Sceptical Literature

You might have heard people say, 'Oh, I am sceptical about that' or the edgier version of it, 'You don't know what you're talking about'. Other than expressing general disagreement, these statements also capture the deeper philosophical standpoint called scepticism. Some might define scepticism as doubt. You are sceptical if you refuse to believe a certain claim or information uncritically. 

Sceptical Literature Sceptical Literature

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    Scepticism is a pervasive attitude that appears in different aspects of life. For example, political scandals and international incidents tend to attract conspiracy theories that challenge general beliefs; or you might doubt the competence of the new leader in your group project; philosophical theories are almost always met with criticism and counter-arguments. Sceptical literature includes books that embody the characteristics of scepticism, and its history can be traced back to the evolution of philosophical scepticism.

    History of Sceptical Literature

    The term scepticism has roots in the Greek word skeptikos meaning 'inquirer'. There are three ways to look at scepticism: as a methodology, as a school of thought, and as an attitude.

    In simple words, scepticism is the belief that it is impossible to know anything with utmost certainty. So, everything we think we know might not be true.

    As a philosophy, scepticism has been prevalent in Western thought since ancient times. Ancient sceptics challenged the popular views of Plato (c. 428–347 BCE) and Aristotle (c. 384–322 BCE). Similar trends followed throughout European history, with challenges and criticisms mounted against mainstream thinkers, philosophers, and even scientists over the course of history. Denis Diderot (1713–1784), the French philosopher who compiled the first known version of the encyclopaedia, once wrote that scepticism is the first step towards truth1. The more we question, the more we learn.

    Sceptical Literature Meaning StudySmarterFig. 1 Scepticism challenges the foundation of knowledge and beliefs

    The contemporary definition of scepticism, as distrust or disbelief, came to be during the Enlightenment, a period of vigorous intellectual activity in Europe during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

    Sceptical Literature: meaning

    Scepticism can be applied to any subject or discipline. Sceptical methods also vary according to the belief systems they target. While we could question our beliefs about external reality, we could also question our mental perceptions.

    At the risk of oversimplification, the sceptical view can be described as 'how do we know anything for sure?'

    As you may know, literature is highly susceptible to the general philosophical mood at the time of its creation. Therefore, these questions have a way of showing up in literature. Such works can be called sceptical literature.

    While the principles of scepticism are more or less applicable to all human experiences, some writers are more expressly sceptical than others. As a result, some texts turn out to be manifestly sceptical. For the same reason, we can call sceptical literature a tradition on its own. The great writers in this tradition include Michel de Montaigne (1533–1592), Jonathan Swift (1667–1745), Francis Bacon (1561–1626), Alexander Pope (1688–1744), and Jorge Luis Borges (1899–1986).

    Sceptical Literature: characteristics

    While sceptical literature books don't belong to a well-defined genre, they share an interest in challenging existing beliefs and 'truths'. Following the philosophical line of inquiry, sceptical literature often addresses the relationship between the self and experience. This is particularly evident in the works of Montaigne who famously inaugurated the form of writing we now know as 'essay' (more on Montaigne below!)

    The displacement of religion as the preliminary mode of thinking during the Enlightenment and the Renaissance (that took between the fourteenth and the seventeenth century), along with the challenging of religious dogma, is an important chapter in the history of scepticism. It can be argued that scepticism and social change are mutually influential. Social and economic progress, starting from the scientific revolution in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and the modernisation that followed the industrial revolution in the eighteenth century have roots in scepticism.

    Today, scepticism has evolved into a general mindset of doubt over different aspects of life, religion, purpose and meaning, and also the nature of language.

    The general stance in scepticism and also sceptical literature highlights the inadequacy of human intellect and our faculty of perception.

    Sceptical Literature: examples

    As already mentioned, sceptical literature is not a clear-cut genre but there are exemplary works that reflect the sceptical attitude. Let's have a look at a few of those!

    Essays of Montaigne

    The form 'essay' originated as a formal articulation of individual experience and opinion. The form itself is linked to scepticism since opinions are limited to individual experience. For Montaigne, all experience of reality is plural and indistinct.

    The scepticism of Montaigne involves the relationship between the self and the articulation of experience. Montaigne repudiates the general knowledge claims and the notion of divine attribution of knowledge. Montaigne's essays, especially 'An Apology for Raymond Sebond' (1576) challenged the presupposed basis of knowledge to reveal what he asserts as its foundation: the human desire to know. Montaigne's scepticism lies in the idea that the self is captive in the matrix of perception.

    Laurence Sterne

    The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (1759) also known as Tristram Shandy was written by the Anglo-Irish writer Laurence Sterne (1713–1768). A novel Inspired by Don Quixote (1605) by Miguel de Cervantes (1547–1616), Tristram Shandy encourages readers to embrace the spontaneity of first impressions upon reading. Another characteristic that sets the novel apart is its adoption of scepticism as comedy.

