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Some McDowellian Reflections on Skepticism

Chi-Chun Chiu



Skepticism is one of the main concerns of contemporary epistemology. With different scopes, there are different versions of skepticism. Some casts doubt on our knowledge of the external world. Others cast doubt on our knowledge of other minds or a priori knowledge. In this paper, my focus will be placed upon the skepticism about our knowledge of the external world. Although the arguments of this version of skepticism can be formulated in different ways, with different degree of strength, most of them have something to do with a skeptical hypothesis, such as the possibility of our being completely deceived by a Cartesian evil demon or being a brain in a vat (BIV) malignantly manipulated by a mad scientist. Let S be a knowing subject, p be any ordinary proposition about our external world and h be the proposition about the skeptical hypothesis, to the effect that S is a BIV, then the most commonly discussed skeptical argument (SA) can be roughly sketched as follows: (1) S does not know that h. (2) If S does not know that h, then S does not know that p. Hence, (3) S does not know that p. The validity of SA is crystal clear. Its conclusion, which obviously violates our common sense, denies our ordinary knowledge of the external world, and yet the two premises seem unproblematic. Thus, we are faced with a skeptical puzzle. While the skeptic straightforwardly admits that, contrary to what we commonly think, indeed we do not have knowledge of the external world, much effort has been made to solve the puzzle. For instances, some tries to show that the first premise of SA is false. Some argues that the second premise is based upon the so-called "closure principle", which turns out to be false. Some contextualists claim that the skeptical argument, only being correct in some very peculiar contexts, does not undermine our ordinary knowledge at all. The main task of this paper is to explore the possibility of resolving the skeptical puzzle from a McDowellian perspective. Unlike the approaches mentioned above, we will not aim at establishing the negation of the premises of SA. Nor will we try to confine the tenability, if any, of the argument within a certain sort of contexts. What we try to do is to examine the presuppositions of SA, especially those of the scenario of the skeptical hypothesis. It should be noted that, as a quietist, McDowell himself may not be interested in refuting the skeptical argument in the way many contemporary epistemologists have tried to do. But I think at least two interrelated lines of his thought can shed light on the current debate on skepticism. First, the skeptical hypothesis presupposes that although the BIV's beliefs about the external world are mostly, if not totally, false, her experience and our common veridical experience are exactly the same. McDowell denies this presupposition and his argument is mainly based upon a version of disjunctivism. I will expose this disjunctivism and try to respond to some criticisms of it. Second, the skeptic, such as Descartes, requires that in answering the question of whether we know that p, we should not appeal to other piece of knowledge about the external world. He presupposes that we can reflect upon the possibility of knowledge of the external world with a totally detached manner. It means that it is possible for us to reflect upon the skeptical question about our empirical knowledge without having or relying on any knowledge of the same kind. By making the following two points, I will try to show that according to McDowell, this meta-philosophical presupposition is ill founded. (1) Whether or not the skeptic can avoid using any empirical knowledge of the external world, to given the skeptical argument, she can never avoid using her linguistic knowledge, that is, at least she must know the meanings of the terms used in her argument. Furthermore, she must also have some sort of knowledge of logic, no matter how simple it may be. However, I will argue from, among others, McDowell's works on rule-following that without any empirical knowledge, we, as human beings, cannot have the above two sorts of knowledge either. If that is true, then the skeptic's position is not coherent. (2) I will argue mainly from McDowell's view of second nature that a total detached position is not really possible for us.