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The Self-Defeating Character of Skepticism Author(s): Douglas C. Long

Source: Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, Vol. 52, No. 1 (Mar., 1992), pp. 67-84

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Philosophy and PhenomenologicalResearch Vol. LI1,No. 1, March1992

The Self-Defeating Characterof Skepticism


TheUniversityofNorthCarolinaat ChapelHill


An important source of doubt about our knowledge of the "external world" is the thought that all of our sensory experience could be delusive without our realizing it. For all I know, my life could be only a coherent dreamin which objects and otherpeople do not really exist. Such wholesale questioning of the deliverances of all forms of perception seems to leave us no resources for successfully justifying our belief in the existence of an objective worldbeyond our subjectiveexperiences. Not all epistemologists agree with that assessment. For instance, "externalists" hold that our knowledge of the world is secure, provided

that certain conditions are in fact satisfied, such as the reliability of the

perceptual mechanisms giving rise to our perceptual beliefs. They do


believe it is necessary to know thatour senses arereliable in orderto possess knowledge about the world. This curt response to skepticism does not satisfy "internalists" who seek a way, using epistemological resources which are available to us, to justify the claim thatwe do in fact have reliable

perceptual access to objects. Such justification might be achieved by producing a positive justification for a general "belief in objects."V Alternatively we might try to show that there is something wrong with the skepticalargumentand thatno suchjustificationis necessary. In what follows I pursue the latter strategy, arguing that there is a fatal flaw in the very expression of philosophical doubt about the "external world." The feature of skepticism which I believe renders it vulnerable is the assumptionthateach of us has a right to be certainof his own existence as a subjectof conscious experienceeven in the face of comprehensivedoubt

about our empirical beliefs. From the time of Descartes's cogito

philosophers have thought that the most extravagant doubts about our cognitive faculties cannotassail our assuranceof our own existence. For that



assurance,it is said, we

perception"provides us with an indubitableself-awareness, if not directly, at least by inference from the fact of one's experiences. Moreover, the possibility of this inference accounts for our ability to refer to ourselves

independently of any knowledge of the external world. This alleged capacity for self-reference under skeptical ground rules may be thin, pointing to no more than "the thinking subject," yet it has seemed to

provide an adequatebasis for expressing skepticism in a self-conscious, first person form: "I know that I exist, along with my experiences and thoughts, but I cannotclaim to have knowledge of the world aroundme." Contrary to this tradition, I question the coherence of self-conscious skepticism on the grounds that our "introspective" self-knowledge ultimately depends upon our capacities to perceive ourselves as individual agents from an objective point of view sharedby others. My thesis is that philosophical doubt undercuts the perceptual access to oneself as an

individual subject of mental states that is required both to

existence as a subject and to be capable of self-reference. Hence, self-

conscious skepticism is internallyincoherentand self-defeating. To defeat skepticism it is important to challenge the doctrine that

"direct"awareness of the mental or subjective characterof experience has what Barry Stroud calls epistemicc priority" over ordinary empirical


do not requireveridical sensory perception. "Inner

know of one's

Unless this challenge is successful it is unlikely that we can

justify rejecting with confidence the thoughtthatall our perceptionsmay be delusive. For if we concede that the concept of "mere experience" is available to the doubting ego, without any essential reference to objective existence, this permits the speculation that all experiences purporting to representwhat is outside the ego's mind are non-veridical.It is the apparent intelligibility of this speculation which renders the "loss of significant contrast" argument offered by Gilbert Ryle and J. L. Austin ineffective against traditional doubt.2 It may be that the concept of non-veridical perception makes sense only to someone with the concept of veridical perception, but the skeptic claims the ego has the relevant contrasting concepts. The ego's problem is to determine which representational experiences,if any, arein fact veridical. Both the importanceof attacking the skeptic's subjective startingpoint and the possibility of doing so are easily overlooked because we tend to as-

1 Barry Stroud correctly points to the "epistemic priority of ideas or appearancesor per- ceptions over external physical objects" as the key to skepticism. However, he does not think he can show this starting assumption to be incoherent. See The Significance of Philosophical Scepticism (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1984), 140 and also chap. vii. Subsequentreferencesto this book will be cited as (SPS) in my text.

2 GilbertRyle, Dilemmas (Cambridge:CambridgeUniversity Press; 1950), p. 95. Austin, Sense and Sensibilia (Oxford:Oxford University Press, 1962), 11.



sume that philosophical skepticism arises within our ordinary first person point of view. We need to be remindedthata "purelysubjective epistemol- ogy," one that questions the deliverances of perception across the board, is not the perspective of common sense. As Austin pointed out, ordinarilywe do not raise doubtsaboutwhat we see and hearwithout some special reason for doing so.3 We should not be surprised,therefore,to find that giving up all perceptual judgments at once creates problems not only for our knowledge of materialobjects in the world but knowledge of ourselves as well, since we too are in the world. The crucial issue to consider then is whether the resources for expressing skepticism are available within a resolutely subjective epistemology.


