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A schematic solution to the problem of literary style in philosophy

2014/05/02 3 comments

The problem of literary style in philosophy I understand as follows. Philosophy, as an endeavor, strives for clarity of thought. Why then should philosophers write in a style that seems to sacrifice clarity and perhaps other philosophical virtues to literary virtues? No doubt it will make the philosophy more interesting to read—if, at least, it is skillfully attempted—but it does so at the price of selling out, of trading a contextually proper virtue for a contextually improper virtue. The moral: philosophers should avoid literary stylistic maneuvers except insofar as they may be attempted without damaging the work’s philosophical merits.

As someone many of whose favorite philosophers are self-consciously literary in style—I am thinking primarily of Emerson and Nietzsche, but they are not alone—this problem recurs in my thought. Even as I read Emerson with delight, I find I cannot shake the niggling worry that I am being cheated—less, perhaps, by Emerson than by myself. Here, then, is another attempt to talk this worry out of my mind. I do not hold out much hope for permanent success; maybe I may silence it for a moment at least.

Emerson draws a distinction between thought that serves knowledge and thought that knowledge serves. I will call the former “reasoning” and the latter “thought”. So Emerson distinguishes between reasoning and thought. Reasoning is part of a collective human endeavor aimed at expanding our knowledge. It aims at truth that is impersonal, that could be discovered by anyone. The products, or results, of such reasoning, immediately become public property. Anyone may use them, and thus reasoning may be progressive. Moreover, while truth has a history of discovery, it is in a certain sense ahistorical: it was there all along. What is true in Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection is true regardless of how it came to be articulated in a particular country at a particular time by a particular person in a particular social and scientific setting. What matters is the results of reasoning, not the history of how those results were achieved—this may be seen in the (blamelessly) farcical histories of science presented in science classes. It is in this sense that reasoning serves knowledge: once the knowledge is attained, the reasoning drops away. Today, the sciences provide the paradigm examples of reasoning, but much of past and contemporary philosophy also consists of reasoning in this sense. This is, I suspect, the legitimate sense in which philosophy is “continuous” with the sciences.

Thought, by contrast, if it aims at anything, aims at something rather more like mental emancipation. We are trapped by conformity: to our society, to our past actions, to our past thoughts, and so forth. One philosophical task is to overcome these traps, i.e. to emancipate ourselves, and moreover to do so in a way that also spurs others to their own emancipation. Knowledge serves thought in that particular bits of knowledge (arrived at by reasoning) may play an integral role in the process of mental emancipation. But they are not its end. I take Emerson and Nietzsche to be engaged in thought, in this sense.

At almost every point, thought contrasts with reasoning. Reasoning is impersonal, but thought is intensely personal. What traps Emerson is not what traps Nietzsche. There is no public property with which to avail oneself, no penicillin for mental unfreedom. There is only the private struggle against one’s own captors. Because of this, where reasoning may be progressive, thought cannot be. That Emerson freed himself does not mean that I may start from a state of freedom—indeed, that Emerson freed himself yesterday does not mean that he may start from a state of freedom today: one of Emerson’s recurring themes is that we are continually finding ourselves trapped anew. The struggle is perpetual. As Emerson puts it, I believe in “History” (I paraphrase): “Every mind must go anew over the entire ground.” And because of this, history matters. My struggle for mental freedom carves out a particular path that is ineluctably shaped by my history, and no other struggle can be quite like it. Nothing universal or eternal is attained. Further, the results of thought are not public, not in the same way as the results of reasoning. Where anyone may believe the results of scientific inquiry as they stand (and, more epistemically riskily, also the results of much philosophical inquiry), there is nothing in Emerson that may be believed—or, at least, nothing that should be. For that would be only so much conformity. Emerson may only be taken up by an active process of appropriation, of making Emerson one’s own, thus of distorting Emerson into the shape of the reader. Finally, I take it to be clear today that truth, i.e. the fruits of reasoning, will not “set you free”—not intrinsically. Much additional work must be done to achieve emancipation using such knowledge. That work I take to be, not more reasoning, but the work of thought. And in that sense philosophy is not continuous with the sciences.

