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Modern Philosophy

Skepticism and the Philosophy of Language in Early Modern Thought

Danilo Marcondes de Souza Filho
Pontifícia Universidade Católica do Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

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ABSTRACT: This paper discusses the importance of skeptical arguments for the philosophy of language in early modern thought. It contrasts the rationalist conception of language and knowledge with that of philosophers who adopt some sort of skeptical position, maintaining that these philosophers end up by giving language a greater importance than rationalists. The criticism of the rationalists' appeal to natural light is examined, as well as skeptical arguments limiting knowledge such as the so-called 'maker's knowledge' argument. This argument is then seen as capital for favoring a positive interpretation of the importance of language for knowledge.

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The revival of ancient skepticism in early XVIth century has been considered one of the major forces in the development of modern thought, especially as regards the discussion about the nature of knowledge and the sciences. Richard Popkin in his History of Skepticism from Erasmus to Spinoza (1979) has shown that skeptical arguments were influential in the attack against traditional scholastic conceptions of science, opening the way to the development of the new scientific method. The dispute between those who embraced skepticism and those who tried to refute or surpass it was central to the philosophical scene well into the XVIIIth century.

However, the importance of the discussion of the nature and role of language in this process and its relation to skeptical arguments has scarcely been examined. My objective in this paper is to extend Popkin's analysis of the role of skepticism in the formation of modern thought to the consideration, in general lines, of some of the main features of early modern theories about the nature and function of language.

The skeptical arguments against the possibility of certain knowledge of reality were dealt with by rationalists, such as Descartes and his followers, by appealing to natural light or divine illumination as a characteristic of man's mind capable of guaranteeing this privileged access into nature's essence. According to this view it is this kind of intuitive knowledge that grounds the possibility of certain knowledge. Skeptics, on the other hand, attacked the very notion of intuitive knowledge, either rejecting it, or, such as the more moderate ones, restricting its application to specific domains, e.g., mathematics.

My main contention is that skeptical arguments, which were mainly arguments purporting to establish limits to knowledge, opened the way to the consideration of language as an alternative to mind's intuitive powers in man's access to reality. Linguistic representation became important as a way of avoiding some of the main problems affecting mental representation. I intend to concentrate here on one specific septic argument known as "the maker's knowledge argument," stating that we can only know what we create. My hypothesis is that the philosophical interest in language can be understood in many cases as a result of an interpretation of language as man's creation and therefore as part of the "maker's knowledge tradition."

Two related questions are central to this analysis: (1) How Descartes and the Cartesians (such as the authors of the Port Royal Logic) considered language and its role in the philosophical system?; and, in contrast (2) How those philosophers for whom the maker's knowledge argument was central considered language, and what role did they give it in their conception of philosophy?

I. The Rationalist Tradition

In general lines we can understand the rationalists' philosophical project as a defense of modern against ancient science. The scientific revolution from Copernicus to Galilee not only replaced the ancient geocentric model of the Cosmos by a new one-the heliocentric model-but introduced a new conception of science, the scientia activa, the observational and experimental view, against the scientia contemplativa, the essentially theoretical conception of the tradition.

The downfall of ancient science, mainly of Aristotelian descent such as interpreted by late medieval scholastics, gave rise to a skeptical challenge such as formulated by Michel de Montaigne in his Apologie de Raymond Sebond (Essais, II, 12):

So that when any new doctrine presents itself to us, we have great reason to mistrust it, and to consider that before it was set on foot, the contrary had been in vogue; and that as that has been overthrown by this, a third invention in time to come, may start up which may knock the second on the head.

Descartes' philosophical project can be seen, in many respects, as an attempt to meet this challenge. If Montaigne is right, science, as it was then conceived, would be impossible. Whereas ancient science had effectively represented the Universe in a wrong way, modern science gives a correct explanation of nature as it is. To defend the essential correctness of the new science we need a method capable of establishing its sure foundations. Since the authority of tradition is unreliable, many of its assumptions have been proved wrong, philosophy must rely on something else as a starting point for its new method.