The conception of "inner"knowledge that is at the heart of self-conscious skepticism has no doubt derived some of its support from the traditional dualistic bifurcationof humanbeings into bodies, whose existence may be questioned, and immaterial minds known to their possessors either by introspection or by inference from what is introspected.Now that dualism is in eclipse and the idea that humanbeings have a material constitution is ascendant, it might be thought that there is a quick way to show that the self-awareness assumed by skepticism conflicts with general philosophical doubt. P. F. Strawson has remarkedthat "at its most general, the skeptical point concerning the external world seems to be that subjective experience

could, logically, be just the way it is

or material things actually existed."4 But if I believe that I am a material

being, it seems that the skeptic invites me to question my own existence along with that of other materialthings. The invitation must, of course, be refused, as it is incompatible with my belief that I exist to engage in the inquiry. However, the epistemological challenge of skepticismcan be posed with- out requiringacceptanceof a dualistic ontology of persons. If I do not know whether any material things exist, but I am certain of my own existence, then I do not know that I am material. The question of my ontological naturemay be open in a way thatmy own existence is not. One's body need


the way envisaged by dualism to be part of the "external world." What 'external' means here is that one's body or physical aspect is epistemically

beyond the grasp of introspective knowledge about oneself. This is

without its being the case thatphysical

be conceived as being substantiallydistinct from an immaterial self in

3 J. L. Austin, "OthcrMinds,"in Philosophical Papers (Oxford, 1961), 56, 81.

4 P. F. Strawson, "Skepticism, Naturalism, and TranscendentalArguments,"chapter 1 of Skepticism and Naturalism: Some Varieties (New York: Columbia University Press, 1985), 5.


compatible with being material;but it is not to deny that, were there no materialentities, and if I possessed indubitableself-awareness, this would entail that I exist as an immaterialindividual. Thereare, however, modem counterpartsof the Cartesiandemon scenario which appearto assume the materialnatureof the experiencing subject. An example is the much-discussedhypothesis that,withoutknowing it, one is a brain floating in a vat of nourishingliquid. A stream of signals is fed into the cerebrumby scientists who create a non-existent reality for the brain- subject and "teach"it a language which it uses to describe its experience of "the world."5Closely related is Keith Lehrer's less invasive "brainocap,"6 which similarly feeds sensory signals into the skull of an intact human being. Computercontrolled video goggles and data gloves already are used to create artificial walk-in environments within which a person can experience a non-existent "virtual"reality.7 Even without such technical aids an individual might experience multi-sensory hallucinations or continuous and coherent dreams for much of his life. We should note, however, that none of these scenarios questions the subject's warrantfor believing he exists; nor do they requirehim even to believe that he may not be material.At most what is threatenedis his warrantfor claiming to know whatpropertieshe has and what situationhe is in. They invite him to wonder whetherhe is in realitya brainthe size of a grapefruitor a being the size of a planet. Thus, even in this ontologically less radical form, the success or failure of self-conscious skepticism turns on whether or not perception of ourselves is essential to (1) the justification of beliefs about ourselves and (2) the self-referenceexpressedin such beliefs.


The purely subjective epistemological startingpoint upon which skepticism is based is dramatically described by Descartes at the end of the First Meditationwhere he imagines that a malicious and powerful demon is pre-

senting him with a streamof datawhich project a nonexistent world outside his mind. The only thing he is certainof is his own existence as a conscious and thinking thing. Let us suppose for the moment that this skeptical hy- pothesis is truein my case. Then the humanprotagonistof my delusion, this

the delusion.

person here (putting my hand on my chest) is merely part of

5 See, for

example, Ililary Putnam's much-criticized attempt to refute this skeptical hy-

pothesis in chapter 1 of Reason, Truthand History (Cambridge:Cambridge University


ContemporaryTheories of Knowledge (Totowa, N.J.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1986), 1-


Problems and

Arguments:AnIntroduction(3rded. rev.;New York:The MacmillanCompany, 1982), 54.

"vat" story in


John L. Pollock


a particularly compelling

6 James W. Cornman, Keith Lehrer, George S. Pappas, Philosophical

7 Bennett Daviss, "illusions,"Discover (June, 1990): 37-41.



The subjectwho actuallyhas my experiencescannotbe "me,"if this pronoun is meant to refer to my ordinaryempirical self, which does not exist. Or if we think in termsof one of the science fiction scenarios, the brainin the vat which I am supposed to be is not this (empirical) brain here (pointing into my skull) but some other entity altogether. To whom or to what, then, do "my"experiences belong? The pro forma answer that they belong to me tells us nothing about what individual entity is supposed to have those experiences. But if I am not in perceptualcontact with my real self, how is it possible for me to know that there is a suitable entity to whom a mind or experiencescan be legitimatelyascribed?We must be on guardnot to let our common sense capacity for routine self-reference make it appearthatthereis no problemhere. In his Second Meditation Descartes noticed this consequence of his radical doubt. "But I was persuadedthat there was nothing in all the world, thattherewas no heaven, no earth,thattherewere no minds, nor any bodies:

was I not then likewise persuadedthat I did not exist?"8He realized, firstof all, that a purely mentaland immaterialsubstance,as he conceived the mind to be, is not a properobjectof perception.On the otherhand,if he cannotrely cognitively on sight, touch, or kinesthetic feeling, he cannot claim to be perceptually aware of any individual, including himself. Why then did he and later philosophers not conclude that all-encompassing doubt about perception completely undermines first person claims to know of one's existence? The answer, of course, is that, with the notable exceptions of Hume and Kant, philosophers have generally assumed with Descartes that one's exis- tence as a subject is not in doubt because belief in one's existence can be justified independently of perceptualknowledge.9 Such self-access has not


been regardedas being epistemically direct, because the soul or mind is

itself an object of introspection.Descartes, for example, held that any sub- stance is known by its attributes,which in the case of the mind are mind-de- pendentmodes of thinkingor cogitationes.10 He can justify belief in his own existence as a mental substancethroughhis immediateawareness of mental actions, such as doubting,affirming,willing, all of which can occur only in a mind. He first identifies what is occurringas "mentalaction"(thinking)and then employs the principle-call it Principle MA (for mental acts)-to




Meditations, HR II, 150.

P. F. Strawson develops Kant's argument that self-awareness is not possible without supposing that one is able to perceive an objective order, a world of objects of "outer sense" in space-time in TheBounds of Sense (London:Methuenand Co. Ltd., 1966), 97- 110, 125-32. My simpler anti-skeptical argument focuses directly on skepticism's troublesome implications for self-knowledge.

Principles I, Iii (HR I, 240) and xi (HR I, 223).



infer the truthof "I exist" from the actual occurrence of such an action." Thus, Principle MA appears to provide a way to explain awareness of an active consciousness without appealing to the "external"perceptual view of oneself as an active agentthatis recognizedby commonsense. However, there is a serious but generally unnoticed limitation on the power of the Principle MA to justify the belief in one's own existence as a

mentally active being. This can be seen clearly if we contrastthe skeptical situation with our common sense epistemology. According to the ordinary

point of view,

are publicly accessible from a perspective which is

awareness is not just "internal,"confined within a

mentalevents thatcomes to an end whereone's mindleaves off andthe body begins. My own public, substantialnatureand behavior is within my own perceptualgrasp. According to my "external"perceptualview of myself in my surroundingsit is evident to me, as it is to others, thatat this moment I

am not asleep in bed, noron a brainomachine,normerelya brainfloatingin a vat of liquid. But what is even more important,on the common sense view

we are able to observe that we

self-controlling individuals. We find that both our intentional actions and our thoughts occur with little or no direct control or input by others. Hypnosis andbrainwashing arerareexceptions. I do not offer these common sense observationsas a refutationof skepti- cism, but as a foil against which the very different character of the epistemology that the skeptic urges us to adopt will stand out clearly so we can better understand the price skepticism exacts. For if we take the hypothesis of the evil demon or even of the brain-in-the-vat experiment seriously, we must concede that a person might not be the original source even of what he regardsas his own thinking.The possibility that all of our mental processes, even our thoughts and volitions, are being produced by cunningneuro-engineersor a raceof superiorbeings cannotbe ruledout. This possibility was not entirely overlooked by Descartes who, at the outset of the Second Meditation, remarks that God or some other being might be puttingreflections into his mind.'2Unfortunately,he does not stop to consider that if all mental processes, were produced in him by outside sources, then the claim that it is his mind that is thinking becomes problematic.Such inputs would be "his"thoughtsonly in the sense of being induced within a particularbrain. They would not be his in the important sense of his being the active subjectwho originatesthem. His agency would

we can perceive ourselves as flesh and blood individualswho

sharedwith others. Self- sharply defined arenaof

exist as relatively autonomous, self-moving,

That Descartes infers his existence from mental actions [actione] is from Margaret Wilson, Descartes (London:RoutledgeandKeganPaul, 1978), 53.

2 Meditations,IIR I, 150.



be an illusion, a possibility that should increase our appreciation of our capacity to thinkfor ourselves. When focusing our attention on the more limited threat of general sensory deception, skepticism takes illegitimate advantage of the fact that we think of dreams and hallucinations as occurring to a person who possesses a genuine core of active mentalcapacities.Against this background the skeptic invites us to imagine that our proprietary capacities are artificially stimulated so as to create a "world" to which the victimized mind is free to respond rationallywithin the delusion. If, however, we take seriously the very powerful demon or brain-in-a-vatscenarios, thereappears to be no convincing way to justify one's belief thatone is an active, creative locus of mental agency, as opposed to an entirely passive arena of mere happenings. Can the skeptic evade this objection by stipulating that the imagined braino engineer has control only of the victim's peripheral sensory input, leaving his central thought processes free to think his own thoughts? No, since, by hypothesis, we cannotknow of such epistemologically convenient but arbitraryrestrictions.I cannot ascertainhow much I am contributingto the origination and processing of what are supposed to be my ideas or thoughts. In order to justify the belief that one is a "thinking self' in the sense of an individuallocus of originalmentalagency, one mustknow some- thing about his individual unity, identity throughtime, behavioral indepen- dence, and self-control.The purely subjectiveview at the heartof skepticism affords none of this importantontological informationabout oneself as an individual capable of action. For that we require ordinary observational capacitieswhich the skepticdenies us.


