Scepticism as a way of life



Staff member

Scepticism as a way of life - Aeon

The desire for certainty is often foolish and sometimes dangerous. Scepticism undermines it, both in oneself and in others

Think about a time when you changed your mind. Maybe you heard about a crime, and rushed to judgment about the guilt or innocence of the accused. Perhaps you wanted your country to go to war, and realise now that maybe that was a bad idea. Or possibly you grew up in a religious or partisan household, and switched allegiances when you got older. Part of maturing is developing intellectual humility. You’ve been wrong before; you could be wrong now.

We all are familiar, I take it, with people who refuse to admit mistakes. What do you think about such people? Do you admire their tenacity? Or do you wish that they would acknowledge that they jumped to conclusions, misread the evidence, or saw what they wanted to see? Stubborn people are not just wrong about facts. They can also be mean. Living in society means making compromises and tolerating people with whom you disagree.

Fortunately, we have a work of philosophy from antiquity filled with strategies to counter dogmatic tendencies, whether in ourselves or in other people. The book makes one laugh out loud with questions about whether we know that grass is green, that scorpion stings are deadly, or if it is wrong for parents to tattoo their babies. The French writer Michel de Montaigne read the book in the 16th century and used the strategies in his essay ‘An Apology for Raymond Sebond’. Through Montaigne, many European Enlightenment philosophers came to see a link between scepticism and toleration. Plato’s Republic is more renowned, but the book from antiquity that people ought to read right now is Sextus Empiricus’ Outlines of Pyrrhonism.