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(ăgnŏs`tĭsĭzəm), form of skepticism that holds that the existence of God cannot be logically proved or disproved. Among prominent agnostics have been Auguste Comte, Herbert Spencer, and T. H. Huxley (who coined the word agnostic in 1869). Immanuel Kant was an agnostic who argued that belief in divinity can rest only on faith. Agnosticism is not to be confused with atheismatheism
, denial of the existence of God or gods and of any supernatural existence, to be distinguished from agnosticism, which holds that the existence cannot be proved.
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, which asserts that there is no God.
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(religion, spiritualism, and occult)

Agnosticism is a middle position concerning belief in the divine. Theists believe in the existence of God, or the reality of, in the words of Joseph Campbell, an "invisible plane" supporting the visible context of everyday life. Atheists do not. They believe all reality can be explained by scientifically reasoned principles and that there is no reason to postulate spiritual forces beyond perceived phenomena. In short, the material realm of the cosmos contains all that exists (see Anthropomorphism).

The word "agnostic" derives from "gnosis," which means knowledge, or the condition of knowing. An agnostic is one who professes not to know. The word is used in two different religious conceptions:

1. A person may claim that knowledge of God is unknowable to anyone; that God is above human categories of thought and thus impossible to know or understand with human sensibilities. In other words, God may or may not exist, and it is impossible for humans to know.

2. A person may claim that he or she has not experienced the divine and therefore cannot demonstrate personal knowledge of a deity.

Joseph Campbell, author of such books as The Masks of God and The Hero with a Thousand Faces, has associated the words theist and atheist with the tendency to connect religious myth to historical fact. In an interview with Bill Moyers televised by PBS, he somewhat facetiously divided the world into two camps. Those in one camp, he explained, believe their religious myths are historically accurate explanations of how things occurred. These, he said, are called theists. Those in the other group— knowing, for example, that God didn't create the world in six literal days—refuse to acknowledge the historical accuracy of their culture's mythology and are labeled atheists. In Campbell's view, the two words are arbitrary designations based not on belief but rather on mythological interpretation.

The Religion Book: Places, Prophets, Saints, and Seers © 2004 Visible Ink Press®. All rights reserved.
The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



the philosophical doctrine which holds that the truth of knowledge cannot be conclusively resolved and that an objective characterization of the realities surrounding man is impossible. Dialectical materialism, on the other hand, recognizes that the world is objective and cognizable and accepts the ability of man to reach objective truth.

In some instances, both materialists and idealists, especially subjective idealists, have held agnostic views. In dialectical materialism this circumstance serves as the basis for defining cognizance of the world as another side of the fundamental question of philosophy.

While the term “agnosticism” was coined by the English naturalist Huxley in 1869, early expressions of agnosticism can be found in the ancient philosophers—particularly Protagoras, the Sophists, and the Skeptics. The original forms of agnosticism arose in connection with the discovery of the imperfection and mutability of knowledge, especially in everything that concerns the problems of the beginnings and the bases of all that exists. Even in its earliest stages, philosophy proposed a great number of variant pictures of the universe, each insisting on its own special principle or principles of existence. The realization that none of these variants was logically convincing gave rise to skepticism. Agnosticism, which fundamentally rejects the possibility that reason can penetrate the ultimate meaning of things, appeared as the most extreme form of skepticism.

Hume’s system is the most consistent expression of agnosticism in the history of philosophy. Maintaining that the single source of cognition is experience, which cannot be subjected to examination, Hume concluded that it was impossible to establish a correspondence between the evidence of experience and the objective world. For example, the concept of causality arises as the result of one phenomenon repeatedly following another. In generalizing this repetition, the mind draws a conclusion about the existence of a cause-and-effect relationship between the corresponding phenomena. Hume suggested, however, that in reality such a conclusion is merely the product of thought. Similarly, all cognition deals only with experience and by no means can go beyond its boundaries; therefore, reason cannot judge the relation of experience to reality.

