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Was Montaigne right to be a skeptic?

For my senior thesis in college, I wrote on scientific realism—roughly, the view that our best current theories are approximately true. This was a mistake from which I still have not extricated myself, but every so often it pays dividends. Most recently, this came in reading Michel de Montaigne’s “Apology for Raymond Sebond”, the longest piece in his Essays. (In my edition, the Everyman’s Library edition of his Complete Works, the Apology comes to 170 pages.) Montaigne (1533-1592), in defending a general skepticism, offers an argument that is remarkably similar to an argument prevalent in the scientific realism literature today. I have my doubts as to the contemporary cogency of that argument. But in Montaigne’s day, I think it was devastating—more devastating, in fact, than Montaigne allows.

The argument in question now goes by the name pessimistic meta-induction (PMI). Its classic statement is in Larry Laudan’s “A Confutation of Convergent Realism” (available here). Laudan, in response to those philosophers who think that scientific realism is the only hypothesis that adequately explains the success of science, adduces a long list of theories that were once successful, but have since been rejected. Clearly, he claims, their success must not have been the result of their approximate truth, since they were not approximately true. Moreover, if rejection seems to be the fate of the successful theories of the past, on what grounds can we treat our current theories as immune to the same fate? What breaks the induction from the fate of past theories to that of current theories?

There are plenty of ways a realist might respond to this argument, but that is not my concern here, at least not yet. Rather, I am interested in the version of this argument given by Montaigne, and in the question whether he was right to make that argument. Here is what he writes:

The sky and the stars have been moving for three thousand years; everybody had so believed, until it occurred to Cleanthes of Samos, or (according to Theophrastus) to Nicetas of Syracuse, to maintain that it was the earth that moved, through the oblique circle of the Zodiac, turning about its axis; and in our day Copernicus has grounded this doctrine so well that he uses it very systematically for all astronomical deductions. What are we to get out of that, unless that we should not bother which of the two is so? And who knows whether a third opinion, a thousand years from now, will not overthrow the preceding two? (521)

This example is precisely the sort of example that the proponent of PMI offers: formerly, people believed one option, now they believe another—what is to say that in the future they will not believe some as yet unknown third? And, indeed, Montaigne had to wait only 300 years (and change), not a thousand, for Einstein to say that neither the earth nor the sun moves absolutely, but only relative to a reference frame—pick the right frame and one can easily say the sun moves while they earth stands still. My philosophy of physics friends tell me that Einsteinian relativity does not yet sit comfortably with quantum mechanics—is a fourth option around the corner? But I am getting ahead of myself, am moving too much into the present.

For what I really want to know is whether Montaigne, in the 1580s, was right to be a skeptic, and whether this argument offered persuasive grounds. I believe he was. Here is Montaigne’s practical proposal that results from this argument:

Thus when some new doctrine is offered to us, we have great occasion to distrust it, and to consider that before it was produced its opposite was in vogue; and, as it was overthrown by this one, there may arise in the future a third invention that will likewise smash the second. (521)

There is something of an obvious response to this advice, and it is one way that I am tempted to respond to PMI: all of this talk of the past is idle, what matters is whether we have good reason now. If the reasons offered in favor of some view are sufficiently good, should we not believe it? What does it matter that the reasons offered for past views were not good? If we have good reason to believe the view on offer, then we have good reason to think there will not arise a third invention.

This problem arises for Montaigne in part because he does not, or at least not here (he does elsewhere in the essay), consider the reasons given in favor of the theory. Rather, we are simply offered the theory, and since people have been offering false theories for so long, we should not expect any different of the new.  This seems to be too superficial, to eschew the use of one’s own reason to assess the reasons given. In fact I don’t think Montaigne overlooks this (he says elsewhere that we should not accept any hypothesis unless reason places it above its rivals), but the objection still requires a response.

The response Montaigne can give is, I think, this. The reasons we have been offered in the past led only to confusion and instability, and the reasons we are given now, while different in content, are not different in kind. That is, you are offering the same sorts of reasons today as were offered us in the past. Even if your reasons are better than those of the past, our history of failure tells us that we are highly fallible reasoners—else we would never have been taken in by those old views with their poor reasons. So, grant that your reasons appear better—what confidence can that give me that they actually are better? What possible reason could I have to think that you are or I am or anyone else is a competent judge?

So long as the reasons used to support our views remains of the same kind, Montaigne’s argument is cogent and powerful. He was right to be a skeptic. Of course, one can argue that, with what is called the scientific revolution, things changed. We started offering new sorts of reasons, and this eliminated the instability, such that now we can be realists about our best current theories. Laudan’s PMI aims precisely to undermine this optimism, to show that instability has not diminished since the 16th century. Perhaps he is right, perhaps not. That is a live debate. But as far as Montaigne goes, I do think that skepticism was the right position for him to take, for he had an argument that could take on all comers.

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Addendum

I forgot, in my initial post, to explain why Montaigne’s skeptical argument is more devastating than he allows. The reason for this is that it applies equally to religion, a possibility that Montaigne does not explore. The closest he comes is in the following passage:

O God, what an obligation do we not have to the benignity of our sovereign creator for having freed our belief from the folly of those vagabond and arbitrary devotions, and having based it on the eternal foundation of his holy word. (531)

Montaigne has all the material for a skeptical argument of the same sort as before: look at how many “vagabond and arbitrary” devotions humanity has subjected itself to, and how many were believed to have an “eternal foundation”—why should Christianity be any different. But Montaigne, in characteristic fashion, places his Christianity above doubt: he applies his doubt relentlessly to the earthly, but not to the eternal. There is no reasoned justification of this limitation of the power of his argument. Hence it is more devastating than Montaigne allows. It is tempting to wonder whether Montaigne did not know this, and was simply prudent in not challenging the church, but that is pure speculation, and may be combatted even without invoking powerful skeptical tools.

