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(skĕp`tĭsĭzəm) [Gr.,=to reflect], philosophic position holding that the possibility of knowledge is limited either because of the limitations of the mind or because of the inaccessibility of its object. It is more loosely used to denote any questioning attitude. Extreme skepticism holds that no knowledge is possible, but this is logically untenable since the statement contradicts itself. The first important skeptical view was held by DemocritusDemocritus
, c.460–c.370 B.C., Greek philosopher of Abdera; pupil of Leucippus. His theory of the nature of the physical world was the most radical and scientific attempted up to his time.
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, who saw sense perception as no certain guide to objective reality. The SophistsSophists
, originally, itinerant teachers in Greece (5th cent. B.C.) who provided education through lectures and in return received fees from their audiences. The term was given as a mark of respect.
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 were the earliest group of skeptics. ProtagorasProtagoras
, c.490–c.421 B.C., Greek philosopher of Abdera, one of the more distinguished Sophists. He taught for a time in Athens, where he was a friend of Pericles and knew Socrates, but was forced to flee because of his professed agnosticism.
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 taught the relativity of knowledge, and GorgiasGorgias
, c.485–c.380 B.C., Greek Sophist. From his native city, Leontini, Sicily, he was sent as an ambassador to Athens, where he settled to teach and practice rhetoric.
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 held that either nothing could be known, or if anything were known, it could not be communicated. PyrrhoPyrrho
, c.360–270 B.C., Greek philosopher, a native of Elis, regarded as the father of skepticism. After accompanying Alexander the Great to Asia, he enjoyed great respect at Elis and Athens. His doctrines were preserved by his disciple, Timon of Phlius, in satires.
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, regarded as the father of skepticism, later held a similarly extreme position, seeing reality as inaccessible. ArcesilausArcesilaus
, c.316–c.241 B.C., Greek philosopher of Pitane in Aeolis. He was the principal figure of the Middle Academy. Despite his position in the Academy, his teachings diverged from Platonic doctrine.
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 taught that certitude is impossible and only probable knowledge is attainable. In the Renaissance, skepticism is seen in the writings of Michel de MontaigneMontaigne, Michel Eyquem, seigneur de
, 1533–92, French essayist. Montaigne was one of the greatest masters of the essay as a literary form. Born at the Château of Montaigne in Périgord, he was the son of a rich Catholic landowner and a mother of Spanish
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, Pierre CharronCharron, Pierre
, 1541–1603, French Roman Catholic theologian and philosopher. He was an important contributor to 17th-century theological thought, combining an individual form of skepticism with a strict adherence to Catholicism based on the emphasis of the importance of
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, and Blaise PascalPascal, Blaise
, 1623–62, French scientist and religious philosopher. Studying under the direction of his father, a civil servant, Pascal showed great precocity, especially in mathematics and science.
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. For René DescartesDescartes, René
, Lat. Renatus Cartesius, 1596–1650, French philosopher, mathematician, and scientist, b. La Haye. Descartes' methodology was a major influence in the transition from medieval science and philosophy to the modern era.
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 skepticism was a methodology that allowed him to arrive at certain incontrovertible truths. At the end of the 17th cent., Pierre BayleBayle, Pierre
, 1647–1706, French philosopher. Born a Huguenot, he converted to Roman Catholicism and then returned to Protestantism. To avoid French intolerance of Protestants, he moved in 1681 to Rotterdam, where he lived for most of the rest of his life.
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 skeptically challenged philosophical and theological theories. David HumeHume, David
, 1711–76, Scottish philosopher and historian. Educated at Edinburgh, he lived (1734–37) in France, where he finished his first philosophical work, A Treatise of Human Nature (1739–40).
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, a leading modern skeptic, challenged established assumptions about the self, substance, and causality. The skeptical aspect of Immanuel Kant's philosophy is exemplified by his agnosticismagnosticism
, 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).
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; his antinomies of reason demonstrate that certain problems are insoluble by reason. To some degree skepticism manifests itself in the scientific method, which demands that all things assumed as facts be questioned. But the positivism of many scientists, whether latent or open, is incompatible with skepticism, for it accepts without question the assumption that material effect is impossible without material cause.


See R. H. Popkin, The History of Skepticism from Erasmus to Descartes (rev. ed. 1968); C. L. Stough, Greek Skepticism (1969); M. Burnyeat, ed., The Skeptical Tradition (1983); B. Stroud, The Significance of Philosophical Skepticism (1984).

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



a philosophical position that doubts the existence of any reliable criterion of truth. Agnosticism is an extreme form of skepticism, centering on the assertions that nothing in our knowledge corresponds to reality and that genuine knowledge is unattainable in principle.

