Mis-phil: Re-specting Skeptics Against Skepticism

This is one of those thoughts which strike me, which few could care to approve or discredit, and which I will of natural course forget. Worse, I can’t even answer the question – but perhaps one day I shall be able to and then I shall look back upon these silly notes, scrawled as they are, and wonder who the person was who misunderstood to such an extent not one author, but two!

So, it is with some hesitation that I posit something I may inevitably disprove or discredit or cease to care about, but learning is by means of connections and answering questions and finally understanding why our questions were poorly formed to begin. The path must begin at the toes of these hills and only far later shall we see what routes we should have pursued instead.


In the preface to his Three Dialogues Between Hylas and Philonous (first published in 1713), Berkeley (1685-1753) attacks the exercise of abstract thought for the purpose of speculation is “practice or the improvement and regulation of our lives and actions” where it causes distrust of our senses (the preface, p. 5 in The Liberal Arts Press’ publication of Three Dialogues, 1954).  Skepticism and paradoxes result from undue speculation – that speculation which asks us to distinguish ‘real nature’ from that which is presented to our senses.  Because we distrust our senses, for they have been known to be mis-taken, we take the thing in itself to be more real (perhaps I ‘m anachronistically importing my understanding of Kant…buyer be wary).  Berekeley wishes to remove such endless pursuits of the mind, not in the least because they distract us from what is important – amending our actions.

If I ‘ve grasped in the pre-reading a taste of that which Berkeley intends, I wonder how al-Ghazali (1058-1111) compares.  Al-Ghazali also wishes, as I understand him, to dispense with undue speculation so that right practice may result.  Of course, both Berkeley and al-Ghazali’s works provide particularly interesting voices within philosophical skepticism, particularly in dealing with causality.

The Incoherence of the Philosophers, possibly my favorite philosophical title, and a landmark of 11th century Islamic philosophico-religious thought, spends a significant portion demonstrating the ‘auto-destruction’ or unsustainable reasoning of metaphysics grounded in speculation.  As I understand him, al-Ghazali’s main objective is not that another would agree with his metaphysics, but that one would see the foolishness of making claims based on any other standard than what God affirms.  Speculation in this sense has ensnared many and leads to the undue questioning of authority.

Berkeley is speaking in a different discourse, one which I ‘m less familiar with.  But, his dialogues will necessarily concern metaphysics – that by which one tries to explain the fundamental ‘being’ of the world/reality and he means to use speculation to discredit speculation.  Whether either or neither is an occasionalist (the fascinating system in which causality is essentially denied – which first drew me to both men’s works) is ultimately immaterial.  Both men would, I think, unite behind the cause of “rescuing [the mind] from those endless pursuits” because the true pursuit ought to be right action in accord with virtue (pp. 6-7 in the preface for Three Dialogues).


I suppose to ever answer such questions I ‘ll have to read far more of both – the result of which may well be raucous laughter on my part when I retrace my footfalls.  So, in order to speculate about the ineffectiveness of speculation I have posited my own and shall see what may come of it.


4 responses to “Mis-phil: Re-specting Skeptics Against Skepticism

  1. I’m looking more at the overarching principle here and not so much at metaphysics, but I find a certain amount of truth (and relief) in ending speculation in order to promote action. How long can the architect design the building before he hands the blueprints over to the contractor? Skeptics spend far too much time in their thoughts that I think the only people listening at this point are other skeptics. Pardon my crude language, but the whole thing is one big intellectual (using that term lightly) circle jerk. Everyone else is just kind of sick of the doubting everything mindset and has moved on with their lives without an actual answer.kn

    Guess I’ adding

  2. I might temper your agreement a bit, I haven’t read Berkeley well enough to know to what extent I truly agree with him, in saying that tossing out speculation isn’t the idea. But, where skepticism gets in the way of action, it isn’t serving a useful purpose.

    You’re right, many philosophical conundrums become stumbling blocks insofar as they justify meaningless pride. You’ve brought up the free will/determinism (Arminianism/Calvinism) debate. I lost my taste for that one long ago – why worry so much about stringent orthodoxy if orthopraxy suffers (when they should be joined in purpose)?

    I like that these two writers cause me to reconsider why I like to go through the rigors of speculation – if they don’t ultimately lead to me being a better person, I should find something better to do with my time.

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