The Virtue of Skepticism (It’s Not What Skeptics Imagine It Is)

We’re all skeptical from time to time, but some of us make a profession of it. In particular, many scientists, philosophers, and intellectuals proudly embrace skepticism as though it were an end in itself. It is not. Here is a beautiful and wise reminder of skepticism’s true virtue, and where it fits in the larger frame of our lives.

Skepticism is the chastity of the intellect, Santayana declared, and the metaphor is apt. The mind that seeks the deepest intellectual fulfillment does not give itself up to every passing idea. Yet what is sometimes forgotten is the larger purpose of such a virtue. For in the end, chastity is something one preserves not for its own sake, which would be barren, but rather so that one may be fully ready for the moment of surrender to the beloved, the suitor whose aim is true. Whether in knowledge or in love, the capacity to recognize and embrace that moment when it finally arrives, perhaps in quite unexpected circumstances, is essential to the virtue. Only with that discernment and inward opening can the full participatory engagement unfold that brings forth new realities and new knowledge. Without this capacity, at once active and receptive, the long discipline would be fruitless. The carefully cultivated skeptical posture would become finally an empty prison, an armored state of unfulfillment, a permanently confining end in itself rather than the rigorous means to a sublime result.

This is from the preface to Cosmos and Psyche, by Richard Tarnas.  By the way, the complete sentence from Santayana runs as follows: “Skepticism is the chastity of the intellect, and it is shameful to surrender it too soon or to the first comer: there is nobility in preserving it coolly and proudly through long youth, until at last, in the ripeness of instinct and discretion, it can be safely exchanged for fidelity and happiness.” (From Skepticism and Animal Faith.)

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4 Responses to The Virtue of Skepticism (It’s Not What Skeptics Imagine It Is)

  1. Nate says:

    It seems to me that there is a long, proud tradition of skeptics who in no way believe skepticism to be an end in itself, but are also unwilling to budge from the position that not only are they unconvinced about the answers to certain questions, the more they ask about them the less they are convinced that anyone knows. (I don’t imagine I need to name the most obvious example that springs to mind.)

    Skepticism acts in a realm where there may not be worthy suitors, and dares to say that it is better to be chaste forever than to surrender to something that is not true.

    • You’re right that there is a long proud tradition of such skeptics. That’s one reason I qualified my remark by saying that “many” take skepticism to be an end in itself. That said, isn’t it interesting that people would call themselves “skeptics” if this weren’t the cast of mind with which they identify? If it were, in fact, just a means of finding a worthy suitor? In my experience, skepticism may not begin as an end, but it easily becomes such. For it’s always the easier position to defend, it’s the perfect “philosophy” for those who pride themselves on their intellectual fastidiousness, and may by and by come to so identify with their own purity that at last they become skeptics, whereas they began as passionate seekers of wisdom. And doesn’t the image of oneself as chaste exercise its own attraction, at least for many? Soon they forget that their purity was never the point; making themselves equal to the truth (that sly woman!) was.

  2. Norm says:

    Hello, Gary. Skeptikos means to consider or reflect upon..signaling the hesitation before action that your post indicates.

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