Wednesday, 13 August 2014

John Searle on Our Obsession With Scepticism

Many philosophers criticise both Quine and Rorty for not taking "scepticism seriously" (187). John Searle, an ‘external realist’, doesn't take scepticism seriously either. Some of the reasons Searle gives for not taking scepticism seriously are exactly the same as those given by Quine; and they're even more similar to those of Rorty.

At the heart of this critique - in the case of both Rorty and Searle (less so in the case of Quine) - is a criticism of Cartesian epistemology and the dominant role it has had in Western philosophy for about three hundred years – perhaps right up to late Wittgenstein and other philosophers:

"There’s deeper objection I have to this whole tradition and that is that I think our obsession with epistemology was a 300-year mistake. Descartes set us off on this and we just have to get out of the idea that the main aim of philosophy is to answer scepticism. There are all sorts of much more interesting questions. I don’t take scepticism seriously. I take it seriously in the way I take Zeno’s paradoxes seriously – they’re nice puzzles. But when I hear about Zeno’s paradoxes I don’t think, “Oh my God, maybe space and time don’t exist.” I think, “That’s an interesting paradox, let’s worked it out.” That’s how I feel about the sceptical paradoxes. I don’t feel that they show that the real world doesn’t exist or that we can never have knowledge of it. I’m quite stunned, in a way, that we’ve had three hundred years of taking scepticism seriously." [187]

What Searle says about epistemology’s ‘obsession’ with scepticism (or our obsession with epistemology itself) is more or less exactly what Rorty says. Indeed it's also more or less what the late Wittgenstein and even Heidegger said! They too not only said that scepticism was/is the prime issue of epistemology; but that epistemology itself (or at least epistemology as it was influenced by Descartes) created the problems of scepticism. That's why Rorty and Michael Williams don't only question scepticism itself, they also question the whole of epistemology which was partly (or fully) building on Cartesian-induced scepticism.

It's interesting to note, then, that Searle compares the sceptical ‘possibilities’ with Zeno’s paradoxes. He doesn’t "take [these] seriously" either. However, he does see them as "nice puzzles" (187). The philosophers who've been interested in paradoxes - Zeno’s or others - surely wouldn’t have seen them as simply ‘nice puzzles’ – or would they?

Bertrand Russell, for instance, did see the paradoxes as nice puzzles. They were useful because they challenge our cognitive abilities and challenge our ordinary ways of thinking about the world. However, perhaps that doesn't imply that we ever actually believe their conclusions or take them seriously. That is, like Searle, no one really thought that "maybe space and time don’t exist" (187) or that the hare could never have caught up with the tortoise. Similarly, no one, unless he were mad, ever thought "that the real world doesn’t exist or that we can’t have knowledge of it" (187). Or if they seemingly did, perhaps this was an example of the ‘false doubt’ that C.S. Peirce talked about when he castigated Cartesians.

We must conclude with a question:

Have we really been obsessed by epistemology - and therefore scepticism - in the last three hundred years? And was it really the case that scepticism was epistemology’s prime concern?

Come to think of it, it's quite easy to see that scepticism was epistemology’s prime concern because that's what epistemology is essentially about – whether we can have knowledge at all; and not just of the ‘external world'.

No comments:

Post a Comment