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Characterizing Skepticism’s Import

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This paper discusses a common contemporary characterization of skepticism and skeptical arguments—that their real importance is instrumental, that they “drive progress in philosophy.” I explore two possible contrasts to the idea that skepticism’s significance is thus wholly methodological. First, I recall for the reader a range of views that can be understood as ‘truth in skepticism’ views. These concessive views are those most clearly at odds with the idea that skepticism is false, but instrumentally valuable. Considering the contributions of such ‘truth in skepticism’ theorists, I argue, shows that the good of furthering philosophical progress is partly achieved by the work of those who would reject the ‘merely methodological’ view of skepticism’s import. While this shows such a view of skepticism’s import to be partially self-effacing, it is not therefore incoherent. Rather, the characterization is revealed to be wedded to particular diagnoses of skepticism, and not independently innocuous or neutral. Second, I discuss the idea that the ‘merely methodological’ characterization of skepticism’s import draws a contrast with philosophical positions or theses that are supposed to have practical teeth. Here, I think the danger of acquiescing too readily to this view is that the normative import of skeptical arguments is obscured. At a time when discussions of the value of knowledge are in ascendency, this in particular seems a loss—a route from consideration of skeptical arguments to broader normative questions worth keeping open is rather more obscured than opened up. Any radically revisionary outcome of an encounter with skepticism is less likely, led by such an understanding, just when there is opportunity instead to connect up with broad questions of epistemic value. For these reasons I argue the characterization is not one to too readily, unthinkingly, endorse.

Affiliations: 1: Wilfrid Laurier University,


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