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Part II: Parts 1-2 The basic principle of skeptical arguments

In the next paragraph on Pg. 74 Montaigne introduces perhaps the most basic principle of skeptical arguments. Skeptics in the ancient world were inclined to distinguish between appearance and reality, much as Plato did, and to hold (again much as Plato did) that in respect to appearance all we ever have is opinion, while if we grasped reality, what we would have would be knowledge. So:


What is the difference between grasping reality and appearance? One mark of that difference is the assumption made by both Platonists and skeptics alike that reality is determinately one way or another, that a thing has one property or another -- it is one way rather than another. The world of appearance, on the other has, is a world of change in which things are sometimes one way sometimes another, this in relation to A but not in relation to B and so on. Perhaps a pure example of the determinate character of reality is what Plato says about the Idea or Form of Beauty in the Symposium:

...a nature which in the first place is everlasting, not growing and decaying, or waxing and waning; secondly, not beautiful in one point of view and ugly in another, or at one time or in one relation or at one place beautiful, at another time or in another relation or at another place ugly, as if beautiful to some and-ugly to others, or in the likeness of a face or hands or any other part of the bodily frame, or in any form of speech or knowledge, or existing in any other being, as for example, in an animal, or in heaven or in earth, or in any other place; but beauty absolute, separate, simple, and everlasting, which without diminution and without increase, or any change...
So, if both of us see the form of Beauty -- which is the essence of the beauty in all beautiful things, we will see exactly the same thing. This is what marks it out as being real, rather than apparent beauty. Apparent beauty is beautiful from one pers pective but not from another, beautiful at one time but not another, beautiful in one place but not another and so on. The skeptics agree with Plato completely about this. The difference between the skeptics and Plato is that while Plato was convinced it was possible to grasp reality through the exercise of reason and philosophy, the skeptics deny this possibility.

Now let us turn to the world of the senses where we drink wine and find that wood and iron have particular textures. If each of us were to encounter these things and find in them the same properties, we might conclude that we were getting at the reality of things. But it does not work this way. For a variety of reasons we see the same things in different ways. Now the assumption that reality is determinate means that conflicting appearances cannot be true. If we see things differently, both of us cannot be correct. One or the other (or both) of us have failed to grasp the truth. And we need a criterion to decide which one of us has got it right. And that takes you back to the problem of the criterion. So, we cannot accept appearances because they conflict, and we cannot judge between the conflicting opinions based on them, because we do not have a criterion. Consider now what Montainge says:

      That things do not lodge in us in their own form and essence, or make their own entry into us by their own power and authority, we see clearly enough. Because, if that were so, we should receive them in the same way: wine would be the same in the mouth of a sick man as in the mouth of a healthy man; he who has chapped or numbed fingers would find the same hardness in the wood or iron he handles as another.(Pg. 74)

Montaigne goes on to point out the implications. On the one hand, if we all grasped reality we would have universal consent. On the other, what is actually the case is "that men are in agreement about nothing." (Pg. 75) He then goes on to point out that this kind of disagreement occurs not only between different people but even within ourselves. He then points out that from this knowledge of the mobility of his own opinions he has "accidentally engendered in myself a certain constancy of opinions, and have scarcely altered my original and natural ones." In particular, "...I have, by the Grace of God, kept myself intact, without agitation or disturbance of conscience, in the ancient beliefs of our religion, in the midst of so many sects and divisions which our century had produced." Montainge is telling us that by the grace of God he has remained a faithful Catholic and so here we have the alliance between skepticism and Catholicism."

Parts 3-5 The humanist and scientific skeptical crises

In the next couple of paragraphs we get a reference to the humanist skeptical crisis and the skeptical crisis in natural philosophy. --- Montaigne's opinions are taken first one way, then another by the ancient authors -- "I find each one right in his turn, although they contradict one another." Rather clearly, this is not a satisfactory situation, if you want to decide which one is right. (Remember reality is determinate!) Montaigne then goes on to consider two conflicting propositions, which we may slightly simplify to the following:

P1. The sun moves about the earth.
P2. The earth moves around the sun while the sun remains still.

Here is a quiz. When you are convinced you can answer the following questions, take the quiz by clicking on the link below:

Quiz: Skepticism and Astronomy
  1. If reality is determinate both P1 and P2 may be true. (T/F)
  2. Suppose that the evidence equally supports both hypotheses represented by P1 and P2 and you have no criterion to determine which of these is true. What should you conclude? There being no criterion to decide between these two propositions was very much the state of things in the 1570s when Montaigne wrote this. The telescope had not yet been invented or pointed at the stars by Galileo -- this would occur in 1609 -- and even that would not resolve the problem decisively.)

       a. P1 should be accepted as true, while P2 should be rejected as false.
       b. Both P1 and P2 should be accepted as true.
       c. P2 should be accepted as true, while P1 should be rejected as false.
       d. One should suspend judgement on whether P1 or P2 is true
       e. One should hold that both P1 and P2 are false.

After giving this skeptical argument in regard to astronomy, Montaigne goes on to consider medicine, physics and finally geography. The arguments all turn on the idea that things change, that new things may be discovered, but that we have no reason to trust the new. The arguments in regard to each of the four topics are pretty much the same. What is interesting about the geography argument is that it shows that the discovery of the new world and the voyages of discovery had a direct impact on certain philosophical issues. By showing that the ancients were wrong in their geography it reinforced Renaissance skepticism.


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