Doubts aboutour knowledge of our own mentalagency may not appearto be

sufficient reason to give up the traditionaldogma that skepticism about the material world leaves our awareness of ourselves relatively unscathed. It

might be thoughtthat we can at least be certain that we exist

experiencing subjects-whether we are active or only passive. It seems we can infer by a Principle-call it ES this time-from the occurrence of experiences to the existence of a conscious mindor subjectthathas them.We may know nothing of the metaphysical nature of that subject; but surely theremustbe such a thing. There is, however, reason to question the legitimacy of this inferencebe-

cause we cannotclaim to have the requiredpremise.Underthe skeptic's rules

the humanbeing which common sense takes me to be

is possibly part of a

delusion. Yet, I can claim no perceptualknowledge of an objective subject who has the delusive experiencesin question.I have no knowledge of a being

as conscious,


whose behavior would provide grounds for thinking that there are mental processes occurring within or to a particularsubject which would explain thatbehavior, such as beliefs, desires, and intentions.This suggests that, if I am initially in doubt about the objective existence of a subject, then my regarding what occurs within my consciousness as "experiences" or as "conscious states of a subject" is not justifiable. For all I can tell from "inside" my consciousness, as it were, my experiences could be simply happenings, completely independent of any subject, and having no significance beyond themselves. If so, skepticismdeprives me of knowledge of my own existence as a subject of experience by denying me the use of PrincipleES. This argumentechoes Hume's problem about knowledge of the "self," but it is much more radical.Hume noted that,since the perceiving self is not within its own ken, a person can focus only upon the streamof "distinctper- ceptions" which "have no need of any thing to supporttheirexistence."13If thereis no a priori or logical connectionbetween such perceptionsanda sup- portingself, then one cannot infer thata substantialsubject exists on the ba- sis of those perceptions. It is tempting to dismiss Hume's objection on the grounds that mental phenomena, such as perceptions, thoughts, and pains, must be ascribed to a mind, since the contents of consciousness are not, as Hume suggests, inde- pendent particulars,but are essentially dependentfor their existence upon a mind or subject. This is not merely a point about language to the effect that mental verbs must have a grammaticalsubject, as does 'hurts' in "It hurts."

It is ratherthat we are entitled by the very meaning of these psychological

expressions to assert that if perceiving, thinking, or pain is occurring, then thereis a perceiver,thinker,or painedsubject.Mentalphenomenaare, to use Strawson's phrase, "dependent particulars,"in the sense that they occur only to a subject who is in the mental state or undergoesthe mental process in question.14This appearsto vindicate Descartes's reasoning over Hume's

objection. Nonetheless, this reply fails to meet my criticism of the subjective ac-

count of self-knowledge. My claim is that the inference from experiences to

a subject illegitimately assumes the desired conclusion by invoking in its premise the idea of something mental or subjective, even though Principle

ES is appealedto in the firstplace precisely because the existence of a subject

is in question. If the data for the premises are described, not as experiences,

but neutrally and nonsubjectively as being merely something "happening," then, as Hume noticed, the inference to a subject of awareness by Principle

13 Treatise,Book I, partiv,

14 P. F. Strawson,Individuals(London:MethuenandCo. Ltd., 1959), 170.

section 6. Selby-Bigge, ed. (Oxford:ClarendonPress; 1951), 252



ES is not justified. On the other hand, the ego has no way to establish the essentially subjectiveand dependentcharacterof experienceby introspection alone. If the subject is not included within the contents of the experiences themselves, then it and its relation to the experiences are not accessible to the ego. There are no purely introspectable grounds for saying that a phenomenonis "mental,"where this means it is happeningin a mind or that it is an object of awareness.15The doubtingego has no right to suppose that something appropriately called "thinking," "pain," "anger" or, more generally, "experience" is occurring, where these terms by their very meaning carry the implication that there is a mind or subject to which they belong.'6 Ourmerely having experiences is not sufficient to account for our right to regard them as such. That requires the external perspective on ourselves as objective subjects which perception provides. And so the ego cannot legitimately claim that his initial data are subjective experiences if he is reduced to using only the meager resources available on the purely subjective view. My claim thatone would have no righton the subjective view to charac- terize the data initially as "mental"or "subjective"may seem counter-intu- itive. Surely I can identify my experiences and ascribe them to myself with- out "external" observation of my behavior. Descartes is not alone in insisting that the mental characterof cogitationes is manifestly evident to introspection. Many will insist that it is not possible to have a thought without being aware that it is a thought having a certain content. Its intentionality surely evidences its relation to the awareness of a mind or personal subject. I suggest, however, thatthis self-intimatingcharacterof experience is an illusion that is fostered by the fact that, with common sense epistemology as a background, we have learned to describe much of our mental life without having to appeal explicitly to our behavior. Descartes assumed that the mind is more easily known thanthe body; but the truthis thateach of us is a competent self-ascriberonly because we are aware of our own existence as active, purposive humanbeings. We understandthat we are appropriate subjects for the ascriptionof mentalpredicatesby both othersand ourselves. And so we can refer to our thoughts and feelings in the context of the independently warranted belief that we are individuals to whom such

15 In "A Neo-KantianRefutationof CartesianScepticism " SouthwestPhilosophy Review, 3 (1986): 146, EdwardS. Shirley argues similarlythatthe mental characterof sense-datais not a propertyof themand so they cannotbe experiencedas mental.

