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Skepticism or scepticism (see spelling differences) is generally any questioning attitude or doubt towards one or more items of putative knowledge or belief.[1][2] It is often directed at domains, such as morality (moral skepticism), religion (skepticism about the existence of God), or the nature of knowledge (skepticism of knowledge).[3] Formally, skepticism as a topic arises in the context of philosophy, particularly epistemology, although it has also found its way into popular-level social and political issues like climate science, religion, and pseudoscience.

Philosophical skepticism is a systematic approach that questions the notion that absolutely certain knowledge is possible.[4] Classical philosophical skepticism derives from the classical Greek verb, skeptomai, "to search", implying searching but not finding.[5] Adherents of Pyrrhonism (and more recently, partially synonymous with Fallibilism), for instance, suspend judgment in investigations.[6] Skeptics may even doubt the reliability of their own senses.[7] Religious skepticism, on the other hand, is "doubt concerning basic religious principles (such as immortality, providence, and revelation)".[8] Scientific skepticism is about testing beliefs for reliability, by subjecting them to systematic investigation using the scientific method, to discover empirical evidence for them.


In ordinary usage, skepticism (US) or scepticism (UK) (Greek: 'σκέπτομαι' skeptomai, to search, to think about or look for; see also spelling differences) refers to:

  1. an attitude of doubt or a disposition to incredulity either in general or toward a particular object;
  2. the doctrine that true knowledge or some particular knowledge is uncertain; or
  3. the method of suspended judgment, systematic doubt, or criticism that is characteristic of skeptics (Merriam–Webster).

In philosophy, skepticism refers more specifically to any one of several propositions. These include propositions about:

  1. an inquiry,
  2. a method of obtaining knowledge through systematic doubt and continual testing,
  3. the arbitrariness, relativity, or subjectivity of moral values,
  4. the limitations of knowledge,
  5. a method of intellectual caution and suspended judgment.
Main article: Scepticism in law

Legal skepticism (aka Legal Realism) is a branch of jurisprudence. It is in essence a critique of the natural law theories and of legal positivism.

Philosophical skepticism

In philosophical skepticism, pyrrhonism is a position that refrains from making truth claims. A philosophical skeptic does not claim that truth is impossible (which itself would be a truth claim), instead it recommends "suspending belief". The term is commonly used to describe philosophies which are similar to philosophical skepticism, such as academic skepticism, an ancient variant of Platonism that claimed knowledge of truth was impossible. Empiricism is a closely related, but not identical, philosophy to philosophical skepticism. Empiricists claim empiricism is a pragmatic compromise between philosophical skepticism and nomothetic science; philosophical skepticism is in turn sometimes referred to as "radical empiricism."

Western Philosophical skepticism originated in ancient Greek philosophy.[9] The Greek Sophists of the 5th century BC were partially skeptics.

Pyrrho of Elis (365–275 BC) is usually credited with founding the "school" of skepticism. He traveled to India and studied with the "gymnosophists" (naked lovers of wisdom), which could have been any number of Indian sects. From there, he brought back the idea that nothing can be known for certain. The senses are easily fooled, and reason follows too easily our desires.[10] Pyrrhonism was a school of skepticism founded by his follower Aenesidemus in the first century BC and recorded by Sextus Empiricus in the late 2nd century or early 3rd century AD. Subsequently, in the "New Academy" Arcesilaus (c. 315–241 BC) and Carneades (c. 213–129 BC) developed more theoretical perspectives by which conceptions of absolute truth and falsity were refuted as uncertain. Carneades criticized the claims of the Dogmatists, especially supporters of Stoicism, asserting that absolute certainty of knowledge is impossible. Sextus Empiricus (c. AD 200), the main authority for Greek skepticism, developed the philosophy further, incorporating aspects of empiricism into the basis for asserting knowledge.[11]

Greek skeptics criticized the Stoics, accusing them of dogmatism. For the skeptics, the logical mode of argument was untenable, as it relied on propositions which could not be said to be either true or false without relying on further propositions. This was the regress argument, whereby every proposition must rely on other propositions in order to maintain its validity (see the five tropes of Agrippa the Sceptic). In addition, the skeptics argued that two propositions could not rely on each other, as this would create a circular argument (as p implies q and q implies p). For the skeptics, such logic was thus an inadequate measure of truth and could create as many problems as it claimed to have solved. Truth was not, however, necessarily unobtainable, but rather an idea which did not yet exist in a pure form. Although skepticism was accused of denying the possibility of truth, in fact it appears to have mainly been a critical school which merely claimed that logicians had not discovered truth.

In Islamic philosophy, skepticism was established by Al-Ghazali (1058–1111), known in the West as "Algazel", as part of the Ash'ari school of Islamic theology, whose method of skepticism shares many similarities with Descartes' method.[12]

In an effort to avoid skepticism, René Descartes begins his Meditations on First Philosophy attempting to find indubitable truth on which to base his knowledge. He later recognizes this truth as "I think, therefore I am," but before he finds this truth, he briefly entertains the skeptical arguments from dreaming and radical deception.

