the Cartesian-style argument.

Let us return to the central and important difference between Cartesian and CP-style arguments, namely the former employs EADP while the latter employs CP (or CP*). EADP requires that we eliminate any genuine grounds for doubt and those include more than mere contraries (propositions which are such that they both cannot be true, but they both could be false). In addition, recall that according to the Cartesian (as being portrayed here) to be adequately justified in eliminating d as a ground for doubt for x, either S is adequately justified in denying d (assenting to ~d) or S is adequately justified in assenting to some neutralizing proposition, n, such that adding (n & d) to S's beliefs fails to make it the case that x is no longer adequately justified.[11] Thus, since every contrary of some proposition is a potential genuine ground for doubt in virtue of satisfying condition (1) in the definition of genuine doubt, EADP entails CP but CP does not entail EADP.[12] To see that, consider any contrary, say c, of a proposition, say h. The proposition, c, would be a potential genuine ground for doubting h since if c were added to S's beliefs, h would no longer be adequately justified because S's beliefs would then contain a proposition, c, that entailed the denial of h. Furthermore, the only way S could eliminate c as a ground for doubt would be by denying it, since nothing could neutralize it. Thus, EADP has the consequence that if S is justified in assenting to h, then S is justified in denying every contrary of h. But that is just an instance of CP, since (by hypothesis) h entails ~c. That CP does not entail EADP should be clear because there are grounds for doubting h that are not contraries of h. For example, the proposition, U, considered above is a grounds for doubting h, but h and U could both be true.

Thus, there are two basic forms of Academic Skepticism: The Cartesian-style argument that employs the strong EADP and the CP-style that employs the weaker CP. Since the CP-style skeptic employs the weaker epistemic principle, it will be best to begin by focusing on it because any criticisms of it will apply to the stronger form.

4. The Argument for Academic Skepticism Employing the Closure Principle

There appear to be only three ways that one can respond to the CP-style skeptical argument: deny at least one premise, deny that the argument is valid, or reluctantly accept the conclusion—if neither of the first two alternatives succeeds. (I say “appear” because I will mention later a fourth alternative that is available to the Pyrrhonian Skeptic.) The second alternative—denying the validity of the argument—has not been taken seriously by the anti-skeptic. i.e., the epistemist, because it would lead to embracing an extremely severe form of skepticism. If one were to deny that modus tollens is a valid form of inference, one would also have to deny the validity of (i) disjunctive syllogism and (ii) modus ponens or contraposition, since it is easy to transform modus tollens arguments into ones employing the other forms of inference. Hence, if this alternative were chosen, reasoning would apparently come to a complete standstill. That, presumably, is why no one has ever seriously considered this alternative.

So, if we are not to reluctantly embrace the conclusion, it appears as though we must reject either the first premise—an instantiation of closure—or the second premise.

4.1 Consideration of CP1

Let us begin an examination of CP1 and the general closure principle, CP, of which CP1 is an instantiation. The basic issue is this: Does closure hold for justified belief?

Closure certainly does hold for some properties, for example, truth. If p is true and it strictly implies q, then q is true. It just as clearly does not hold for other properties. If p is a belief of mine, and p strictly implies q, it does not follow that q is a belief of mine. I might fail to see the implication or I might be “wired” incorrectly (from birth or as the result of an injury) or I simply might be epistemically perverse. I might, for example, believe all of the axioms of Euclidean plane geometry, but fail to believe (or perhaps even refuse to believe) that the exterior angle of a triangle is equivalent to the sum of the two opposite interior angles.

What about justified belief?

It is easy to see that, as stated above, CP (or CP*) is clearly false. Every necessary truth is entailed by every proposition, and we can be justified in believing a false proposition. But surely S is not justified in believing every necessary truth whenever S has some justified belief in a false proposition. In addition, some entailments might be beyond S's capacity to grasp. Finally, there might even be some contingent propositions that are beyond S's capacity to grasp which are entailed by some propositions that S does, indeed, grasp. For example, I have ten(10) fingers entails the number of fingers I have is equivalent the square root of the sum of 9 squared plus the first prime number represented by numerals that sum to ten(10). And it might be thought that S is not entitled to believe anything that S cannot grasp.

But it also appears that CP can easily be repaired. We can stipulate (i) that the domain of the propositions in the generalization of CP includes only contingent propositions that are within S's capacity to grasp and (ii) that the entailment is “obvious” to S. The skeptic can agree to those restrictions because the skeptical scenarios are posited in such a way as to render it obvious that our ordinary beliefs are false in those scenarios, and it is taken to be a contingent claim that S is in the actual circumstances as described in the antecedent. [For a full discussion of the required repairs of CP, see David and Warfield 2008; and Hawthorne 2014.]

There is one other important, required clarification of the restricted version of CP. “Justified belief” is ambiguous. It could be used to refer to a species of actually held beliefs—namely, those actually held beliefs of S that are justified. Or it could refer to propositions that S is entitled to hold—regardless of whether S does indeed hold them. Following Roderick Firth, the distinction between actually held justified beliefs and beliefs one is justified in holding, regardless of whether they are actually held, is often taken to be the distinction between beliefs that are doxastically justified and those that are propositionally justified. [See Firth 1978.] If CP is to be acceptable, “justified in believing” in the consequent must be used so as to refer to propositional justification for a reason already cited, i.e., actually held belief does not transmit through entailment. In other words, one of S's actual beliefs, p, might be justified and S still fail to believe some proposition, say q that is entailed by p.

We are now in a position to ask: Does the restricted form of closure hold regarding what we are entitled to believe—even if we don't, in fact, believe it?

