Hume’s Academic Scepticism in Its French Context

  • Plínio Junqueira SmithEmail author
Part of the International Archives of the History of Ideas Archives internationales d'histoire des idées book series (ARCH, volume 221)


My main goal is to show how Hume’s mitigated scepticism fits within French scepticism in the early modern period. I argue that Hume wasn’t very familiar with ancient sources on scepticism, not even Cicero’s Academica. Instead, Hume could rely only on modern sources, mostly French ones, like Montaigne, La Mothe Le Vayer, Descartes, Pascal, Foucher, Huet, and Bayle. Faced with religious, scientific, and philosophical novelties, scepticism had to adapt itself to a new context and evolved in unpredictable ways. Though many modern sceptics (like Montaigne, Huet and Bayle) and philosophers (like Bacon, Malebranche and Pascal) didn’t think there was an important difference between Academics and Pyrrhonists, Hume (like Foucher) took the distinction very seriously, and drew a sharp distinction between them. Despite Hume’s assertion that there were no real sceptics, I suggest that Hume had particular thinkers in mind when he discussed these two kinds of scepticism. Next, I move to explain why Hume preferred to associate his own scepticism with Academic scepticism, despite his initial leaning towards Pyrrhonism. In this respect, Foucher’s Academic scepticism appears to be more important for Hume than usually assumed. Finally, I go on to show how Hume’s arguments against Pyrrhonism and in favour of a mitigated, Academic scepticism were based on his readings of Montaigne, Descartes and Pascal.


Apraxía Belief Cartesianism Despair Doubt Equipollence External world Immaterialism Libertine Method Nature Ordinary life Probability Reason Suspension of judgment Tranquillity 


