Thompson Clarke’s Tightrope Walk

in International Journal for the Study of Skepticism
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Thompson Clarke’s central contention is that the project of traditional epistemology has been deemed invalid for the wrong reasons and its true legacy consequently missed. According to Clarke, the picture of traditional epistemology conveyed by its modern critics gets things about exactly upside down. While the sample situations examined by the traditional epistemologist and the standards in the light of which he assesses them, contrary to what his modern critics claim, are not the product of philosophizing, the logical relation that they are supposed to bear to ‘common sense’ and ultimately ‘common sense’ itself are. However, the ‘common sense’ assessed by traditional epistemology, although it is really an artifact of philosophizing, is neither the product of philosophical reflection nor the result of philosophical prejudice. It is not in the least gratuitous. A critique of the traditional philosophical project can only be as compelling as that project itself under the interpretation that it gives of it.


Thompson Clarke’s Tightrope Walk

in International Journal for the Study of Skepticism



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Following Travis (2011) it seems apposite to draw a distinction here between two distinct senses in which a conceptual apparatus can be said to fail to be “standard” corresponding to two ways of fleshing out the claim that there is a “non-rule-like dimension” to our (human) conceptual apparatus (Clarke 1962: 179–180): (i) to the extent that it has room for “occasion-sensitivity” (i.e. the dependence of the form of a thought upon the occasion of its assessment) or (ii) to the extent that it has room for the “parochial” (i.e. the dependence of the form of a thought upon the form of life shared by some but not all thinkers). The possibility that a conceptual apparatus be non-standard along the second dimension ruins what Travis calls the “Martian Principle” one formulation of which is that anything thinkable at all is thinkable by any thinker ( 2011: 21) Arguably Clarke (1965) and (1972) focus respectively on (i) and (ii).


In early June 2011the University Bordeaux Montaigne hosted a five-day conference entitled “The Legacy of Thompson Clarke” the first to date to pay tribute to his work. With one exception all the essays collected here are revised versions of papers that were presented at the conference. In their final form they bear the imprint of the powerful contributions to the conference by James Conant Barry Stroud and Mike Martin which owing to various contingencies could not be included here as well as the trace of the discussions they prompted during the conference. This volume is deeply indebted to the works of these three philosophers. Some measure of progress in the understanding of Clarke’s philosophy was also achieved I believe through the reading sessions devoted to “The Legacy of Skepticism” during the conference. It was a rare privilege to be able to read this essay in the company of Barry Stroud who was the first to respond to it back in 1972 and knows its inner depths better than anybody. I want to express my gratitude to him on behalf of all the participants. Although he could not be present the thought and figure of Stanley Cavell also a close friend of Clarke often hovered over these meetings. During them highly stimulating readings of portions of Clarke’s essay were presented by Bruno Ambroise Julien Bounkaï Stéphane Cormier Juliet Floyd Elise Marrou and Timur Uçan. The short essay by John McDowell included in this volume is excerpted from the original version of his reply to Narboux (2013) in Alsaleh & Le Goff (2013). I am very grateful to him for agreeing to publish this excerpt here. Finally I am most grateful to Duncan Pritchard co-editor of this journal for his generous and gracious support during the preparation of this volume. This volume is dedicated to the memory of Thompson Clarke.

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