There appears to be a perfectly general argument for the restricted version. Let p entail q, and let us suppose that S is entitled to believe that p iff S has (non-overridden) grounds that make p sufficiently likely to be true:[13]

  1. If S is entitled to believe that p, then S has (non-overridden) grounds that make p sufficiently likely to be true. [by the supposition]
  2. If S has (non-overridden) grounds that make p sufficiently likely to be true, then S has (non- overridden) grounds making q sufficiently likely to be true. [because p entails q]
  3. If S is entitled to believe that p, then S has (non-overridden) grounds making q sufficiently likely to be true. [from 1,2]
  4. If S has (non-overridden) grounds making q sufficiently likely to be true, then S is entitled to believe that q. [by the supposition]
  5. Therefore, if S is entitled to believe that p, S is entitled to believe that q. [from 2,3]

The supposition mentioned above seems plausible given that the debate over the merits of Academic Skepticism employs an evidentialist account of justification. That is, the debate between the Academic Skeptic and the Epistemist is over whether S has adequate grounds for EI-type propositions such that those grounds make p sufficiently likely to be true.

Premise 2 contains the key claim. In spite of the fact that the probabilities (whether subjective or objective) transmit through entailment, it has been challenged. Fred Dretske and others have produced cases in which they believe CP fails and fails precisely because Premise 2 in the general argument for CP is false.[14] Dretske writes:

… something's being a zebra implies that it is not a mule … cleverly disguised by the zoo authorities to look like a zebra. Do you know that these animals are not mules cleverly disguised? If you are tempted to say “Yes” to this question, think a moment about what reasons you have, what evidence you can produce in favor of this claim. The evidence you had for thinking them zebras has been effectively neutralized, since it does not count toward their not being mules cleverly disguised to look like zebras. (Dretske 1970, 1015–1016)

Dretske is speaking of “knowledge” rather than beliefs to which one is entitled, but that seems irrelevant since the issue concerns the supposed lack of a sufficient source of evidence or reasons for the claim that the animal is not a cleverly disguised mule. In other words, Dretske grants that S has (non-overridden) grounds that make it sufficiently likely that the animals are zebras, but he holds that S does not have (non-overridden) grounds making it sufficiently likely that the animals are not cleverly disguised mules because S's evidence for the former has been “effectively neutralized.”

The crucial thing to note about this proposed counterexample is that it works only if the Closure Principle entails that the very same source of evidence that justifies S in believing that the animals are zebras must justify S in believing that they are not cleverly disguised mules. Since the “evidence” for the former has been “effectively neutralized,” it is not available for the latter. Now, in response one could claim that once the question of whether the animals are disguised mules has been raised, the evidence is “effectively neutralized” for both the former and the latter, and S is no longer justified in believing that the animals are zebras. Thus, it could be held that this example could actually be used to support CP.

Nevertheless, let us grant that S's evidence for the claim that the animals are zebras cannot be used to show that they are not cleverly disguised mules. It could be argued that this would not force giving up Premise 2 in the general argument for CP.

Such an argument could begin by recalling that Premise 2 claimed merely that whenever S had (non-overridden) grounds that make p sufficiently likely to be true, then S has (non-overridden) grounds for making q sufficiently likely to be true. It did not require that it was the very same grounds in both cases. Dretske's purported counterexample seems to require that CP implies that the adequate source of evidence is the same for both propositions. Thus, letting “xRy” mean that x provides an adequate evidence for y, the counter example depends upon assuming that if closure holds between p and q, then the evidence “path” must look like this:

Pattern 1
Rp / / …Re \ \ … Rq
Evidence paths specify what propositions serve as good enough reasons, ceteris paribus, for believing other propositions. Dretske is supposing that the very same evidence, e, that I have for p must be adequate for q whenever p entails q.

No doubt this constraint sometimes correctly portrays the relevant evidential relationships when some proposition, p, entails some other proposition, q. For example, suppose I have adequate evidence for the claim that Anne has two brothers, then it would seem that the very same evidence would be adequate for believing that Anne has at least one brother. But the defender of CP, and more particularly the Academic Skeptic, could point out that closure does not require that all evidence paths to q are of the Pattern 1 type.

There are two other possibilities for instantiating closure that are captured by Premise 2 that can be depicted as follows:

Pattern 2

Pattern 3

Re(where e includes q)Rp

In Pattern 2 cases there is some adequate evidence, e, for p; and p, itself, is the adequate evidence for q, since p strictly implies q. For example, if I have adequate evidence for believing that 2 is a prime number, I can use that proposition as an adequate reason for believing that there is at least one even prime. Indeed, consider any belief arrived at as a result of deductive inference. In such a case, we legitimately infer the entailed proposition from the conjunction of the premises that entails it. The plausibility of the famous Gettier cases depends upon Pattern 2 type cases in which closure holds. Gettier says:

… for any proposition p, if S is justified in believing p, and p entails q, and S deduces q from p and accepts q as a result of this deduction, then S is justified in believing q. (Gettier 1963, 122)[15]

In Pattern 3 cases the order of the evidence is reversed because q serves as part of the evidence for p. For example, suppose that I am justified, ceteris paribus, in believing that (pure) water is present if I am justified in believing that there is present, at standard temperature and pressure, a clear, odorless, watery-tasting and watery-looking fluid that contains hydrogen and oxygen. This pattern is typical of abductive inferences, and is often referred to as “inference to the best explanation.” [See Vogel 1990, 2014 for a discussion of Cartesian Skepticism and inference to the best explanation.] In addition, there are cases in which it seems that some contraries of h need to be eliminated prior to h's being justified. For example, reconsidering the zebra-in-the-zoo case and recalling what we called the “minimal counter-evidence requirement,” it seems to be true that if I had some good reason to think that the animals are cleverly disguised mules, such a contrary would need to be eliminated before I would be justified in believing that the animals were zebras. Put another way, this instantiation of Pattern 3 cases would be consistent with interpreting Descartes as requiring that genuine grounds for doubt be propositions for which one has some evidence, however minimal, because a contrary to p for which one has some evidence that was not defeated would be a genuine grounds for doubt. (Note: There is no way to neutralize the evidential effect of a contrary as there is with mere counter-evidence.) Consequently, in order for S to be justified in believing that p, and assuming the Cartesian strong requirements for knowledge applied to justification, it appears that S would first have to be justified in denying any contrary of p for which she had minimal evidence before she could be justified in believing p.

