Coming to terms: scepticism and the philosophical essay

Erin Plunkett

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis

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This study aims to link the essay form in a novel way to the philosophical problem of scepticism and to suggest the ways in which analytical philosophy can benefit from the employment of literary reading strategies, including generic or stylistic approaches to philosophical texts. While a number of literary studies link the essay to a broadly sceptical worldview, the term scepticism has not been employed with any philosophical rigour, and so the precise connections between this form of writing and an epistemological position have yet to be made.
The authors in this study, an exemplary rather than exhaustive sampling of essayists from Montaigne to Cavell, adopt a therapeutic approach to the sceptical problem that resonates with ancient Pyrrhonism in rejecting foundationalist attempts to justify knowledge claims and instead situating the will to know within a broader frame of meaningful human activity. This performative response takes shape in texts that are open-ended, dialogical, and heterogeneous, resisting systematisation or reductionism. Embodying Hume’s ‘league betwixt the learned and conversable worlds’, the essay decisively rejects specialisation or any attempt to separate philosophy from its wider social and ethical context. Rhetorical strategies of discontinuity are used to call attention to the conditions of time, subjectivity, and language under which reason operates and by which philosophical activity is constrained. In this way essayists redefine the stakes of the problem of knowledge and offer ways of coming to terms with the limitations of the will to know. For Stanley Cavell, the sceptic’s error is to deny the ‘human conditions of knowledge and action’. If the denial or disappointment that underlies the sceptical project creates the task of recovering the world, then the essayistic tradition can be seen as the therapeutic project of calling philosophy back to common life.
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Royal Holloway, University of London
  • Bowie, Andrew, Supervisor
Award date12 Apr 2016
Publication statusUnpublished - 2016


  • scepticism
  • skepticism
  • essays
  • essayism
  • Genre Analysis
  • Montaigne
  • Hume
  • German Romanticism
  • Frühromantik
  • Kierkegaard
  • Cavell
  • heterogeneity
  • plural writing
  • polyvocality
  • dialogic
  • pyrrhonism
  • performance studies
  • performativity
  • Literary theory
  • fracture
  • negative dialectics
  • non-closure
  • anti-foundationalism
  • therapeutic
  • Wittgenstein

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