Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Skepticism is good

Alvin Johnson tells the story of how the prominent Chicago economist Frank Knight switched from philosophy to economics while studying at Cornell. Knight's philosophy professors apparently thought Knight wasn't suited for philosophy and told him so. Johnson thought Knight was a good student, so he asked these professors, who told him, in Johnson's words:
It isn't that he's devoid of ability, but with his ingrained skepticism, he repudiates all the values of philosophy. As a teacher or writer he will be not just the blind leading the blind in pitfalls, he will destroy the true philosophic spirit wherever he touches it.
Alvin Johnson concluded that Knight should be studying economics and became his teacher.

It's interesting since several philosophers like Hegel and Husserl saw philosophy as struggling against the pernicious persistence of skepticism. I personally think it's rather too bad that a smart individual like Knight was wooed away from philosophy. Skepticism is good in philosophy. One reason is that philosophy progresses by coming up with better and better ways of overcoming skepticism (which is how Husserl sees it as well). But also, in addition, I think that since philosophy deals with such intractable issues, for which adequate solutions will never be reached, a level of skepticism is necessary to prevent one from thinking one has certain truth when one is merely speculating. A healthy skepticism is an ability to recognize the limits of one's ideas, the level of doubt and uncertainty surrounding one's conclusions, but also not to let skepticism make one so despondent that one never tries to seek knowledge.

It seems like the attitude of Knight's Cornell philosophy professors is an attitude of false certainty, of believing that one can find certain truth where it can't be found and throwing all one's confidence behind ideas that could be wrong. To me Knight has more of the true philosophic spirit that his former professors because of his ingrained skepticism.

1 comment:

admin said...

I'm also a skeptic in a moderate way so to say. And I also believe skepticism is good but not to be practiced extremely. A certain level of doubt in things not adequately support by facts help one dig further, seek the truth.