The crucial point for the discussion here is that granting that there is no Pattern 1 type evidence path available to S in the zebra-in-the-zoo case does not require relinquishing premise 2 in the general argument for CP. The reason is simply that CP does not entail that there is Pattern 1 type evidence available in every case in which p entails q. Indeed, it could be suggested that the animals looking like zebras in a pen marked “zebras” is, ceteris paribus, adequate evidence to justify the claim that they are zebras; and once S is entitled to believe that the animals are zebras, S can, using the principle stated by Gettier, justifiably deduce that they are not cleverly disguised mules. That is, S can employ an evidence path like that depicted in Pattern 2. (See Klein 1981, 1995, and 2000) Further, if S had some reason to think that the animals were cleverly disguised mules, then S might have to eliminate that possibility before she could justifiably believe that they are zebras. In other words, S might have to employ an evidence path like the one depicted in Pattern 3. The point is that the Dretske-like counterexamples appear to depend upon the false claim that if Premise 2 in the general argument for CP is true, then the evidential relationship between the entailing and the entailed proposition is always correctly depicted by Pattern 1.

In addition to purported counterexamples to closure, there are some general theories of knowledge in which closure fails. Robert Nozick's account of knowledge is the best such example. Roughly his account is this (Nozick 1981, 172–187):

S knows that piff:
  1. S believes p;
  2. p is true;
  3. if p were true, S would believe p;
  4. if p were not true, S would not believe p.

Nozick called his account a “tracking” account of knowledge because whenever S knows that p, S's beliefs track p. Think of a guided missile tracking its target. If the target were to move left, the missile would move left. If the target were not to move left, the missile would not move left. According to the tracking account of knowledge our beliefs must track the truth if we are to have knowledge.

There is one important clarification of conditions 3 and 4 discussed by Nozick, namely, that the method by which S acquires the belief must be held constant from the actual world to the possible world. A doting grandmother might know that her grandchild is not a thief on the basis of sufficiently good evidence, but would still believe that he wasn't a thief, even if he were, because she loves him. So, we must require that the grandmother use the same method in both the actual and the near possible worlds, for, otherwise, condition (4) would exclude some clear cases of knowledge. This is not the place to provide a full examination of Nozick's account of knowledge.[16] What is crucial for our discussion is that it is easy to see that closure will fail for knowledge in just the kind of case that the Academic Skeptic is putting forward because of condition (4). Suppose S knows that there is a chair before her. Would she know that she is not in a skeptical scenario in which it merely appears that there is a chair? If the fourth condition were a necessary condition of knowledge, she would not know that because if she were in such a scenario, she would be fooled into thinking that she wasn't. Thus, either condition (4) is too strong or CP fails.

There are some reasons for thinking that condition (4) is too strong. Consider a relatively simple case in which S seems to have knowledge but condition (4) does not obtain. S looks at a thermometer that is displaying the temperature as 72 degrees. The thermometer is working perfectly and S comes to believe that the temperature is 72 degrees by reading the thermometer and coming to believe what it says. But if the temperature were not 72, suppose that something would affect the thermometer in a way that made it read “72,” so that by employing the same method (looking at the thermometer and coming to believe what it reads) S would still believe that it was 72. (One could imagine all kinds of circumstances that would have that causal result. A comical one: Imagine a lizard that is now sleeping on the thermometer that would stir were the temperature to rise, thus dislodging a small rock that hits the thermometer breaking the mercury column in a way that makes the thermometer still read 72.)

Or consider this case in the literature: You put a glass of ice-cold lemonade on a picnic table in your backyard. You go inside and get a telephone call from a friend and talk for half an hour. When you hang up you remember that you had left the ice-cold lemonade outside exposed to the hot sun and come to believe that it isn't ice-cold anymore. It would seem that you could know that, even if in some near world a friend of yours, who just happened to be walking by, noticed the glass and happening to have a cooler full of ice with her put the glass of lemonade in the cooler to keep it ice-cold for you. Thus, if the lemonade were still ice-cold, you would believe that it wasn't. (See Vogel 1987, 206.)

The moral of these cases seems to be that S can know that p even if there are some near possible worlds in which 1) p is false and 2) S still believes that p (employing the same method of belief formation). Indeed, it could plausibly be maintained that what is required for knowledge is that the method of belief formation work in this world—exactly as it is—even if the method would fail were there to be some slight variation in the actual world.

