When Do We Need Skepticism?

Chapter 15 of “What Is This Thing Called Knowledge?” by Duncan Pritchard presents a type of skepticism known as radical skepticism.  This idea holds that it is impossible to know much of anything at all (Pritchard, 169).  Most philosophers agree that this form of skepticism is not a philosophical thought, but a way to challenge those in the pursuit of knowledge; a methodological form, which someone uses in order to try and prove that his or her knowledge presented, is skepticism-proof (Pritchard, 169).  Skepticism is a necessary tool in assessing truth-value of an argument, but too much of it creates an impossible task and thus should not be overly used by those trying to uncover knowledge.  Instead of having the mindset that anything could in fact be wrong or misleading, I’d lean towards the contextual response to radical skepticism, stating that different contexts set up different epistemic standards (Black, http://www.iep.utm.edu/contextu/).

The amount of skepticism necessary depends on the context of the situation at hand.  Using an example similar to that of Pritchard, a scientist looking at her tools does not need the same amount skepticism in determining the effectiveness as a person who is preparing herself a snack in the kitchen.  The scientist would need more skepticism in investigating her belief that her microscope and like equipment are in the right condition for her experiment whereas the person looking at her utensils would not need to use as much skepticism in the evaluating the belief that her kitchen tools will be able to make her sandwich.

Although there are situations that require a more in depth evaluation that are labeled high-standard contexts, and thus the use of skeptical arguments are highly regarded, contextualists believe that most contexts have epistemic standards that are relatively low.  And in these low epistemic standards, the necessity of skepticism is not very urgent (Black, http://www.iep.utm.edu/contextu/).   In this sense, we can have cases of knowledge that are free from issues of that radical skepticism brings up without taking the idea of skepticism in other situations.

On the basis of contextualism, one can still use the closure principle which is often times a good way to determine if the argument is valid or invalid.  Contextualism allows for arguments of low-standards to use the closure principle while arguments of high-standards must look further into the beliefs using skepticism as a tool in this process.

One main counter to the contextualist view is that radical skepticism does not need high standards in order to come into play.

“…the skeptical claim is that we have no good grounds at all for thinking that we’re not the victims of skeptical hypotheses, not we have good grounds but the grounds we have aren’t good enough” (Pritchard, 178).

In this argument, there are no standards when it comes to radical skepticism, because no grounds for an argument are good enough.  This counter-argument shows just how radical this much skepticism is.  The idea that someone can’t really be sure of anything is a little frightening and could leave a person with a very unstable mindset.  It’s also a very frustrating take; that nothing could be proven to be valid because there is always room for something crazy; for example, that our brains are floating in a vat and being controlled by outside forces.  Of course, like what was brought up at the beginning of the chapter 15, radical skepticism is not really a position philosophers take, but just a challenge that must be overcome to arrive at knowledge (Pritchard, 169).

So the main questions that remains is when do we use skepticism? And when does skepticism become excessive?  The contextual argument holds that there are times (many times in fact) when skepticism is not necessary and therefore one can use the closure principle and thus find relatively easily if the argument is valid or invalid.  Within this contextual practice, there is room for skepticism but only when absolutely necessary (high-standard situations).  Knowledge comes in varying degrees, so it seems prudent that different methods be used to analyze an argument depending on the specific degree of that argument.

Other Sources:

Black, Smith. “Contextualism in Epistemology”.  Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.  https://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/747/08/

3 thoughts on “When Do We Need Skepticism?

  1. Nice post Isabelle! I particularly like your emphasis on the methodological deployment of skepticism.

    Couple of things to note: Contextualism doesn’t say there are contexts in which more `skepticism’ is needed and those in which less is needed. Rather, it says that in some contexts, the standards for what counts as having a justified belief or having knowledge are quite low (not very demanding), while in others they are quite high (very demanding). What skeptical hypotheses do to contexts in which they are introduced is to raise the standards. So, where in an ordinary, conversational context, the epistemic standards on empirical knowledge claims might be quite low, when the skeptic comes on the scene, she raises those standards. The question that contextualism raises from the skeptic is whether she is in fact entitled to raise those standards in such mundane contexts as, say, having a casual conversation about what you did on the weekend. When we frame contextualism this way, I don’t see the skeptical reply that Pritchard sketches as having much force. (I don’t actually like the way Pritchard deals with contextualism, but that’s beside the point).

    Finally, I’m confused by your claim:

    The contextual argument holds that there are times (many times in fact) when skepticism is not necessary and therefore one can use the closure principle and thus find relatively easily if the argument is valid or invalid.

    What argument are you talking about? what does this have to do with the closure principle?

    1. Thanks for clarifying. I understand more now that it’s not as simple is needing skepticism or not needing it, but instead times in which using skepticism is held to high standards. When I said “The contextual argument holds…” I was under the impression that in times of low standards, skepticism was not necessary and therefore the closure principle could be used as a relatively easy way to look at a proposition, understand that it entails another proposition, and thus be justified in believing you have knowledge.

      I do still believe that there are times when skepticism is not a necessary tool, so I suppose I differ from contextualism in that sense. I believe there are times that you can believe something without doubt and not have to worry about really rare exceptions which radical skepticism entails.

  2. I agree with you on the fact that contextualism seems like a logical theory to solve the skepticism problem. But as you stated, the argument against contextualism is strong. I would just like to elaborate on the counter argument against contextualism. One of the points that Pritchard mentions is that skepticism seems to be relevant to any epistemic standards that are chosen. He makes a strong argument about how supporting a form of Mooreanism that maintains that we know the denials of skeptical hypothesis would be much more efficient and easier to argue for than contextualism. He states that Contextualism is easy to counter because it says that we can know the denials for skeptical hypothesis and that knowledge is a context-sensitive notion.

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