    Tristram Shandy is lauded for its self-referential quality and humour. The book captures the relationship between scepticism and inconsistency and moulds that into a comedic weapon. The plot twists and digressions in the novel are as eccentric as the life story of the protagonist. Tristram's antagonistic relationship with his father, who is an intellectual and philosopher, symbolises the contentious relationship between scepticism (and sceptical comedy) and philosophy.

    Alexander Pope

    Alexander Pope wrote some of the most enduring works from the Age of Enlightenment. Pope's An Essay on Man (1733) is read as a philosophical poem. However, Pope’s sceptical attitude invades the poem. Pope recognises intelligence as characterised by a diversity and variation that impacts both the mind that perceives as well as the object that is perceived.

    Some scholars argue that the eighteenth century also known as the Age of Enlightenment was also a ubiquitously sceptical period. It is no surprise that the classics from this time carry those sentiments.

    Pope interprets understanding as a flux—a movement of the mind through time—ultimately dependent on thought, feeling, and imagination. The underlying scepticism in the poem is often described as a metaphorical use of philosophical ideas to emphasise the variousness of experience and understanding.

    But ask not, to what Doctors I apply?
    Sworn to no Master, of no Sect am I:
    As drives the storm, at any door I knock:
    And house with Montagne now, or now with Locke.

    Alexander Pope, 'Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot '(1735)

    Pope begins the Horatian preface to the poem with a declaration that the speaker has become their own master. The passage also reflects the inconsistency of thought or the mobility of the mind as previously described, which cannot be mastered or fulfilled.

    Horatian: related or resembling the lyric style of the Roman poet Horace (65 BCE– 8 BCE).

    Alfred Lord Tennyson

    Tennyson's dilemma as a poet and thinker was that he followed three distinct patterns of thought, namely, Christianity, Enlightenment, and Romanticism. Tennyson's works were consequently born out of the efforts to reconcile these warring ideals. The Christian motifs and elements of Romanticism in Tennyson's poetry are widely discussed. However, scepticism, especially the perspectives of rationality and scientific reasoning that Tennyson inherited from Enlightenment thought does not always receive much attention. In fact, it is often contended that the trace of scepticism present in his poetry amounts only to opposition and critique.

    Romanticism was a movement in arts and literature from the early nineteenth century. The Romantics are known for their unique poetic style, imagination, and their celebration of individualism and nature.

    On the contrary, in several poems by Tennyson, a sceptical critique is craftily masked by his sensuous poetics. 'In Memoriam A.H.H.' (1850) is a good example of a Tennyson poem that portrays the conflict between scepticism and all-out cynicism.

    There are even more recent writers whose works reflect a scepticism towards various aspects of life in the age of information.

    Works of the Argentinian writer Borges achieve a quality of scepticism by presenting labyrinthine and cyclical narratives that challenge the conventional paradigms of authorship, identity, and experience. Borges's famous works include 'Borges and I' (1960) and Labyrinths (1962).

    Several works of literature, for example, Waiting for Godot (1953) by Samuel Beckett (1906–1989) try to capture the difficulty or even the absurdity of language and communication, made severe by increased isolation in modern society.

    Sceptical Literature - Key takeaways

    • Scepticism is a philosophical stance that challenges presupposed foundations of knowledge and of belief systems.
    • The word scepticism is derived from the Greek term skeptikos, meaning 'an inquirer'.
    • In general, scepticism stands for doubt but has specific applications in philosophy.
    • The growth of scepticism can be traced back to the scientific revolution and the enlightenment period in Europe.
    • Sceptical literature can be loosely described as texts that explore the sceptical point of view.


    1. Denis Diderot, Philosophical Thoughts, 1746
    Frequently Asked Questions about Sceptical Literature

    What is the meaning of sceptical literature?

    Sceptical literature includes works of literature that reflect the sceptical point of view and explores the concerns of scepticism.

    What are some examples of sceptical literature?

    The essays of Montaigne, the novel Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne, and many poems of Alexander Pope carry elements of scepticism.

    What are some characteristics of sceptical literature?

    Sceptical literature is not a well-defined genre with discernible characteristics. Sceptical literature challenges presupposed sets of beliefs, especially religious dogma, and the reliability of sense perceptions. 

    What is meant by scepticism?

    Scepticism refers to a philosophy of doubt, a methodology and a practice that challenges the mechanisms of knowledge and perception. 

    When did scepticism begin? 

    As a philosophy, scepticism has existed since ancient times. The sceptics famously questioned the views of ancient philosophers like Socrates, Plato, and the philosophy of Stoicism. 

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