Hypatia 21.3 (2006) 222-228
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Musings Skepticism and the Lure of Ambiguity
Embarking on the project of musing about the often-uneasy relations between analytic and "Continental" philosophy, my thoughts took a direction unexpected even for me, as my title is meant to signal. They begin on an autobiographical note. In January 2003, following my keynote address to the Philosophical Association of Southern Africa, in Grahamstown, I was nonplussed when a member of the audience commented that, both from the paper I had just presented and from my earlier work, he had come to think of me as a skeptical philosopher. My initial impulse was to insist he was wrong, he could not have read me correctly: I was and am no skeptic. But the impulse was short lived. As happens at rare philosophical moments, that brief exchange prompted a twist of the kaleidoscope through which I view my work, leading me to reexamine some implications of the position(s) I have articulated over the past two decades and more, cautiously to agree with him and, perhaps more curiously, to find satisfaction in so doing.1
Agreeing, however, is just the beginning, not the end of the story. For, within Anglo-American epistemology, it is an uneasy admission to accede to such a description of one's work. Reasons for that unease are instructive across a spectrum of ideas and conceptual moves that shape "the epistemological project" in its inclusions and, more particularly, its exclusions. Intriguing among the liberating effects of this reexamination, then, is how it affirms the value of admitting ambiguity into epistemology and moral-political philosophy: an affirmation that flies in the face of the very quest for certainty that has mobilized so many post-positivist epistemologists and ethical-political philosophers, at least since the early twentieth century. In a tangentially related incident earlier in my philosophical biography, an unsympathetic and indeed self-confessedly angry [End Page 222] reader of the manuscript for Epistemic Responsibility (Code 1987) commented dogmatically, à propos my appeals to literary examples in the book, "Literizing [sic] is not theorizing," as he condemned the manuscript holus bolus for enlisting the interpretive ambiguity of unorthodox ( = nonempirical) sources to support epistemological points; thereby allegedly sacrificing all possibility of clear and distinct conclusions.
Yet, perhaps outrageously, possibilities of acknowledging ambiguity and practicing an active skepticism count, for me, among good reasons for dismantling the artificial barrier that has tended to exclude from orthodox Anglo-American philosophy many of the conceptual and theoretical-methodological practices characteristic of philosophies commonly gathered (by non-Europeans) under the label "Continental," despite the fact that much of my work is indebted also to my analytic training. In the short space available here, I will try to give some sense of how this is so, acknowledging that my sketches of both "kinds" of philosophy are partial, caricatured, and even at times inadvertently Manichean in their implications; and that the analytic-Continental "divide" is less sharp than it was in the mid-twentieth century. I had intended, also, to construct this piece as a sort of dialogue, showing what each "side" could offer the other by way of resources and correctives. As with so many musings, this piece has taken on a life of its own, with the consequence that it is indeed one-sided in presenting some ways of thinking from Continental to analytic philosophy, each too swiftly characterized, without leaving space for thought that moves in the other direction. Thus it offers a point of entry into ongoing musings in which others, perhaps, will engage.
It would be disingenuous to protest that my interlocutor in Grahamstown had no basis for reading my work as he does. Drawing on the openness and experiential richness of fiction, as I frequently do in print, partly supports his point. Moreover, in my essay "Taking Subjectivity into Account," I explicitly avow a certain skepticism (Code 1995), which I distinguish from Cartesian nihilism to align it with the circumspection that marks the ancient skepticism of Pyrrho and Sextus Empiricus. This skeptical stance affirms the near impossibility of absolute, once-and...