Quotations about   skepticism

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The crucial disadvantage of aggression, competitiveness, and skepticism as national characteristics is that these qualities cannot be turned off at five o’clock.

Margaret Halsey
Margaret Halsey (1910-1997) American writer
The Folks at Home, “The Five O’Clock Shadow over the United States” (1952)
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Added on 31-Mar-22 | Last updated 31-Mar-22
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The biographer does not trust his witnesses, living or dead. He may drip with the milk of human kindness, believe everything that his wife and his friends and his children tell him, enjoy his neighbors and embrace the universe — but in the workshop he must be as ruthless as a board meeting smelling out embezzlement, as suspicious as a secret agent riding the Simplon-Orient Express, as cold-eyed as a pawnbroker viewing a leaky concertina. With no respect for human dignity, he plays off his witnesses one against the other, snoops for additional information to confront them with, probes their prejudices and their pride, checks their reliability against their self-interest, thinks the worst until he is permitted to think better.

Paul Murray Kendall
Paul Murray Kendall (1911-1973) American academic and historian
“Walking the Boundaries,” The Art of Biography (1965)
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Added on 9-Sep-21 | Last updated 9-Sep-21
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Dogma thinks it knows. Belief knows it does not. Dogma is credulous. Belief is sceptical, but forever open-minded.

Graham Dunstan Martin
Graham Dunstan Martin (1932-2021) British author, translator, philologist
Shadows in the Cave (1990)
Added on 29-Jul-21 | Last updated 29-Jul-21
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“What is truth?” Sometimes people ask this question because they wish to do nothing. Generic cynicism makes us feel hip and alternative even as we slip along with our fellow citizens into a morass of indifference. It is your ability to discern facts that makes you an individual, and our collective trust in common knowledge that makes us a society.

Timothy Snyder (b. 1969) American historian, author
On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century, ch. 10 (2017)
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Added on 16-Jun-21 | Last updated 16-Jun-21
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No one gets upset about the belief that rocks fall down as opposed to up, because all sane people can see it with their own eyes. Not so for the belief that babies are born with original sin or that God exists in three persons or that Ali was the second-most divinely inspired man after Muhammad. When people organize their lives around these beliefs, and then learn of other people who seem to be doing just fine without them — or worse, who credibly rebut them — they are in danger of looking like fools. Since one cannot defend a belief based on faith by persuading skeptics it is true, the faithful are apt to react to unbelief with rage, and may try to eliminate that affront to everything that makes their lives meaningful.

Steven Pinker (b. 1954) Canadian-American cognitive psychologist, linguist, author
The Better Angels of Our Nature, ch. 4 (2011)
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Added on 26-May-21 | Last updated 26-May-21
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You must have three essentials for the investigation of Chan [Zen]. The first is that you must have the foundation of great faith. The second is that you must have a zealous determination. The third is that you must have the feeling of great doubt. If you omit one of these it is like breaking off the leg of a tripod, which ends up becoming a useless vessel.

高峰云、叅禪須具三要 一有大信根
二有大憤志 三有大疑情 苟闕其一
如折足之鼎 終成廢器。

Hyujeong (1520-1604) Korean Seon (Sŏn, Zen) Master [Sosan Taesa, Seosan Daesa, Dae Seonsa]
Mirror of Zen [Samga Gwigam; Samga Kwigom; Seonga Gwigam], ch. 14 [tr. Jorgensen (2012)]
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Alternate translations:

For the study of Seon, there are three requirements: (1) having the great root of faith; (2) having great determination, and (3) having great doubt. If you lack one of these, it is like a broken like on a tripod sacrificial vessel. In the end you will discard it.
[tr. Miller (2017)]

There are three essentials to Sŏn meditation. First of all, you must be rooted in Great Faith and Great Confidence. Secondly, one must have Great Anger -- a strong, inwardly-directed, ardent determination to practice. Thirdly, one must have Great Doubt. If one of these is missing, it is like a tripod vessel with one leg cut off -- in the end, it will be of no use.
[Source]

It is well known that Ganhwaseon practitioners must have three things of essential importance: The first is a Foundation of Great Faith (大信根) for the practice which is possible; the second is Great Zealous Determination (大憤志) of practice to attain enlightenment; the third is a Great Feeling of Doubt (大疑情) on the Hwadu. If one of these is lacking, then it is like a tripod pot with a broken foot and is useless.
[Source]

Added on 22-Mar-21 | Last updated 22-Mar-21
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If you tried to doubt everything you would not get as far as doubting anything. The game of doubting itself presupposes certainty.

Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) Austrian-English philosopher
On Certainty, Para. 115 (1969) [tr. Paul & Anscombe]
Added on 25-Jan-21 | Last updated 25-Jan-21
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The path of sound credence is through the thick forest of skepticism.

George Jean Nathan (1892-1958) American editor and critic
Materia Critica, “Critic and Criticism,” sec. 4 (1924)
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Added on 14-Dec-20 | Last updated 14-Dec-20
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This is how humans are: We question all our beliefs, except for the ones we really believe, and those we never think to question.

Orson Scott Card
Orson Scott Card (b. 1951) American author
Speaker for the Dead (1986)
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Added on 25-Aug-20 | Last updated 25-Aug-20
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I probably differ from most people, who believe in Belief, and are only sorry they cannot swallow even more than they do. My law-givers are Erasmus and Montaigne, not Moses and St. Paul.

E. M. Forster (1879-1970) English novelist, essayist, critic, librettist [Edward Morgan Forster]
“What I Believe,” The Nation (16 Jul 1938)
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Added on 30-Jun-20 | Last updated 30-Jun-20
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Men become civilized not in proportion to their willingness to believe but in proportion to their readiness to doubt.

H.L. Mencken (1880-1956) American writer and journalist [Henry Lewis Mencken]
“What I Believe,” sec. 4, Forum and Century (Sep 1930)
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Added on 17-Apr-17 | Last updated 17-Apr-17
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In our reasonings concerning matter of fact, there are all imaginable degrees of assurance, from the highest certainty to the lowest species of moral evidence. A wise man, therefore, proportions his belief to the evidence. […] No testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous, than the fact, which it endeavors to establish.

David Hume (1711-1776) Scottish philosopher, economist, historian, empiricist
An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Sec. 10 “Of Miracles,” Part 1 (1748)

Often given as just, "A wise man proportions his belief to the evidence."
Added on 24-Apr-15 | Last updated 24-Apr-15
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Skepticism is the beginning of faith.

Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) Irish poet, wit, dramatist
The Picture of Dorian Gray, ch. 17 (1891)

See also Emerson, Hesse, Tennyson.
Added on 8-Aug-14 | Last updated 29-Aug-14
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The thorough skeptic is a dogmatist. He enjoys the delusion of complete futility.

Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947) English mathematician and philosopher
“Mathematics and the Good,” The Philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead, ed. Paul A. Schilpp (1941)
Added on 1-Aug-14 | Last updated 1-Aug-14
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We must be skeptical even of our skepticism.

Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) English mathematician and philosopher
Sceptical Essays, ch. 11 (1928)
Added on 25-Jul-14 | Last updated 25-Jul-14
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Value of the Skeptic is the resistance to premature conclusions.

Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) American essayist, lecturer, poet
Journal (1845)
Added on 18-Jul-14 | Last updated 18-Jul-14
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I am driven to express my faith by a series of skepticisms.

Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) American essayist, lecturer, poet
Journal (1845)
Added on 11-Jul-14 | Last updated 11-Jul-14
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Constant and frequent questioning is the first key to wisdom. … For through doubting we are led to inquire, and by inquiry we perceive the truth.

[Prima sapientiae clavis definitur, assidua scilicet seu frequens interrogatio … Dubitando enim ad inquisitionem venimus; inquirendo veritatem percipimus.]

Peter Abelard (1079-1142) French philosopher, theologian, logician [Pierre Abélard]
Sic et Non, Prolog [tr. Graves (1918)]
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A person who is never duped cannot be a friend.

