In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Meta-epistemological Skepticism

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Meta-epistemological Skepticism and Epistemic Circularity
  • Meta-epistemological Skepticism and Disagreement

Philosophy Meta-epistemological Skepticism
Chris Ranalli
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 April 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 April 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0342


In epistemology, skepticism is the view that knowledge of (or justified belief about) something is impossible. The contemporary focus on skepticism tends toward skepticism about the external world, the thesis that knowledge of (or justified belief about) the external world is impossible. “Meta-epistemological skepticism” is a term that is used for a variety of skeptical positions in contemporary epistemology. We can divide uses of “meta-epistemological skepticism” into those that (a) pick out a certain set of meta-epistemological challenges to a range of anti-skeptical theories (particularly responses to skepticism from epistemic externalism), or those that (b) pick out a certain set of meta-epistemological theses about the problem of radical skepticism. Meta-epistemological scepticism qua challenge is the template challenge associated with meta-epistemological skepticism that an intellectually satisfying explanation of how knowledge of the external world is possible (or how justified belief about the external world is possible) needs to meet certain desiderata. The challenge is that several anti-skeptical theories fail to meet these desiderata. The desiderata can include fulfillment of internalist access requirements, such as explaining how reflective knowledge is possible; that it is revisionary, not a conditional answer to skepticism or a revisionary epistemological theory. It provides intellectual assurance that our beliefs are true, explains how justified knowledge-claims are possible, is not an epistemically circular theory, and fulfills epistemic priority requirements and objectivity requirements. Meta-epistemological scepticism qua position, as a position, is meta-epistemological skepticism directed at higher-order epistemological phenomena, such as a satisfying philosophical theory of knowledge or a satisfying philosophical theory of how knowledge of the external world is possible. An emerging topic is the extent to which disagreement in philosophy motivates skepticism about philosophical knowledge and justification. This article is structured around the core reasons contemporary epistemologists have argued for or against meta-epistemological skepticism.

General Overviews

Although there are no comprehensive overviews of meta-epistemological skepticism, some essential texts and useful overviews of certain meta-epistemological challenges are available. These texts act as the background reading for understanding meta-epistemological skepticism and its relevance to the contemporary problem of skepticism. Stroud 1984 is considered essential reading for several meta-epistemological issues arising out of the contemporary skeptical problem. Stroud argues that any response to the contemporary skeptical problem will be a revisionary response, and thus philosophically unsatisfying. Stroud 1989 argues for a meta-epistemological dilemma for any theory of how knowledge of a certain kind is possible. He argues that the theory either will be equivalent to skepticism or will not be a fully general theory. In either case, Stroud argues that the resulting theory is philosophically unsatisfying. Nagel 1986 argues that we have a natural intellectual desire to improve on our subjective view of the world and our knowledge of it. This intellectual desire leads us to refine our subjective view into a more objective view. The problem is that the limit of this intellectual exercise is a “view from nowhere,” which is a perspectiveless view that we desire but cannot achieve. Nagel, then, argues that a philosophically satisfying explanation of how our knowledge of the world is possible will need to be a “view from nowhere,” and that no such explanation is possible. Fumerton 1995 provides a comprehensive set of arguments for the view that externalist theories of knowledge and justification fail to provide philosophically satisfying explanations of how knowledge and justified belief is possible. Williams 1991 provides a detailed review and analysis of skeptical arguments and critically engages with Stroud 1984, Stroud 1989, and Nagel 1986. Gascoigne 2014 critically discusses the arguments from Stroud 1984, Nagel 1986, and Williams 1991 and places their views in the context of the contemporary debate on the problem of skepticism.

  • Fumerton, Richard. Metaepistemology and Skepticism. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1995.

    Fumerton examines traditional skeptical arguments and argues that there are constraints on a satisfying response to them. He argues that externalist theories of knowledge and justification fail to fulfill these constraints. This work provides the essential background for the problems with externalist responses to skepticism.

  • Gascoigne, Neil. Scepticism. Abingdon, UK: Routledge, 2014.

    Originally published in 2002. An extensive and clear overview of some of the core meta-epistemological issues with the problem of skepticism. In particular, Gascoigne provides useful explanations of the arguments from Stroud 1984, Nagel 1986, and Williams 1991 and places their views in the context of contemporary skepticism.

  • Nagel, Thomas. The View from Nowhere. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986.

    Nagel contrasts the subjective point of view with the objective view of our relation to the world. He argues that, insofar as we take the objective point of view, we cannot come to know the denials of the skeptical possibilities and concludes that there is no satisfactory way to resolve the tension between our subjective point of view and our objective point of view.

  • Stroud, Barry. The Significance of Philosophical Scepticism. New York: Oxford University Press, 1984.

    DOI: 10.1093/0198247613.001.0001

    A detailed examination of Descartes’s skeptical argument and its relation to our epistemic practices. The core of Stroud’s argument is that Descartes’s skeptical argument presents epistemologists with a meta-epistemological problem. The meta-epistemological problem is that Descartes’s condition on knowledge seems to be grounded in our epistemic practices, but it leads to skepticism. This presents epistemologists with a paradox in which they must revise their epistemic principles and concepts.

  • Stroud, Barry. “Understanding Human Knowledge in General.” In Knowledge and Skepticism. Edited by Marjorie Clay and Keith Lehrer. Boulder, CO: Westview, 1989.

    Argues for meta-epistemological skepticism. Stroud presents a dilemma whereby if an explanation is fully general, it leads to skepticism; if it is not, it avoids skepticism at the cost of not explaining how all of our knowledge of the world is possible. This paper has been the target of several responses and discussions. See Sosa 1994 (cited under Meta-epistemological Skepticism and Epistemic Circularity), Fumerton 2006 (cited under Internalism and Intellectual Assurance), Cassam 2009 (cited under Epistemic Priority), and Pritchard and Ranalli 2016 (cited under Internalism and Intellectual Assurance). Reprinted Understanding Human Knowledge. Clarendon: Oxford University Press, 2000)

  • Williams, Michael. Unnatural Doubts: Epistemological Realism and the Basis of Scepticism. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1991.

    Williams provides a comprehensive examination of several skeptical arguments. Williams argues that skeptical arguments are not “natural”; skeptical arguments depend on more than our natural intuitions and our folk epistemic concepts and principles. This is a useful critical companion to Stroud 1984, Stroud 1989, and Nagel 1986. See Gascoigne 2014 for an introductory review.

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