Radical skepticism

I have previously talked about “radical skepticism.” 1 Here’s an illustrative example that raised its head earlier. When a piece is traditionally ascribed to a given author or composer, but there are serious reasons to doubt otherwise, it is reasonable to express skepticism about the piece’s provenance. It is radical skepticism, by contrast, to reject the traditional ascription simply because it is not backed up by documentation meeting the standards of the modern world, and even though one has no good reason to question the traditional view. And the reason that this matters is because radical skepticism is an attack, at bottom, on the freestanding authority of tradition.


  1. See, e.g., MP: The Rebiba Bottleneck (June 22, 2012); SF: Tradition and the Burden of Proof, reprinted inSimon Dodd, Overthinking It (forthcoming 2012). In the latter, I faulted Richard McBrien for claiming that “there is no evidence that, before his death, Peter actually served the church of Rome as its first Bishop, even though that ‘fact’ is regularly taken for granted.” McBrien conceded that tradition identified Peter as such, but wafted it away with the observation that “tradition is not a fact factory. It cannot make something into a historical fact when it is not.” The Church 96 (2008). McBrien, I said,

    misses the point. There is evidence: the tradition. As I’ve said, tradition can be authority; cf. 1Blackstone Commentaries 67 (reprint 1979) (“the goodness of a custom depends upon its having been used time out of mind … whereof the memory of man runneth not to the contrary. This it is that gives it its weight and authority” (footnote omitted)). McBrien is certainly correct that tradition doesn’t create fact, and must retreat in the face of contrary evidence, but it gives witness to facts, establishing a presumption: the existence of so ancient a tradition shifts the burden of proof to those who claim error. Was St. Peter the Bishop of Rome? It is not McBrien’s prerogative—in Michael Oakeshott’s phrase from Rationalism in Politics—to haul the testimony of eighteen centuries “before the tribunal of his intellect,” deny it, and demand it be proven to his satisfaction. It is his burden to show why tradition is wrong. One thinks again of the Shakespere test: it is not the tradition that is on trial here; still less St. Peter. It is Fr. McBrien.