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Parts 6-8: Skepticism in regard to the senses (Pp. 77--80)

For many of us, as well as for a philosopher like Aristotle, the senses provide the foundation for human knowledge. We get an enormous amount of information about the world from our eyes and ears, nose, mouth, hands and other parts of our bodies. So, skeptics are at pains to try to demonstrate that judged in terms of the determinate character of reality, the senses are unreliable. Montaigne's discussion of the senses raises issues which remain important through the entire period we are studying.

(4) Text Map:
Skepticism in regard to the senses

(This is a detailed map of sections 5 and 6 of (3) The text-map of Part II of the Reading)

A. Montaigne begins, just as I did above, by noting the importance of the senses. He knows his Aristotle, as well as other philosophers who put great emphasis on the senses. (Empiricism, the view that the sense are basic to knowledge, was a significant part of Aristotle's heritage in European philosophy In the painting "The School of Athens," Aristotle has his hand pointing towards the ground, while Plato is raised towards the heavens, symbolic of their differing views of the senses.) So, Montaigne begins by saying things like: "Now all knowledge makes its way into us through the senses...Knowledge begins through them and is resolved through them." He continues: "After all, we would know no more than a stone, if we did not know that there is sound, smell, light, taste...weight, softness, hardness, color..." But it is plain that he is going to argue that all of this is not knowledge. For the very first sentence in this section is: "This subject has brought me to a consideration of the senses, in which lies the greatest foundation and proof of our ignorance." So, how is Montaigne going to convince us that what we get from the senses is ignorance and not knowledge?

Montaigne's first point B. is that we may not have "all the senses of nature" -- which he might need to grasp reality. And he may not even be aware of that fact. Some animals lead fine lives without sight, people blind from birth cannot conceive that they do not see, and many properties which seem hidden to us, e.g. magnetism, may perhaps be perfectly clear to another sense. So, perhaps there is some other sense by which we could see reality as it is. But we do not even know that we don't have it. Montainge is certainly correct about our limitations. We now that our sight, hearing and other senses are limited. Dogs can hear higher pitches than we can. We cannot see infrared,x-rays and so on.

Next Montaigne turns to C. the "error and uncertainty of the operation of the senses." First we are often deceived by our senses, a trumpet sounds like it is coming from in front of us because it is echoing from a valley but really comes from miles behind and so on. The senses can master reason -- so even a philosopher may be afraid that he will fall from a great height, even though his reason tells him otherwise. Going from the soul to the senses, rather than from the senses to the soul, we find that emotions such as anger and love can distort the images we see, making them seem more beautiful and ugly than they would seem if we were not affected by these passions.

C. 2 The difference between waking and sleeping also provides some basis for doubt about the adequacy of our senses. When we are dreaming "our soul authorizes the actions" with the same approbation as when we are awake, so perhaps when we are awake we are in a sort of sleep from which it is possible to awake. Then the world might appear very different. Animals see things differently, perhaps better than we do. Similarly, those who are ill, see things differently than healthy people. Whose perception is the correct one? Since we are not in agreement with ourselves or with the animals, how can we tell which impression is the right one? Since each different condition, sickness, health, madness, dreaming and waking, produce different appearances in us, there is no telling what things are in truth.

D. Since there are all of these different ways to perceive things -- animal versus human, mad versus sane, sick versus healthy, passionate or calm, dreaming or waking -- who will judge of the differences between them, to tell us which is the true perception and which false? The judge will always be in one condition or another. To judge the appearances we need an instrument, to verify the instrument we need a demonstration, to verify the demonstration we need an instrument, and we have just reasoned in a circle. This is one piece of the problem of the criterion. We get the second piece in the next paragraph. The senses cannot decide our dispute about which appearance to accept as true, so we must turn to reason. But a reason will require another reason to justify it, and so we get an infinite regress. Thus there is no way to justify a criterion which will adjudicate these conflicting reports from the senses.

We might try to reconstruct all this as an argument, in order to make Montaigne's point clear. The argument here seems to be this:

  1. Reality is determinate, everything must be in one condition or another.
  2. Our perceptions vary from one condition to another, differing from other kinds of animals as well as other people, and oneself at different times and in different condtions.
  3. So, all of our perceptions are conditioned.
  4. The condition of our perceptions effects our judgment.
  5. There is no criterion by which to judge which perception is the correct one -- the one which corresponds to the determinate state of reality or some aspect of it.
  6. Since any judge must be conditioned, and there is no criterion, there is no possibility of impartial (or conditionless) judgement.
  7. So we have no way to distinguish which perception is the right one.
  8. So, we should suspend judgement about what the senses tell us.
So, we have a skeptical argument for discounting all the particular truths which one might think one has received from the senses.

Montaigne offers yet another reason why we cannot judge perceptions. This particular reason has to do with the relations between the images we perceive, and the objects which cause them. This point about perception turns out to be remarkably important, so it is worth noting as we shall encounter it in talking about Descartes, Locke and Berkeley with regularity. Montaigne's point is that the images which are provided to us by the senses are different from the objects of which they are images. But how can the soul determine that the images resemble the objects which they represent when it only sees the images and never the objects? It would be like trying to determine if a portrait of a person were accurate without ever having seen the person! If this argument is a good one, then it appears that we have no way, in principle, to tell if our perceptions are accurate or not.

Part 9: Becoming and being

Montaigne concludes by considering that E. existence is not constant -- both that which judges and that which is judged are in constant change and motion. So nothing can be firmly established. The only way for a human being to pass beyond this condition is if God should lend her a hand, and God will only lend his hand to one who abandons and renounces her own means to rise above her condition. The point of Montaigne's skepticism is then to get humans to renounce their own means of grasping knowledge so as to let themselves be raised by purely celestial means.

Here we reach the end of the eight pages of our reading from the Apology for Raymond Sebond. I hope you are impressed by how much can be gotten from a good analysis of eight pages!


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