descartes vs. agrippa

It is not as if I begin in an experience-less state and then proceed to beg the question against the sceptic by entertaining this or that experience. Rather, the experiences are there. Don’t ask me where they come from. In any case, I think most agree that somehow I am certain that I exist, and thus that somehow epistemic circularity is not an issue here. But how exactly?

A common sceptical argument goes like this: when I assert that experience exists, this is really two distinct states, the experience and the second-order belief about that experience. Thus, the fact that I am thinking about experience shows that I am only ever inferentially or mediately connected to experience, and thus that the very idea of non-inferential access is a sort of chimera, an illusion of the manifest image.

Let’s admit for argument’s sake that this counts against the certainty of at least some of my experiences, e.g. that it renders me uncertain with regard to whether my first-order experience is of (seeming to see) forty-three or forty-four spots. Still, this is categorically different – or so I want to say – from claiming that it also suffices to render me uncertain that I am having any experience at all. To say otherwise is to say that the difference between having an experience and not having an experience could be vague for me in the same way as the difference between seeing forty-three spots and seeing forty-four spots is. And that just seems wrong.

So far, however, the sceptic has an argument, and I have intuitions and assertions. That is not ideal. Better to have an account of where the sceptic goes wrong.

In this vein, suppose we tried to explain the difference just mentioned as follows: what I am calling ‘entertaining a proposition’ , or ‘believing’, ‘judging’, etc., necessarily involves experiential content, i.e. necessarily involves consciousness. To have a mistaken belief is therefore to be conscious, and thus that I am conscious is, at least, beyond doubt. Naturally the sceptic resists this reasoning: for her it is arbitrary to define concepts willy-nilly and expect reality to play along. For her, I have defined belief to have this consequence – yet how do I know that this concept applies to me? This boils down to a dilemma: either I am asserting that the concept I analyse applies to its object, in which case the sceptic wants to know what justification I have for believing this; or I am making no such assertion, in which case my analysis is disconnected from reality and irrelevant.

Where is the fallacy here? I don’t have a precise answer to this question, just a few thoughts. To begin with, consider the distinction between a relative truth and no truth at all. Perhaps, if we are lucky, the former will turn out to be robust in the face of the Agrippan challenge.

Descartes or Agrippa – relativist or sceptic. Although my suggestion could be wrong, I don’t think it’s absurd. Harry Frankfurt presents Descartes as a relativist in his book Demons, Dreamers, and Madmen – as a means of escaping the famed Cartesian circle.* Moreover, it is intriguing to note that scepticism regarding the reality or existence of appearance is traditionally a Parmenidean venture, whereas Protagoras, the original relativist, was an ardent defender of the reality of appearance. (He was also an infallibilist of sorts.) To be clear, scepticism put in the service of Parmenidean monism is restricted in scope: my point is not that radicalised scepticism entails monism but that it overlaps with such restricted scepticism. An argument against the latter scepticism would then be an argument against the former, and that is what the relativist claims to provide. Thus to be clear, when I say “relativist”, I am thinking of the the defender of the “reality of appearance” as being outside the scope of the relativist argument. In this sense relativism is a limit to scepticism.

Moreover, there is a fundamental resonance between relativism and pluralism (or dualism) – albeit in a quite unclear way that demands further exploration. The upshot of this resonance, this connection, is that we can move from relativism to contingency, since pluralism posits the existence of more than one thing or type of thing at the fundamental level, and these things are really distinct in the sense that they contingently relate to one another. Thus, to describe my overall strategy, I am trying to discern a thread leading out of the Agrippan labyrinth. Agrippan scepticism is taken to fall inside the scope of the relativist argument, whereas the “reality of appearance” is not. In other words, scepticism is mediated by relativism, and the appearances regain their certainty qua appearances. If we can make good on the connection between relativism and pluralism, then this regained certainty will at the same time yield access to contingency, access that satisfies the Platonic ideal of knowledge. (Admittedly, it is not that this strategy will actually work.)

Here is some further detail on the relation between the relativist and the sceptic. The relativist agrees with the sceptic but only in a qualified way: by accepting part of the force of the sceptical challenge, she hopes to perform a sort of judo-flip upon the sceptic. The relativist accepts the impossibility of absolute knowledge. The judo-flip then amounts to this: as intimated by this point of agreement, the relativist wants to pay the sceptic her due using the coin of content, and not (exclusively) the coin of epistemic credence or quality of justification/warrant. Here is the basic point of disagreement: the sceptic denies certainty even for suitably relativised beliefs, whereas the relativist (at least as I am construing her) wants to be able to say that is certainly true for her. The significance of this is that, if the relativist is correct, then certainty is attainable after all.

To put the point in a schematic and obviously promissory manner, the consequences of epistemic circularity are avoided in a manner somehow connected with the modification of what I believe that the relativist counsels.

To summarise, what the relativist denies is that the sceptic has shown that the appearances could, for all I know with certainty, be entirely non-existent. Rather, the appearances exist for me, which is to say they exist in some sense. But how does this address the sceptic’s point, which was that if we think of any concept as being a theory (or part thereof), such that at the limit-point any description of experience involves theorising experience, then we cannot rule out definitively that our concepts of deception, belief, revision, etc., might themselves be revised in the future, such that the entailment between being deceived and existing is broken? It does so, in effect, by construing question-begging in ontological rather than epistemic terms. The relativist absorbs the charge of question-begging, by agreeing that may only be true for her. It is just that truth for her is necessarily something rather than possibly nothing. 

* To be clear, most works on Descartes don’t engage Pyrrhonism in the way I do here. Thus e.g. Broughton writes (2002: 38):

[The result of Pyrrhonism is that we] give credence only to propositions that state how things appear to us to be.

This is ambiguous: it could mean that (1) we give full credence to appearances; or it could mean that (2) we give credence only to propositions stating how things appear to appear, appear to appear to appear, and so on. Whether (1) or (2) correctly describes Pyrrhonism is open to debate – Broughton seems to lean towards (1), but I have (2) in mind in the present post.


  • Janet Broughton, Descartes’s Method of Doubt, (Princeton: 2002).
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One Response to descartes vs. agrippa

  1. Pingback: god and triviality | atheology: a blog about nothing

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