4.2 Further Clarification of Closure

In order to clarify CP further, it would be useful to contrast it with a stronger principle. As already discussed, it seems that in some cases some contraries of h need to be eliminated before h becomes justified. Suppose, however, that the skeptic requires that all contraries to h be eliminated before h is justified. That is much stronger than CP because CP is compatible with Pattern 1 and Pattern 2 type evidential relationships. In neither of those patterns is every contrary to h eliminated prior to h being justified. In Pattern 2, the contrary of h is eliminated after h; in Pattern 1, h is arrived at and its contrary is eliminated simultaneously. Keith Lehrer might be appealing to the stronger principle when he writes:

… generally arguments about where the burden of proof lies are unproductive. It is more reasonable to suppose that such questions are best left to courts of law where they have suitable application. In philosophy [emphasis added] a different principle of agnoiology [the study of ignorance] is appropriate, to wit, that no hypothesis should be rejected as unjustified without argument against it. Consequently, if the sceptic puts forth a hypothesis inconsistent with the hypothesis of common sense, then there is no burden of proof on either side … . (Lehrer 1971, 53)

The passage is open to more than one interpretation, but it will serve to illustrate my point, namely that there is a very strong principle—call it the “Eliminate All Contraries First Principle” [EACFP]—which requires that all evidence paths exhibit Pattern 3 and, thus, that the denials of all contraries to a given proposition appear on the path prior to that proposition.

If EACFP were accepted, there is a really easy route to Academic Skepticism. If it were required that the evidence, e, for some hypothesis, h, must contain the denials of all the contraries of h, it is clear that e would have to entail h. To see that, note that (~h & p) as well as (~h & ~p) are contraries of h, and that it is not possible for both ~(~h & p) and ~(~h & ~p) to be true and h to be false. Thus, if the skeptic were to adopt EACFP, the evidence for h would have to entail h. (See Klein 1981, 100–104.) That requirement seems to be too strong for many, if not most, empirically justified propositions. Hence, it could be plausibly argued that this is an inappropriate way to motivate skepticism because in so far as skepticism remains an interesting philosophical position, the skeptic cannot impose such an outrageous departure from our ordinary epistemic practices.

There is a related point worth mentioning. Note that even EADP, although requiring that we be able to reject or neutralize every potential ground for doubt (i.e., a proposition satisfying condition (1). in the definition of genuine doubt), does not require what EACFP does. EADP does not require that we eliminate all of the grounds for doubt (including contraries) before we are justified in believing a hypothesis. Indeed, EADP allows for the possibility that we could use h, itself, or something that h justifies as the basis for rejecting or neutralizing some grounds for doubt. (See Huemer, 2000, for objections to using h or something that h justifies as a basis for rejecting or neutralizing the grounds for doubting h.)

4.3 Consideration of CP2

Now, with those clarifications of CP (and EADP) in mind, we can turn to CP2. It claims that we are not justified in denying the skeptical hypothesis—in other words that we are not justified in believing that we are not being deceived. What arguments can be given for CP2? It is tempting to suggest something like this: The skeptical scenarios are developed in such a way that it is supposed that we could not tell that we were being deceived. For example, we are asked to consider that there is an Evil Genius “so powerful” that it could (1) make me believe that there were hands when there were none and (2) make it such that I could not detect the illusion. But the skeptic must be very careful here. She cannot require that in order for S to know (or be justified in assenting to) something, say x, that if x were false, she would not still assent to x. We have just seen (while examining Nozick's account of knowledge) that this requirement is too strong. So the mere fact that there could be skeptical scenarios in which S still believes that she is not in such a scenario cannot provide the skeptic with a basis for thinking that she fails to know that she is not (actually) in a skeptical scenario. But even more importantly, were that a requirement of knowledge (or justification), then we have seen that closure would fail and, consequently, the basis for the first premise in the CP-style argument for Academic Skepticism would be forfeited.[17]

In addition, we have also seen that if CP is true, and there did seem to be a sound argument for it, then there is one evidence pattern between entailing and entailed propositions that might prove useful to the Epistemist at this point in the discussion. If S could be justified in believing some proposition that entailed the denial of the skeptical hypothesis, then S could be justified in denying that hypothesis by employing evidence Pattern 2. Indeed, as G. E Moore asked (1962b, 242): What is to prevent the Epistemist from claiming that S is justified in denying that she is in a skeptical scenario because S is justified in believing that she has hands and CP is true? A plausible answer to Moore seems to be something like this: The issue that is under dispute is whether S is justified in assenting to (or knows that) she has hands. Thus, the Epistemist cannot reject CP2 by assuming the denial of the conclusion of the skeptical argument. All well and good. But what's sauce for the goose, is sauce for the gander, i.e., the Academic Skeptic cannot claim that the reason for CP2 is that S is not justified in believing that she has hands. For that is the very issue at stake between the Epistemist and the Academic Skeptic.

So, what non-question begging reason can the skeptic give for CP2? It is difficult to imagine one that is consistent with the defense of CP and that does not beg the question. That is not to say that CP2 is false. Perhaps it is true. Nevertheless, it seems that in order to provide a basis for accepting CP2, the skeptic would have to assert that S is not justified in believing that she has hands. That is because evidence Pattern 2 depicts one way in which S could be justified in denying the skeptical scenario. But asserting that she is not justified in believing that she has hands would beg the question because the conclusion of the CP-style argument is nothing other than S is not justified in believing that she has hands.[18] [For alternative accounts of the Academic Skeptic's options, see Huemer 2000 and Cohen 1999]

I had mentioned earlier that although there seemed to be only three responses available when confronting the CP-style argument for Academic Skepticism (accept the conclusion, reject one or both of the premises, or deny the validity of the argument). But we are now in a position to recognize that there is, in fact, a fourth alternative. That alternative is simply to point out that given the required defense of CP1 against the counterexample proposed by Dretske, there is no good argument for CP2 (because it would beg the question), and, hence, there is no good way to motivate Academic Skepticism with a CP-style argument.

Of course, the Pyrrhonian Skeptic might point to the possibility that there is also no good argument to the conclusion that we do have knowledge of EI-type propositions. Some might think that the Academic Skeptic wins in such a stand-off. But recall that what distinguishes the Academic Skeptic from the Pyrrhonian Skeptic is that only the Academic Skeptic assents to the claim that we cannot have knowledge. The Pyrrhonian Skeptic withholds judgement regarding whether we can have knowledge. And in a stand-off, the Pyrrhonian, not the Academic Skeptic, seems to have the appropriate epistemic attitude. (See Klein 2003 for a further discussion of the relationship between Pyrrhonian and Academic Skepticism.)