The rejection of tradition is explicit in many of Descartes' writings (notably the Discourse on Method, part I and the Preface to his Principles of Philosophy). The alternative to false and unreliable knowledge acquired from tradition is knowledge having an innate origin. Language is seen as part of tradition, and as a vehicle of mistakes and prejudices. If we must not accept traditional knowledge, and if the authorities of the past have lost their credibility, since they were frequently wrong, we should then find a new authority to establish new and sure criteria of reliable knowledge. This is to be found in our consciousness, in innate reason, in natural light.

Popkin (1979) has shown that Descartes' way was, in many respects, preceded by a century, by Martin Luther's appeal to consciousness and subjective religious experience, his rule of faith, as a sure criterion for the correctness of his interpretation of the Scriptures. It is for this reason that Descartes' philosophy was known to his contemporaries as "a Reformation in Philosophy," in spite of his remaining a catholic.

This natural light, or intuitive thought, as a faculty of the human mind, is capable of producing evident knowledge, and therefore as establishing sure foundations for science. (1) As Descartes says (Rules for the Direction of the Mind, III):

By intuition I understand, not the fluctuating testimony of the senses, nor the misleading judgement that proceeds from the blundering constructions of imagination, but the conception which an unclouded and attentive mind gives us so readily and distinctly that we are wholly freed from doubt about that which we understand. Or, what comes to the same thing, intuition is the undoubting conception of an unclouding and attentive mind, and springs from the light of reason alone.

The following features seem to be central characteristics of intuitive thought such as it is defined by rationalist philosophers of the XVIIth century:

a) It is capable of direct or immediate access to reality in itself.

b) It is evident or certain, i.e., we cannot be in error.

c) It is non-linguistic, i.e., non-predicative or non-propositional.

d) It is independent of the senses, i.e., it is innate.

e) It emerges from a faculty of the mind, and in this sense is purely subjective.

Therefore, due to these features, intuitive thought is independent of argument and demonstration, and does not rely on acquired knowledge, which is to be mistrusted. It also results from an inner, strictly individual experience, which makes possible the contrast, in rationalist philosophy, between the inner (reliable) and the outer (doubtful) world.

II. Skeptical Arguments against Intuitive Thought

The skeptics, on the other hand, attack intuitive thought as a source of evident knowledge and as a form of privileged access into reality in itself or as a sure way of grasping first principles. By skeptics I mean here not only the self-proclaimed skeptics, but also materialists and empiricists, that is those who make use of skeptical arguments against rationalism and the various versions of the doctrine of the light of reason. (2) For me, a discussion of the use of skeptical arguments by these philosophers is important in relation to my hypothesis that this opens the way to a consideration of language as an alternative in the definition of knowledge.

I am considering here as "skeptical," arguments having the following general features, basically questioning:

a) The presuppositions of realism, i.e., the doctrine that reality exists in a determined way and that we can know it as it is.

b) The distinction between appearance and reality, phenomenon and essence, and consider unwarranted the presumption of a privileged access into reality/essence.

c) The notions of certainty and evidence, denying the possibility of concluding criteria for the application of these notions.

d) The conception of subjectivity as characterized by a mind having a privileged faculty (such as natural light).

Due to these features, skeptical arguments can be seen as arguments establishing limits to knowledge.

I shall single out one main skeptical argument as representing this position as a whole, the so called "maker's knowledge argument". (3) This argument has a long tradition in modern thought and can be found in a variety of versions in different philosophers. Put in a nutshell, it can be stated as follows: we can only know that which we create. It consist, therefore, in an open attack against classical realism, and has as a consequence the restriction of the power and reach of intuitive thought. According to this argument we cannot know nature such as it is, its essence, because we did not create it, and no intuitive faculty is capable of this kind of knowledge, as intuition is not creative, but merely passive or receptive. The maker's knowledge tradition can be seen as one of the major undercurrents of modern thought, working in fact more as a presuppostion than as an argument.

