Skepticism and the Philosophy of Language in Early Modern Thought
ABSTRACT: This paper discusses the importance of skeptical arguments for the philosophy of language in early modern thought. It contrasts the rationalist conception of language and knowledge with that of philosophers who adopt some sort of skeptical position, maintaining that these philosophers end up by giving language a greater importance than rationalists. The criticism of the rationalists' appeal to natural light is examined, as well as skeptical arguments limiting knowledge such as the so-called 'maker's knowledge' argument. This argument is then seen as capital for favoring a positive interpretation of the importance of language for knowledge.
The revival of ancient skepticism in early XVIth century has been considered one of the major forces in the development of modern thought, especially as regards the discussion about the nature of knowledge and the sciences. Richard Popkin in his History of Skepticism from Erasmus to Spinoza (1979) has shown that skeptical arguments were influential in the attack against traditional scholastic conceptions of science, opening the way to the development of the new scientific method. The dispute between those who embraced skepticism and those who tried to refute or surpass it was central to the philosophical scene well into the XVIIIth century.
However, the importance of the discussion of the nature and role of language in this process and its relation to skeptical arguments has scarcely been examined. My objective in this paper is to extend Popkin's analysis of the role of skepticism in the formation of modern thought to the consideration, in general lines, of some of the main features of early modern theories about the nature and function of language.
The skeptical arguments against the possibility of certain knowledge of reality were dealt with by rationalists, such as Descartes and his followers, by appealing to natural light or divine illumination as a characteristic of man's mind capable of guaranteeing this privileged access into nature's essence. According to this view it is this kind of intuitive knowledge that grounds the possibility of certain knowledge. Skeptics, on the other hand, attacked the very notion of intuitive knowledge, either rejecting it, or, such as the more moderate ones, restricting its application to specific domains, e.g., mathematics.
My main contention is that skeptical arguments, which were mainly arguments purporting to establish limits to knowledge, opened the way to the consideration of language as an alternative to mind's intuitive powers in man's access to reality. Linguistic representation became important as a way of avoiding some of the main problems affecting mental representation. I intend to concentrate here on one specific septic argument known as "the maker's knowledge argument," stating that we can only know what we create. My hypothesis is that the philosophical interest in...