The Argument from Possibility

  • Avrum Stroll
Part of the International Archives of the History of Ideas / Archives Internationales d’Histoire des Idées book series (ARCH, volume 145)


For those philosophers who believe that human beings possess knowledge and that they can, and sometimes do, achieve epistemic certainty, the sceptical challenges to these beliefs are highly paradoxical. Such challenges are paradoxical in the sense that they run counter to common sense and call into question the obvious: for example, that we generally see things as they are, that we sometimes accurately remember past events, and that there are other persons with minds like our own. It thus seems from a traditional epistemological perspective that the sceptic is not only wrong but obviously wrong. And yet if obviously wrong, why is it so difficult to prove that this is so? That it is difficult is attested to by the fact that since the time of the ancient Greeks, western epistemology has dedicated itself to the task of combatting scepticism; and yet, like Antaeus, its antagonist continues after every joust to remain as formidable as ever. As the history of the topic demonstrates, such sceptical challenges have been subtle, protean, clever, and resistant to defeat. From Plato through Descartes to Wittgenstein, so-called dogmatism has continually found its affirmations of certitude ingeniously turned against itself by dextrous opponents. Witness, for example, the way that Kripke has uncovered a form of scepticism in Wittgenstein’s account of rule-following. These challenges have thus become conceptual incubi, burdens that can neither be lifted nor tolerated. Perhaps after 2500 years of abortive combat, the epistemologist should simply give up the ghost and concede defeat. But in this paper, probably foolishly, I would like to continue the struggle. I will offer two arguments against scepticism that I find compelling. If I am right, the sceptic can be beaten. Or should I say, with an eye on the opposition, that maybe the sceptic can be beaten? Well, let us see.


Knowledge Claim Rational Conviction Infinite Regress Modal Term Sceptical Argument 
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  1. 1.
    Peter D. Klein. Certainty: A Refutation of Scepticism (University of Minnoesota Press, 1981), p. 211.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    A. P. Martinich, “Epistemology,” Encyclopedia Britannica Vol. 18 (1990), p. 476.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    R. H. Popkin. The History of Scepticism from Erasmus to Spinoza (University of California Press, 1979 ), p. 47.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    Ibid., p. 47.Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    Michel de Montaigne. “Apologie de Raimond Sebond,” in Les Essais de Michel de Montaigne, ed, P. Villey, II (Paris, 1922), p. 147.Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    Ibid., p. 51.Google Scholar
  7. 7.
    Ludwig Wittgenstein. On Certainty (Oxford: Blackwell, 1969), entry 12.Google Scholar
  8. 8.
    Ibid., entry 18.Google Scholar
  9. 9.
    “Proof of an External World,” in Philosophical Papers by G. E. Moore (London: Allen & Unwin, 1959), p. 146.Google Scholar

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© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 1996

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  • Avrum Stroll

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