In This Article History of Skepticism

  • Introduction
  • General Collections and Resources

Philosophy History of Skepticism
by
Baron Reed
  • LAST REVIEWED: 22 September 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 June 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0110

Introduction

The skeptical tradition originated in the Hellenistic period of ancient philosophy. After mostly lying dormant through much of the medieval era, it was revived and—to some extent—transformed in early modern philosophy. Determining to what extent there is a single view shared across the different periods is complicated by the fact that at least some of the main figures in the tradition said quite explicitly that they did not have any view at all. But if there are no theoretical commitments binding all of the different skeptics together, then what allows us to say that there is in fact a single tradition? There are at least two relevant considerations. The first is that the later figures in the tradition make use of many of the arguments originally formulated by the ancient skeptics—and, indeed, given their centrality to epistemology, those arguments are likely to be an enduring legacy of the skeptical tradition. The second consideration is that many of the later skeptics—Hume is a good example—arrived at their philosophical outlook through profound reflection on the earlier figures in the tradition. It is a matter of controversy whether key aspects of ancient skepticism have been retained or lost—for example, some scholars of ancient philosophy have argued that modern skepticism is in certain ways a watered down version of its ancient predecessor, given that the ancient skeptics focused on what we ought to believe and the modern skeptics focus, supposedly, only on whether we have knowledge. But, whether or not this is true, it has become increasingly clear that there is much to be learned about skepticism through study of the tradition as a whole. Given that so much of philosophy has been shaped by both skepticism and anti-skeptical responses to it, the importance of the history of skepticism cannot be overstated.

General Collections and Resources

There are a limited number of volumes that attempt to cover the full range of the skeptical tradition. Small selections from some of the major skeptics in the tradition can be found in Landesman and Meeks 2003. Burnyeat 1983 is a collection of influential papers from early in the recent renewal of interest in the history of skepticism. Sinnott-Armstrong 2004 is a collection of papers given at a conference on the “Neo-Pyrrhonian” view of Robert Fogelin; it includes essays on a variety of figures, considered (to some extent) in relation to Fogelin’s view. Greco 2008 comprises essays on a wide range of topics, including some of the key historical figures in the history of skepticism. The website of the International Society for the Study of Skepticism is a guide to ongoing scholarly work on skepticism. The International Journal for the Study of Skepticism publishes both contemporary work on skepticism and scholarly work on the history of skepticism.

  • Burnyeat, Myles, ed. The Skeptical Tradition. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983.

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    Influential collection of articles on both ancient and modern skepticism.

  • Greco, John. The Oxford Handbook of Skepticism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.

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    A collection of essays on a wide range of topics, including on several of the key skeptics and anti-skeptics in the history of skepticism.

  • International Journal for the Study of Skepticism.

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    Journal specializing in skepticism, both contemporary and historical.

  • International Society for the Study of Skepticism.

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    Website of a society organized for the purpose of bringing together scholars of skepticism; includes notices of conferences and recent publications, as well as a helpful bibliography of recent work.

  • Landesman, Charles, and Roblin Meeks, eds. Philosophical Skepticism. Oxford: Blackwell, 2003.

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    Includes selections from some of the major figures in the skeptical tradition, ranging from ancient philosophy to the 20th century.

  • Sinnott-Armstrong, Walter, ed. Pyrrhonian Skepticism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.

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    A collection of essays on the tradition of Pyrrhonian skepticism, including papers on ancient skepticism, Descartes, Hume, Wittgenstein, and Pyrrhonism in current epistemology.

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