Wotton’s Society Professor A.C. Grayling, ‘Solving the Problems of Scepticism in Epistemology’

Thursday 13 September 2012

Professor A.C. Grayling of the recently established New College of Humanities visited us to address Wotton’s Society on ‘Solving the Problems of Scepticism in Epistemology’. Professor Grayling began his talk by clarifying what is meant by scepticism and epistemology. The nature of knowledge is an issue that has concerned philosophers since the days of Plato. For him, truth was eternal, unchanging and belonged to another realm – one that only our forgetful immortal souls can know. The sceptical traditions of antiquity decided that we are restricted to having beliefs, rather than knowledge, and thus what we must aim for is to find which of our beliefs are most justifiable. We soon moved forward in time, to the epistemological concerns of Descartes, who also sought for that which he could be sure of. For him, this unshakable knowledge was that he exists. Everything else was not certain enough for him to deem it true knowledge. The question became: ‘How do we know that the representations we experience are faithful ones?’ He would answer that a good God – providing us with our senses – would not want to fool us. In the years to follow, Descartes’ arguments fell out of common thinking and were no longer accepted. Now, once again, the question returned, and many philosophers aspired to tackle scepticism. Many responses, including Russell’s phenomenalist ones, proved to be unsuccessful. Wittgenstein’s arguments were of particular importance here. Since he believed that language was essentially public, Descartes’ suggestion of beginning with our own world must be incorrect; we must assume that there is a world, to ask whether it exists. However for Hume all these questions of the world’s existence were merely impractical, as they would not change the way we live our lives. To conclude his talk, Professor Grayling responded that perhaps there are categorical concepts underlying experience. These are so deeply engrained in us that they might be the foundations of our experience. If we can reidentify a cat based on certain applicable criteria then we must know the criteria are applicable, thus we can believe in a unified external world. This, he suggested, was how we should deal with scepticism in epistemology. We must thank Professor Grayling for such a clear and thought-provoking talk on what is a very rich topic. We were fortunate to be able to have such a prominent philosopher address us. The Macnaghten Library was filled up and many stimulating questions were asked, making the first meeting of Wotton’s this academic year a very successful one.

Alex Bridgland (MAG)