This concludes the discussion of CP-style argument for skepticism.

Let us now turn to the second form of Academic Skepticism, namely the Cartesian-style that employs the Eliminate All Doubt Principle.

5. The Cartesian-style Argument for Academic Skepticism Employing the Eliminate All Doubt Principle

This section can be brief because we can apply the lessons learned in the discussion of CP-style arguments to an evaluation of the Cartesian-style arguments that employ EADP.

First, it should be clear that the general argument for the Closure Principle, considered earlier, cannot be used as a model for an argument for Eliminate All Doubts Principle. The argument for the Closure Principle depends crucially on the fact that h entailed ~sk. (That is what provided the basis for premise 2 in the general argument for CP.) As we saw, the negation of a genuine ground for doubt need not be entailed by h. So, the skeptic has a much harder task in motivating EADP. Nevertheless, let us grant that some argument could be provided that makes plausible EADP.

Second, the same dialectical issues that we have considered in discussing potential counterexamples to CP will recur regarding EADP. Reconsider Dretske's zebra-in-the-zoo case. But this time instead of the contrary (“the animals are cleverly disguised mules”) consider this potential ground for doubt: “there are many cleverly disguised mules within my perceptual field.” According to EADP, that ground for doubt would have to be rejected or neutralized. Now, if the evidence I had for believing that the animals are zebras isn't adequate to deny or neutralize the claim that the very animals in front of me are cleverly disguised mules, it is certainly not adequate for denying or neutralizing the claim that there are many cleverly disguised mules within my visual field. So a skeptic employing EADP will have to appeal to the analogs of Pattern 2 and Pattern 3 type cases in order to save the principle from this modified Dretske-like counterexample. Thus, the skeptic employing EADP would be put in the same dialectical situation as the CP-style skeptic because she must provide a basis for the second premise in her argument for Academic Skepticism that (1) is compatible with her required defense of EADP against Dretske-like objections and (2) does not beg the question by supposing that S is not justified in denying the ground for doubt because S is not justified in believing that the animals are zebras.

To sum up: The Cartesian-style skeptic that we have been considering who employs EADP is in a worse dialectical position than the skeptic employing CP. Whatever problems are associated with CP skepticism transfer to EADP skepticism and, in addition, there appears to be no plausible general argument for EADP while there was one for CP.

Before we conclude our discussion of Academic Skepticism, it would be appropriate to consider one quite popular response to it—contextualism.

6. Contextualism

Examining the contextualist diagnosis of Academic Skepticism and its suggested solution will allow us to explore a question that remains concerning CP and EADP.[19] It could be held that such skeptics need not employ CP or EADP in general, but rather more restricted versions, namely, merely their instantiations as they appear in their respective arguments. The skeptic could maintain that there is something quite special about the skeptical hypothesis such that even though closure might not hold in general between any proposition and every proposition it entails, it does hold between such propositions as “here's a hand” and “it does not merely appear that here is a hand.” Even more strongly, the skeptic could maintain that only the Pattern 3 type evidence path correctly depicts the evidential relationship between those propositions. Hence, in order to be justified in believing the former I must first eliminate the latter, where to eliminate a proposition means (here) nothing more than to be justified in denying it. The requirement that we eliminate all contraries to some proposition, h, before we are entitled to believe that h is too stringent for ordinary contexts, for the reasons already cited, but perhaps when engaged in philosophy we have to be justified in believing that the skeptical hypothesis is false before the propositions of common sense are justified. That is essentially what the contextualists claim. They hold that in some conversational contexts—philosophical ones, for example—more stringent standards of evidence obtain than obtain in ordinary contexts. Note that this is similar to what Lehrer seemed to be claiming (as discussed in Section 4.2) with regard to the standards applicable to philosophical contexts. [For defenses of contextualism, see Cohen 2014, 2005, 2000, 1988, 1987; Lewis 1996; DeRose 2005, 2004, 2002, 1992, 1995.]

There are two questions we should consider: Is contextualism about knowledge attributions (or attributions of justified belief) the correct view to hold? If so, will it shed light on Academic Skepticism?

In answering the first question, it could be argued that contextualism with regard to the attribution of virtually any property is true. (Perhaps it doesn't apply to highly technical ones that only occur in one type of context.) For example, suppose that Mr. Lax says that Sam is happy. We discover that Lax is using “happy” to mean that a person is happy just in case he/she has had more happy moments than unhappy moments during a lifetime. Mr. Stringent demurs. For him, a person is happy only if he/she hardly ever experiences unhappy moments.

Who is right about whether Sam is happy? Contextualists would say that they both could be right because they are not using “happy” with the same criteria in mind. But it is crucial to note that given that each person recognizes that the other is applying different standards, Mr. Lax and Mr. Stringent can agree that, given what Lax means, Sam is happy and that, given what Stringent means, Sam is not happy.

Now, of course, we cannot employ any standards we please and still be speaking a common language. For example, Mr. Lax cannot legitimately lower the standards so as to make it the case that Sam is happy simply because he once, a long time ago, was happy for a very short period of time and, similarly, Mr. Stringent cannot require that Sam is happy only if it is logically impossible that Sam experience an unhappy moment. There is a limited range, albeit rather wide, of appropriate standards for the application of a term.

