An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding HTML version

XII. Of The Academical Or Sceptical Philosophy
116. There is not a greater number of philosophical reasonings, displayed upon any
subject, than those, which prove the existence of a Deity, and refute the fallacies of
Atheists; and yet the most religious philosophers still dispute whether any man can be so
blinded as to be a speculative atheist. How shall we reconcile these contradictions? The
knights-errant, who wandered about to clear the world of dragons and giants, never
entertained the least doubt with regard to the existence of these monsters.
The Sceptic is another enemy of religion, who naturally provokes the indignation of all
divines and graver philosophers; though it is certain, that no man ever met with any such
absurd creature, or conversed with a man, who had no opinion or principle concerning
any subject, either of action or speculation. This begets a very natural question; What is
meant by a sceptic? And how far it is possible to push these philosophical principles of
doubt and uncertainty?
There is a species of scepticism, antecedent to all study and philosophy, which is much
inculcated by Des Cartes and others, as a sovereign preservative against error and
precipitate judgement. It recommends an universal doubt, not only of all our former
opinions and principles, but also of our very faculties; of whose veracity, say they, we
must assure ourselves, by a chain of reasoning, deduced from some original principle,
which cannot possibly be fallacious or deceitful. But neither is there any such original
principle, which has a prerogative above others, that are self-evident and convincing: or if
there were, could we advance a step beyond it, but by the use of those very faculties, of
which we are supposed to be already diffident. The Cartesian doubt, therefore, were it
ever possible to be attained by any human creature (as it plainly is not) would be entirely
incurable; and no reasoning could ever bring us to a state of assurance and conviction
upon any subject.
It must, however, be confessed, that this species of scepticism, when more moderate, may
be understood in a very reasonable sense, and is a necessary preparative to the study of
philosophy, by preserving a proper impartiality in our judgements, and weaning our mind
from all those prejudices, which we may have imbibed from education or rash opinion.
To begin with clear and self-evident principles, to advance by timorous and sure steps, to
review frequently our conclusions, and examine accurately all their consequences; though
by these means we shall make both a slow and a short progress in our systems; are the
only methods, by which we can ever hope to reach truth, and attain a proper stability and
certainty in our determinations.
117. There is another species of scepticism, consequent to science and enquiry, when
men are supposed to have discovered, either the absolute fallaciousness of their mental
faculties, or their unfitness to reach any fixed determination in all those curious subjects
of speculation, about which they are commonly employed. Even our very senses are