Berkeley pp 68-75 | Cite as

A Sceptical Interlude

  • Harry M. Bracken
Part of the Philosophers in Perspective book series


Philosophers of the twentieth century have not always taken kindly to sceptical arguments. With few exceptions they have preferred to treat the sceptic as a dogmatist to be faced with the following dilemma: either the sceptic is really saying something, in which case his very assertions force him to cease to be a sceptic, or he is not saying anything, in which case we need pay no attention to him. However, the arguments chronicled in the texts of Sextus Empiricus are not so easily disposed of. The technique of Pyrrhonian scepticism is to pose difficulties for any claim to knowledge. Much of the material concerns sensory errors; the aim is to put the dogmatist in the situation of having to decide between two appearances. In order to make a choice he must possess a criterion. And the criterion? It must be true. If selected as true, then in accordance with a criterion. The process continues ad infinitum. For example, the infamous dream problem: by what criterion do we distinguish waking from sleeping states? Sense experience can only be adduced as evidence in support of a putative knowledge claim if it can be established that it is waking and not dream experience. (There is no direct immediate test otherwise we would not have nightmares.) All the traditional puzzles about the straight stick that looks bent in water, the round tower that looks square from a distance etc., are in the Pyrrhonist’s arsenal. In addition, there are detailed studies of technical problems in logic and examinations of such questions as whether the sceptic can investigate dogmatism while remaining sceptical — or whether the proof of the non-existence of proof is a proof.


Ordinary Language Sense Experience Sceptical Argument Sense Variation Dream Experience 
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  1. 2.
    J. L. Austin, Sense and Sensibilia (Oxford University Press, 1962) p. 49.Google Scholar
  2. 4.
    George Orwell, 1984 (Harmondsworth, Penguin Books, 1954) pp. 68–9.Google Scholar

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© Harry M. Bracken 1974

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  • Harry M. Bracken

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