This book is one of the first that I added to my list of recommended reading, for very good reasons. [list]
It’s magisterial – breathtaking in scope, readable and lyrical, full of incredible characters, and it’s a solid framework you can rely on to understand skepticism in its broader context. It’s a true labor of love; apparently Popkin finished his last revision of the book when he was practically blind and had to read by sticking his eye right against the page, wheezing with emphysema, dictating and revising to the end.
I’m going to give a mild spoiler, here, which you can skip by reading no farther, buying the book, and continuing from there. However, since it’s history, “spoiler” isn’t quite the right word – the plot line is fully established, it’s Popkin’s analysis that I find so helpful and interesting. It’s also why I think this book is a “must read” for atheists and skeptics who want to be able to understand their own skepticism better.
Popkin’s purpose, compressed down, is to show how the ancient skepticism of the Greek philosophers – most notably the pyrrhonians – kept popping up and being weaponized by various factions in the wars of religion through the reformation and up to the enlightenment and after. That sounds simple, but it’s not! He charts how epistemological challenges were used first by proto-protestants and later by protestants, to demolish the catholic church’s claims to knowledge about the will of god – and then the catholics turned around and used exactly the same thing to fight a scorched-earth war of epistemology against the protestants in turn. If you’ve ever encountered one of those annoying wanna-be philosophers who smirks, “how do you know you exist?” at you, that’s basically the move that the protestants and the catholics started pulling on eachother – but it wasn’t all in vain: it triggered a renaissance in philosophy that culminated with Hume and Kant. Popkin doesn’t quite say it, but it appears we both feel that Hume left the battlefield in ashes and every pile of ashes burned and plowed with salt, by resurrecting pyrrhonism in a charmingly well-argued and reasonable format.
Descartes, having presented his triumphant conquest of the skeptical dragon, immediately found himself denounced as a dangerous Pyrrhonist and unsuccessful dogmatist whose theories were only fantasies and illusions. The orthodox, traditional thinkers saw Descartes as a vicious skeptic because his method of doubt denied the very basis of the traditional system. Hence, no matter what he himself might say, Descartes was considered the culmination of two millenia of Pyrrhonists from Pyrrho of Elis onward, all of whom had tried to undermine the foundations of rational knowledge. Those of skeptical inclination, while unwilling and unanxious to claim Descartes as their own, wished to show that he had achieved nothing, and that all his claims were only opinions, not certitudes. So they challenged every advance beyond the cogito (and even the cogito itself) in order to drown the heroic Descartes in a sea of uncertainty. The dogmatists pressed their attack against the First Meditation, for therein lay the most powerful Pyrrhonian argument, which, once admitted, they saw could never be overcome. The skeptics attacked the remainder of the Meditations as a doubtful non sequitur to the First Meditation. On both sides, the same sort of bombardment that had reduced the Reformers to Pyrrhonists was set off against the new dogmatist, Rene Descartes, the St. George who claimed to have slain the skeptical dragon. The step from subjective certainty about ideas in the mind to objective truth about the real world was denied, and even the starting-place was shown to be naught but one man’s opinion. If the opinion of Calvin was insufficient to establish religious truths, the opinion of Descartes was equally insufficient to establish philosophical truth.
That’s one paragraph, chosen semi-randomly. Out of 300+ pages printed in a fairly small typeface. By the way, if you’re not fond of eye tests, consider an electronic version – the text is densely packed onto the page. I won’t say “it reads like a novel” but it certainly doesn’t read like the textbook for academics that it is.
Popkin’s is one of those rare books that helps form your mind – if you call yourself a skeptic or a scientist, it will improve your ability to frame your understanding of doubt and knowledge. Before I’d read this book, I thought about science, religion, and philosophy as different aspects of philosophy; now I see them as opposed forces, variously enlisted by one political or religious cause or another – and like most natural forces, they are aloof from the conflict they are embroiled in.
The curious difficulty of guaranteeing one’s religious knowledge came out sharply in the controversy over Servetus. Here was a man apparently convinced by inner persuasion that there was no scriptural basis for the doctrine of the Trinity and convinced that the doctrine of the Trinity was false. But Calvin and his followers were so sure of the truth of their own religious views that they condemned Servetus to death as a heretic. The sole defender of Servetus among the reformers, the scholar Sebastian Castellio of Basel, saw that the way to argue against the condemnation was to attack the Calvinists’ claims to certainty. In his De Haereticis, written shortly after the burning of Servetus, Castellio tried to destroy the grounds for Calvin’s complete assurance of the truth of his religious beliefs, without at the same time destroying the possibility of religious knowledge.
Many pages later:
Another important kind of skepticism developed out of Bible studies in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Exploring problems of ascertaining the correct text of Scripture and the status of Scripture as a source of truth, it raised many problems, some that became very important in creating doubts about religious positions.
After the beginning of printing there was a need to stabilize and codify texts that had come down through manuscript traditions. The most important for the overall society was, of course, The Bible. The many new manuscripts that became available to western scholars in the Renaissance led to attempts to establish criteria for best texts and accurate texts. Erasmus’ edition of the New Testament in Greek, at the beginning of the sixteenth century, showed that the best scholarly examination of available manuscripts could raise questions about the source of key religious doctrines. Erasmus had omitted the proof texts about the doctrine of the Trinity and instead noted that this text did not appear in the earliest known manuscripts of the New Testament or in citations from the early Church Fathers. He did not publicly question whether the doctrine was, in fact, part of scripture or whether it was true.
For those of you who aren’t familiar with my recommended reading list policy: there’s a money-back guarantee. You’ll like the book or I’ll buy it from you. Nobody has ever taken me up on it (either I am scary, or nobody believes me, or the books I recommend are that good!)
In fact, I often stock multiple copies of my favorite books in case I need to hand one to someone, “here, read this” as a short way of answering a question. I happen to have several copies of Popkin. If you’re a skeptic and you cannot shift to obtain a copy, but want to read it, contact me and I’ll send you a copy. I love this book that much.
I just wish he had written more about Voltaire, but Voltaire wasn’t really a skeptic, he was more of a scintillating supreme troll-like being.