Here then is my solution to the problem of literary style in philosophy. When one is engaged in reasoning, and turns to present the results of that reasoning, clarity and rigor of argument are the primary virtues. To sacrifice them to literary appeal would be a sort of hypocrisy, or at least a betrayal of the project. It would be to, in a sense, privatize what should be fundamentally public, in the sense of making the results, and the reasoning that supports them, most easily publicly accessible. By contrast, when one is engaged in thought, and turns to present that thought, clarity and rigor become tools, and not always the right tools. Emerson wishes to free himself, first, and to provoke others to free themselves, second. His writing is supposed to help accomplish both of these tasks. One aspect of Emerson’s conception of mental freedom is a suspicion of overly justifying oneself, for since one justifies oneself primarily to others, such self-justification threatens to lead one into conformity. (I take this thought to lie behind Nietzsche’s conception, in Jenseits von Gut und Böse, of a “Wille zur Dummheit.”) Emerson would be a hypocrite himself, would be abandoning the aims of his thought, were he to sacrifice style to transparency.

Examples may help. One of Emerson’s literary techniques is to take an image or a concept and circle around it, constantly leaving it and returning to it, as he does, for instance, in Nature. Another is his method of reversal, in which he apparently endorses an idea, only to reverse his position later on. These techniques are no friend of transparency: they leave Emerson’s notions without any definite, final formulation, and they make it more or less impossible to ascribe to him any quite definite position. Moreover, while both the posts above look at these techniques within an essay, both may be seen occurring across Emerson’s entire oeuvre (both his published works and his journals)—such is the fate of all of his core concepts: nature, idealism, self-reliance, scholarship, poetry, partiality… But if there is one thing that can be stated with certainty about Emerson’s views, it is that if Emerson were to hitch himself to a single, definitive statement of his thought, that would be, once more, conformity and unfreedom. So Emerson must write as he does.

There is my solution to the problem of literary style in philosophy. It is necessary, where it is necessary, on pain of hypocrisy. I grant that this is as presented an unsatisfactory solution. It turns on a distinction between thought and reasoning that I have not made fully clear and moreover do not know how to make fully clear. It is a distinction, further, that, however desperately I cling to it, often seems to me something I grasp with my wishes much more than with my reason. My only apology is that I am not done thinking through this topic. The recurrence will not stop, and I must not hope for finality, but only report on a work in progress.

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[I confess this post’s debt to Lawrence Buell’s Emerson. A passage in chapter 3 on Emerson’s style gave me the idea for this post, and my distinction between thought and reasoning, though not phrased in those terms, is given expression in chapter 2 of that work. I already had some notion of the distinction, but Buell helped to sharpen it. Furthermore, it is to him that I owe the phrase “mental emancipation.” Buell also makes a useful distinction between emancipation of thought and emancipation from injustice, which, though I do not explicitly mention it above, has helped to clarify my thinking. I believe this covers my debts; I apologize to Buell for anything I may have inadvertently left out.]

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Three reflections on Emerson

In the blur that has been these past three days—since I am writing this after midnight, perhaps I had better call it four—I have come to the close of Emerson’s second series of essays. Fittingly, perhaps, while reading “New England Reformers”, I had no unified idea for a post, so here are three scattered reactions upon its ideas.

[I] Another attempt to justify misreading Emerson

There is power over and behind us, and we are the channels of its communications. We seek to say thus and so, and over our head some spirit sits, which contradicts what we say. (607)

There is something more to what we say, than what we intend. It is not Emerson’s purpose here, I think, to condemn what has come to be called the intentional fallacy, the use of authorial intent in interpretation. The claim is milder, yet more invigorating nonetheless: intent is excellent, so far as it goes, but always something escapes it. We do not quite know what we say, and thus are imperfect guides to our own thought.

My readings or misreadings of Emerson take this thought as their license. A too slavish devotion to Emerson would not even leave me with Emerson. Why not, then, seek what is behind his thought? But keep in mind, here, what is likely to be found behind his thought. It can only be biography. What I am seeking behind Emerson is, inevitably, myself. I am the worst sort of reader: I put myself into the text, then pull myself back out, as if I had made some grand discovery.

Or so it stands when my readings succeed. Of course I will not deny that often, perhaps usually, they fail, and the sad result is a passable interpretation of Emerson. I shall try always to keep these to a minimum.