By stressing the relativity of human knowledge, skepticism played a positive role in the struggle against various forms of dogmatism and in the formulation of a number of the problems of the dialectic of knowledge, although it proved unable to solve them. Skepticism revealed the incomplete, imperfect character of our knowledge and its link with the historical conditions surrounding cognition. However, by transforming this relativity into an absolute, skepticism came to doubt the possibility of verifiable, objective knowledge in general. Proclaiming its denial in principle of any final or definitive judgments, skepticism was, at the same time, constantly obliged to accept certain judgments in practice. The historical role of skepticism in ideological struggles and society has depended on the object of its criticism and the target of its questioning.

In ancient Greek philosophy skepticism was represented by a school that went through three phases of development: early skepticism, which was founded by Pyrrho; the skepticism that took shape at Plato’s Academy under Arcesilaus and Carneades; and late skepticism, represented by Aenesidimus, Agrippa, and Sextus Empiricus. To demonstrate the equal validity of contradictory assertions and the principle of suspending judgment, the classical skeptics used a number of major lines of argument (tropoi), emphasizing the futility of finding a criterion for truth in the realms of sensory knowledge and abstract thought, the disparity between the moral standards of different peoples, and the diversity of religious faiths; expounding how various theories refute each other; and developing the idea that every truth is proved by another, which leads to a vicious circle, to arbitrarily chosen axioms, or to infinite regression. The classical skeptics also used arguments demonstrating that the existence of causality cannot be proved. However, the necessity of acting on one’s decisions forced the classical skeptics to admit that although there may not be a criterion of truth, there is a criterion for practical conduct, which should be based on “rational probability” (Arcesilaus). Classical skepticism urged people to follow the lead of their senses and feelings (to eat when hungry, for example), to follow the laws and customs of their country, and to engage in an occupation (including scholarship). Abandoning a position that tended to distrust sensory perception and thinking, classical skepticism showed a preference for knowledge based on the senses. Thus, classical skepticism was close to empiricism and experimental science. Indeed, its last representatives—Menodatus, Theodas, Sextus Empiricus, and Saturninus—were engaged in the experimental science of medicine.

In the 16th through 18th centuries the term “skepticism” referred to any criticism of religion and dogmatic metaphysics and became a synonym for “freethinking.” Skepticism’s point of departure was rebellion against all “recognized” authority and against the dogmatism of accepted opinions, a call for freedom of thought, and the demand that nothing be accepted on faith. Skeptical ideas were most brilliantly and completely expressed in the works of French thinkers such as Montaigne and P. Bayle. Skepticism provided a foundation for the development of the philosophies of Gassendi, Descartes, Voltaire, and Diderot.

Skepticism took another form in the subjective idealist philosophy of Hume, who questioned the existence of an objective world. In the subsequent development of bourgeois philosophy, agnosticism was more important than skepticism, which became a minor tendency (for example, H. Vaihinger’s philosophy of fictions).


Richter, R. Skeptitsizm ν filosofii, vol. 1. St. Petersburg, 1910. (Translated from German.)
Shpet, G. G. Skeptik i ego dusha. Moscow, 1919.
Boguslavskii, V. M. U istokov frantsuzskogo ateizma i materializma. Moscow, 1964.
Coedeckemeyer, A. Die Geschichte des Griechischen Skeptizismus. Leipzig, 1905.
Patrick, M. M. The Greek Sceptics. New York, 1929.
Robin, L. Pyrrhon et le scepticisme grec. Paris, 1944.
Bevan, E. R. Stoics and Sceptics. New York [1959].
Brochard, V. Les Sceptiques grecs. Paris, 1887.
Stough, C. L. Greek Skepticism. Berkeley, Calif., 1969.
Rodhe, S. E. Zweifel und Erkenntnis: Über das Problem des Skeptizismus und den Begriff des Absoluten. Lund-Leipzig [1945].
Smith, T. G. Moralische Skepsis. Freiburg, 1970.

V. M. BOGUSLAVSKII [23–1498–]

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


See also Cynicism, Pessimism.
Skinniness (See THINNESS.)
Bothwell, Sergeant
believes in nothing. [Br. Lit.: Old Mortality]
Dawes, Jabez
mischievous brat ridicules Santa’s existence. [Am. Lit.: “The Boy Who Laughed at Santa Claus” in Rockwell]
symbol of suspicion. [Plant Symbolism: Flower Symbolica, 310]
at first doubts efficacy of leprosy cure. [O.T.: II Kings 5:11–14]
Thomas, St.
wouldn’t believe Christ’s resurrection until he saw Him; hence, Doubting Thomas. [N.T.: John 20:24–25]
Windermere, Lady
doesn’t believe husband’s “virtuous” generosity toward Mrs. Erlynne. [Br. Lit.: Lady Windermere’s Fan, Magill I, 488–490]
struck dumb for doubting Gabriel’s birth annunciation. [N.T.: Luke 1:18–20]
Allusions—Cultural, Literary, Biblical, and Historical: A Thematic Dictionary. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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