Tuesday, 9 October 2012

Scepticism: it's a tough job, but someone has to do it

'Scepticism does not suit everybody.  It supposes a profound and careful examination.  He who doubts because he is not acquainted with the grounds of credibility is no better than an ignoramus.  The true sceptic has counted and weighed his reasons.  But it is no easy matter to weigh arguments.  Which of us knows their value with any exactness?  Out of a hundred proofs of the same truth, each one will have its partisans.  Every mind has its own telescope.  An objection which is invisible to you is a colossus to my eyes, and you find an argument trivial that to me is crushing in its efficacy.  If we dispute about their intrinsic value, how shall we agree upon their relative?  Tell me how many moral proofs are needed to balance a metaphysical conclusion?  Are my spectacles at fault, or yours?  If, then, it is so difficult to weigh reasons, and if there are no questions which have not two sides, and nearly always in equal measure, how come we to cut knots with such rapidity?  How do we come by this convinced and dogmatic air?  Have we not a hundred times experienced how revolting is dogmatic presumption? "I have been brought to detest probabilities", says the author of the Essays [Montaigne], "when they are foisted on me as infallible; I love words which soften and moderate the temerity of our propositions - peradventure, in no wise, some people say, methinks, and the like; and if I had to teach children I should train them to answer in this hesitating and undecided manner: 'What does that mean? I do not understand; maybe; is it true?' that they would have the appearance of apprentices at sixty years of age, rather than of doctors at ten, as at present.'  Denis Diderot, Philosophic Thoughts XXIV, 1747, translated Jourdain.

Diderot was so modern.   Compare this with, for example, Nietzsche: 'All seeing is perspective, and so is all knowing', virtually identical with 'Every mind has its own telescope'.  Of course I am even more pleased to see him quote Montaigne, and I am resolved to use the words peradventure and methinks whenever the opportunity presents itself.

I am reading a collection of Denis's early works, and expect there may be more quotations from it here before long....


  1. Peradventure my own spectacles require fresh lenses - I really enjoyed reading this quotation from Diderot.
    I am presently reading a biography of Lord Edward Fitzgerald, who died tragically in 1798 following the crushing of the United Irishmen - his charm and idealism shine through in the letters quoted - his cousin was Charles James Fox, that louche whig and gambler

  2. Thanks for this Chris, glad you like it! The Diderot stuff I'm reading is terrific - an obscure selection of his early writing published in 1916. After Philosophic Thoughts which consists of about 60 short pieces like the one quoted above, I'm now on Letter on the Blind, which fundamentally deals with the same issues not from a moral and philosophical but from a perceptual perspective - once again anticipating Nietzsche that seeing and knowing unavoidably involve interpretation of our perceptions. Blind people don't have limited faculties so much as different ones....it's a wonderful and sophisticated discussion - I can't understand why he isn't better known and more widely read in the UK.

    Have you finished the Scrope (pronounced Scroop) biography? I'd very much like to read that at some point if you have....

  3. A volume will be placed upon your shelves on the 26th of October - when I hope to be granted a floor in your house