What Is Skepticism?

Posted on June 1, 2013 by Jay F

This Man Is SkepticalSkepticism has a long tradition that dates back to at least the Ancient Greeks from the time of Pyrrho, a contemporary of Alexander the Great. While this may not be the proper venue to discuss the nuances of Skepticism as a philosophical system, the basic tenets established by the famous Skeptic Sextus Empiricus can be of aid to content writers, especially when they are asked to describe complex and often contentious issues.

Who Was Sextus Empiricus?

Sextus Empiricus was born in the last half of the second century A.D. Very little is known beyond that, except that he was an accomplished physician, and that he was a famous in his own day for his abilities as a Skeptic philosopher. According to the introduction to Selections from the philosopher’s Major Writings on Scepticism, Man, & God, Philip P. Hallie states that Sextus and his followers wanted the movement to return to the original Greek signification of the word, which meant “inquirer.”

What Does Skepticism Mean Today?

To call someone a “skeptic” in modern English means to say they are hesitant to affirm what another group of people take as a fact. Some skeptics, who may be represented best by Skeptic, are very critical of extraordinary claims that do not seem to be backed up by empirical data or established science.

Another group of skeptics, however, are very critical of established science. Such people often advocate fantastic claims because there is no proof to contradict them, and, every once in a while, they are proven correct. Some of the most revolutionary ideas in physics throughout the 20th century, from the theory of relativity to string theory, would fall into this category. Then again, this is the same group that gave us Ancient Aliens, which advocates an alternative that sounds a lot like the main story arc of X-Files. Because there are aberrations and shreds of mystery for which conventional history and archeology have no explanation, they believe this opens up the door for some rather odd possibilities.

How Are These Two Similar?

Both forms of skepticism reject dogma. They are both skeptical of what they believe to be conventional wisdom. This comes back to Sextus Empiricus and his philosophy, and this is why both groups are, in a way, the progeny of his ideas. For Sextus Empiricus, the goal of his Skeptic philosophy is twofold. First, to “state each thing historically as it now appears to us.” The second is to “suspend judgment” in order to arrive at a certain degree of tranquility.

This is not to say that the adherents of Sextus’ philosophy are nihilists, people who believe in nothing (as any Lebowski or Turgenev fan knows), but that they are not hasty to affirm or deny anything without rigorous inquiry, especially when it is something they believe to be comprised of arbitrary distinctions. They felt, as Bertrand Russell once said, that reasonable opinions, the ones in which a person has the most conviction, are expressed calmly. The more passion an opinion demands, the less rational it is—that “passion is the measure of the holder’s lack of rational conviction.” In other words, feeling so passionately about an opinion disrupts tranquility and, consequently, goes against the Skeptics’ aims.

Why Is This Useful to a Writer?

Because one of the goals of content writing is to simply tell it like it is. It is rare that you will be asked to construct a massive polemic against a group of people or to feverishly promote a product or view. For content writers, the goal is far more simple: be as clear as possible; write well; be factual. By suspending judgment and stating the facts as you understand them, this will uphold your integrity as a writer. And though journalistic integrity may not be respected as the virtue it once was, integrity in content writing is still something we should all try to maintain.

Jay F is a freelance writer available on WriterAccess, a marketplace where clients and expert writers connect for assignments.


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