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Ignorance, A Case for Scepticism

Ignorance, A Case for Scepticism

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Ignorance,
A Case for Scepticism
Peter Unger
Abstract
: Argues for the thesis of universal ignorance, i.e., for the claim that nobodycan ever know anything. To this effect, puts forward versions of the classical Cartesianargument for skepticism as well as novel arguments involving normative premises andthe concept of certainty. Universal ignorance gives rise to further skeptical results: inorder to be justified or reasonable in believing something, the subject must knowsomething to be so. Likewise, many attitudes (e.g., being happy about or regrettingsomething) and “illocutionary acts” (e.g., commanding, apologizing) require that thesubject knows something. Since nobody can ever know anything, it follows that nobodycan ever be justified or reasonable in believing anything, that nobody can ever be happyabout or regret anything, and that nobody can ever command or apologize for anything.Finally, the book argues that not only is knowledge impossible, but so is truth. Theremedy it suggests is a radical change in our language.
Preface
In philosophy, being a sceptic usually means walking a lonely road. It has been my goodfortune, however, to have enjoyed serious conversation with a good many friends, critical but encouraging. Their challenges to my sceptical offerings were important events in mycoming to produce the present work. While I risk omitting the names of some who should be mentioned, I cannot but take pleasure in now thanking those whose names come tomind. First, as in all my philosophical work, I am indebted, for the model they have setme, to my former tutors, Professor Sir Alfred Jules Ayer and Professor Peter F. Strawson.I have also learned much from association with these following philosophers, to whom Iam grateful: William Barrett, George Boolos, Fred Dretske, Bruce Freed, David Lewis,Thomas Nagel, Charles Parsons, Hilary Putnam, James Rachels, Sydney Shoemaker andDennis Stampe. The linguists, D. Terence Langendoen and Barbara Partee, are also to bethanked for instructive conversations.There are a few people whom I must single out for special thanks. Saul Kripke has had agreat influence on the present work, especially as regards Chapters 1, 3 and 5. I doubtthat Chapter 4 would have been of much interest at all but for formative conversationswith Robert Gordon. And, without suggestions from Donald Davidson, Chapter 6 wouldhave been very different indeed, and very much poorer. In the actual writing of themanuscript, during 1973–4, scarcely anything came from my hand that was not read andusefully criticized by three good friends: Gilbert Harman, Michael Slote, and JohnTaurek. In large measure, this finished product is an outcome of my dialogues with thesethree talented philosophers.This book is, in rather large measure, based on seven papers of mine that appear elsewhere. By the same token, these papers were written with such a book in mind; inretrospect, they may be regarded as studies for it. For kind permission to reprint this
 
material, I thank the editors and publishers of the following volumes, where these papersappear: ‘A Defense of Skepticism’,
The Philosophical Review,
vol. lxxx, No. 2 (April, 1971) forms the basis of Chapter 2 of the present work. Much of Chapter 3 consists of material originally published as ‘AnArgument for Skepticism’,
 Philosophic Exchange
, vol. 1, No. 5 (Summer, 1974). Someof the material in Chapter 4 appeared as ‘Propositional Verbs and Knowledge’,
The Journal of Philosophy
, vol. lxix, No. 11 (June 1, 1972). Some of the rest, in that samechapter, appeared as ‘The Wages of Scepticism’,
 American Philosophical Quarterly
, vol.10, No. 3 (July, 1973). The fifth chapter contains material from my paper ‘Two Types of Scepticism’,
 Philosophical Studies
, vol. 25, No. 2 (February, 1974). Certain material inChapter 6 appears in ‘A Skeptical Problem About Representation’, being my contributionto
 Forms of Representation: The Proceedings of the 1972 Philosophy Colloquium of theUniversity of Western Ontario
(1975), edited by B. Freed, A. Márras and P. Maynard,and published by North-Holland Publishing Company. Finally, Chapter 7 includesmaterial originally published in my paper ‘Truth’, in
Semantics and Philosophy
, edited byMilton K. Munitz and myself, and published by the New York University Press in 1974.The sustained essay, while based on these prior studies, took time and effort. For the timein which to make the effort, I am most grateful to the John Simon Guggenheim MemorialFoundation. By granting me a generous Fellowship, they allowed me to spend theacademic year of 1973–4 absorbed in the writing of my case for scepticism.Finally, I thank my philosopher-typist, Mrs. Susan Hank, for her patiently making alegible work of the pages of scrawl she received from me. The moral support provided byher, and her husband Daniel, is something I will always remember with thanks. New York City
October 1974
 