Joseph Joubert (1754-1824) French moralist
Pensées (1838) [ed. Auster (1983)]
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Not that indeed I imitated the sceptics, who only doubt for the sake of doubting, and pretend to be always uncertain; for, on the contrary, my design was only to provide myself with good ground for assurance, and to reject the quicksand and mud in order to find the rock or clay.

[Non que j’imitasse pour cela les sceptiques, qui ne doutent que pour douter, et affectent d’être toujours irrésolus; car, au contraire, tout mon dessein ne tendoit qu’à m’assurer, et à rejeter la terre mouvante et le sable pour trouver le roc ou l’argile.]

René Descartes (1596-1650) French philosopher, mathematician
Discourse on Method [Discours de la méthode], Part 3 (1637) [tr. Haldane & Ross (1911)]
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(Source (French)). Alternate translations:

Not that I therein imitated the Scepticks, who doubt onely to the end they may doubt, and affect to be always unresolved: For on the contrary, all my designe tended onely to fix my self, and to avoid quick-mires and sands, that I might finde rock and clay.
[tr. Newcombe ed. (1649)]

Not that in this I imitated the sceptics who doubt only that they may doubt, and seek nothing beyond uncertainty itself; for, on the contrary, my design was singly to find ground of assurance, and cast aside the loose earth and sand, that I might reach the rock or the clay.
[tr. Veitch (1901)]

For all that, I did not imitate the sceptics who doubt only for doubting's sake, and pretend to be always undecided; on the contrary, my whole intention was to arrive at a certainty, and to dig away the drift and the sand until I reached the rock or the clay beneath.
[tr. Huxley (1870)]

In doing this I was not copying the sceptics, who doubt only for the sake of doubting and pretend to be always undecided; on the contrary, my whole aim was to reach certainty -- to cast aside the loose earth and sand so as to come upon rock or clay.
[tr. Cottingham, Stoothoff (1985)]

Added on 28-Dec-12 | Last updated 4-Jun-22
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Have I ever heard a skeptic wax superior and contemptuous? Certainly. I’ve even sometimes heard, to my retrospective dismay, that unpleasant tone in my own voice. There are human imperfections on both sides of this issue. Even when it’s applied sensitively, scientific skepticism may come across as arrogant, dogmatic, heartless and dismissive of the feelings and deeply held beliefs of others. And, it must be said, some scientists and dedicated skeptics apply this tool as a blunt instrument, with little finesse. Sometimes it looks as if the skeptical conclusion came first, that contentions were dismissed before, not after, the evidence was examined. All of us cherish our beliefs. They are, to a degree, self-defining. When someone comes along who challenges our belief system as insufficiently well based — or who, like Socrates, merely asks embarrassing questions that we haven’t thought of, or demonstrates that we’ve swept key underlying assumptions under the rug — it becomes much more than a search for knowledge. It feels like a personal assault.

Carl Sagan (1934-1996) American scientist and writer
The Demon-Haunted World, ch. 17 (1995)
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Rabid suspicion has nothing in it of skepticism. The suspicious mind believes more than it doubts. It believes in a formidable and ineradicable evil lurking in every person.

Eric Hoffer (1902-1983) American writer, philosopher, longshoreman
The Passionate State of Mind, Aphorism 184 (1955)
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It seems to me what is called for is an exquisite balance between two conflicting needs: the most skeptical scrutiny of all hypotheses that are served up to us and at the same time a great openness to new ideas. Obviously those two modes of thought are in some tension. But if you are able to exercise only one of these modes, whichever one it is, you’re in deep trouble.

If you are only skeptical, then no new ideas make it through to you. You never learn anything new. You become a crotchety old person convinced that nonsense is ruling the world. (There is, of course, much data to support you.) But every now and then, maybe once in a hundred cases, a new idea turns out to be on the mark, valid and wonderful. If you are too much in the habit of being skeptical about everything, you are going to miss or resent it, and either way you will be standing in the way of understanding and progress.

