The Art of Doubt

  • Anita Gilman Sherman


That Shakespeare and Donne respond to skepticism differently suggests that skepticism presents a set of existential dilemmas amenable to a variety of solutions. This range of coping mechanisms exposes a fundamental rift between antiquity and modernity. For recent philosophers, starting with Montaigne and Descartes and up to Stanley Cavell in our own day, skepticism represents a destabilizing incursion of doubt that demands to be accounted for and allayed. Hegel, for example, describes skepticism as a form of unhappy consciousness, calling it, “an absolutely fortuitous embroglio, the giddy whirl of a perpetually self-creating disorder.”1 By contrast, for the school of skeptics that flourished in antiquity for five centuries, starting with Pyrrho of Elis and ending with Sextus Empiricus around the year 200 CE, skepticism is a methodology conducive to peace of mind. Its aim was tranquility (ataraxia), which Sextus defines as, “freedom from disturbance or calmness of soul.” (1.4.10)2 To arrive at serenity, the seeker is advised, “to set out oppositions among things which appear and are thought of in any way at all,” such that equipollence (isostheneia) is achieved (1.4.8). “By ‘equipollence’,” Sextus explains, “we mean equality with regard to being convincing or unconvincing: None of the conflicting accounts takes precedence over any other” (1.4.10).


Collective Memory Skeptical Doubt Suspended Judgment Exemplary Figure English Pastoral 
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© Anita Gilman Sherman 2007

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  • Anita Gilman Sherman

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