  1. Annas, Julia. 2000. Hume and ancient scepticism. In Ancient scepticism and the sceptical tradition, ed. J. Shivola. Helsinki: Philosophical Society of Finland.Google Scholar
  2. Bayle, Pierre. 1740. Dictionnaire historique et critique, 5th ed, 4 vols.. Amsterdam/Leyde/La Haye/Utrecht. [Trans. Popkin, Richard. 1991. Pierre Bayle: Historical and critical dictionary: selections. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Co.].Google Scholar
  3. Bett, Richard. (forthcoming). Can we be ancient sceptics?. In Le scepticisme ancien est-il viable aujourd’hui?, ed. D. Machuca, and S. Marchand. Paris: Garnier.Google Scholar
  4. Charles, Sébastien. 2003. Berkeley au siècle des Lumières: Immatérialisme et scepticisme au XVIII e siècle. Paris: Vrin.Google Scholar
  5. Cicero. 1994. Academica. London/Cambridge: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  6. de Olaso, Ezequiel. 1981. Escepticismo e Ilustración. Valencia: Universidad de Carabobo.Google Scholar
  7. Descartes, René. 1996. Méditations, vol. IX, ed. Adam at Tanney. Paris: Vrin.Google Scholar
  8. Diderot, Denis. 1994. Scepticisme. In Oeuvres. Tome I: Philosophie. Paris: Robert Laffont.Google Scholar
  9. Eva, Luiz A.A. 2008. Francis Bacon : ceticismo e doutrina dos ídolos. Cadernos de História e Filosofia da Ciência, Série 3 18(1): 47–84.Google Scholar
  10. Eva, Luiz A.A. 2011. Bacon’s ‘Doctrine of the Idols’ and skepticism. In Pyrrhonism in ancient, modern, and contemporary philosophy, ed. D. Machuca, 99–129. Dordrecht: Springer.Google Scholar
  11. Fogelin, Robert J. 1985. Hume’s skepticism in A treatise of human nature. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.Google Scholar
  12. Foucher, Simon. 1693. Dissertations sur la Recherche de la Vérité, contenant l’Histoire et les Principes de la Philosophie des Academiciens. Paris: chez Jean Anisson.Google Scholar
  13. Granada, Miguel A. 2006. Bacon and scepticism. Nouvelles de la République des Lettres 2: 91–104.Google Scholar
  14. Huet, Pierre-Daniel. 1678. Censura philosophiae cartesiana. Paris: D. Horthemels.Google Scholar
  15. Huet, Pierre-Daniel. 1741. Traité philosophique de la foiblesse de l’esprit humain. Chez Jean Nourse: London.Google Scholar
  16. Hume, David. 1981. A letter from a gentleman to his friend in Edinburgh, ed. E. Steinberg. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Co.Google Scholar
  17. Hume, David. 1986. Enquiry concerning human understanding, ed. Selby-Bigge, and P. H. Nidditch. Oxford: Clarendon Press.Google Scholar
  18. Hume, David. 1998. Dialogues concerning natural religion. In Dialogues and natural history of religion, ed. J.C.A. Gaskin. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  19. Hume, David. 2004. A treatise of human nature, ed. David F. Norton, and Mary J. Norton. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  20. Jones, Peter. 1982. Hume’s sentiments. Edimburgh: Edinburgh University Press.Google Scholar
  21. La Mothe le Vayer, François. 2004. De la vertu des Païens. In Libertins du XVII e siècle, ed. J. Prévot. Paris: Gallimard.Google Scholar
  22. Maia Neto, José R. 1991. Hume and Pascal: Pyrrhonism vs. nature. Hume Studies 17(1): 41–49.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Maia Neto, José R. 1997. Academic skepticism in early modern philosophy. Journal of the History of Ideas 58(2): 199–220.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Maia Neto, José R. 2003. Foucher’s Academic Cartesianism. In Cartesian views: Papers presented to Richard A. Watson, ed. Thomas M. Lennon and Richard A. Watson, 71–95. Leiden/Boston: Brill.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Maia Neto, José R. 2008. Huet sceptique cartésien. Philosophiques 35(1): 223–239.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Manzo, S. 2009. Probability, certainty and facts in Francis Bacon’s natural histories. A double attitude towards skepticism. In Skepticism in the modern age: Building on the work of Richard Popkin, ed. J.R. Maia Neto, G. Paganini, and J. Ch Laursen, 123–137. Leiden/Boston: Brill.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Montaigne, Michel de. 1978. Essais, ed. Villey, 2 vols. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France. [Trans. M.A. Screech. 1991. The Complete Essays. London: Penguin]Google Scholar
  28. Norton, David F. 1982. David Hume: Common-sense moralist skeptical metaphysician. Princeton: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
  29. Pascal, Blaise. 1670. Pensées, ed. Port-Royal. One may access this edition in Gallica:
  30. Pascal, Blaise. 2003. Entretien avec Saci sur la philosophie. Pres. Richard Scholar. Paris: Actes Sud.Google Scholar
  31. Penelhum, Terence. 2000. Human nature and truth: Hume and Pascal. In Themes in Hume: The self, the will,religion, 261–282. Oxford: Oxford Universiy Press.Google Scholar
  32. Popkin, Richard. 1980a. David Hume and the Pyrrhonian controversy. In The high road to Pyrrhonism, ed. R. Watson and J. Force, 133–147. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Co.Google Scholar
  33. Popkin, Richard. 1980b. David Hume: His Pyrrhonism and his critique of Pyrrhonism. In The high road to Pyrrhonism, ed. R. Watson and J. Force, 103–132. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Co.Google Scholar
  34. Popkin, Richard. 2003. The history of scepticism: from Savonarola to Bayle. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  35. Ryan, Todd. 2009. Pierre Bayle’s cartesian metaphysics. London: Routledge.Google Scholar
  36. Ryan, Todd. 2012. Ceticismo e cartesianismo em Pierre Bayle. In As consequências do ceticismo, ed. W.J. Silva Filho and P.J. Smith, 145–160. São Paulo: Alameda editorial.Google Scholar
  37. Sextus Empiricus. 1994. Outlines of Pyrrhonism. Trans. J. Annas, and J. Barnes. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  38. Sextus Empiricus. 2005. Against the logicians. Trans. R. Bett. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  39. Smith, Plínio J. 1995. O ceticismo de Hume. São Paulo: Loyola.Google Scholar
  40. Smith, Plínio J. 1996. Sobre a tranquilidade da alma e a moderação das afecções. Kriterion 93: 22–56.Google Scholar
  41. Smith, Plínio J. 2007. Hume y el escepticismo antiguo. Signos Filosóficos 18(9): 105–126.Google Scholar
  42. Smith, Plínio J. 2009. Skepticism, belief, and justification. In Skepticism in the modern age: Building on the work of Richard Popkin, ed. J.R. Maia Neto, G. Paganini, and J. Ch Laursen, 171–190. Leiden/Boston: Brill.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. Smith, Plínio J. 2011a. A dívida de Hume com Pascal. Kriterion 124: 365–384.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. Smith, Plínio J. 2011b. Pascal et l’invention du pyrrhonisme pur. In Descartes et ses critiques, ed. S. Charles and S. Malinowsli-Charles, 115–134. Québec: Presses de l’Université Laval.Google Scholar
  45. Smith, Plínio J. 2011c. Hume on skeptical arguments. In Pyrrhonism in ancient, modern, and contemporary philosophy, ed. Diego E. Machuca, 171–189. Dordrecht: Springer.Google Scholar
  46. Smith, Plínio J. 2011d. ¿Cómo Hume se volvió escéptico? Daimon 52: 71–84.Google Scholar
  47. Smith, Plínio J. 2012a. O método cético da oposição e as fantasias de Montaigne. Kriterion 126: 375–395. [Spanish translation: J. Ornelas, and A. Cíntora (ed.). 2015. Dudas filosóficas: ensayos sobre escepticismo antiguo, moderno y contemporáneo, 127–152. Barcelona: Gedisa.]Google Scholar
  48. Smith, Plínio J. 2012b. Por que Bacon pensa que o ataque cético ao dogmatismo é insuficiente?. Revista Latinoamerica de Filosofía 38(1): 31–63.Google Scholar
  49. Stroud, Barry. 1977. Hume. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  50. Stroud, Barry. 1991. Hume’s scepticism: Natural instincts and philosophical reflection. Philosophical Topics 19(1): 271–291.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. Villey, Pierre. 1913. Montaigne et François Bacon. Paris: Revue de la Renaissance.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Universidade Federal de São PauloGuarulhosBrazil

Personalised recommendations