16 Strawson seems to hint at this point on p. 101 of Individuals, when he says that " the

most I may be allowed to have noted is thatexperiences,all experiences, standin a special

of the presence of the

relationto body M word 'experiences'.)"

(This 'most' is perhapstoo much-because


mental phenomenaare justifiably ascribable.The alleged epistemic priority of introspectiveawarenessof the mind is a myth.


I have argued that skepticism is much more troubling than has been traditionally recognized, because it unwittingly undermines our self- awareness. It might be suggested, however, that the fact that the ego's beliefs abouthimself cannotbejustifiedin the absence of perceptiondoes not render completely unintelligible his speculation that a mind exists. This suggestion is intendedto parallelthe idea thatsomeone who at least had the concept of "an object" could engage in an intelligible speculation about whetherthereare materialobjects, even if a belief in them was unwarranted. It is controversial whether anyone could be said to "have" such fundamental concepts as "object" or "mind" without having any opportunity to apply them appropriately to objects and to intelligent beings. But, leaving thataside, the fatal problemwith skepticism to which I wish to call attention is that it undercuts the possibility of meaningful reference to the particularindividual that is oneself. Self-reference requires more than merely having a concept of "mind"or "person." One's words must connect up with a particularindividual,and one should have reason to think there is that connection with oneself. But the ego can have no such reason where skeptical doubts preclude its having warrantedbeliefs about the existence of a particular individual from either external or internal sources. The external world doubt implies that the ego has no right to suppose that there is any humanbeing to which occurrencesof the word 'I' refer. And I claim that my argumentagainst the identificationof a subject purely by "internal experience" blocks the move that the first person pronounrefers to whateverbeing it is thathas (my) "experiences."There is no possibility of legitimate reference to experiences. Given such deep uncertaintiesabout self-reference from the ego's point of view, there is no reason to think that it can be said to understandeven the bare speculation

that "I might exist." There is pronouncould refer.

nothing within its ken to which it knows the

The skeptic may attemptto meet this objection by citing a parallelwith a

seems that I can refer to myself as a sub-

ject of experience even when I am not perceptuallyawareof myself. The ex-

ample concerns the way my self-reference works in a

am only dreaming."It seems plausible to identify the protagonistwho says these words in the dream with the dreamer, i.e. the person who is really asleep in bed. Yet, the sleeper is epistemically externalto the dreamer.Why, asks the skeptic, should I not similarly identify myself with the possible transcendentbrain in the vat who is experiencing "my" biography in his

dream when I say, "I

less controversialcase in which it



delusion? The suggestion is that if I were a brainin a vat, the word 'I' used by me within my delusion would not designate the nonexistent protagonist in the world of my delusion, but would refer right throughmy delusion to the brain-subject which I really would be. This is possible, just as in my dreams, despite the fact that my real nature would be unknown to me because it transcends my perceptual grasp. On this view of pronominal reference, if, in the vat, I entertainedthe thought"I am sitting at a computer keyboard now," that thought would be false, because the "I" in question would in reality be a small round spongy item, lacking appendages, and floating in liquid. It is perhaps not out of the question, the scenario


realize my truecondition. All this sounds superficially intelligible, and the intelligibility of self- reference in the scenario is all that the skeptic claims at this point. He need not convince us that the vat speculation is true or that it is even plausible. Nevertheless, serious doubt can be cast upon this apparentintelligibility by questioning the force of the analogy with self-identification in ordinary dream examples. It is certainly possible for me to dream that I am having wild adventures, while someone else sees that I am actually lying in bed.

When I awaken, I myself take up the role of observer, perceiving my true situation, and from that waking vantagepoint I am in a position to speak of what I did in my dream. It is plausible to suggest that my waking identificationof the dreamprotagonistas myself is what gives sense to the claim that my use of the first person pronoun when asleep referred "through"the dream,so to speak, to the real, materialme and not merely to the protagonistin the dream.Had I always been in a deep sleep there would be no reason to think that whatever understandingof self-reference I might have could escape the confines of my dreams. What is crucial to the


capable of ordinary,waking reference to herself as a humanbeing and that when she awakes she reportsthe dreamin the firstperson as something that (seemed to) have happened to her. Of course, if one agrees with Anthony