[II] The apparent impossibility of friendship

There can be no concert in two, when there is no concert in one. When the individual is not individual, but is dual; when his thoughts look one way, and his actions another; when his faith is traversed by his habits; when his will, enlightened by reason, is warped by his sense; when with one hand he rows, and with the other backs water, what concert can be? (599)

Here, then, is a recipe for friendship, or any other alliance between two individuals. Each is to be unified with herself—only then may she work with another. But is such unity within oneself possible? Let us look at what happens when Emerson, two pages later, tries to defend the possibility, even the inevitability of a union between two:

I do not believe that the differences of opinion and character in men are organic. I do not recognize, beside the class of the good and the wise, a permanent class of skeptics, or a class of conservatives, or of malignants, or of materialists. I do not believe in two classes. (601)

A bold statement of the unity between two, a unity on which Emerson unconditionally insists. But the price of this unity between two is disunity within the individual.

I do not believe in two classes of men, but in man in two moods, in Philip drunk and Philip sober. (601)

We know, already, that Emersonian moods do not believe in one another. Moreover, in “Nominalist and Realist”, we learn that this disunity of moods makes sincerity a sort of impossibility: “I am always insincere, as always knowing there are other moods.” (587) What, then comes of Emerson’s “concert”? Insofar as concert is possible, insofar as the two classes melt into one, there is disunity lurking below—disunity that seems to preclude the very possibility of concert. Friendship, for Emerson, may very well be impossible.

[III] Experimental lessons of science

The lessons of science should be experimental also. The sight of the planet through a telescope, is worth all the course on astronomy: the shock of the electric spark in the elbow, out-values all the theories; the taste of the nitrous oxide, the firing of an artificial volcano, are better than the volumes of chemistry. (594)

I have a hunch that the point of this passage may be expressed in terms of property, of ownership. There is a sense in which human knowledge—that which is produced by contemporary laboratories at ever-increasing rates—belongs to no one, or only to very few. Those at work in the lab may finish a successful experiment with knowledge, but perhaps no one else will. This I tried to capture, with some of its ramifications, in my recent essay on skepticism. It is not enough to read a book to come to possess knowledge, so most of today’s knowledge remains predominantly unpossessed.

For this reason, I prefer the act of discovery that brings some piece of knowledge into someone’s possession, even if that act contributes nothing to human knowledge. In Emersonian terms: every mind must go over the whole ground for itself. What a mind does not go over itself, it cannot obtain by any other means. It is the activity of science that is experimental, whereas the uptake of science is ever so much conformity and disappointment.

Essay on skepticism

2014/04/14 1 comment

It is impossible to gain knowledge by trusting an authority, however reliable that author­ity might be. I claim no empirical discovery or novel philosophical view with this pronouncement; what follows is no defense of any claim to truth. It is something more urgent, less articulate, a cry. It is an insistence on a certain standard I have found I require—my cry is ethical in nature. ‘Knowledge’ is a success term, and the success entailed by its application is not easily attained. To the one content with lower standards, who considers knowledge much that I regard as mere belief, I have little to offer by way of persuasion, for my insistence takes at bottom this form: this is who I am, this is what I require. What follows is a confession. Allow me to explain myself.

I resist mistaking the scaffolding for the building. The acquisition of knowledge requires much trust, but this trust provides only tools useful for action, including the action of seeking knowledge. It provides no knowledge itself. And what, in any event, is trusted when one is a student? A jumble of useful errors and half-truths—only rarely does a genuine truth show its face among them, and then mostly by mistake. Even these out of place truths, the pupil cannot distinguish from the falsehoods. All he knows is that they are useful. Let him, then, be an instrumentalist. I do not, then, detest learning. I merely claim that it may have but two positive outcomes: first, it may make new actions possible, and second, it may teach one how to seek knowledge. Surely this is praise enough for tutelage.