Introduction
Peter Unger In these pages, I try to argue compellingly for scepticism. In that way, I hope to make acontribution, not only to philosophy, but to our future thinking in general. The type of scepticism for which I first argue is perhaps the most traditional one: scepticism aboutknowledge. This is the thesis that no one ever 
knows
anything about anything. I arguelater that as a consequence of this first sceptical thesis, a second type of scepticism mustalso be accepted: the thesis that no one is ever 
 justified 
or at all
reasonable
in anything. In particular, then, no one will be justified or at all reasonable in believing anything.Two questions will arise quickly for the experienced reader. First, if I accept this secondthesis, how can I hope for anyone to believe what I offer, or even take it seriously? For should someone believe me, then according to my own thesis, he would not be at allreasonable in so doing. As the philosophical literature has, over the ages, accumulated asubstantial number of sceptical essays in which these theses are argued, this question is afamiliar one. Accordingly, another question arises. With no apparent hope of being believed, why do I bother to fill pages with yet another sceptical essay? I will try to provide brief answers to these two questions. It is my hope that in the process, I will help
 
 prepare the reader better to encounter the arguments he will meet in the chapters tofollow.Why have I written this sceptical essay? Over several years, while I have continued tolove the subject deeply, I came to have two dissatisfactions with philosophy, at least as Ilately found it to be conducted. The first dissatisfaction has less to do with any particularly recent developments; at least it is not confined to these. It is this. After yearsof thinking intensively on epistemological topics, I could not help but think that thedeepest and most compelling arguments I met were those I encountered first, namely,certain classical arguments for scepticism. Perhaps because they were so compelling,there were many arguments I later met which sought to refute the sceptical reasonings.But after a short period when an allegedend p.1refutation of scepticism might have a certain heady appeal, it would look shallow besidethe original sceptical considerations. Attempts at refutation, it always seemed, missed themain point of the sceptical reasoning. The glare of an appealing fashion sometimes madethis failure easy to overlook for a while. The appearance of philosophy's triumph over anegative view allowed for some brief pleasure. But the pleasure was always quitefleeting, lasting only as long as the glare of that fashion might seem to blind.After recurring episodes of this sort, I had to try to take a larger view. In trying to bemore comprehensive, I reckoned that experiences like mine must have occurred over andover again down through the ages. Indeed, what else could so well explain the effortspent to refute scepticism by each new generation of philosophers, and by almost everygiant in epistemology who was not himself a sceptic? I reasoned that what might explain both the cycle of the activity, and this underlying cycle of intellectual experiences, wassimply the impossibility of refuting scepticism. And, then, I thought, of all the reasonswhy scepticism might be impossible to refute, one stands out as the simplest: scepticismisn't wrong, it's right. The reason that sceptical arguments are so compelling, always ableto rise again to demand our thought, would then be also a simple one: These arguments,unlike the attempts to refute them, served the truth.If that is why the better sceptical arguments are so compelling, why do they seem, notstraightforwardly correct, but so deep? Why do they seem to get us to a level previouslycovered by the superficial if effective disguise of custom and intellectual lethargy? Beingtrained in linguistically oriented schools and times, it was natural for me to think that theanswer might lie in my language and similarly in the languages of other philosopherswho felt the compelling power of sceptical arguments. The steps of the arguments, Iconjectured, were based in the real but usually unappreciated meanings of key terms.These steps encourage philosophers to think in the way the meanings dictate, as well theyshould, if they are interested, not merely in what we take to be cases of knowing, and of  being reasonable in believing, but in what is really required for knowing, and for reasonable believing. Sceptical arguments, if end p.2

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