A Struggle With Skepticism: First Draft

"I say this struggle with skepticism, with its threat or temptation, is endless ...[ Wittgenstien's Philosophical] Investigations ... confronts this temptation and finds its victory exactly in never claiming a final philosophical victory over ... skepticism, which would mean a victory over the human." (Cavell, 1989)

Many readers will have likely encountered the concept of skepticism before, particularly in a popularised notion of the skeptic. Taken in the domain of the general public, a skeptic is one who demands clear proof that something is the case (e.g. that UFOs exist), even though there may be those who ascribe to the existence of the phenomena with little to no empirical evidence to support the belief. To be skeptical is to harbour doubts and to demand proof - at times insurmountable - before investing any time or commitment to exploring or entertaining an idea. As mentioned above, this is a widely held interpretation of skepticism and there are significant reasons why education can foster healthy skepticism, since our education establishes criteria that any idea must meet in order to be considered valid. That said, there are domains of practice (e.g. ethical practices) which are highly valuable - particularly within a given culture - but whose many tenants cannot be verified empirically and absolutely. However, the fact that they cannot should not threaten their continued existence.

There is a broader notion of skepticism that Cavell is alluding to in the opening quote, and it is one which can be quite debilitating. It is one in which a thinker is unable to commit fully to any new ideas, since only the narrowest range of knowledge will fully satisfy the criteria of absolute certainty. You might say that this exacting mindset is good - that it is beneficial - but there is a problem. Aside for encounters with truly empirical facts, a vast range of ethical, aesthetic, and cultural judgements cannot be justified absolutely. We must appeal to the circumstances under which these judgements are practiced or under which they make sense, which opens the path of doubt for the skeptic. The fact that certain practices could appear differently, require interpretation or would change under other circumstances would not be in keeping with the idealism demanded by the skeptic, thereby leading toward doubt and an inability to commit. And an inability to commit means that the individual cannot fully invest oneself to the form of life (or form of investigation) to which certain ideas are linked and valued.

Permit me to enter into an example. It is commonly held that "murder is wrong". I can point to many examples within my community and political situation which holds that - if accepted - murder would substantially destabilise society. However, in a skeptical argument, I may be asked to consider a state of affairs in which a murder in the form of retaliating asking the State should be permitted and acceptable, which I would be in a position to entertain. Does this open my initial statement that "murder is wrong" to criticism, since it can only be claimed as true "under particular circumstances"? Does the fact that I appeal to conditions in some way weaken my argument? Does the fact that I acknowledge that a form of "retaliator murder" could be allowable (it just so happens that I haven't included it in the present discussion) suddenly put my own commitment to "murder is wrong" into a tailspin? If I would caricature the skeptic, he or she might smile gleefully in satisfaction that another certainty has proven to be less than absolute. Despite the glee, I remain committed to general statement that murder is wrong, though I am open to examining cases in which that assertion would need to contextualised. It is at these junctures that the philosophies of idealism and pragmatism meet.

Philosophy must navigate between dogmatism and skepticism. The dogmatist holds unwaveringly to particular ideas even if circumstances would call for the underlying ideas to change with time and circumstances. To entertain changes would threaten the sanctity of the dogma, since it would display relativity in something that is considered absolute. In this case, dogma would be open to alteration due to human consideration and interpretation. That said, currently it is political dogma in the United States of America that holds that the "right to bear arms" is a right that is true beyond the context in which it was initially applied. The dogmatic interpretation of this political statement fails to recognise that certain ideals were uttered in early American history specifically to contend with a crisis at a particular time, and that when time and circumstances change it is important to revisit the ideal and consider whether it remains in keeping with contemporary circumstances. To stick to a dogma avoids the necessity of thinking by confusing sanctity with intellectual rigidity. 

In contrast, a skeptic finds it difficult to hold to any proposition if fault or relativity is found with any detail, application or interpretation of it. In this case, nothing is sacred. As already discussed, a single example that threatens the edict of "murder is wrong" would cause the skeptic to reassess the validity of the statement and perhaps the underlying moral architecture upon which the statement is founded. More controversially (though common), it is not surprising that a skeptic challenges - without compromise - religion since many religious claims are quickly open to (factual) challenge. Alain de Botton is quick to point out that the skeptic misses out through this quick reaction. De Botton - a known atheist - cites that the skeptic's judgemental stance refuses to stop and ask, "what function does religion play? How do religions thrive even in the face of empirical challenge?" The skeptics fail to consider more objectively the reasons why certain beliefs are held when making judgements from only a single frame of reference. The skeptic risks throwing "the baby out with the bathwater" rather than engaging him or herself in the critical development of the practice, which still leaves opens the possibility for critical denial.

What - then - is the middle ground? I suggest that it is the "rough ground" and by rough ground I am referring to the following quote from Wittgenstein, "we have got onto slippery ice where there is no friction and so in a certain sense the conditions are ideal, but also, just because of that, we are unable to walk. We want to walk so we need friction. Back to the rough ground!" In this case, the "slippery ice" is the idealism held by both dogmatism and skepticism. These polar opposites make sense and provide a consistent framework for interpreting new phenomena, though they provide little room to move. There is little analysis within idealism. Instead there is tendency toward an application (or fitting) of ideas. In contrast, the rough ground involves deep analysis of cases. There is the openness to see how rules come to be applied, how new categories are formed, and how certain perspectives need to become more nuanced or developed in order to maintain pertinence. Whilst the analysis may be guided by certain ideals, the analysis is not determined by the ideals, though - without the ideals - any analysis would be set on shifting sand.