Kenny that "one cannot make judgments during dreams" or "entertain

beliefs in sleep,"

thoughts "out"of the dream to herself or anything else. But then, so much the worse for the skeptic's appealto this analogy.17 If we compare this dreamexample to the allegedly parallel skeptical sce- nario, we find that there is a significant difference. Suppose the common sense notion of "a dream" is expanded by the reckless philosophical imaginationto encompass both my dreamingand my presentwaking life, so

that I might some day "wake up" to that "higher" reality and

of genuine self-reference in a dream, then, is that the person is

then one will object that a dreamer cannot, refer in her

17 AnthonyKenny,Descartes (New York:RandomHouse, 1968), 30-31.


that nothing within my experience is permitted to count as a genuine perception of myself. My "real self" transcends my present sense

experience.But in this case no paradigmaticself-referenceis availableto me of the sort I have when awake to lend credibility to the suggestion that I, in my total delusion, may now be referringto my transcendentself. Thereis no provision in the skeptical scenario for validating my self-reference by my actually perceiving and identifying myself from the alleged transcendent

view, as there is

cannot be used to render intelligible the idea of a merely speculative referenceto somethingidentifiedas oneself in an unexperiencedsecond-order reality.

in the case of a dream. Hence, ordinarydream experience


Nonetheless, the thought persists that it at least makes sense to speculate that I might be totally unawareof my real natureand situation, because we know that sometimes one person is in a position to observe that anotheris deceived abouthimself. Canwe imaginean extremecase, a twin of mine who has been completely deludedsince birth,but who is rationaland who thinks, just as I do, that he has always been in touch with reality? We thinkof him as referringto himself within his delusion and falsely believing that he is able to perceive himself from an external,objective point of view. He has no idea that he is seen to be totally deluded from a perspective that is epistemically inaccessible to what he thinks of as his perception of objects. If his case is conceivable, how can I insist withjustificationthatI am now in an epistemic position superiorto his? How can I resist the suggestion that I might be in an analogousposition relative to anotherobserver? My answer is that, unlike me, my twin is, by hypothesis, incapable of perceiving either himself or his surroundings.On the basis of our common sense epistemology, accordingto which the reliabilityof sense perceptionis the default position, we are able to identify and refer to the twin, and ascertain that his cognitive faculties are not functioning properly with respect to what is true about himself or the world. We find that he is not aware of himself in any richersense than thathe has feelings and sensations occasioned by his body. He does not understand any seemingly self- referential expressions that escape his lips because he is unaware of the person in the world (himself) to which such terms normallyrefer. On the otherhand, my situationis very differentfrom his since I can and do perceive myself in my surroundingsand can refer to myself. I cannot make sense of the suggestion that I may unknowingly be in a similar state, because that would require me to ignore what I believe to be true about

understand references to me at all. My having the that a humanbeing might be totally out of perceptual

myself insofar as I capacity to conceive



contact with his environment does not entail that I also understandthat I could now be in that condition or that I might always have been in that condition. The thoughtthatI am so cognitively incapacitatedwould cost me the right to believe I can entertainthatvery speculationabout myself. It is tempting to think that the hypothesis that I am now totally deluded

is intelligible to me because I can imagine anotherobserver,call her T, who

considers me

The appeal to a hypotheticalobjective observeris meantto convince me that all of my beliefs may be false, even the ones regardingmy own natureand situation.What may slip by unnoticed is that T cannot be viewing me from the ordinary external perspective which was the context of the twin example and within which I believe I have perceptualaccess to myself, to other people, and to my surroundings.For if I were to institute a thorough search of "my universe," I would not encounter T, just as I would not discover the braino on my head, or my real self, for that matter. The philosophical skeptic wants me to imagine my being viewed from a perspective that stands "outside"the ordinaryone, a transcendent point of view from which I can be observed now to be a brain in a vat, despite my perceptions to the contrary. This is the "higher-order"perspective of the Cartesian demon who is able to perceive me at this moment and determine that, despite what I and my friends believe, my experiences are delusions and my ontological nature (along with thatof my friends)is quite other thanI suppose it to be. But this substitutionof what is in fact a transcendent perspective for the external perceptualone we are all familiar with and all normally share, is a trick. There is no such perspectivefor T or anyone else to take up. The idea that there is a level of Reality relative to which the world that we all live in could turnout to be only someone's dreamis nothing but a plausible bit of nonsense. Such talk may seem to be meaningfulat firstbecause it appears

to appeal merely to an external observer, as in the twin case. However, if I then fall in with the skeptical suggestion that ordinaryseeing, hearing, and touching provides merely subjective awarenessof what is phenomenal,this, in effect, places the observerof my condition epistemically outside not only me, but outside everything and everyone in my world. The perceptual observation which is from a point within the world and external merely to my introspection has become a "transcendent" observation which is external even to perception.We have passed from ordinarydoubt about my possible cognitive failings and delusions to a seemingly invincible philosophical doubt that is based upon the allegedly subjective nature of experience to which any observeris vulnerable.

to be out of touch with reality just as I think this of my twin.



