Scepticism has many definitions, but generally refers to any questioning attitude of knowledge, facts, or opinions/beliefs stated as facts,[1] or doubt regarding claims that are taken for granted elsewhere.[2] The word may characterise a position on a single matter, as in the case of religious septicism, which is "doubt concerning basic religious principles (such as immortality, providence, and revelation)",[3] but philosophical skepticism is an overall approach that requires all new information to be well supported by evidence.[4] Sceptics may even doubt the reliability of their own senses.[5] Classical philosophical scepticism derives from the 'Skeptikoi', a school who "asserted nothing".[6] Adherents of Pyrrhonism, for instance, suspend judgement in investigations.[7]



In ordinary usage, skepticism (US) or scepticism (UK) (Greek: 'σκέπτομαι' skeptomai, to think, to look about, to consider; see also spelling differences) refers to:

  • (a) an attitude of doubt or a disposition to incredulity either in general or toward a particular object;
  • (b) the doctrine that true knowledge or knowledge in a particular area is uncertain; or
  • (c) the method of suspended judgement, systematic doubt, or criticism that is characteristic of skeptics (Merriam–Webster).

In philosophy, scepticism refers more specifically to any one of several propositions. These include propositions about:

  • (a) an inquiry,
  • (b) a method of obtaining knowledge through systematic doubt and continual testing,
  • (c) the arbitrariness, relativity, or subjectivity of moral values,
  • (d) the limitations of knowledge,
  • (e) a method of intellectual caution and suspended judgment.

Scientific scepticism

A scientific (or empirical) sceptic is one who questions beliefs on the basis of scientific understanding. Most scientists, being scientific sceptics, test the reliability of certain kinds of claims by subjecting them to a systematic investigation using some form of the scientific method.[8] As a result, a number of claims are considered "pseudoscience" if they are found to improperly apply or ignore the fundamental aspects of the scientific method. Scientific skepticism does not address all religious beliefs, since most religious beliefs are, by definition, outside perceivable observation and thus outside the realm of systematic, empirical falsifiability/testability.

Religious scepticism

Religious scepticism generally refers to doubting given religious beliefs or claims. Historically, religious skepticism can be traced back to Socrates, who doubted many religious claims of the time. Modern religious scepticism typically places more emphasis on scientific and historical methods or evidence, with Michael Shermer writing that it is a process for discovering the truth rather than blanket non-acceptance. For this reason, a religious sceptic may not believe that Jesus actually existed because he cannot he be historically attested to.[9]) Those sceptics who accept the possibility of a historical Jesus despite the lack of evidence may question whether or not he performed miracles. Religious scepticism is not the same as atheism or agnosticism. Religious people are generally sceptical about claims of other religions, at least when the two denominations conflict in some stated belief.

Philosophical scepticism

In philosophical scepticism, pyrrhonism is a position that refrains from making truth claims. A philosophical s ceptic does not claim that truth is impossible (which would be a truth claim). The label is commonly used to describe other philosophies which appear similar to philosophical scepticism, such as academic scepticism, an ancient variant of Platonism that claimed knowledge of truth was impossible. Empiricism is a closely related, but not identical, position to philosophical scepticism. Empiricists see empiricism as a pragmatic compromise between philosophical scepticism and nomothetic science; philosophical scepticism is in turn sometimes referred to as "radical empiricism."

Philosophical scepticism originated in ancient Greek philosophy.[10] The Greek Sophists of the 5th century BC were for the most part sceptics. Pyrrhonism was a school of scepticism founded by Aenesidemus in the first century BC and recorded by Sextus Empiricus in the late 2nd century or early 3rd century AD. One of its first proponents was Pyrrho of Elis (c. 360-275 B.C.), who travelled and studied as far as India and propounded the adoption of "practical" scepticism. Subsequently, in the "New Academy" Arcesilaus (c. 315-241 B.C.) and Carneades (c. 213-129 B.C.) developed more theoretical perspectives, by which conceptions of absolute truth and falsity were refuted as uncertain. Carneades criticised the views of the Dogmatists, especially supporters of Stoicism, asserting that absolute certainty of knowledge is impossible. Sextus Empiricus (c. A.D. 200), the main authority for Greek scepticism, developed the position further, incorporating aspects of empiricism into the basis for asserting knowledge.