It seems like a quite long introduction, but it is here that I feel I can personally address the title of this entry, "a struggle with skepticism". Doubt, suspicion, hesitancy - these are key qualities of a type of intellectual skepticism. The knowledge that there may be another possible action or form of life or explanation makes any idea or practice or commitment appear arbitrary. To abide by any set of propositions is to marginalise another set of practices, until the skeptical mind intervenes to shut down any commitment to ideals at all. Placed in a political space in which there is cultural diversity, a skeptic would be loathe to claim any privileged position of one set of ideas over another.  This is the personal struggle with skepticism that people are engaged in. It begins with the question, "how would I be able to commit?"

Was this the source of Wittgenstein's own crisis that prompted him to shed his immense inheritance, quit philosophy to become a primary school teacher, to inquire into moving to Soviet Russia, volunteer in a hospital in WWII and more? Did he suspect that academics hid behind a particular community in order to falsely claim that this community's ideas contained the absolute truth for all? Did he find a certain arrogance in this practice? Also, in the Tractatus, did he anticipate the uncertainty by clearly demarcating the difference between statements that make clear (empirical) sense and those which were conceptual and in need of interpretation? He must have, which is suggested in the unravelling of the empirical argument that occurs near the end of the Tractatus. In the so-called mystical turn, he admits that realms of ethics, aesthetics and religion cannot be determined within a verificationist/positivist framework and - therefore - lie outside of pure logical analysis. Ultimately, Wittgenstein finds that his own demands for empirical verification to be flawed since his book relies upon a particular set of concepts shared by a particular audience as part of a specialised discussion. The value of his treatise is not absolute. If it is valuable, it is so because it is of benefit to his audience to see more clearly ... to live more clearly. 

In the realm of pure thought, there are reasons enough to exercise a certain level of doubt for all practices or explanations, whether this applies to the values of social decorum, intellectual domains, book preferences, artistic preferences, etc. However, if I were to return to my formation and to my culture, I would find grounds for the value (or significance) of each of these practices, particularly given the respect I grant to those who shaped many of these "preferences" or "practices". The skeptic intervenes to challenge whether historical, developmental or cultural forces are adequate to choose one form of life over another ... to dive headlong into one mythology (or narrative) over others. As a philosopher (and a thinker), one is pushed to question, critique, re-render, conduct thought experiments, etc. Each of these can refine thought, but they also run the risk of driving a wedge between practices/knowledge and one's commitment to these. Without commitment, there is no shape to practice. Without commitment, it is difficult to immerse oneself into the imaginative landscape of a set of ideas and practices, and the potential form of life that lies hidden therein. At the same time, I do not want to encourage blind obedience, which comes with its own disastrous consequences. 

A struggle with skepticism is an overall struggle with doubt. As Cavell points out, "a final philosophical victory over ... skepticism ... would mean a victory over the human," which means that it is human to doubt and to hesitate and to demand. In my opinion, that which should remain firm is "the form of life" and the values, practices and systems of knowledge that give this life shape. This is in itself problematic, but it is something that I must be willing to accept. “The conditions that make a practice, any practice, possible, are not arbitrary … They must be replicable from generation to generation of practitioners.” (Burbles and Smeyers, 2010, pg 176 - 177). If anything, the skeptic in us all must be willing to challenge/question these inherited practices so they can grow, find new forms of expression and be more equitable whilst retaining the core values which permitted their rise in the first place. That is what philosophy is for, but - in the words of Ludwig Wittgenstein - "the real discovery is the one which enables me to stop doing philosophy when I want to. The one that gives philosophy peace, so that it is no longer tormented by questions which bring itself into question." (Philosophical Investigations, #133) 

The solution to the struggle is not found in the absolute. It is found in the everyday, and it is found in the everyday challenge of applying, examining and reinforcing that which contributes to our sustainable knowledge and practice that may shared but not the same as those of other times and places. There are no final solutions but reminders. "Each morning you have to break through the dead rubble afresh so as to reach the living warm seed." (Wittgenstein, Culture & Value) Ultimately, Klagge reminds us, "To put the issue in Wittgenstein’s terms: Which form of life do we want to live in?" (Klagge, 2011, pg 122) Is this - then - Wittgenstein's final solution? Is this enough? It may well need to be.



  • Burbles, N. and Smeyers, P. (2010). The practice of ethics and moral education. In M. Peters, N. Burbles, and P. Smeyers (Eds), Showing and doing: Wittgenstein as a pedagogical philosopher. (pp. 169 - 182). London: Paradigm Publishers.
  • Cavell, S. (1989). The new yet unapproachable America: lectures after Emerson after Wittgenstein. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Klagge, J. (2011). Wittgenstein in exile. Cambridge: MIT Press.
  • Wittgenstein, L. (2001). Philosophical Investigations. 3rd Edition. Translated by G.E.M. Anscombe. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.