This skeptical move illustrates the classic shift, noted by Thompson

"philosophical" question.18

It also representsthe way "quietly turns reality into

can always show everythingwe say or believe to be wrong."19Not even the demon or T is in a position to claim more reliable knowledge about Reality than I, so they too must be worriedabout skepticism in their turn.20Stroud

sees nothing objectionable in this result that "we all might be in the same boat" (SPS, 272), but it in fact reveals how far we have come from the twin example in which we supposed thatpersons with unimpaired,unquestioned cognitive faculties could judge anotherindividualto be deluded.The skeptic, by questioning all perceptions, implicitly appeals to a "higher reality"

relative to which our waking is

reality offering such a critical view of our world is empty. Unlike the distinctions between waking and sleeping or clear-headed perception and delusion, the relevant external/transcendentdistinction has not been and cannot be intelligibly introduced.2',

Clarke, from doubt stated in "plain" talk to a

that Stroud, in the words of Hans-JohannGlock,

REALITY-a metaphysical ordo essendi which

a dream. But the idea of a "transcendent"


The moral of my anti-skeptical argument is that only limited

epistemological dislocations, occasioned by the sorts of deceptions, dreams, and hallucinations that are possible within the context of our ordinary

epistemology, are compatible with having beliefs

be at least some body of experience available to me which I can regardas affording me a baseline perceptualcontact with myself as an individual, if I am to understandthe suggestion thatat times I have been or might in future be out of contact with the world. This is my response to Stroud's challenge to show "that some unprob-

lematic knowledge of facts of the world is presupposedor involved in any genuine dream-possibility, or more generally, that the only possibilities thatcan threatenour knowledge mustbe understoodin a 'plain' or 'internal' or 'empirical' way." As he himself remarks, "that would be to show that the fully 'external' or 'philosophical' conception of our relation to the world, when pressed, is an illusion, and not a way we can coherentlythinkof ourselves at all" (SPS, 273-74). Substituting 'transcendent' for Stroud's phrase"fully 'external',"I believe that this is exactly what I have shown.

about oneself. There must

18 ThompsonClarke,"TheLegacyof Skepticism,"Journalof Philosophy,69 (1972): 758.

19 Hans-Johann Glock,

"Stroud's Defense


Cartesian Scepticism-A


Response',"PhilosophicalInvestigations,13:1 (Jan.1990):61.

20 Clarkenotes the demon's plight in "TheLegacy of Skepticism,"766.

21 This supportsLudwig Wittgenstein's remark19 in On Certainty(New York: Harperand Row, 1969), that the Idealist's "furtherdoubt behind practicaldoubt"is an illusion.



For instance, I might be ill with fever and convinced thatI am waking up in my bedroomwhen I am actuallyin the hospital.Given my priorhistoryof normal visual, tactual,and somatic awareness of myself, there would be no reason to question my reference to myself, even when I am suffering this relatively serious confusion, for we are not yet imagining that I am totally cut off from perceptualcontact with myself. We can also imagine a device, drug, or disease inducing delusions and dreams which might become more and more extensive so that eventually I would know nothing of my environment, my identity, or even myself. Only others would be in a position to ascertainwho I really am or what my condition is. However, it is my present capacity for empirical self-awareness which permits me to

consider even the possibility that such a thing could happen to me.

the assumption of that same self-awareness it is also empirically evident thatit has not in fact happenedto me. The perceptual self-awareness which serves as a basis for my self- referencerules out the possibility thatI am now and have always been asleep and dreaming. However, my so-called knowledge that I am awake and conscious is not a bit of informationthatI discover to be trueand for which I have particularevidence. As Kenny points out, "There is no fact better known to me than the fact that I am awake, that I can offer as a reason for saying that I am awake. When I say 'I am awake,' I do so without grounds, but not without justification."22Ordinarily we know that we are awake without performinga specific test simply because we perceive ourselves to be active in our surroundings. Stroud would object that my use of 'perceive' begs the question against the skeptic, since it could be "thatI am now dreaming"(SPS, 27). Any test I performto determinewhetheror not I am asleep could itself be carriedout in a dreamandso be worthless(SPS, 22). However,as we have seen, the sup- position that all my observations and actions could be merely dreamed is self-defeating. If we accept such skepticism as a serious possibility, we then raise all the problems to which I have called attention concerning self- awareness and self-reference. My philosophical "justification" for the belief that I am now awake, therefore, consists in the anti-skeptical argumentsthatI have presentedin this essay. What implications does my argument have for the brain-in-a-vat scenario? It may eventually be feasible to keep human heads conscious on life-support systems that are connected to natural or artificial sense and speech "organs."Norman Malcolm has insisted that the idea that a brain could have thoughts, illusions, or pains is senseless, on the Wittgensteinian

