An Appraisal of Hume's Scepticism in Epistemology

Seminar Paper 2018 17 Pages

Philosophy - Theoretical (Realisation, Science, Logic, Language)




Skepticism as not anti-epistemology

Two-Type Categories of Skepticism

Defining Skepticism and the mission of the Skeptic

Hume and the Humean Skeptical Legacy of Causal Relation

Hume and the Dogma of Cause-Effect

Cause and Effect as mere association of Ideas



What assures us of ‘existences and objects we do not see or feel’ (1978:74)? In other words, what leads us to form beliefs about unobserved matters of fact: that the sun will rise tomorrow, that Africa still exists, that the Normans won the Battle of Hastings? What is the correct account of causation? What does it mean to say that one thing causes another?[1]

Over the years, epistemology has undertaken quite a number of issues beyond the traditional objective of finding justification for a knowledge claim. One of such age-long challenges is that brought forward by skepticism. In fact, it can be said that the history of epistemology is the history of skepticism, because the latter has proved to be a useful aid in the epistemological enterprise, helping the former to move out of its comfort zone, and advancing its course. Meaning, epistemology and the many issues it focuses to address are provided with large room through the challenge of skepticism. Right from the time of the pre-Socratics up through the sophists, then the modern skeptics, epistemology has through the help of skepticism, greatly grown, with expanded scope. Beginning with Gorgias, one of the ancient sophists, for example, in his book ‘On the Nature of the non-Existent,’ there was question to refute the existence of anything. Gorgias would assert that nothing exists; if they exist, they cannot be known; and that if they were to be known, they cannot be communicated.[2] On his part, Protagoras of Abdera, another important figure in the ancient sophist school, put forward his skeptical position which claims that ‘what man thinks exists, exists for him, and he thinks does not exist, does not exist for him; what man thinks is true is true for him, and what he thinks is not true is not true for him.’[3] For he (man) is ‘the measure of things, of those things that are that they, of those that are not that they are not.’[4] Pyrrho’s skepticism, which Noonan regards as ‘prescriptive’[5] plays a significant role in driving epistemology because it recommends ‘suspension of belief in all matters.’[6] In fact, Pyrrhonian adherents, as pointed out by Hume, "hold that all is uncertain, and that our judgment is not in any thing possest of any measures of truth and falsehood."[7] Since this ancient epoch, skepticism has taken a central,- in fact the driving seat- in epistemology with attitude among philosophers, particularly epistemologists, apparently tending to regard a skeptic as a foe rather than a friend, a threat rather than a tool, and a deconstructionist rather than a builder. Ironically, the troubling skepticism forms the foundation of all epistemological enterprise. With the historical development of epistemology, one could possibly establish a self-contradiction any attempt deny the skeptic position of Protagoras- that there are many events that hinder and deny us of an indubitable, sure and stable knowledge.[8]

The ancient period prepared the ground for inquiry, but the medieval (dark) age almost collapsed this foundation with recourse to faith and subjection of reason to the dogmatism of the instrument of faith. However, there was resurgence in the modern era of philosophical reflection, with several attempts to restore reason back to its rightful place in philosophy. One of those philosophers who attempted to rescue epistemology from the unphilosophical and dogmatic theologism was David Hume. Of course, the methodic doubt scepticism of Rene Descartes, French rationalist, was pivotal to all other discussions in the modern period. However, Hume’s resurgent effort was to see that inquiry is once again made into the nature of things, including claims about and of God, human life, scientific processes and procedures, causation, and inductive reasoning. Hume’s effort was to mitigate skepticism and forge a veritable mid-point and alliance between what can be known and what cannot be said to be known. Well, his thought on the endorsement of a priori propositions and some part of a posteriori propositions and rejection of some, such as causation and inductive reasoning has earned him such appellation as a ‘thorough going skeptic and empiricist.’ Our concern in the paper is to take a second but critical investigation into Hume’s idea of causation vis-à-vis the appellation. The paper attempts to literally play the devil’s advocate to examine if such appellation could pass for Hume.