David Hume has also been described as a skeptic.[13][14]:85

Pierre Le Morvan has distinguished between three philosophical approaches to skepticism. The first he terms the "Foil Approach." According to this approach, skepticism is treated as a problem to be solved, or challenge to be met, or threat to be parried; skepticism's value according to this method, insofar as it is deemed to have one, accrues from its role as a foil contrastively illuminating what is required for knowledge and justified belief. The second he calls the "Bypass Approach" according to which skepticism is bypassed as a major concern of epistemology. Le Morvan advocates a third approach—he dubs it the "Health Approach"—that explores when skepticism is healthy and when it is not, or when it is virtuous and when it is vicious.[15]

Religious skepticism

Main article: Religious skepticism

Religious skepticism generally refers to doubting given religious beliefs or claims. Historically, religious skepticism can be traced back to Socrates, who doubted many religious claims of the time. Modern religious skepticism typically emphasizes scientific and historical methods or evidence, with Michael Shermer writing that skepticism is a process for discovering the truth rather than general non-acceptance. For this reason a religious skeptic might believe that Jesus existed while questioning claims that he was the messiah or performed miracles (see historicity of Jesus). Religious skepticism is not the same as atheism or agnosticism, though these often do involve skeptical attitudes toward religion and philosophical theology (for example, towards divine omnipotence. Religious people are generally skeptical about claims of other religions, at least when the two denominations conflict concerning some stated belief. Additionally, they may also be skeptical of the claims made by atheists.[16] The historian Will Durant writes that Plato was "as skeptical of atheism as of any other dogma."

Scientific skepticism

Main article: Scientific skepticism

A scientific (or empirical) skeptic is one who questions beliefs on the basis of scientific understanding. Most scientists, being scientific skeptics, test the reliability of certain kinds of claims by subjecting them to a systematic investigation using some form of the scientific method.[17] As a result, a number of claims are considered "pseudoscience" if they are found to improperly apply or ignore the fundamental aspects of the scientific method. Scientific skepticism may discard beliefs pertaining to things outside perceivable observation and thus outside the realm of systematic, empirical falsifiability/testability.

See also

Literary skeptics




  1. Popkin, R. H. The History of Skepticism from Erasmus to Descartes (rev. ed. 1968); C. L. Stough, Greek Skepticism (1969); M. Burnyeat, ed., The Skeptical Tradition (1983); B. Stroud, The Significance of Philosophical Skepticism (1984).
  2. "Philosophical views are typically classed as skeptical when they involve advancing some degree of doubt regarding claims that are elsewhere taken for granted."
  3. Greco, John (2008-09-25). The Oxford Handbook of Skepticism. OUP USA. ISBN 9780195183214.
  4. "Philosophical skepticism should be distinguished from ordinary skepticism, where doubts are raised against certain beliefs or types of beliefs because the evidence for the particular belief or type of belief is weak or lacking ..."
  5. Liddell and Scott
  6. Sextus Empiricus, Outlines Of Pyrrhonism, Translated by R. G. Bury, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1933, p. 21
  7. "... the two most influential forms of skepticism have, arguably, been the radical epistemological skepticism of the classical Pyrrhonian skeptics and the Cartesian form of radical epistemological skepticism"
  8. "Definition of SKEPTICISM". Retrieved 2016-02-05.
  9. Scepticism – History of Scepticism Archived 9 February 2012 at the Wayback Machine.
  10. Boeree, Dr. C. George. "The Ancient Greeks, Part Three:". Shippensburg University. Retrieved 31 May 2013.
  11. Brunschwig, Jacques; Pellegrin, Pierre (2000-01-01). Greek Thought: A Guide to Classical Knowledge. Harvard University Press. p. 937. ISBN 9780674002616.
  12. Najm, Sami M. (July–October 1966), "The Place and Function of Doubt in the Philosophies of Descartes and Al-Ghazali", Philosophy East and West, Philosophy East and West, Vol. 16, No. 3/4, 16 (3–4): 133–141, doi:10.2307/1397536, JSTOR 1397536
  13. Thompson, Dennis Farrell. "Hume's skepticism". Retrieved 2016-02-04.
  14. Philosophy. PediaPress.
  15. Le Morvan, Pierre (March 28, 2011). "Healthy skepticism and practical wisdom". Logos & Episteme, An International Journal of Epistemology. Retrieved February 4, 2016.
  16. Mann, Daniel. "Skeptical of Atheism". Apologetics for Today. Retrieved 2 December 2013.
  17. What is skepticism?
  18. Rosa L; Rosa E; Sarner L; Barrett S (1998-04-01). "A close look at therapeutic touch". JAMA. 279 (13): 1005–1010. doi:10.1001/jama.279.13.1005. ISSN 0098-7484.


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