Its origin is somewhat remote and obscure. It can be found already in the Renaissance and it contains much of the spirit of Renaissance Humanism seen man as creator as well as drawing together the two main fields of human creativity: art and technique, in the sense of craftsmanship. After all ars is the Latin equivalent of the Greek techné. Art seems to be the field par excellence in which human beings can surpass their limits, can make or create something. However, artistic creation is not considered a cognitive or scientific experience, and, in the field of knowledge, human experience remains limited, how can we know something we have not created.

The link between this argument and Christian tradition seems obvious, and this makes it new in relation to Ancient Skepticism. If only God can create, then God alone is capable of knowledge of His Creation, the natural world. Human knowledge, in its limited effort to understand reality can only generate representations and concepts, which are the actual objects of knowledge, and not reality in itself. We dot not know reality as it is, but only through the way we represent it.

The maker's knowledge argument seems to depend, in the final analysis, on causality, specially on efficient causes. We cannot be the cause of reality, but only of our representations of reality. Since rationalism demands the object of knowledge to be permanent and changeless, as essences and first principles alone are, our subject representations do not really amount to knowledge. According to skeptical arguments, intuition, however, is no solution to this problem, since it is not creative, i.e., it is not capable, by itself, of creating this stable object of knowledge.

Skeptics, while rejecting the appeal to intuition as capable of giving origin to evident knowledge, accept that our knowledge is always partial and limited, although, in spite of that, still remaining knowledge. The alternative to the intellectual intuition of first principles and essences is a kind of knowledge that develops from sense data and concrete experience, which is experimental and observational, which consists of conjectures and hypotheses, some more probable than others, according to empirical criteria. And for this kind of knowledge, language becomes of central importance.

Arguments limiting the reach and power of knowledge, of which the maker's knowledge argument is perhaps one of the most important, lead, throughout the debate found in the emergence and development of modern philosophy, to a redefinition of the very notion of science and scientific knowledge. This amounts to the progressive abandonment of the conception of science as a corpus of universal, necessary and eternal truths, explaining the nature of reality in a definite manner and determining its final causes. This conception is replaced by a view of scientific theories as explanatory models, of conjectural and hypothetical nature, probabilism and constructivism becoming more central as a result of that than classical realism.

Skeptic philosophy has a leading role in this process , however, its arguments are employed without its radical consequences, like the contention that knowledge is impossible. We may not have absolute knowledge, certain and evident in a conclusive way about reality such as it is and in its totality, but this does not mean that we cannot have science, if we redefine the traditional conception of science, such as was done by moderate skeptics such as Mersenne and Gassendi (as by Francisco Sanchez and Francis Bacon, a little before), as Popkin (1979) has pointed out. Renouncing the presumption to having knowledge of essences and first principles does not necessarily lead to having to renounce science, but only to a redefinition of scientific knowledge, which is thus separated from speculative metaphysics. Skepticism becomes, therefore, a preparatory stage to building up legitimate science.

III. The Relevance of Language

Let us go back now to our initial question on the role of language for those philosophers who employed the maker's knowledge argument. I would like to concentrate on a brief examination of Hobbes, Locke, and Vico, as representing this trend in modern thought, although in different ways. They all have in common a critique of Descartes and the rationalist tradition and a rejection of the appeal to intuitive knowledge, or at least a restriction to this faculty (as in Locke, for instance).

Descartes saw little importance in language. Although maintaining it was a sign of human rationality, since only human beings have language, animals don't, he gave it no role in the process of acquiring knowledge, since words are imperfect and defective, and if we concentrate on them and not on ideas, which are their cognitive content, we will be often misled (Principles, I, 47). The Port Royal Logic (II,1) emphasizes that words are conventional signs, and as such arbitrary, but ideas associated with them are natural signs of things and therefore have cognitive content, and it is only through this process of association with ideas that words can have any real meaning. (4)

But in what sense can it be said that the maker's knowledge argument points to language as an alternative way in the explanation of the possibility of knowledge? This is the subject of my current research and I can only point to its general lines here.