Greek sceptics criticised the Stoics, accusing them of dogmatism. For the sceptics, the logical mode of argument was untenable, as it relied on propositions which could not be said to be either true or false without relying on further propositions. This was the regress argument, whereby every proposition must rely on other propositions in order to maintain its validity (see the five tropes of Agrippa the Sceptic). In addition, the sceptics argued that two propositions could not rely on each other, as this would create a circular argument (as p implies q and q implies p). For the sceptics, such logic was thus an inadequate measure of truth and could create as many problems as it claimed to have solved. Truth was not, however, necessarily unobtainable, but rather an idea which did not yet exist in a pure form. Although scepticism was accused of denying the possibility of truth, in fact it appears to have mainly been a critical school which merely claimed that logicians had not discovered truth.

In Islamic philosophy, scepticism was established by Al-Ghazali (1058–1111), known in the West as "Algazel", as part of the orthodox Ash'ari school of Islamic theology, whose method of skepticism shares many similarities with Descartes' method.[11]

René Descartes is credited for developing a global scepticism as a thought experiment in his attempt to find absolute certainty on which to base the foundation of his philosophy. Descartes discussed sceptical arguments from dreaming and radical deception. David Hume has also been described as a global sceptic. However, Descartes was not ostensibly a skeptic and developed his theory of an absolute certainty to disprove other sceptics who argued that there is no certainty.

See also

Portal icon Thinking portal
Portal icon Atheism portal
  • Critical thinking
  • Debunker, a person who discredits and exposes claims as being false, exaggerated or pretentious.
  • Doubt
  • Scientific scepticism
  • The Moon is made of green cheese

Literary sceptics




  1. ^ See R. H. Popkin, The History of Scepticism from Erasmus to Descartes (rev. ed. 1968); C. L. Stough, Greek Skepticism (1969); M. Burnyeat, ed., The Sceptical Tradition (1983); B. Stroud, The Significance of Philosophical Scepticism (1984).
  2. ^ "Philosophical views are typically classed as skeptical when they involve advancing some degree of doubt regarding claims that are elsewhere taken for granted."
  3. ^ Merriam–Webster
  4. ^ "Philosophical scepticism should be distinguished from ordinary skepticism, where doubts are raised against certain beliefs or types of beliefs because the evidence for the particular belief or type of belief is weak or lacking..."
  5. ^ "...the two most influential forms of scepticism have, arguably, been the radical epistemological scepticism of the classical Pyrrhonian skeptics and the Cartesian form of radical epistemological scepticism"
  6. ^ Liddell and Scott
  7. ^ Sextus Empiricus, Outlines Of Pyrrhonism, Translated by R. G. Bury, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1933, p. 21
  8. ^ What is scepticism?
  9. ^ Hector Avalos, The End of Biblical Studies. Amherst, Prometheus 2007 p. 185
  10. ^ Scepticism – History of Scepticism
  11. ^ Najm, Sami M. (July–October 1966), "The Place and Function of Doubt in the Philosophies of Descartes and Al-Ghazali", Philosophy East and West (Philosophy East and West, Vol. 16, No. 3/4) 16 (3–4): 133–141, doi:10.2307/1397536, JSTOR 1397536 


  • A Greek-English Lexicon, Henry George Liddell and Robert Scott, revised and augmented throughout by Sir Henry Stuart Jones, with the assistance of Roderick McKenzie, Clarendon Press, Oxford, UK, 1940. Online,
  • Richard Hönigswald, Die Skepsis in Philosophie und Wissenschaft, 1914, new edition (ed. and introduction by Christian Benne and Thomas Schirren), Göttingen: Edition Ruprecht, 2008, ISBN 978-7675-3056-0
  • Keeton, Morris T., "scepticism", pp. 277–278 in Dagobert D. Runes (ed.), Dictionary of Philosophy, Littlefield, Adams, and Company, Totowa, NJ, 1962.
  • Runes, D.D. (ed.), Dictionary of Philosophy, Littlefield, Adams, and Company, Totowa, NJ, 1962.
  • Webster's New International Dictionary of the English Language, Second Edition, Unabridged, W.A. Neilson, T.A. Knott, P.W. Carhart (eds.), G. & C. Merriam Company, Springfield, MA, 1950.
  • Butchvarov, Panayot, Scepticism About the External World (Oxford University Press, 1998).
  • Daniels, M.D., D.; Price, PhD, V. (2000), The Essential Enneagram, New York: HarperCollins 

Further reading

External links

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