Skepticism as not anti-epistemology

Bertrand Russell points out that “the essential characteristic of philosophy, which makes it a study distinct from science, is criticism. Descartes' "methodical doubt," with which modern philosophy began is rather the kind of criticism which we are asserting to be the essence of philosophy. This is the kind of criticism which constitutes philosophy.”[9] The import of this is that skepticism plays a central role in the development and survival of philosophy, and in this context epistemology. One important success Hume in his ‘saving mission’ of rescuing epistemology from the domain of uncritical philosophy is his deployment of skepticism to doorpost of epistemology, making it both as its entry herald and exit savior. Hume demonstrates very clearly that an appreciation of the import and role of skepticism in epistemology as in philosophy is consisted first and foremost in stripping itself off the age-long negative attitude expressed towards skepticism.[10] Interestingly, skepticism has consistently proven to be the foundational tool which drives and advances the cause of epistemological discourse. Perhaps, it will be apt to state that without skepticism, epistemology and indeed the whole essence of philosophical enterprise should, as Hume will conclude on metaphysics, be committed to flames for ‘it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.’[11] Ironically, much of, if not all, what passes as epistemology arises as a response in defense of or opposition to skepticism.[12] Ayer will argue to the contrary that Ayer, ‘not all philosophers are skeptics,’[13] a position that will make us stick to Burkian[14] axiom from social and political philosophy, that skepticism is the medicine of epistemology and not its daily bread.

Two-Type Categories of Skepticism

The paper adopts the categorization adopted by Moser. Moser gives what he calls the ‘two influential types of skepticism’[15] in his introduction to The Oxford Handbook of Epistemology. These two categories are what he terms the knowledge-skepticism and justification- skepticism.[16] In another context, this categorization has been referred to epistemic skeptic and academic skeptic,[17] the former representing the justification categorization of Moser while the latter stands for Moser’s justification skeptic. Again, these categorizations gain corroboration in Audi’s classification. Audi makes a distinction between skepticism about direct knowledge and skepticism about justification.[18] The immediate understanding into these classifications is that there is a distinguishable difference between say Cartesian skepticism and the skepticism of say Gorgias, or Protagoras, or Pyrrho, or the Sophists. The point of their difference we shall consider in a moment. Although, Moser further sub-classifies these two categories as restricted and unrestricted knowledge-skepticism and restricted and unrestricted justification-skepticism,[19] we shall circumscribe this project to the initial general two-type classification already established. It is within these two categories that the paper exposes the skepticism as a foundation. Within the consideration that all our knowledge claims require justification, then philosophers, particularly epistemologists, across all ages could be regarded as a skeptic. However, within the context of whether knowledge is a kind of knowledge is attainable is another different ball game. Hume will bifurcate skepticism into ‘excessive’ and ‘mitigated’ skepticism,[20] with Hume preferring and recommending the latter to the former,[21] even though Buckle erroneously misinforms us that Hume’s skepticism agrees more with his ‘excessive’ category rather than the ‘mitigated.’[22]

Defining Skepticism and the mission of the Skeptic

Audi asks us to deal with the issues and concerns of various skeptics within the context of the following challenges: “(1) subject matter, say the past or the future or physical objects or other minds; (2) epistemic attitude, such as knowledge, suspended judgment, and justified belief; (3) modality, above all contingency or necessity, or the empirical versus the a priori; and (4) the kind of being it purports to limit, say human, subhuman, or superhuman.”[23]

In all, we will adopt the definition of Noonan, which sees skepticism as consisting:

in the belief that in some or all areas of everyday or scientific activity we lack the justification we ordinarily think that we have for our opinions. Scepticism may take a purely theoretical form, or it may take a prescriptive form by suggesting that, in view of the fact that our beliefs lack rational warrant, we should alter in some way how we think and act. Pyrrhonism, as we have seen, was a prescriptive form of scepticism, recommending (at least as interpreted by Hume) suspension of belief in all matters,…[24]

Skepticism being a tool in the hand of epistemology has many forks with which it deals with issues and problems raised by epistemologists. Essentially, the theory is a composite of a number of views differing from one to another. The reason for this variety cannot be far-fetched. The skeptic at a given time devotes his time to interrogate or advance a particular epistemological claim. Skepticism has opened an array of aspects to the project of philosophy, with several curious responses, legitimate and otherwise.

Although a derivative of the Greek word ‘ skeptomai’, which means ‘to reflect, to look carefully’, the term skeptic has come to mean ‘one who doubts that certainty, knowledge, or perhaps even justified belief is possible.’[25] In fact to the Greeks, a true skeptic is one who resists ‘with equal force the urge to assert philosophical generalizations, and the urge to deny them.’[26] Skepticism is rather a doctrine which claims, on the one hand, that certainty of epistemic knowledge – propositional knowledge, knowledge from the senses, knowledge claims about extra-sensory experiences, knowledge about meta-physical realities, ethical knowledge, and so on- is not attainable, and, on the other hand, that every knowledge claim requires justification. It emphasizes that every claim to rights of certainty of knowledge should be avoided as much as possible and ‘final truth postulations be jettisoned.

