The Big Question: Anthony Gottlieb argues for a philosophy that values doubt, caution and modesty

From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, May/June 2013

If there is a best philosophy, it is surely the one which maintains that every philosophy is doubtful. This is known as scepticism, and it draws its inspiration from some ancient writers who took it much too far. Pyrrho of Elis, on the Ionian sea, was born in the fourth century BC, and is said to have advocated the suspension of judgment about how things really are. Apart from his name and location, almost nothing is known about him, which is rather fitting. Some two centuries later, Pyrrho’s ideas were expanded and defended by “Sextus Empiricus”, of whom not even a real name or location are known.

Every great thinker has in effect adopted a partial version of this extreme philosophy. Each of them refuses to accept what all other philosophers say, and exempts only his own views from doubt. Ancient scepticism takes just one further step and exempts nobody. But this seems to be a fatal move, since scepticism must then swallow itself and disappear. With admirable consistency, Sextus concluded that the true sceptic must suspend judgment about suspending judgment.

It was David Hume, in the 18th century, who showed how to bring scepticism back to life. The first step is to keep in mind what Hume called the “strange infirmities” of human understanding, and the “universal perplexity and confusion, which is inherent in human nature”. Armed with this knowledge—for our ignorance is the one thing of which we can be certain—we should be sure to exercise the “degree of doubt, and caution, and modesty, which, in all kinds of scrutiny and decision, ought for ever to accompany a just reasoner”. Apart from anything else, this would help to cure people of their “haughtiness and obstinacy”.

In theory, we have all learned Hume’s lesson, because a modest scepticism is the official philosophy of the modern sciences, which avow the maxim that every result is to be probed, repeatedly, and no truth may be admitted until it has stood the test of time. But, in fact, we have not learned his lesson. Nobody has time to wait and see whether yesterday’s experiment will still stand several decades from now. Life is short and writers have deadlines. So scepticism is a philosophy that is not easy to live up to. But who would want a philosophy that was?

What do you think is the best philosophy? Read Jesse Norman on Aristotle, mashed up, Angie Hobbs on Plato’s idea of flourishing, Simon Willis on particularism, Colin Blakemore on doubt and Susie Orbach on self-knowledge. Vote now in our online poll

Anthony Gottlieb is a visiting scholar at NYU, former executive editor of The Economist and author of “The Dream of Reason”