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The Limits of Doubt:
The Moral and Political Implications of Skepticism
Petr Lom. The Limits of Doubt: The Moral and Political Implications of Skepticism. Albany: The State University of New York Press, 2001. Pp. xiv + 138. Cloth, $49.50. Paper, $16.95.
Since the appearance in 1960 of Richard Popkin's The History of Skepticism from Erasmus to Descartes (later extended to Spinoza and, in a forthcoming edition, to Bayle) skepticism has been acknowledged as a powerful intellectual force in modern philosophy. Lom's The Limits of Doubt corroborates this view by showing the relevance of this ancient tradition in the political and moral thought of a number of major modern philosophers.
The major thesis of the book is that skepticism in itself, that is, conceived as the epistemological position of raising doubts about any knowledge claim, has no moral or political implications. According to Lom, the moral and political positions that have been associated with skepticism (either tyranny and other forms of political oppression or toleration and liberalism in general) derive not from skepticism itself but from what he calls "the limits of doubt": beliefs left untouched by skeptical doubt. To establish this thesis Lom examines the moral and political aspects of skepticism in Nietzsche (chapter 1), Sextus Empiricus (chapter 2), Hobbes (chapter 3), Diderot (chapter 4), and Montaigne (chapter 5), showing in each case the (value) beliefs responsible for the different moral and political positions held.
Lom's analysis of these thinkers' relation to skepticism is comprehensive, detailed, and engaged with an extended secondary literature. I can here just briefly indicate some results of Lom's investigation. He shows Nietzsche's esteem for the ancient skeptics in whom alone Nietzsche saw a plain exhibition of intellectual integrity or honesty. This integrity implies, according to Lom, a demand for justice often unnoticed by superficial readings of Nietzsche. The illiberal aspects of Nietzsche's political philosophy, related to his doctrine of the will to power, derive, according to Lom, not from Nietzsche's skepticism but from the limits of his doubt, namely, his dogmatic nihilism (belief that there is no value, a position that Lom carefully distinguishes from skepticism). Lom also finds limits in Sextus Empiricus's skepticism. He follows Martha Nussbaum ("Skeptic Purgatives . . .," Journal of the History of Philosophy 29 , 1-33) in claiming that Sextus's skepticism does not extend to the principle of non-contradiction and to the end of tranquility (ataraxia). The [End Page 551] latter is mainly responsible for what Lom considers the ancient Pyrrhonians' political indifference. This indifference, coupled with the Pyrrhonians' attempt to destroy reason (a polemical interpretation of ancient Pyrrhonism) "may also allow political nightmares to breed in the night" (45). In Hobbes, Lom identifies a kind of methodical doubt whose aim is not that of Descartes's of finding certain truth but to combat the pride of men. This pride leads to different and conflicting views of the summum bonum that disturb the civil order. Its destruction through skepticism facilitates the acceptance of the sovereign's decisions and thus the attainment of peace. Lom notes the similarity of Hobbes's position on doubt with Sextus's (the subordination of the skepsis to the goal of tranquility) and points out a number of interesting and still little explored parallels between Hobbes and Montaigne, whose skeptical and moral views are examined in chapter 5. According to Lom, Montaigne, like Sextus, is little interested in politics and his attack on cruelty and defense of toleration do not issue from his skepticism but from moral values that remain outside the scope of doubt, notably Montaigne's desire for peace. Lom's analysis of Diderot is interesting and original. He places the French philosophe in the tradition of "constructive skepticism" (expression labeled by Popkin to characterize the skepticism of Gassendi and Mersenne about knowledge of essences but opened to a hypothetical science of phenomena). Lom focuses on Diderot's Rameau Nephew, where he...