1 George Heffernan Department of Philosophy Merrimack College Abstract


The anticipation of an Augustinian tradition



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5.9. The anticipation of an Augustinian tradition. Anselm of Canterbury echoes Augustine’s insight that understanding presupposes believing, rather than vice versa (Proslogion 1): “For I do not seek to understand in order that I may believe, but I believe in order that I may understand [neque enim quaero intellegere, ut credam, sed credo ut intellegam].” Remarkably, the original title of Anselm’s work was: “Fides quaerens intellectum [Faith Seeking Understanding].” It has become a little known footnote to the history of philosophy that Anselm originally addressed the ontological argument for the existence of God not to atheists or to agnostics but to his fellow faithful monks. In this regard, Anselm emulates Augustine, who is also skeptical of the ability of pure reason (liquida ratio) to persuade human beings of vital truths (conf. 6.5.8).

5.10. The unhappiness of the unregenerate skeptic. Last but not least, there is the human all too human issue of a linkage between the pursuit of wisdom and the pursuit of happiness. In what may be his most concise and precise refutation of the Academicians, Augustine says simply (b. vita 2.14): “I then put the matter thus: ‘It is clear, I said, that he who does not have what he wants is not happy (which the argument demonstrated a little while ago). But no one searches for what he does not want to find. And they [the Academicians] are always searching for the truth. Therefore they do want to find it. Accordingly, they also want to have the discovery of the truth. Yet they do not find it. It follows that they do not have what they want. And from this it also follows that they are not happy. Yet no one is wise unless he is happy. Accordingly, the Academician is not wise.’” The Academicians are caught in a vicious circle, in that they are not happy because they are not wise and not wise because not happy. If they do not change their method, then they cannot change their results.

Closing statement. Perhaps Monnica was right about the Academicians after all, as Augustine says (b. vita 2.16): “I smiled at my mother. And … she said: ‘Now talk to us, and tell us who these Academicians are and what they want for themselves.’ After I had explained these things to her briefly and clearly, so that none of them had to go away without knowing them, she said: ‘These human beings are stumblers [caducarii].’ (This is the name commonly used for those who suffer from epilepsy.) And she immediately rose to leave; and at this point all of us departed, amused and laughing, putting an end to the discussion.” The Academic skeptics are “stumblers” on the path of life; they are neither on the right track nor on the wrong track; they are on no track. Since they do not know how to search, they also do not know how to find (c. Acad. 3.15.34). On the one hand, the Augustinian skeptic is ordered toward finding what they are seeking (ibid., 1.2.5–1.5.14, 2.3.9; conf. 12.1.1). On the other hand, the Academic skeptic has devised a disordered way ever to be searching and never to be finding. In the end, who has better prospects of pursuing wisdom and attaining happiness, is evident to human beings of faith and reason.

The leitmotif of Augustinian skepticism is quest; that of Academic skepticism is doubt. Augustinian skepticism grants to faith what belongs to faith and to understanding what belongs to understanding; Academic skepticism denies to understanding what belongs to understanding and a fortiori to faith what belongs to faith. Augustinian skepticism restrains reason in order to make room for religion, maintaining both the primacy as well as ultimacy of faith over understanding and the teleological orientation of the former to the latter. Augustine’s classic formula “faith seeking understanding” expresses a clear preference for faith with understanding over faith without understanding (c. Acad. 3.20.43). The notion that “faith with understanding” is preferable to “faith without understanding” is not a “skeptical” motif in the Academic sense, but it is one in the Augustinian. Augustine’s chief criticism of skepticism is that, whereas the Academician is ever seeking but never finding, the Christian both seeks and finds (Mt. 7:7–8, Lk. 11:9–10, Jn. 16:24): “Seek and you shall find.” The point is that how one seeks is as important as what one seeks, since whether one finds it depends on whether one seeks it effectively. The problem is that one often finds what one seeks, whether or not it is there. Carefully distinguished, Augustinian skepticism and Academic skepticism are two substantially different matters that share one and the same thing: the name “skepticism”.