And on




grounds that "a brain does not sufficiently resemble a human being."23 However, we may think of the individual, not as a merely immobile and

faceless organ,butas a personwho has lost all of his naturalbody except his

brain. He is maintainedon other bodily organs. Since,

human being is intelligible to me, I can understandthe idea that I might undergo this procedure and thereafter be both physically and epistemologically at the mercy of the scientists in charge of my input. They might render me completely deluded, cutting me off from reality entirely. Having conceded all this, however, it does not follow that I must also concede thatI might already have suffered that fate. The very perceptions thatpermitme to know thatI exist as a conscious being who can understand and examine the skeptical hypothesis as it might apply to me, conflict directly with any such thesis about my situation. Why then is it so tempting for us to believe that the skeptic's false hy- potheses are not falsifiable?Why have philosophers so readily accepted the doctrine of the epistemic priorityof experience? I suggest that this attitude is to be explained in partbecause we are tempted to treatintrospection and

perception as separableaspects of our common sense epistemology when in fact they cannot be understoodin isolation from one another. The purely subjective view which nourishes skepticism highlights our introspective capabilities, especially the ability to express our thoughts and to ascribe them to ourselves without always engaging in the perceptualobservationof us that others require. But emphasis on "innerperception"underplays the fact that our self-knowledge and our capacity to make self-ascriptions depends fundamentallyon our perceptualawareness of ourselves as proper subjectsof both behavioraland psychological ascriptions. On the other hand, the impossibly "transcendent"point of view, by which skepticism appears to undermine our empirical beliefs, takes its inspirationfrom our ordinarystatus as objects of "external"perception by others. However, like the subjective notion, this idea of transcendencealso leaves out of account our own capacity for self-perception from that same ordinaryexternalview. Ignoring the fact thatself-awareness and perception are inseparablylinked for us in self-perception, skepticism creates mischief by insulating my references to myself from the references to me by others. The artificial dissociation of these two elements of our common sense epistemology, self-consciousness and perception, creates the Cartesian fiction that we can know that we exist and have experiences but not know what we really are like from the "outside." Such a view is fundamentally

life-support which replaces the functions of his on our ordinaryepistemology my existence as a

23 NormanMalcolm,"ScientificMaterialismand the IdentityTheory,"Dialogue, 3:2




misguided, not merely because it leads to radicalskepticismabout the world and self, but because this separation of the "interior"from the "exterior" views we have of ourselves deprives us of a proper understandingof our essentially unifiedsubjective/objectivenatureas persons.


It should be evident thatI do not agree with those philosopherswho have re-

cently expressed either pessimism or resignation about meeting the skeptical challenge. BarryStroudbelieves "the problem has no solution; or ratherthatthe only answer to the question as it is meant to be understoodis

that we can know nothing about the world around us" (SPS, 1). He concludes that none of the several major attempts to defeat traditional skepticism which he examines is successful. They eitherdogmaticallyreject

the skeptical conclusion, or miss the skeptic's point altogether,or appeal to

a discreditedverifiabilitytheoryof meaning. On the contrary,I have argued

without appealing to a verifiability theory of meaning that, if perception is

generally questioned, self-knowledge and self-reference are jeopardized along with knowledge of the world. In contrastto Stroud,who arguesthatno one has yet defeated skepticism, Thomas Nagel insists, in The Viewfrom Nowhere, thatno one can defeat it. The theories of verifiability and reference that have been arrayedagainst philosophical doubts are themselves refuted by the "evidentpossibility and

intelligibility of skepticism "24 According to Nagel, skepticism is in-

evitable because it expresses something true of our epistemological situation and is not something to be overcome or refuted, even though "our natural realism makes it impossible for us to be content with a purely subjective view."25 Although this attitude of resigned acceptance has romantic charm, I do not agree that skepticism is inevitable or thatit expresses something trueof our epistemological situation. It is indisputablethat the human situation is subject to various kinds-of troublingdoubt, but full-fledged skeptical theses are either false or empty, depending on whether we highlight their conflict with ordinaryepistemological assumptionsor the attemptby the skeptic to make illegitimate use of the correlative but inapplicable concepts of the

purely subjective and purely transcendent.It is not, as Nagel suggests, our "naturalrealism" which makes it impossible to be content with a "purely subjective view." It simply is not a point of view we can adopt without losing an epistemological grip on ourselves.

24 ThomasNagel, The Viewfrom Nowhere, (Oxford:OxfordUniversity Press, 1986), 73.

2 T. Nagel, The Viewfrom Nowhere,74.


Since I hold that self-conscious skepticism cannot be intelligibly ex- pressed and so requiresno refutation,I agree with Strawsonthat a "rational


the belief in externalobjects" is not the way to rebut skepti-

cism. However, I disagree when he adds that,because our beliefs represent

"natural,inescapable commitments which we neither choose nor give up," skeptical arguments and counter-arguments are "equally idle-not

senseless" and the skeptical challenge should be ignored.26I have tried to show on rational grounds appealing to the interrelations of fundamental

conceptions of

to question in the way the skeptic suggests. Yet, the skeptical challenge shouldnot be ignored,because meeting it can teach us valuablelessons about

our epistemology. We learn in particularthat we must resist the temptation to thinkof our epistemic resourcesas reducedby doubts aboutperceptionto mere "experiences,"if we are to accountfor self-knowledge.27

subjectivityand objectivity why "commonsense" is not open

26 "Skepticism, Naturalism, and TranscendentalArguments,"chapter 1 of Skepticism and Naturalism:Some Varieties,27.

27 I wish to express my appreciationto my colleague William G. Lycanfor his helpful com- ments on earlierversions of this essay.