The Dictionary of Philosophy defines skepticism to mean ‘any view involving doubt about whether something exists, or about whether we can know something, or about whether we are justified in arguing in certain ways.’[27] Arising from the earlier position is that knowledge claims must be tested and as such be suspended as tentative under doubt. It is opposed to dogmatism, a metaphysical aspect of epistemology which teaches that established beliefs and ideas should be accepted without questioning or doubt. Simply put, “the skeptic denies that our claims to knowledge, or for that matter, justified belief, are legitimate.”[28] In philosophical discourses, skepticism can be an inquiry , the limitations of knowledge, a method of obtaining knowledge through systematic doubt and continual testing the uncertainty, relativity, or subjectivity of a claim or belief, or a method to arrive at intellectual caution and and poised judgment. The argument of the skeptic goes thus:

Premise 1: We can find reasons for doubting any one of our beliefs

P 2: It follows that we can doubt all our beliefs.

P 3: If we can doubt all our beliefs, then we cannot be certain of any of them.

P 4: If we do not have certainty about any of our beliefs, then we do not have knowledge.

Conclusion: Therefore, we do not have knowledge.

The above constitutes the argument of the skeptic in casting aspersion on any knowledge claim. So, for example, an extreme rationalist like Plato will raise doubt about the possibility of acquiring knowledge through the senses; a thorough going empiricist like Hume will contend that certain knowledge is doubtable through the help of reason or outside the domain of inductive method. For a philosopher like Berkeley, knowledge of any object is impossible if such object cannot be perceived by the mind. Solipsism queries the existence of any other thing outside the human mind. Generally, Lacey contends, that there is one particular question which runs provide through the minds of all skeptics, and that is: how I am sure that I am not dreaming.’?[29]


[1] Hume, D. cited in Noonan, H.W. Hume on Knowledge, 1999. London: Routledge: Taylor and Francis, p 91.

[2] Omoregbe, J. 1990. Knowing Philosophy. Lagos: JOJA Educational Research and Publishers Limited. p 87.

[3] Ibid. p 87.

[4] Ibid. pp 86-87.

[5] Noonan, H. 1999. Hume on Knowledge. London: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, p 39.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Hamlyn, D.W. cited in Chatalian, G. “Epistemology and Skepticism: An Enquiry into the Nature of Epistemology” in Journal of the History of Philosophy, (1991) Watson, R.A. & Young, C.M. (Eds). Illinois: Southern Illinois University Press. Monograph Series. p 10.

[8] Ibid p 87.

[9] Russell, B. 1959. The Problems of Philosophy. London: Oxford University Press, p

[10] Oyeshile, O.A. 1997. An Existentialist Critique of Husserlian Phenomenological Approach to Knowledge. Footprints in Philosophy, Ed. R, Akanmidu, Chapter 4: p 41-61.

[11] Hume, D. “An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding” in Buckle, S. 2007 . An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding and Other Writings. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p 144.

[12] Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy available on https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/skepticism/?PHPSESSID=6114ef2913b3dd5ee970272cdb20dbd5

[13] Chatalian, G. “Epistemology and Skepticism: An Enquiry into the Nature of Epistemology” in Journal of the History of Philosophy, (1991) op. cit. p 10.

[14] Edmund Burke as quoted in The Substance of Politics, Appadorai, A. Oxford: Oxford University Press, p 46.

[15] Moser, P.K. (2002) The Oxford Handbook of Epistemology, Oxford: Oxford University Press. p 7

[16] ibid

[17] Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy available on https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/skepticism/?PHPSESSID=6114ef2913b3dd5ee970272cdb20dbd5

[18] Audi, R. (3rd Ed. 2011). Epistemology: A Contemporary Introduction to the Theory of Knowledge. New York: Routledge Taylor and Francis Group, p 291.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Hume, D. op cit. P p 139-140.

[21] Lawhead, W. The Voyage of Discovery: A Historical Introduction to Philosophy, London: Wadsworth Thomson Learning, p 323.

[22] Buckle, S. An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding and other Writings, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007. p x.

[23] Audi, R. Op cit. p 294.

[24] Noonan, H. 1999. Hume on Knowledge. London: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, p 39

[25] Landesman, C and Meeks, R. Eds. 2003. Philosophical Skepticism, Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, p 1

[26] Toulmin, S. 2001. Return to Reason, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, p 195

[27] Lacey, A.R. Ed . 1996. A. Dictionary of Philosophy, New York: Routledge and Kegan Paul Ltd, p 304.

[28] Crumley II, J. An Introduction to Epistemology. New York: Broadview Press. 2009. p 21.

[29] Lacey, A.R. Ed . op cit. p 305.


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Title: An Appraisal of Hume's Scepticism in Epistemology