Ancient Scepticism

Ancient ScepticismHarald Thorsrud is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Agnes Scott College and the author of Cicero’s Ethics. He is also the author of Ancient Scepticism, which was published by UC Press in January 2009. Below, Thorsrud talks about scepticism and personal convictions.

By: Harald Thorsrud

We disagree about most things-politics, religion, morality, sports.  But what should you do when you disagree with someone who seems just as intelligent and has access to the same information?  Philosophers are paying a lot of attention to the problem of disagreement these days.  That’s good since it challenges the rationality of holding any belief that reasonable people might disagree about.

The notion that political, religious, and moral convictions are irrational, or at least unjustified, strikes many as threatening.  Although it seems better to define oneself in terms of convictions than in terms of possessions, these might be equally arbitrary.  Perhaps it is no more reasonable for me to be a Libertarian, Jewish, Steelers fan than to be a Socialist, Catholic, Cardinals fan.  If so, it would be no more reasonable to understand myself in terms of the car I drive.  There are equally good reasons for driving a Toyota as for driving a Honda; and (perhaps) there are equally good reasons for being a Libertarian as for being a Socialist.

To make matters worse, lots of people find comfort in their convictions.  In troubling times, people suppose not merely that their convictions are true, but that they know them to be true.

Maybe there is a way to disarm the problem of disagreement-(but if so, the solution will probably be subject to further disagreement).  In any case, there are lots of other sceptical challenges lurking.  In general, the sceptic is bent on undermining conviction.  But why?

Socrates thought he needed to undermine his fellow Athenians’ conviction that they knew what they didn’t.  As long as I’m convinced that I know the Earth is in the center of the Solar System, I won’t be able to learn the truth.  It may be uncomfortable to acknowledge my ignorance, but I’m supposed to be better off knowing how much I don’t know.

The Pyrrhonist sceptic Sextus Empiricus, also thought of himself as a philanthropist.  His sceptical medicine consists of balancing the rational force of arguments on both sides of an issue to remove the inclination to believe.  For Sextus, the problem of disagreement is not so much a problem as an opportunity.  Once we’ve managed to shuffle off our convictions we are supposed to find the tranquility we’d been seeking.

I leave it to readers to decide for themselves whether and how to reckon with the challenges and promises of ancient scepticism.  But I hope this book provides an engaging tour through the issues.