The predicates “having knowledge,” “having adequate evidence,” “being justified,” and the like, do appear to be similar to most other predicates in this respect: Within a wide but non-arbitrary range of standards, speakers can legitimately demand that S have more or less of the relevant evidence for p before they will agree that “S knows that p” or “S has adequate evidence for p.” So, the answer to the first question about the truth of contextualism seems to be: Contextualism about knowledge attributions is correct. It is just one instance of the general truth that standards for the application of a term vary within a wide but non-arbitrary range as determined by various features of the conversational context.

Let us turn to the second and much more philosophically interesting question: Does the truth of this version of contextualism shed much, if any, light on Academic Skepticism? If it did, then it is plausible to think that the correct way to diagnose the dispute between the Academic Skeptic and the Epistemist would be to note that the Epistemist is using a lax standard and the Skeptic a more stringent one. Having one's ordinary cake is compatible with eating one's skeptical cake because in ordinary conversational contexts it is correct to say that we do have knowledge, but as standards rise to those employed by the skeptics, it is correct to say that we do not have knowledge. Both the Epistemist and the Academic Skeptic are correct because they are using different standards for the application of the relevant epistemic terms.

In response, it might be objected that this is not the proper diagnosis of the disagreement between the Academic Skeptic and the Epistemist. What the Academic Skeptic seems to be claiming is that even if an attributer, say an Epistemist, has very low standards, even the lowest standards possible within the wide range of applicable standards, it is never the case that an attributer truly says “S knows that p” or “S has adequate evidence for p.” That is, the Academic Skeptic claims that our ordinary knowledge claims are simply false because, even employing the lowest standards for attributing knowledge of any EI-proposition to S, because there can be no evidence, whatsoever, for the denial of sk, (and using CP*) there can be no evidence, whatsoever, for our EI-claims.

Thus, the parallel with the case of Sam's putative happiness seems to break down. In that case, Mr. Stringent would grant that Mr. Lax is correct given what Lax meant by “happy.” But the Academic Skeptic will not grant that the Epistemist is ever correct when she asserts that S has knowledge. The skeptic reasons that the Epistemist doesn't know that h, even given the very low standards employed by the Epistemist for the attribution of “know” because the Epistemist's justification for h isn't good enough. No matter how low the standards are, the Academic Skeptic employing CP, CP*, or the stronger EADP, thinks that there simply is not any evidence for ~sk no matter how low the standards are set, and hence, S cannot have adequate evidence for believing h. [For additional criticisms of contextualism, see Conee 2014]

The issue seems to boil down to this: Is it true that there is some context in which “know” is properly used by an attributer only when the skeptical hypothesis has been eliminated?

The Epistemist could argue that this is not required. For, suppose that we are looking at Dretske's zebras and the Academic Skeptic asks whether we have eliminated the possibility that those zebra-like looking things are cleverly disguised aliens from some planet thousands of light years from our solar system. Or whether we have eliminated the possibility that they are members of the lost tribe of Israel who have ingeniously developed this zebra-like looking contraption in which to hide out from the Assyrians. After all, they've had since the 8th century BCE to perfect the disguise.

Those are so far-fetched, the Epistemist could claim, that even if someone advancing those alternatives happens to be silly enough or insane enough to believe them, there appears to be no reason why a non-believer should have to rise to the bait and eliminate those alternatives prior to being justified in believing that the animals are zebras. The Epistemist could continue by claiming that the skeptical hypothesis—that we are not in the actual world but rather in one which seems identical to it—is just as, or possibly even more, farfetched. It would really be “mad” to seriously consider such a hypothesis if we have no evidence, however minimal, to believe it is true.

Indeed, the Epistemist could remind the Academic Skeptic that in the “First Meditation” Descartes gave a reason, one for which he “certainly ha[d] no reply” at that point in the Meditations for thinking that his epistemic equipment was not reliable. Further, the Epistemist could point out that Descartes was able to properly assert EI-propositions about the external world only after he had explained how his epistemic errors were compatible with there being a “perfect” creator. In other words, the Epistemist could claim that Descartes seems not to be employing the stringent EADP, or even CP or CP*; but rather he is employing (what we earlier called) the “minimal counter-evidence requirement” principle. That correctly restricts propositions that must be rebutted or neutralized to those for which we have some evidence, however minimal. Descartes' belief that the fact that he had made (epistemic) mistakes provides a basis for thinking that the Author of his being is less than perfect, and that, in turn, renders plausible the proposition that his epistemic equipment is not reliable. Thus, there is a genuine basis for Descartes' doubt. But that fact does not imply that there is a genuine basis for us to doubt the overall reliability of our epistemic equipment — unless, of course, we shared Descartes' metaphysical view that there can be no greater perfection in the effect than was already present in the cause! (Meditations, 162). That belief led to a genuine basis for doubt for Descartes; and he was able to remove that basis for doubt only after he gave his explanation of the origin of error in a way that assigned responsibility of the errors to us, not to our “Author.” More simply, the Epistemist can claim that Descartes' argument provides us with no basis for skepticism.

It seems that similar considerations motivate Ernest Sosa's discussion of the relative potential strength of the skeptic's argument based upon the possibility that we might be dreaming that we are looking at our hands as opposed to the skeptic's argument based upon the possibility that either we are being deceived by an evil genius into believing that we have hands or that some other far-fetched hypothesis for which we have no evidence accounts for our perceptual beliefs (Sosa 2008). There is some real possibility (i.e., near possible world) that we are dreaming on each occasion when we make judgements about our environment because we do, in fact, dream and in those dreams we make such judgements. That is, we are aware of some occasions in which we are dreaming and we seem to make those judgements, but we are not aware of any occasion in which we are deceived by an evil genius and we make such judgements. Thus, it seems as though we have some minimal evidence for the claim that we are dreaming, and, hence, that ground for doubt must be removed.