It is not legitimate to reduce the question of Augustine’s skepticism to a problem of the role of skepticism, Academic or other, in his conversion experience or conversion narrative. For the narrow scope of such an inadequate inquiry cannot even begin to do methodological justice to the variety, valency, and validity of Augustinian skepticism, which is sui generis with respect to Academic skepticism as well as with respect to all other kinds of skepticism. Indeed, only when one gets beyond Academic skepticism to Augustinian skepticism does a sufficiently broad horizon then unfold. In its primordial sense, “skepticism” involves quest; in its derivative sense, it entails doubt. According to Academic skepticism, understanding doubts faith; according to Augustinian skepticism, faith seeks understanding. Thus it is as hard for an Academic skeptic to be a Christian as it is easy for an Augustinian Christian to be a skeptic. The primary and ultimate sense of skepticism that is operative and that needs to be made thematic in Augustine is not Academic but Augustinian. This skepticism is indigenous to and inseparable from his life, his thought, and his work. Augustine was ever a skeptic but never an Academic. Augustinian skepticism remains one of his many precious legacies.124 The most articulate expression of Augustine’s Skeptical Imperative, in a hortatory sermon, spontaneously echoes the Delphic Dictum (“Know thyself!”):125

“Examine yourself!

Never be then satisfied with what you are if you want to be what you are not yet.

For, where you have grown pleased with yourself, there you will remain.

But, if you say, ‘That is enough’, then you are finished.

Always do more. Always keep moving. Always go forward.

Do not get stuck. Do not go back. Do not get lost.”

(s. 169.18)

Appendix: The manifold senses of “skepticism” and their relevance for Augustine’s thought
But is it legitimate to speak of “Augustinian skepticism”? Do “Augustinian” and “skepticism” fit together in a meaningful way? If so, then how? As always, these answers to these and such questions are conditioned by the fact that it all depends on the meanings of the words involved. If by “skeptic” one means someone who categorically denies the possibility of any and every kind of knowledge, then Augustine is about as much a skeptic as he is an Academician, that is, not at all. But from the fact that Augustine’s thought is not a kind of skepticism it does not follow that his thought does not contain clearly and undeniably singular skeptical aspects and even entire skeptical dimensions. A long look at the history of the use of “skeptic”, “skeptical”, and “skepticism” shows that the meanings of these expressions have very variable valency.
1. Sextus Empiricus, Outlines of Pyrrhonism, ed. and tr. Julia Annas and Jonathan Barnes (Cambridge 1994), 1.4.8–10 (pp. 4–5), on “skepticism”:

Scepticism is an ability to set out oppositions among things which appear and are thought of in any way at all, an ability by which, because of the equipollence in the opposed objects and accounts, we come first to suspension of judgement and afterwards to tranquillity.

We call it an ability not in any fancy sense, but simply in the sense of “to be able to”. Things which appear we take in the present context to be objects of perception, which is why we contrast them with objects of thought. “In any way at all” can be taken either with “an ability” (to show that we are to understand the word “ability” in its straightforward sense, as we said), or else with “to set out oppositions among the things which appear and are thought of”: we say “in any way at all” because we set up oppositions in a variety of ways—opposing what appears to what appears, what is thought of to what is thought of, and crosswise, so as to include all the oppositions. Or else we take the phrase with “the things which appear and are thought of”, to show that we are not to investigate how what appears appears or how what is thought of is thought of, but are simply to take them for granted.

By “opposed accounts” we do not necessarily have in mind affirmation and negation, but take the phrase simply in the sense of “conflicting accounts”. By “equipollence” we mean equality with regard to being convincing or unconvincing: none of the conflicting accounts takes precedence over any other as being more convincing. Suspension of judgement is a standstill of the intellect, owing to which we neither reject nor posit anything. Tranquillity is freedom from disturbance or calmness of soul.
And Sextus on the “skeptic” (1.5.11 [p. 5]):
The Pyrrhonian philosopher has been implicitly defined in our account of the concept of the Sceptical persuasion: a Pyrrhonian is someone who possesses this ability.
2. The Oxford English Dictionary (Second Edition) (Oxford 1989), vol. 14, pp. 609–610:

sceptica. and sb. [ad. F. sceptique adj. and sb., or its source late L. scepticus (Sceptici sb. pl., the Sceptics), lit. inquiring, reflective, assumed by the disciples of Pyrrho as their distinctive epithet; f. skep- in skeptesthai to look out, consider …

A. adj. = SCEPTICAL a. Now rare exc. as the epithet of a school of philosophers (see B. 1). [ETC.]

… [EXAMPLES]

B. sb.

1. Philos. One who, like Pyrrho and his followers in Greek antiquity, doubts the possibility of real knowledge of any kind; one who holds that there are no adequate grounds for certainty as to the truth of any proposition whatever. Also, often applied in a historically less correct sense, to those who deny the competence of reason, or the existence of any justification for certitude, outside the limits of experience.

… [EXAMPLES]

2. One who doubts the validity of what claims to be knowledge in some particular department of inquiry (e.g. metaphysics, theology, natural science, etc.); popularly, one who maintains a doubting attitude with reference to some particular question or statement. Also, one who is habitually inclined rather to doubt than to believe any assertion or apparent fact that comes before him; a person of sceptical temper.

