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Greco, John. Putting Skeptics in Their Place: the Nature of Skeptical Arguments and Their Role in Philosophical Inquiry.

Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000. xvi + 264 pp. Cloth, $54.95--Various evangelists of the sixteenth to nineteenth centuries are credited with having asked some version of the question "Why must the Devil have all the good tunes?" If we were to substitute "externalists" for the Devil and "books" for tunes, the question would be a good one to ask about recent work on skepticism. Greco's book, like Michael Williams's penetrating Unnatural Doubts (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996), is both a defense of a form of externalism and one of the finest books on skepticism of recent vintage. It seems that on all sides epistemologists are coming to see that dealing with skeptical problems is not only necessary but also philosophically rewarding. In this matter I am in complete agreement with both Greco and Williams, and Greco's book, like Williams's, may serve the cause of bringing new converts around to our way of seeing things.

Greco's book divides up into three units. The first of these, which Greco refers to as "negative epistemology," comprises chapters 2-6. (Chapter 1 is simply a stage-setting introduction.) The task of negative epistemology is to tell us what knowledge and evidence are not. In Greco's methodology, negative epistemology proceeds by using skeptical arguments to reveal "plausible but mistaken assumptions about [the nature of] knowledge and evidence" (pp. 3, 25), since any theses which lead to skepticism must be mistaken because skepticism is false (for example, pp. xiii, 2-3, 15-16, 20-4). Skeptical arguments can, therefore, "drive positive epistemology [which provides an account of what knowledge and evidence really are]" (p. 8) by revealing tempting, plausible, but ultimately mistaken epistemic theses. Specifically, Greco's struggle with skeptical arguments from Descartes (chapter 2), Hume (chapters 2 and 6), and Aristotle (chapter 5), along with his responses to various objections to such arguments (mainly chapters 3 and 4), reveals five theses to which any adequate epistemology must answer: (i) "not all evidential relations are inferential"; (ii) "sensory evidence in particular can be non-inferential"; (iii) "some knowledge can be foundational"; (iv) "inferences that are only contingently reliable can nevertheless give rise to knowledge"; (v) "knowers can be sensitive to the reliability of their [contingently reliable] inferences" (p. 164). Having identified these theses, the task of positive epistemology (chapters 7 and 8; the second of the three units) is to provide "a theory of knowledge and evidence that confirms and explains the conclusions of Chapters 2 through 6 [that is, the five theses]" (p. 164). Finally, the third unit of the book aims to extend the methodology deployed and the conclusions established in the first two units to the areas of religious and moral epistemology (chapter 9).

Let me comment on each of these three units in turn. One of the greatest merits of Greco's book is that, unlike the skeptical arguments found in the work of many contemporary antiskeptics, the skeptical arguments which Greco reconstructs from historical texts (Hume, Descartes, and Aristotle) are likely to strike even the most skeptically sympathetic philosophers (like me) as being the best the skeptic has to offer (or at least nearly so). The arguments Greco produces are powerful, as he himself agrees (but see the qualification, pp. 2, 25), and the mere fact that he has taken the care to produce such arguments is a service to epistemology.

Of course, Greco has his own axes to grind. He thinks that the arguments must be good, or else seeing where they go wrong would teach us no substantive epistemological lessons (p. 3). Yet even here skeptically sympathetic philosophers will find much to agree with in Greco. Whether each step he identifies as mistaken really is mistaken or not (I believe not), they are the right points for the antiskeptic to attack. Thus, were more work as careful as Greco's, we might at least come to be engaged in productive discussions, rather than wasting time, ink, and energy over Deweyan or Rortyan diagnoses. This too is a valuable service--a very valuable service--to epistemology.

But Greco's acumen is not only manifested in the negative epistemology of chapters 2-6. His own positive account of knowledge and evidence, in chapters 7 and 8, clearly targets what is perhaps the most pressing objection from the traditionalist camp to externalisms of all sorts: "knowledge has to be subjectively appropriate as well as objectively reliable" (p. 180). To Greco's credit, his own "agent reliabilism" (a view which stands at the intersection of reliabilism and virtue epistemology, pp. 5-6, 177-8) is designed to take this objection seriously--and answer it (pp. 180-203, especially pp. 190-2). Greco argues that when "subjective appropriateness" or "subjective justification" is properly construed, agent reliabilism provides the materials for insuring it (thereby respecting thesis (v) from above). Thus, agent reliabilism brings together the objective reliability of simple reliabilism and the subjective appropriateness insured by virtue epistemology, thereby grounding all five theses outlined above. (See pp. 217-19 for Greco's final statement of the agent reliabilist position.) Whether Greco's account adequately addresses the objection at issue is not something I wish to try to adjudicate in a brief review. Nonetheless, we can certainly all agree that this is another case where Greco succeeds in focusing our attention on what all parties should see as a central concern.

As for the third unit, I confess to having found Greco's final chapter the least useful in the book. Although his discussion is lucid, and although he makes some attempt (pp. 246-8) to grapple with the most serious apparent disanalogy between religious and/or moral perception on the one hand and regular old empirical perception on the other (namely, the problem posed by rampant disagreement in the former cases), the chapter strikes me as insufficiently deep. On the other hand, as the last chapter of an otherwise fine book, we might forgive an overeager (or at least insufficiently detailed) extension of the book's previous conclusions.

In sum, Greco's book stands out, by my lights, as one of the best books on skepticism in the last twenty years, earning it a place alongside Stroud's masterful The Significance of Philosophical Scepticism (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1984) and Williams's already-lauded Unnatural Doubts. Any serious epistemologist, of any stripe or persuasion, would be benefited by reading it--as I can only hope many will.--Brian Ribeiro, West Virginia University.
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Author:Ribeiro, Brian
Publication:The Review of Metaphysics
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 1, 2002
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