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Skepticism at the margins V: On the possibility of pure zoomorphism

[My human/animal seminar met for the final time today. These thoughts were occa­sioned by a discussion therein. I will miss it dearly.]

John Cage apparently related the following story about Morton Feldman. Reflecting on the phrase “free as a bird”, he went to a park to observe them. Upon returning, he remarked, “You know? They’re not free: they’re fighting over bits of food.” (The story may be found, I am told, in his Silence: Lectures and Writings.) I wish to understand this as a zoomorphic experience.

I obtained this concept—which I am now perverting—in a discussion in my human/animal seminar. One student distinguished anthropomorphism—placing human characteristics onto animals—from zoomorphism—using animals to learn about humans. I was perplexed; I found it difficult to see how we could use animals to learn about humans without anthropomorphizing. The context of the discussion was the use of animals—actual animal bodies and representations of animals alike—in art, so I ran through works of art I find particularly successful at using animals to teach me something about what it is to be human. In every case, I found human interests guiding the treatment of animals. Animals were viewed not as they are, but as they are for humans. And so, I expect, is how it must be. What we wish to learn about ourselves from animals, we first place upon them. Then we extract them back out, perhaps with remarkable artistry and great insight, but this still does not amount to a pure zoomorphism.

Is zoomorphism that does not collapse into anthropomorphism possible? I think it is, in the form of a skepticism that creeps in at the margins. What I am envisioning is a visceral, direct experience of animals that brings us to the realization of just how distorting our anthropomorphisms are, how much we humanize animal life in order to learn from it. In such an experience, we are forced to confront the fact that animal lives do not exist for us, that what they are for animals is no doubt wholly distinct from what they are for us, and that we have very limited access to what animal lives are for animals.

Joyce’s conception of epiphanies might serve as a model for such an experience. I conceive of it as transformative. We have a dominant mode of relating to the world, one in which we treat of animals insofar as they are useful to us, whether materially or conceptually. These experiences crystallize a skepticism about this dominant mode. They compose, as it were, a minor strain moving below the surface, occasionally rising into view. They make us realize—and force us to reflect upon—the differences between animal life for animals and animal life for humans. They bring us to see our everyday anthropomorphism as something truly imposed upon animals.

Cage’s story about Feldman is an example of such thinking. Birds as a model of freedom is a well-worn trope, one that is inherited and taken for granted, more or less unquestioned. Yet Feldman took it upon himself to investigate directly, and found it lacking. Birds fighting over food are not free. Certainly they are not concerned with serving as an inspiration for humans. They are concerned about getting food, though this still gives us little insight into what it is to be a bird fighting for food. This is a zoomorphic experience.

I think there is an even better example of zoomorphic experience: that of Montaigne, playing with his cat. At some point, playing with his cat, Montaigne realizes that he is treating the cat as a partner in his play, as something with whom Montaigne is playing. But then he asks: “When I play with my cat, who knows if I am not a pastime to her more than she is to me?” (This may be found in his “Apology for Raymond Sebond”, the longest by far of his Essays.) This amounts to a realization, not at an abstract level but quite concretely, that he has taken for granted his cat as a thing for him to play with, and that he is equally as much something for his cat—though what this something is, neither he nor anyone else can say. The only individual capable of saying is the cat itself, and it cannot speak. The experience Montaigne records is the purest instance of zoomorphism I have encountered.

I have praised experience over thought. Why is this? It comes down to my expectation that a genuine zoomorphism will be transformative, will change, for however brief a time, the way one relates to animals. And, in brief, I distrust the ability of pure thought to effect such a transformation. I call Nietzsche to my aid. In Daybreak §30, he makes an insightful comment about the inheritance of customs: “In its ultimate foundation – in this case that means: in its first generation. For when the habit of some distinguishing action is inherited, the thought that lies behind it is not inherited with it.” [Cambridge edition.] It is easy to inherit a sort of zoomorphism as a habit of thought, a custom one follows as it were thoughtlessly, without connection to direct experience. In praising zoomorphic experience over zoomorphic thought, I am praising zoomorphic thought in its first generation, and not as mere habit.

I lack faith in thought. Speaking for myself only, though I am sure I am not alone, thought without a direct connection to experience, to its instances of application, is effete. It spins frictionlessly, making no contact with action or the world. Or, as Nietzsche puts it in another place, “The most confident knowledge or faith cannot provide the strength or the ability needed for a deed, it cannot replace the employment of that subtle, many-faceted mechanism which must first be set in motion if anything at all of an idea is to translate itself into action.” (Daybreak §22) By contrast, I expect experiences of the sort I have countenanced to possess that power.

With such experience, an old thought becomes original. I do not believe in progress for the simple reason that I must go over the same ground as those before me, must grapple with the same enduring problems. I cannot much trust my inheritance until I have made it my own through experience. Zoomorphism as thought is nothing new, and it is easy to think. But to really experience it is to accomplish something new and original, in the only sense of originality one can countenance in a world where the sun shines each day on the nothing new (my gratitude to Samuel Beckett). What is so remarkable about Montaigne’s essays in general is the manner in which he applies his experiences in order to work on himself. He is not merely thinking, he is going over the ground of thought with the aid of his individual set of experiences. Because of that, he achieves, at least once, a pure zoomorphism.