Sosa's own view about this is that we do not have beliefs while we are dreaming just as when we make-believe that we are standing on the sand of a beautiful seashore looking at the ocean, we are neither looking at the ocean, nor standing by the seashore, nor believing that we are; we are make-believing. Dreaming is one kind of mental state; believing is another kind of mental state; so dreaming that p is not an instance of believing that p.

Sosa is keenly aware, however, that this heterodoxical account of dreaming is not likely to be widely accepted and he does provide another way to answer to the skeptic, even granting that there are beliefs while dreaming. Roughly it is this: We have knowledge that p (at least of the kind that we are considering here, namely perceptual knowledge) when and only when our belief that p is true because we arrived at it through the competent exercise of our epistemic capacities. He calls those beliefs “apt beliefs.” In short, Sosa takes knowledge (at least of the kind we are considering here) to be apt belief.

Applying this to the dreaming case, even were I to arrive at a belief that happens to be true while dreaming (suppose that in the dream that I dream that I am dreaming), that true belief fails to be knowledge because it not the result of the competent exercise of my epistemic capacities. Nevertheless, the fact that we fail to gain knowledge while dreaming does not jeopardize our knowledge when we are (i) awake and (2) we arrive at the true belief that we have hands through the competent exercise of our epistemic capacities. Thus, we can grant the orthodox account of dreaming that holds that there are some beliefs in and while we are dreaming, but that fact does not threaten our having knowledge when we are competently exercising our epistemic capacities while awake. Here is how he expresses this result:

…Ordinary perceptual beliefs might thus retain their status as apt…despite the nearby possibility that one is asleep and dreaming. Ordinary perceptual beliefs can still attain success through the exercise of perceptual competence, despite the fragility of the competence and of its required conditions. (Sosa 2008, 134)

More generally, and returning to the contextualist's account of the dispute between the skeptic and non-skeptic, the Epistemist could argue that on the basis of examining the history of Academic Skepticism that try as she might, the Academic Skeptic cannot impose the burden of eliminating a far-fetched hypothesis merely by raising it, even were she to believe that the hypothesis is true or even if she were to believe that it might be true (i.e., that it is consistent with everything she knows). In addition, the Epistemist could concede that in Dretske's zebra-in-the zoo case, if there really were some evidence, however slight, for the claim that the animals are painted mules, then the Academic Skeptic can legitimately require that S rule out that possibility prior to being justified in believing that the animals are zebras. But absent any evidence of that sort, the skeptic's requirements will fall on deaf ears. In parallel fashion, if there really were some evidence, however slight, that there is an evil genius making it merely appear that there are hands, then, and only then, would the Academic Skeptic legitimately require that S eliminate that possibility prior to being justified in believing that she has hands.

Put this result another way: The Epistemist can claim that the range of relevant alternatives is bounded by those propositions for which there is some, even minimal, evidence. That is, the Epistemist could argue for a minimal counter-evidence principle and reject the unrestricted EADP. It could be claimed that it is a context-invariant feature of knowledge attributions that the relevant evidence does not include the denial of contraries for which there is no evidence whatsoever. Thus, the issue seems to be whether there is ever a reason to accept the burden of eliminating contraries for which we have no evidence whatsoever. In other words, the Epistemist can claim the Academic Skeptic is not within her (epistemic) rights to require that in order to know that p we have to eliminate grounds for doubting that p for which we have no evidence whatsoever.

Before concluding this section on contextualism, let us consider a recently proposed view that has been suggested as an alternative to contextualism but one which, nevertheless, provides a similar response to skepticism. The view to be considered here is sometimes referred to as “interest relative invariantism” or “subject-sensitive invariantism.” As we have seen, contextualism, as typically conceived, takes the truth of utterances such as “S knows that p” to be determined by the attributer's standards employed at the time of the utterance. Although contextualists will differ on what features of the conversational context are relevant to determining those standards, the common, core claim that unites them is that the standards vary with the attributer's standards. Jason Stanley [2005] and John Hawthorne [2004] have each developed alternative accounts to standard contextualism. They claim that it is not the attributer's standards that set the truth conditions for knowledge attributions, but rather it is either the practical interests of the subject of attribution, e.g., the purported knower or the person purportedly lacking knowledge, or other features of the subject, that set the truth conditions for the claim that S has knowledge. (For an interesting review of Stanley 2005 see Neta 2012.) Their accounts differ in some ways, but there is a common theme to both. [See Hawthorne and Stanley 2008] Roughly, a way of putting the common theme that makes it directly relevant to our discussion is this: Ceteris paribus, as the practical interests or other features of the subject's interests or standards vary, the requirements for knowledge vary. For example, if, ceteris paribus, a Grizzly Bear were charging S, we would need better evidence for the claim to be true that S knows that the gun shoots straight than we would need if it were aimed at a target in a shooting match in which nothing important to S is at stake. To generalize, when what is at stake for S is not very high, then nothing in principle prevents S from having knowledge; but as the stakes become more important to S, S needs more evidence. The skeptical scenario is a high stakes context for S because all, or at least a large proportion, of her knowledge is at stake.