On the other hand, if you are open to the point of gullibility and have not an ounce of skeptical sense in you, then you cannot distinguish useful ideas from the worthless ones. If all ideas have equal validity then you are lost, because then, it seems to me, no ideas have any validity at all.

Carl Sagan (1934-1996) American scientist and writer
“The Burden of Skepticism,” Pasadena lecture (1987)
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Reprinted in The Skeptical Inquirer (Fall 1987).
Added on 9-Mar-10 | Last updated 28-Sep-20
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Trust him no further than you can throw him.

Thomas Fuller (1654-1734) English writer, physician
Gnomologia: Adages and Proverbs, #5286 (1732)
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Moral certainty is always a sign of cultural inferiority. The more uncivilized a man, the surer he is that he knows precisely what is right and what is wrong. All human progress, even in morals, has been the work of men who have doubted the current moral values, not of men who have whooped them up and tried to enforce them. The truly civilized man is always skeptical and tolerant in this field as in all others. His culture is based on “I am not too sure.”

H.L. Mencken (1880-1956) American writer and journalist [Henry Lewis Mencken]
Minority Report : H.L. Mencken’s Notebooks, #418 (1956)
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There is a kind of courtesy in scepticism. It would be an offence against polite conventions to press our doubts too far and question the permanence of our estates, our neighbours’ independent existence, or even the justification of a good bishop’s faith and income. Against metaphysicians, and even against bishops, sarcasm was not without its savour; but the line must be drawn somewhere by a gentleman and a man of the world.

George Santayana (1863-1952) Spanish-American poet and philosopher [Jorge Agustín Nicolás Ruíz de Santayana y Borrás]
The Life of Reason or The Phases of Human Progress, Vol. 1 “Reason in Common Sense,” ch. 4 (1905-06)
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The fact that a believer is happier than a sceptic is no more to the point than the fact that a drunken man is happier than a sober one. The happiness of credulity is a cheap and dangerous quality of happiness, and by no means a necessity of life.

George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950) British playwright and critic
Androcles and the Lion, Preface (1912)
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If a man, holding a belief which he was taught in childhood or persuaded of afterwards, keeps down and pushes away any doubts which arise about it in his mind, purposely avoids the reading of books and the company of men that call in question and discuss it, and regards as impious those questions which cannot easily be asked without disturbing it — the life of that man is one long sin against mankind.

William Kingdon Clifford (1845-1879) English mathematician and philosopher
“The Ethics of Belief,” Part 1 “The Duty of Inquiry,” Contemporary Review (Jan 1877)
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A man’s most valuable trait is a judicious sense of what not to believe.

Euripides (485?-406? BC) Greek tragic dramatist
Helen (412 BC)
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If you would be a real seeker after truth, it is necessary that at least once in your life you doubt, as far as possible, all things.

[Veritatem inquirenti, semel in vita de omnibus, quantum fieri potest, esse dubitandum.]

Descartes - If you would be a real seeker after truth, it is necessary that at least once in your life you doubt, as far as possible, all things - wist.info quote

René Descartes (1596-1650) French philosopher, mathematician
Principles of Philosophy [Principia Philosophiae], Part 1 “The Principles of Human Knowledge [De Principiis Cognitionis Humane],” Article 1 (1644)

Common, unsourced translation of Descartes first principle. Frequently mis-sourced to Discourse on Method (1637) or Meditations on First Philosophy (1641), though those predecessor works do speak of the same principle.

(Source (Latin)). Alternate translations:

That in order to seek truth, it is necessary once in the course of our life, to doubt, as far as possible, of all things.
[tr. Veitch (1850)]

That in order to examine into the truth, it is necessary once on one's life to doubt of all things, so far as this is possible.
[tr. Haldane/Ross (1934)]

The seeker after truth must, once in the course of his life, doubt everything, as far as possible.
[tr. Miller & Miller (1982)]

That whoever is searching after truth must, once in his life, doubt all things; insofar as this is possible.
[tr. Cottingham/Stoothoff/Murdoch (1985)]

Added on 1-Feb-04 | Last updated 9-May-22
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