As I said above, philosophers like Hobbes, Locke and Vico, were all opponents of Descartes and the cartesians, and adopted the maker's knowledge argument, even though each on its own particular way. For Hobbes, as well as for Locke, knowledge results from names and definitions we ascribe to things and from connections and deductions we make starting from these definitions. Only in theses cases we have demonstrable science. Therefore, geometry and politics (as well as morals for Locke) are sciences because the concepts they are made of are a human creation, and so there can be knowledge of what they are about. However, in relation to the physical world, our knowledge is limited, and can only be hypothetical or probable.

Giambattista Vico (in his Scienza Nuova, 1725, 1744), one of the major defenders of the notion of maker's knowledge, which he defines as verum factum, also questions natural science as sure knowledge of reality. He maintains, on the other hand, that history, the science of culture and society, is the only authentic or legitimate form of knowledge we have, since it is knowledge of a human creation. For this reason, he gives philology, as a science of signs and of interpretation, a capital role in the constitution of human knowledge. Language, as a system of signs, is now given importance precisely as a human product, in the opposite direction of rationalism which thought it imperfect for this very motive. If signs and meaning are human creations, then the meanings of these signs are plainly accessible to human beings.

In my view, it is Kant, nevertheless, who can be considered the first one to really open the way to a philosophy of language as such, without, however, having the intention of doing so. His contribution can be understood in two complementary senses. First in his criticism and rejection of intellectual intuition (Anschauung) in his Critique of Pure Reason, Transcendental Aesthetics. In this sense he is a plain defender of the maker's knowledge argument: "we only cognize in things a priori that which we ourselves place in them"(Preface to the 2nd ed.). Kant admits only sensible intuition, which he considers as passive or receptive and not as creative. He therefore accepts knowledge to be limited to the objects of our experience. His second contribution consists of his theory of concepts as derived from judgments in the sense that concepts are always predicates of possible judgements (Transcendental Analytic).

Language can only become a proper alternative to mind in the analysis and explanation of knowledge when it is characterized not as a system of signs whose meaning is defined by the idea to which it is associated, because in this sense it is still dependent on mind. Kant's importance is in his questioning the intellectual intuition of essences and first principles, that is, on his rejection of mind as having a privileged access into reality, as well as in his giving a priority to judgements as having a basic unity, thus opening the way to a conception of language as a logical structure.

The revival of realism and a new attempt at overcoming skepticism will be again possible when the first philosophers of language, such as Frege, Russell and the "first" Wittgenstein put forward a conception of language precisely as a logical structure, having as its central notion the logical form of the proposition, which they see as isomorphic to reality, thus eliminating the need to the appeal to intellectual intuition, but at the same time opening the way to a conception of universal and necessary truths of a logical nature. This new conception, will have, of course, to face its own problems and difficulties, but it can be seen as an attempt to surpass skepticism as well as arguments of the kind of the maker's knowledge. But this is a different chapter of our history.

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(1) For a detailed discussion of the different ways this notion was defined, see Jolley (1988).

(2) See Lennon (1993).

(3) I use this notion as characterized by Zagorin (1984) and Perez-Ramos (1988).

(4) Leibniz is an exception to that among the rationalists since he gives an heuristic role to language, although to a perfectr language, the mathesis universalis.


Arnauld,A. et Nicole, P (1981). Logique, ou l'Art de Penser, Paris, Vrin.

Descartes,R., (1996) Règles pour la direction de l'esprit, Principes de la Philosophie, in Ouevres, Paris,Vrin,.

Kant,I. (1952) Critique of pure reason, Great Books of the Western World, Chicago, Encyclopedia Britannica.

Jolley,N. (1988) The light of the soul, Oxford, Clarendon Press.

Lennon, T. (1993) The battle of gods and giants, Princeton Univ.Press.

Montaigne,M. (1952) Essais, Great Books of the Western World, Chicago, Encyclopedia Britannica.

Perez-Ramos,A. (1988) Francis Bacon's idea of science and the maker's knowledge tradition, Oxford Univ.Press.

Popkin,R. (1979) The history of scepticism from Erasmus to Spinoza, Berkeley & Los Angeles, Univ.of California Press.

Zagorin, Perez (1984) "Vico's Theory of Knowledge: A Critique," Philosophical Quarterly, vol.34, no.134.

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