It is too early to judge the success of this account of knowledge [See Pritchard 2006, McGrath 2004, DeRose 2005, 2004 and 2002, and Cohen 2005 for some criticisms of the adequacy of the Stanley-Hawthorne approaches, but also see Fantl and McGrath 2009, 2007 and 2002 for a defense of the general view that pragmatic considerations are crucial in determining the extent of knowledge.] Nevertheless, the same issue that arose concerning attributer-based contextualism seems to arise here, namely: Wouldn't the Academic Skeptic claim that no matter how trivial S's interests are, if CP1 and CP2 are correct, there is a sound argument whose conclusion is that S lacks knowledge in just those ordinary cases in which we think S has knowledge? Make S's practical interests as trivial as possible, the skeptic will claim that S's evidence will not pass muster. For example, in the Grizzly Bear/Target Match cases, it can be granted that it is clearly more important to S that the gun shoot straight in the former circumstance than in the latter, but, taking the Target Match Case as an instance in which S's practical concerns are minimal, is it so clear that S can acquire knowledge? After all, the conjunction of CP1 and CP2 precludes knowledge in both circumstances. The Skeptic could argue that what changes is the importance that S knows, not whether S knows. Put another way, the Academic Skeptic will claim that it is the strength of the evidence that is salient in determining whether S knows, regardless of the practical consequences of S's being right or wrong; and because in neither case is S justified in believing that ~sk, S is not justified in believing that the gun shoots straight in either case. Hence, because justification is a necessary condition of knowledge, S lacks knowledge that the gun shoots straight in both cases. Or so the Academic Skeptic will claim.

7. Pyrrhonism

As mentioned at the beginning of this essay, what distinguishes Pyrrhonian Skepticism from Academic Skepticism is that the former does not deny that we can have knowledge of what I have called EI-type propositions. They also would not assent to the Epistemist's claim that we can have such knowledge. Let us see how they arrived at that position.

To deny something is merely to assent to its negation. Since the Pyrrhonians took assent, i.e., the pro-attitude required for knowledge, to involve a kind of certainty that the matter had been finally and fully resolved, they did not assent to what they took to be non-evident propositions.

In distinguishing Pyrrhonians from the Academic Skeptics (in particular, Carneades and Cleitomachus), Sextus writes in Outlines of Pyrrhonism, [PH]:

… although both the Academics and the [Pyrrhonian] Skeptics say that they believe some things, yet here too the difference between the two philosophies is quite plain. For the word “believe” has different meanings; it means not to resist but simply to follow without any strong impulse or inclination, as the boy is said to believe his tutor; but sometimes it means to assent to a thing of deliberate choice and with a kind of sympathy due to strong desire, as when the incontinent man believes him who approves of an extravagant mode of life. Since, therefore, Carneades and Cleitomachus declare that a strong inclination accompanies their credence … while we say that our belief is a matter of simply yielding without any consent, here too there must be difference between us and them. (PH I:230)

The Pyrrhonians would not assent to non-evident propositions. Of course, a crucial issue concerns the scope of the non-evident. To try to resolve that is beyond the scope of this essay (but see Burnyeat & Frede 1997). For our discussion we can suppose that a sufficient condition for some proposition being non-evident obtains whenever there can be legitimate disagreement about it. So, the question is whether the proposition S can have knowledge of EI-type propositions can be the subject of legitimate disagreement.

Putting the matter that way seems to make the answer obvious. There are arguments for Academic Skepticism which have some plausibility, and some plausible objections to those arguments that support the Epistemist's view. Plausible arguments for something constitute some evidence for it. So, we can safely conjecture both that it is not evident that we can have knowledge of EI-type propositions and that it is not evident that such propositions necessarily fall outside our cognizance. Thus, the primary question becomes this: What prompted the Pyrrhonian to withhold assent to all non-evident propositions?

The answer is that they found (or at least reported that they found) over and over again that neither experience nor reason was able to settle disputes about the non-evident. But the Pyrrhonians did not eschew what they called “appearances” or reasoning. Quite the contrary, the Greek for “skeptic” is closely related to the verb “sképtomai” which means “to inquire.” Thus, calling oneself a Pyrrhonian Skeptic did not imply a disregard for inquiry or reasoning. Indeed, the modes, to be discussed later, were not designed to inhibit reasoning. Rather, they were designed to assist the Pyrrhonian in continuing to inquire by shielding her from (what at least they found to be) the disquieting state of dogmatism.

Pyrrhonian skepticism was, thus, a way of life conducted without assent. As such, it has been ridiculed. The Pyrrhonian was likened to someone with Alzheimer's—surviving only if someone else were around to save him from all sorts of perils: falling into pits, being attacked by a dog or run over by a chariot. That caricature seems to miss the point that the Pyrrhonian only withheld assent with regard to the non-evident propositions.[20] Assent to what was evident (i.e., what appears to be) or a pro-attitude weaker than assent toward the non-evident would be appropriate.

As mentioned above, the Pyrrhonians practiced what they called the “modes” in order to try to help them assure that they would not be “perturbed” by assenting. Like piano exercises for the fingers that would result in semi-automatic responses to the printed notes on a sheet of music, the modes were mental exercises that would result in semi-automatic responses to claims being made by the dogmatists—those who assented to the non-evident.

The Pyrrhonians believed (in the passive, yielding way of believing rather than the assenting way of believing) that there were two potential sources of knowledge: perception and reasoning. When the results of perception were introduced to settle a non-evident matter—say the actual color of an object (as opposed to how it appeared to someone), they would point out some or all of the following (Sextus Empiricus, PH I:40–128):

  1. Members of different species of animals probably perceive colors quite differently because their eyes are constructed differently;
  2. Members of the same species would have different perceptions of the color depending upon such things as the condition of their eyes, the nature of the medium of perception (varying light conditions for example), and the order in which objects were perceived.

Being reminded of the relativity of perception could incline a person to refrain from assenting to judgements of perception, when those judgements were about the “real” properties of the objects. As Sextus wrote:

… When we question whether the underlying object is such as it appears, we grant the fact that it appears, and our doubt does not concern the appearance itself, but the account given of the appearance. (PH I:19–20)

Now, perhaps a careful analysis of what is meant by “real” properties coupled with a Cartesian-like answer to some of the doubts raised earlier in the Meditations

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