Philosophy against Misosophy


Sean Gabb


May 2007


Essays by Me

Essays by Others

The firmest hand in England writing on behalf of classical liberal ideas belongs to Dr. Sean Gabb.  Only when he wandered near philosophy proper did I find something to disagree with him about.  Below is my reply to his  "On Being Uncertain: A Case for Scepticism," Free Life Commentary, No. 105, 26 May 2003.  He graciously published this criticism in his Free Life: A Journal of Classical Liberal and Libertarian Thought, Issue 47, 4 August 2003.  [For either article, go to his home page, click on the appropriate title in the left column (or the title's keywords in a search), and then "frame" it.]  See also his From Disaster to Catastrophe: A British Libertarian’s View of the World Wars elsewhere on this site.

Dogmatic Uncertainty

Anthony Flood

  “Murderous conviction” are the last words of Sean Gabb’s odd rhetorical exercise, but we must begin with them to understand what precedes them.

He argues that if no one knows anything for certain, then that’s true of agents of the State.  Having no convictions at all, one can have no murderous convictions.  For those who value their lives and property, utter lack of conviction is therefore a mental state it would be good for everyone to be in.

At first this reminded me of Jackie Mason’s comic observation that if there weren’t any food, there wouldn’t be any garbage.  Upon reflection I noticed more serious difficulties.  For one, lack of knowledge and lack of conviction do not correlate. One may be full of conviction on matters of which one has the weakest grasp, and cautious to the point of immobility where one is expert.  Nescience is therefore no sure impediment to conviction, murderous or otherwise.

There are other problems with Mr. Gabb’s deduction. For one, he cannot, except arbitrarily, restrict nescience to agents of the State.  If the State’s victims are equally ignorant, then they cannot ever hope to learn that the State exploits them.  He may, of course, retort that while they may not know with certainty that they are victims of the State, they can come to know it, and many other things, “as surely as they need to.” The qualifier “with certainty” now becomes a false knot, and the slightest tug undoes the whole modern “problem” of knowledge and its latent skepticism.  And into this crevice pours all that we normally count as knowledge, namely, fallible, probable judgment.

Mr. Gabb implicitly believes that we leap beyond the evidence when we claim to know with certainty the things he claims to doubt. The implicit norm, of course, is that one ought not leap beyond the evidence, but rather proportion one’s belief to it. That is, he values the exigent mind, but unfortunately conceives it according to the modern fixation with theoretical doubt. Of course, he never lets that doubt immobilize him, any more than Hume’s philosophy ever caused him to miss his appointment with the gaming room.

Mr. Gabb’s excruciatingly subjective, personal position, to the effect that he is cognitively holed up in his mind, intends a real world in which things are what they are, and wishing them otherwise will not make them so. This dynamic of self-transcendence is a homing device that orients us toward reality.  It is as inescapably his as it is ours.  It marks us as human.  But he has ideas that lead him to misinterpret that inner compass’s readings.

The word “skepticism” has broader and narrower meanings. A self-proclaimed skeptic may only reject Received Opinion about a given matter (e.g., ESP, the Warren Commission report, Iraq’s WMDs, etc.).  To champion a radically negative position on epistemology is the furthest thing from such a person’s mind.  Indeed, it is only in accordance with common epistemological standards that he mounts his case against Received Opinion. He expects others to judge that case by them.

The philosophical skeptic, whom Mr. Gabb impersonates, may opine as promiscuously as many people do, but never regards his opinions as ascending to the glory of knowledge, which must be infallible and certain. Of course, the very effort to express this opinion requires a fatal exception to his pretense at general skepticism. For concerning what he believes about the exigencies of mind he is nothing less than certain.  His attitude toward this immanent demandingness, as he misinterprets it, is a matter of unalterable conviction. Unfortunately for the pretense, his view of what the mind demands installs the very thing he believes it must disestablish.

Mr. Gabb spontaneously knows things, just as we all do.  We are all in causal relationship to all other things, and knowledge is one effect of that metaphysical situation. We must presuppose this fact in any attempt to deny it, and that makes the effort to make the denial “stick” an exercise in futility.  We feel our relationship to a world that we make and that makes us.  Only on the basis of this presupposition can we meaningfully examine particular methods of knowledge and particular knowledge claims.

Mr. Gabb’s regard for infallibility, however, unnaturally deprives him of the use of a perfectly serviceable word, namely, “knowledge.” And against such deprivation he naturally rebels, a reaction that should have alerted him to the error of his presupposition about knowledge.  For our claims to know are mostly, but not exclusively, fallible and probable. Our claim to know the proposition in the immediately preceding sentence, for example, is infallibly certain.  It is therefore is a necessary exception to the general rule of fallibility, which utterly requires that exception to be true.  About particular matters of fact we might be mistaken, but we cannot be mistaken about that and certain other reflections on our cognitive relationship to the world.  Ironically, Mr. Gabb shows no indication that he regards his skepticism as anything less than a dogma about which he cannot be mistaken.  And his fixation deprives him of the enjoyment of the irony.

So the labor of his “case for skepticism,” with its resultant non credo,1 comes to naught. Why he feels it is important to announce his lack of conviction regarding these matters he never makes clear (apart from suggesting, almost in a postscript, that affirming them fits the profile of a statist monster).

Mr. Gabb negotiates his cognitive business pretty much as everyone else does.  For no apparent purpose, however, practical or theoretical, he makes a show of epistemological gloom-and-doom. Yes, rational certainty about matters of fact is impossible, but acknowledging that fact does not affect the successful conduct of that business.  Our fallibility is one thing we are certain about.  Our fallibility’s being no impediment to action is another.  Between omniscience and nescience are degrees of fallible, probable, adjustable belief.  To regard them as knowledge is to satisfy rather than flout the exigent mind.


1 “I do not believe rational certainty to be possible in any of these subjects.” “I cannot know for sure if these [sensory] impressions are in any sense related to an external reality independent of my perceiving it.”  “It is not inconceivable that I am now dreaming.” “I have no means of knowing anything for sure about the world.” “Even assuming that the world does exist, I cannot know that I perceive it as you do.” “Even assuming further, that the world exists and that we all perceive it in much the same way, we cannot be sure why it behaves as it does, or how long it will continue so to behave.” “I cannot know these things [i.e., simple arithmetic] for sure.” “I cannot know them because I cannot know to what degree I exist.”  It seems to me that “cannot” implies certitude, the very attitude Mr. Gabb disowns.