… [EXAMPLES]

3. spec. One who doubts, without absolutely denying, the truth of the Christian religion or important parts of it; often loosely, an unbeliever in Christianity, an infidel.

… [EXAMPLES]

4. Occas. Used with reference to the etymological sense: A seeker after truth; an inquirer who has not yet arrived at definite convictions.

… [EXAMPLES]

5. attrib. and Comb., as sceptic-Christian ….

… [EXAMPLES]


scepticism … [ad. mod. L. scepticismus, f. late L. sceptic-us: see SCEPTIC and –ISM. Cf. F. scepticisme.]

1. Philos. The doctrine of the Sceptics; the opinion that real knowledge of any kind is unattainable.

… [EXAMPLES]

2. Sceptical attitude in relation to some particular branch of science; doubt or incredulity as to the truth of some assertion or supposed fact. Also, disposition to doubt or incredulity in general; mistrustfulness; sceptical temper.

… [EXAMPLES]

3. Doubt or unbelief with regard to the Christian religion. Cf. SCEPTIC B. 3.

… [EXAMPLES]

3. The New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary on Historical Principles, ed. Lesley Brown (Oxford 1993), vol. 2, p. 2710:
sceptic … [Fr. sceptique or L scepticus, in pl. sceptici followers of the Greek philosopher Pyrrho …, f. Gk skeptikos, pl. skeptikoi, f. skeptesthai look about, consider, observe …] A n. 1 Philos. A person who maintains the impossibility of real knowledge of any kind, orig. spec. (now Hist.), a follower of the Greek philosopher Pyrrho of Elis (c 300BC), a Pyrrhonist; a person who holds that there are no adequate grounds for certainty as to the truth of any proposition whatever. … 2 A person who doubts the validity of accepted beliefs in a particular subject; a person inclined to doubt any assertion or apparent fact. … 3 A person seeking the truth; an inquirer who has not yet arrived at definite convictions. … 4 A person who doubts the truth of (important parts of) the Christian religion; loosely an unbeliever in Christianity. …

2 S. NAIPAUL Jones’ psychic talents … would have convinced the most hardened sceptic.

B adj. = SCEPTICAL a. Now rare. …



scepticism1 Philos. The doctrine of the sceptics, Pyrrhonism; the opinion that real knowledge of any kind is unattainable. … 2 A sceptical attitude in relation to a particular branch of knowledge; doubt as to the truth of some assertion or apparent fact. Also, mistrustfulness, doubting disposition. … 3 Doubt or unbelief with regard to the Christian religion. …


4. The New Oxford American Dictionary, ed. Elizabeth Jewell and Frank Abate (Oxford 2001), p. 1597:

skepticn. 1 [core sense:] a person inclined to question or doubt all accepted opinions.

[subsense:] a person who doubts the truth of Christianity and other religions; an atheist or agnostic.

2 Philosophy an ancient or modern philosopher who denies the possibility of knowledge, or even rational belief, in some sphere.

[High-lighted:] The leading ancient skeptic was Pyrrho, whose followers at the Academy [sic] vigorously opposed Stoicism. Modern skeptics have held diverse views: the most extreme have doubted whether any knowledge at all of the external world is possible …, while others have questioned the existence of objects beyond our experience of them.

5. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (Fourth Edition) (Boston/New York 2000), p. 1630 (chosen because of its excellent Appendix I: Indo-European Roots and Appendix II: Semitic Roots):
skepticn. 1. One who instinctively or habitually doubts, questions, or disagrees with assertions or generally accepted conclusions. 2. One inclined to skepticism in religious matters. 3. Philosophy a. often Skeptic An adherent of a school of skepticism. b. Skeptic A member of an ancient Greek school of skepticism, especially that of Pyrrho of Elis (360?–272? B.C.). [Latin Scepticus, disciple of Pyrrho of Elis, from Greek Skeptikos, from skeptesthai, to examine.]



skepticismn. 1. A doubting or questioning attitude or state of mind; dubiety. See synonyms at uncertainty. 2. Philosophy a. The ancient school of Pyrrho of Elis that stressed the uncertainty of our beliefs in order to oppose dogmatism. b. The doctrine that absolute knowledge is impossible, either in a particular domain or in general. c. A methodology based on an assumption of doubt with the aim of acquiring approximate or relative certainty. 3. Doubt or disbelief of religious tenets.


6. The Oxford Companion to Philosophy, ed. Ted Honderich (Oxford 1995), p. 794:

scepticism. Philosophical scepticism questions our cognitive achievements, challenging our ability to obtain reliable knowledge. Global scepticism casts doubt upon all our attempts to seek the truth; more restricted forms of scepticism may question our knowledge of ethical matters, of the past, of other minds, of the underlying structure of matter, and so on. Since Descartes, the defense of our knowledge against scepticism has seemed to be the first task of epistemology.