Hume and his predecessors understood that cognition is not the simple copying of reality but a complex process of assimilation of the object by the subject; during this process much is determined by the subject’s creative activity. But while Hume gave this thesis a more negative expression, Kant made an important step in disclosing its positive aspects. Establishing the sharp differentiation between “the thing-in-itself” (which is inaccessible to cognition as such) and “the thing-for-us” as a foundation of his epistemological conception, Kant actually adopted the position of agnosticism. He used this differentiation as the starting point to analyze the inner activity of cognitive thought. Thus, he raised the question about the conditions of cognition, including the conditions of experience itself. One set of these conditions is created by the object itself, the other by the cognizant subject. Hence, according to Kant, it follows that it is necessary to distinguish in the product of cognition that which belongs to the object itself and that which is introduced by the nature of thought. Analyzing the latter, Kant pointed to the existence of the so-called a priori forms of sensibility and reason. These forms, which are peculiar only to the subject, regulate his sensory experience and in this manner directly take part in forming systems of knowledge. It is possible to view Kant’s position as the logical conclusion of the line of agnosticism. Kant demonstrated that it is impossible to establish a correspondence between the objective world and a system of knowledge by means of logic alone and that the nature of cognition cannot be revealed without special analysis of the cognitive possibilities of the subject. Because of his own peculiar agnosticism, Kant stopped halfway. Insisting on the existence of a fundamental boundary between cognition and reality, he could not explain how cognition enlarges the power of man to conquer nature.

In several schools of post-Kantian bourgeois philosophy agnostic elements are very strong, especially in areas of social knowledge. This is particularly characteristic of the various schools of positivism and neopositivism. By the beginning of the 20th century, Lenin had criticized the agnosticism of Machism and empiriocriticism. At present, one of the most characteristic expressions of agnosticism is the gnoseological position of so-called conventionalism, according to which the relation between fact and its expression is purely arbitrary, since description of one and the same fact by different expressions is possible. Hence, the conclusion is drawn that cognition is arbitrary. But, in reality, rigid correspondences can usually be established between the different languages of description—in fact, various descriptions, if they correspond to reality, give essentially the same result in their practical application.

Another form of agnosticism characteristic of neopositivism is the refusal to decide the question of the relation between cognition and reality on the premise that this question is “metaphysical” and will not allow for a “strict” resolution. The weakness of this position is proved by the history of neopositivism itself, which, in direct contradiction to its initially proclaimed thesis, is more and more attracted to the discussion of “metaphysical” problems.

Critical realism defends agnosticism as well. Santayana, one of the main representatives of this trend, maintains, for example, that cognition is of a basically symbolic nature and that, at best, the object can be surrounded with appropriate symbolism; thus, perhaps, its essence can be reached by successful penetration of the imagination, which in itself is not reliable (see G. Santayana, Skepticism and Animal Faith, New York, 1923, pp. 106 ff.). According to Santayana, belief in the truth of knowledge is ultimately rooted in the animal faith peculiar to man. This idea, like all the other contemporary forms of agnosticism, comes from exaggerating individual aspects of cognition and from ignoring the organic interdependence between thought and object-directed human praxis.

In its development of the problem of cognition’s active nature, posed by German classical idealism, dialectical materialism subjected Kantian agnosticism to systematic criticism. The work of K. Marx, F. Engels, and V. I. Lenin shows that it is impossible to explain the efficacy, the “this worldliness,” of thought by the contemplative approach alone; it is necessary to view thought itself as a part of man’s object-directed and sensory-based activity, and man himself must be understood as a historically concrete social subject. The validation of cognition and the proof of the correspondence between cognition and reality was thereby transferred from the realm of speculation into the realm of practice. If sociohistorical experience permits man to continue increasing his power over nature, to perfect societal relations, and to develop methods and means for mental activity, then cognition is ever more accurately reflecting reality. For example, the breaking of the genetic code is considered to be right not only and not even so much for theoretical reasons as for its practical implications—it opens the way for controlling changes in the nature of living organisms.


Marx, K. “Tezisy o Feierbakhe.” In K. Marx and F. Engels, Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 3.
Engels, F. “Liudvig Feierbakh i konets klassicheskoi nemetsskoi filosofii.” Ibid., vol. 21.
Lenin, V. I. Materializm i empiriokritisizm: Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 18, part 2.
Spirkin, A. G. Kurs marksistskoifilosofii, 2nd ed., part 5. Moscow, 1966.
Hill, T. I. Sovremennie teorii poznaniia. Moscow, 1965. (Translated from English.)


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.