Seneca’s 59th letter details for Lucilius the dangers of reputation. To possess a good reputation is to be at risk for complacency, to take oneself as finished when one is but a work in progress. The man of good repute risks taking flattery for truth, to the point of believing his virtue is adequate where it is lacking. But what is the application of ‘knowledge’ to cases of mere trust but a form of self-flattery? To believe myself to possess knowledge, to believe myself capable of attaining knowledge with such a minimum of movement—with the turning of a page—is to submit myself to unpardonable lethargy. It is to prostrate myself before the leering face that promises rest.

The days are past when the solitary individual could claim knowledge across vast domains. The benefit of specialization is the explosion of knowledge possessed, collectively, by humanity. The price is individual skepticism, the restriction of any given individual’s knowledge to a region whose size is nothing next to the vastness of the universe. It is the irony of the rapid growth of humanity’s knowledge that the human’s knowledge becomes ever less and less. What knowledge is now generated, is known to one or only a few, and in increasingly common cases, to none. Every evidential step in a large, collaborative research project may be perfectly justified, but if the ability to traverse these steps is spread across many individuals, if no one individual may follow them all, there is no one who possesses the knowledge that results. It was said that knowledge was justified true belief, until Gettier showed the identity to be inexact. I propose to take a step further: most justified true belief is not knowledge, and most knowledge is not belief of any kind, because it does not reside in any mind.

I do not mean to fetishize experts as those who know, as some privileged class who, in some small domain, become thus untouchable. Rather, if trust does not yield knowledge, there is less incentive to trust, and more to challenge, said experts. No doubt that strange human ritual, in which one is required to display his party membership credentials, will never be eradicated—a lamentable, but ineluctable, situation. This will always favor acquiring beliefs through trust, but for the sake of reputation, not of knowledge. It is still a victory, if a small one, to remove one incentive to trust. It eases the path to that enlightened state in which one prefers critical thought to truth.

The fear of death, in one of its manifestations, is the fear of never understanding this strange universe into which I was thrust. The desire for oneness with this universe likewise becomes the desire to etch in my mind the perfect representation thereof. And the cruelty of death is to strip me of this possibility. All movements in this direction are converted by the fact of death into so much scurrying. The low curiosity that knowing to discovering becomes a failure to face up to my own mortality. Better, then, a skepticism that forbids me any illusion about the length of my reach. Better a skepticism that forces me to select, to be particular and partial. Better a skepticism that dissipates all dreams of universality, all attempts to be all, which is to say, all attempts to be nothing. I confess: I need my skepticism.

For whom skepticism?

In Part Two of his Discourse on Method (I am using this edition), Descartes makes an analogy that I am sure does not originate with him, but which nonetheless I find quite intriguing. Descartes compares knowledge to architecture, though he does not introduce the comparison in this way.

Thus one sees that buildings undertaken and completed by a single architect are usually more attractive and better ordered than those which many architects have tried to patch up by using old walls that had been built for other purposes. (7)

No mention is here made of knowledge, but it soon comes out that that is Descartes’ target. Descartes wishes to set his own knowledge on firm foundations, and sees that to do this he will have to reject most of the collective knowledge around him. Why? Because, as “one will well understand,” “it is difficult to make things that are very finely crafted by laboring only on the works of others.” (7) If Descartes is to have, within himself, firmly established, well-founded knowledge, and if it is to be well arranged, he must labor at it himself, without building on the work of others.

Descartes is quick to insist that he is not advocating that, collectively, we tear down our knowledge and start anew. Even though our knowledge is like a city that has grown up over time, gradually expanding, without any central, organizing plan, just as it would be disastrous to raze the city and start anew, so too with our knowledge. Yet Descartes, even earlier, makes it clear that he is not advocating a general strategy, but rather is telling a sort of autobiography.

Thus my purpose here is not to teach the method that everyone ought to follow in order to conduct his reason well, but merely to show how I have tried to conduct my own. (2)

And he reiterates this later, in the context of his architectural analogy:

That is why I could in no way approve of those troublemaking and restless personalities who, called neither by their birth nor by their fortune to manage public affairs, are forever coming up with an idea for some new reform in this matter. […] My plan has never gone beyond trying to reform my own thoughts and building upon a foundation which is completely my own. (9)

What this reveals is that Descartes’ skeptical project is fundamentally individualistic. And of course, of course, the extremity to which he takes his individualism—to the point where he could build his knowledge on foundations entirely independent of the work of others—is a myth. But I think it not a terribly interesting myth, any more than it is interesting to point out to the devotee of Emersonian self-reliance that the self on which one relies is indelibly molded by influences remembered and unremembered. Emerson knows this as well as anyone, and Descartes, surely, knows it too.

