Scepticism & Fideism
(Extract from Preface to The History of Scepticism from Erasmus to Descartes)
Richard H. Popkin
In this study, two key terms will be 'scepticism' and 'fideism,' and I should like to offer a preliminary indication as to how these will be understood in the context of this work. Since the term 'scepticism' has been associated in the last two centuries with disbelief, especially disbelief of the central doctrines of the Judeo‑Christian tradition, it may seem strange at first to read that the sceptics of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries asserted, almost unanimously, that they were sincere believers in the Christian religion. Whether they were or not will be considered later. But the acceptance of certain beliefs would not in itself contradict their alleged scepticism, scepticism meaning a philosophical view that raises doubts about the adequacy or reliability of the evidence that could be offered to justify any proposition. The sceptic, in either the Pyrrhonian or Academic tradition, developed arguments to show or suggest that the evidence, reasons, or proofs employed as grounds for our various beliefs were not completely satisfactory. Then the sceptics recommended suspense of judgment on the question of whether these beliefs were true. One might, however, still maintain the beliefs, since all sorts of persuasive factors might operate on one. But these persuasive factors should not be mistaken for adequate evidence that the belief was true.
Hence, 'sceptic' and 'believer' are not opposing classifications. The sceptic is raising doubts about the rational or evidential merits of the justifications given for a belief; he doubts that necessary and sufficient reasons either have been or could be discovered to show that any particular belief must be true, and cannot possibly be false. But the sceptic may, like anyone else, still accept various beliefs.
Those whom I classify as fideists are persons who are sceptics with regard to the possibility of our attaining knowledge by rational means, without our possessing some basic truths known by faith, (i.e. truths based on no rational evidence whatsoever). Thus, for example the fideist might deny or doubt that necessary and sufficient reasons can be offered to establish the truth of the proposition, 'God exists,' and yet the fideist might say that the proposition could be known to be true only if one possessed some information through faith, or if one believed certain things. Many of the thinkers whom I would classify as fideists held that either there are persuasive factors that can induce belief, but not prove or establish the truth of what is believed, or that after one has found or accepted one's faith, reasons can be offered that explain or clarify what one believes without proving or establishing it.
Fideism covers a group of possible views, extending from (1) that of blind faith, which denies to reason any capacity whatsoever to reach the truth, or to make it plausible, and which bases all, certitude on a complete and unquestioning adherence to some revealed or accepted truths, to (2) that of making faith prior to reason. This latter view denies to reason any complete and absolute certitude of the truth prior to the acceptance of some proposition or propositions by faith, (i.e. admitting that all rational propositions are to some degree doubtful prior to accepting something on faith), even though reason may play some relative or probable role in the search for, or explanation of the truth. In these possible versions of fideism, there is, it seems to me, a common core, namely that knowledge, considered as information about the world that cannot possibly be false, is unattainable without accepting something on faith, and that independent of faith sceptical doubts can be raised about any alleged knowledge claims. Some thinkers, Bayle and Kierkegaard for example, have pressed the faith element, and have insisted that there can be no relation between what is accepted on faith and any evidence or reasons that can be given for the articles of faith. Bayle's erstwhile colleague and later enemy, Pierre Jurieu, summed this up by asserting, ‘Je le crois parce que je veux le croire.' No further reasons are demanded or sought, and what is accepted on faith may be at variance with what is reasonable or even demonstrable. On the other hand, thinkers such as St. Augustine and many of the Augustinians have insisted that reasons can be given for the faith, after one has accepted it, and that reasons which may induce belief, can be given prior to the acceptance of the faith but do not demonstrate the truth of what is believed. Both the Augustinian and the Kierkegaardian views I class as fideistic, in that they both recognize that no indubitable truths can be found or established without some element of faith, whether religious, metaphysical, or something else.
The usage that I am employing corresponds, I believe, to that of many Protestant writers when they classify St. Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Pascal and Kierkegaard together as fideists. Some Catholic writers, like my good friend Father Julien‑Eymard d'Angers, feel that the term 'fideist' should be restricted to those who deny reason any role or function in the search for truth, both before and after the acceptance of faith. In this sense, St. Augustine, and perhaps Pascal, (and some interpreters would argue, perhaps Luther, Calvin and even Kierkegaard), would no longer be classified as fideists.
The decision as to how to define the word 'fideism' is partly terminological, and partly doctrinal. The word can obviously be defined in various ways to correspond to various usages. But also, involved in the decision as to what the term means is a basic distinction between Reformation Protestant thought and that of Roman Catholicism, since Roman Catholicism has condemned fideism as a heresy, and has found it a basic fault of Protestantism, while the non‑liberal Protestants have contended that fideism is a basic element of fundamental Christianity, and an element which occurs in the teachings of St. Paul and St. Augustine. Though my usage corresponds more to that of Protestant writers than that of Catholic ones, I do not thereby intend to prejudge the issues in dispute, nor to take one side rather than the other.
In employing the meaning of 'fideism' that I do, I have followed what is a fairly common usage in the literature in English. Further, I think that this usage brings out more clearly the sceptical element that is involved in the fideistic view, broadly conceived. However, it is obvious that if the classifications 'sceptic' and 'fideist' were differently defined, then various figures whom I so classify might be categorized in a quite different way.
The antithesis of scepticism, in this study, is 'dogmatism', the view that evidence can be offered to establish that at least one non-empirical proposition cannot possibly be false. Like the sceptics who will be considered here, I believe that doubts can be cast on any such dogmatic claims, and that such claims ultimately rest on some element of faith rather than evidence. If this is so, any dogmatic view becomes to some degree fideistic. However, if this could be demonstrated, then the sceptic would be sure of something and would become a dogmatist.
SOURCE: Popkin, Richard H. The History of Scepticism from Erasmus to Descartes, revised edition (New York: Harper & Row, 1968 [based on 1964 ed.; orig. pub. 1960]), pp. XIII-XVI [extract from preface].
Most recent edition: The History of Scepticism: From Savonarola to Bayle.
Rev. and expanded ed. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.
Book available online at Questia Online Library
Table of contents
Note: the above extract appears in the Introduction to the latest edition.
"Doubt and Atheism" by Evlogi Dankov
"Putting Descartes Before the Horse" by Dave Berg
Marx & Engels on Skepticism & Praxis
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