A Grammar of Hypothesis

Thursday January 4, 2007

Sextus Empiricus

There has not been much time to write anything here on thinkBuddha lately, what with having the PhD to complete, and with the final drafting process of the novel now well underway; but I thought I would come out of hiding to write something on a matter that has been on my mind for some time.

Last week, I was teaching a class on the ancient Sceptics. Although scepticism has a bit of a bad press, as being somehow destructive of knowledge and understanding (and certainly of faith), ancient scepticism is in fact a subtle and nuanced system of thought. Scepticism famously rests upon a refusal to make any absolute truth claims. It does not make the claim that “certain knowledge is impossible”, for this would be self-defeating. Instead it says something like, “It seems that certain knowledge is impossible”, which is a much more modest position.

The sceptic does not say this out of some kind of wilful perversity of spirit, nor out of some kind of disdain for truth. Instead this abstention from making absolute claims rests on the realisation that making absolute truth claims is one of the things that leads to disturbance and dispute. Our obsession with certainty, perhaps, is one of the greatest causes of conflict that there is. For an example, one need look no further than the tragic catastrophe that is Iraq, and at the zealous moral certainty on the part of those politicians who championed the war. Abstaining from making truth claims, and abstaining from the belief in absolute truth, the Sceptics say, lead to ataraxia: freedom from disturbance, or peace.

That is not to say that the sceptics – or at least, some of the sceptics – denied that there was such a thing as useful knowledge; it is only to say that they suggested that all knowledge may be open to doubt and uncertainty. The problem is not knowledge, but with the way that we take knowledge that is merely local and probable to be universal and certain.

Whilst I was teaching the session on scepticism was reminded of this recently by something that Guy Claxton mentioned at the Sharpham Centre earlier this year: that given the possibilities there are for error, given the weakness of our faculties, given the fact that the mind does not have direct access to some kind of ultimate reality, it is good to cultivate a grammar of hypothesis in our speech and in our thinking. So that even when it is not said or written, it might be good to cultivate a silent “perhaps…” or a mute “it may be that…” in every thought or utterance.

I’ve been thinking about this rather a lot lately, and it seems to me that it is a useful practice. It dissolves the tight hold that we have on our own partial view of the world. It lets in just a little light and air.

But, then again, I cannot be certain…

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