For a long time I have more or less written off Descartes, my mind poisoned by a too eager, too undiscerning acceptance of American pragmatism—an encounter that has done me much good and equal ill, such that I cannot say on the whole whether it has been to my gain or my loss. I say poisoned because it created within me a caricature of Descartes as a ridiculous foundationalist whose project failed. Now I am sure his project does fail, at least in the form he put it forward, but in my recent re-encounter I have been struck by this individualistic tenor of his skepticism.

In a way, that may be the source of the pragmatists’ animosity to Descartes, for their philosophy, as I understand it, emphasizes the ineliminable sociality of knowledge, emphasizes inquiry as a social and not individual process. It is as if they read Descartes and took him to be recommending for society this skeptical method. At least, whatever the pragmatists themselves were doing, that is the imprint they left within me. But Descartes is doing nothing of the sort, quite self-consciously. He lets collective knowledge be and sets about work on himself. His skepticism is an individual project, and not a social one.

I have been digressing, but I think in a justified way, for the individualism of Cartesian skepticism is a sun supporting the orbit of many planets, and my thoughts have voyaged to each in turn. My central interest, however, is in the relevance of this Cartesian individualism today. Rereading the Discourse on Method these past few days is a case of good timing, for my thoughts had already been moving toward a consideration of the value of individual skepticism—prompted in part by my reading of Montaigne. Descartes has helped to crystallize them.

Individual knowledge and collective knowledge are distinct, more so today than in the time of Descartes. The total sum of human knowledge vastly outstrips what is to be found in any individual’s head—much of it, I suspect, resides only in books or journal articles, to be cited when needed, but otherwise out of mind. What does reside in a single individual’s head is a sliver, utterly insignificant, even if we consider the most knowledgeable people in the world. In terms of major effects in society, collective knowledge matters; individual knowledge more or less does not.

In the face of explosion of collective knowledge—which I admit I at times find quite alienating—what room is there for individual skepticism, of any sort? I think, in fact, that there is quite a bit. If one wishes to know a great deal, to keep up with new discoveries, and so forth, there is no end the resources by which one can do so, but the degree of specialization in the actual reports of experiments means that while one will be able to make true claims about what is going on in certain situations, one will not really know how those claims are evidentially supported, except in a cheap, toy way. Some have called the desire for such knowledge “low curiosity”—I do not wish to follow in this. But it is not for me.

It is for this reason that I think that there is a great deal of room for individual skepticism. If I hold myself to high standards as to what is to count as knowledge—even if my standards are not as high as Descartes’—then I must admit that what I know is negligible, a point in the face of all human knowledge. What standards? I would count myself as knowing only that for which I do not take on trust, that for which I clearly and deeply understand the reasoning that leads to it. I know what I have experienced, and I know a bit about William Sharp MacLeay—a 19th century entomologist on whom I am doing some research right now—but beyond that, I really know quite little.

What, then, of what I know on trust? For if I trust experts in particular fields, i.e. believe what they say, and if what they say is reliably true, do I not have justification for my beliefs? Yes, in a way, and whoever would have a great deal of knowledge must take solace in this line of argument. But I do not wish to relax my standards here. Rather, I would prefer to say that I know—because I have seen it firsthand—that this is what the experts say, without saying that I know not just what they say, but that what they say is so. This is a more or less “instrumentalist” way of taking expert testimony, and I cannot see that it does any harm.

Are there any advantages to this individual skepticism of mine—or, if ‘skepticism’ is the wrong word, this austerity of belief? Is it just a perverse exercise? I do not think so. For in fact I was somewhat misleading when I said that what is called “low curiosity” is not for me. In fact, I think it is my greatest vice, or one of them. I value knowing (with low standards) over discovering and understanding, and this stifles my thought. My individualistic project in regulating my own knowledge is an attempt to throw off these self-imposed shackles. It is my own method purely; I do not recommend it to anyone who does not belief she might find it useful.

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.