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Skepticism In Law, Historiography, And Political Thought

It is no accident that one of the chief sources for Academic skepticism was a lawyer. After all, Cicero spent much of his professional life making cases for clients, regardless of which side truth was on. Montaigne also studied law and served as a magistrate, and concluded both that judges can make the law come out any way they want, and that they are often wrong. Legal realists in the twentieth century endorsed these views, concluding that the law was more an expression of social power than of truth or certainty. Legal education encourages skepticism by teaching lawyers how to argue both sides of any case.

Especially in the seventeenth century, skepticism made its way into historiography, as writers began to question the received accounts of history. La Mothe Le Vayer's On the Small Amount of Certainty in History (1668) and Pierre Bayle's Historical and Critical Dictionary (1697–1702) brought numerous historical errors to public attention. The only lasting solution was to learn to live with the appearances and accept lower standards for practical purposes instead of absolute certainty.

Throughout the early modern era, skepticism was used to justify a wide variety of political stances, from radical reform to quietist conservatism. The implications of many of Montaigne's political commentaries were quite subversive of the political arrangements of his time. But his contemporary, the Dutch thinker Justus Lipsius (1547–1606), claimed that skepticism justified repression of reformers on the ground that they could not know that they were right. The English political philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679) accepted much of the skeptical critique of knowledge and concluded that, for the sake of social order, the king should define the truth and punish deviations from it. Hume drew the different political implication that people should be left alone in commercial society to define their own manners and opinions. Kant concluded that one can know what politics should be like (ethical and republican) but that one could never know if these standards are really instantiated in any concrete political arrangements.

Earlier figures from Montaigne to Kant were often aware of the genealogy of their ideas, but even later writers working in ignorance of the roots of their ideas have come up with a similarly wide range of political conclusions. Without indicating much awareness of the skeptical tradition, the British political philosophers Edmund Burke (1729–1797) and Michael Oakeshott (1901–1990), each in different ways, used skepticism to undermine dogmatic political activism. Postmodernists with generally radical or activist sympathies have also not usually been aware of how close some of their positions are to the skeptical tradition.

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Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Semiotics to SmeltingSkepticism - Academic Skepticism, Pyrrhonism, Early Reception, Reception In And Since The Enlightenment, Skepticism In Medicine And Science