Cf. ibid., p. 205:
doubt. When we doubt a proposition, we neither believe nor disbelieve it: rather, we suspend judgement, regarding it as an open question whether it is true. Doubt can thus be a sceptical attitude: one form of scepticism holds that any cognitive attitude other than doubt is irrational or illegitimate—rationality requires a general suspension of judgement. The arguments employed by sceptics (for example, Pyrrhonists such as Sextus Empiricus) are thus designed to induce doubt, to shake our beliefs and certainties, and to force us to suspend judgement.
7. The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy, ed. Robert Audi (Cambridge 1999 [Second Edition]), p. 846:
skepticism, in the most common sense, the refusal to grant that there is any knowledge or justification. Skepticism can be either partial or total, either practical or theoretical, and, if theoretical, either moderate or radical, and either of knowledge or of justification.
8. Richard Popkin, The History of Skepticism from Erasmus to Spinoza (Berkeley 1979), p. xiii (preliminary sketch of skepticism):
Scepticism as a philosophical view, rather than as a series of doubts concerning traditional religious beliefs, had its origins in ancient Greek thought. In the Hellenistic period the various sceptical observations and attitudes of earlier Greek thinkers were developed into a set of arguments to establish either (1) that no knowledge was possible, or (2) that there was insufficient and inadequate evidence to determine if any knowledge was possible, and hence that one ought to suspend judgment on all questions concerning knowledge. The first of these views is called Academic scepticism, the second Pyrrhonian scepticism.
On the terms “scepticism” and “fideism” in the study (ibid., pp. xviii–xix):

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 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). … 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. … 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. …

Popkin classifies the views of Augustine and the Augustinians as fideistic.
9. Cf. Richard Popkin, “Skepticism”, in: Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. Paul Edwards (New York 1967), vol. 7, p. 449:
Skepticism, as a critical philosophical attitude, questions the reliability of the knowledge claims made by philosophers and others. Originally the Greek term skeptikos meant “inquirers” [sic]. Philosophical skeptics have been engaged in inquiry into alleged human achievements in different fields to see if any knowledge has been or could be gained by them. They have questioned whether any necessary or indubitable information can actually be gained about the real nature of things. Skeptics have organized their questioning into systematic sets of arguments aimed at raising doubts. Extreme skepticism questions all knowledge claims that go beyond immediate experience, except perhaps those of logic and mathematics. A limited or mitigated skepticism in different degrees questions particular types of knowledge claims made by theologians, metaphysicians, scientists, or mathematicians which go beyond experience, but it admits some limited probabilistic kinds of knowledge. Some skeptics have held that no knowledge beyond immediate experience is possible, while others have doubted whether even this much could definitely be known. The arguments advanced by skeptics from Greek times onward, and the use to which these arguments have been put, have helped to shape both the problems dealt with by the major Western philosophers and the solutions they have offered.
10. Stewart Cohen, “Scepticism”, in: Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. Edward Craig (New York/London 1998), vol. 8, p. 493:

Simply put, scepticism is the view that we fail to know anything. More generally, the term “skepticism” refers to a family of views, each of which denies that some term of positive epistemic appraisal applies to our beliefs. Thus, sceptical doctrines might hold that none of our beliefs is certain, that none of our beliefs is justified, that none of our beliefs is reasonable, that none of our beliefs is more reasonable than its denial, and so on. Sceptical doctrines can also vary with respect to the kind of belief they target. Scepticism can be restricted to beliefs produced in certain ways: for example, scepticism concerning beliefs based on memory, on inductive reasoning or even on any reasoning whatsoever. And sceptical views can be restricted to beliefs about certain subjects: for example, scepticism concerning beliefs about the external world, beliefs about other minds, beliefs about value and so on. Solipsism—the view that all that exists is the self and its states—can be seen as a form of scepticism based on the claim that there are no convincing arguments for the existence of anything beyond the self.

11. Samuel Johnson, A Dictionary of the English Language (London 1755 [2 vols.]), ed. Robert Burchfield (Facsimile Edition, London 1979 [1 vol.]), no page numbers:
SKEPTICK …. One who doubts, or pretends to doubt of everything. …

SKEPTICAL …. Doubtful; pretending to universal doubt. …



SKEPTICISM …. Universal doubt; pretence or possession of universal doubt.

12. Webster’s Third New International Dictionary of the English Language Unabridged, ed. Philip Gove (Springfield, MA 1993), p. 2132:


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