The two scepticisms of the Savoyard vicar

  • Ezequiel De Olaso
Part of the International Archives of the History of Ideas / Archives internationales d’histoire des idées book series (ARCH, volume 117)


I have known Dick Popkin since the end of 1966.I was then preparing my Ph.D dissertation about Leibniz’ criticism of Descartes, exploring some issues that were not considered in Yvon Belaval’s famous book about the subject. Both my thesis director — Professor Jose Ferrater Mora (Bryn Mawr College) — and myself, considered that this research program was a natural sequence of my Argentine dissertation “The Methodic ‘Doubt’ and Its Post-Cartesian Criticisms” (Buenos Aires University, 1963). In 1966 Dickhad just published “Leibniz and the French Sceptics” in the Revue Internationale de Philosophie, an article that distilled an always sincere although not always fair dislike of Leibniz. In his essay Dick quoted Fabricius’ claim that Leibniz once planned to write a criticism of Sextus Empiricus and yet had not fulfilled his promise. I immediately wrote to Dick pointing out to him that Leibniz had in fact written that polemical work and that it was lying, with many other manuscripts, in his unpublished legacy in Hannover. I thought that my remark was going to alter Dick’s plans and that an analysis of Leibniz’ paper should find its place in future editions of The History of Scepticism. As a matter of fact, I was the one who had to change my plans. Indeed, Dick convinced me that I should decipher Leibniz’ Latin manuscript, and write a commentary about it, and that I should change the subject of my dissertation to Leibniz’ criticism of Sextus Empiricus.


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  1. 1.
    An earlier version of this paper was read at a symposium on the contributions of J.J. Rousseau to different branches of philosophy, at the Center for Logic, Epistemology, and the History of Science, Campinas State University, Campinas, Brazil, in October 1978. It was published in Spanish in Manuscrite, Vol. 3,1980, pp. 7–23.1 am grateful to the editors for permission to use portions of that article.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    “Scepticism in the Enlightenment”, Studies on Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century, Vol. 24/27, 1963, pp. 1321–1345.Google Scholar
  3. 3a.
    See Giorgio Tonelli, “La question des bornes de l’entendement humain au XVIIIe siècle et la genèse du criticisme kantien”, Revue de Métaphysique et de Morale, Vol. 4, 1959, pp. 396–427Google Scholar
  4. 3b.
    See Giorgio Tonelli“Die Anfange von Kants Kritik der Kausalbeziehungen und ihre Voraussetzungen im 18. Jahrundert”, Kant-Studien, Vol. 57, 1966, pp. 417–456CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. 3c.
    See Giorgio Tonelli“Kant und die antiken Skeptiker” in Studien zu Kants philosophischer Entwicklung, hrsg. v. H. Heimsoeth, Hildesheim: Olms, 1967, pp. 93–123Google Scholar
  6. 3d.
    See Giorgio Tonelli“The ‘Weakness’ of Reason in the Age of Enlightenment”, Diderot Studies, Vol. 14, 1971, pp. 217–244. See also infra note 15.Google Scholar
  7. 4.
    Noc. At. 11. See my essay “On Hume’s Scepticism Again”, Manuscrito, Vol. 1, 1978, pp. 45–73.Google Scholar
  8. 5.
    See Rousseau Juge de Jean-Jacques. Deuxième Dialogue, in Oeuvres Complètes, Pléiade edition, Vol. 1, p. 838 (hereafter referred to as ‘OC’). Letter to Mereau, March 1963, in Correspondance Générale, Th. Dufour and Plan, eds., Paris, 1924–1934, Vol. 9, pp. 140–141, and Letter to Beaumont, OC, Vol. 4, p. 991. See P. Burgelin, La Philosophie de l’Existence de J.-J. Rousseau, Paris: J. Vrin, 1973, p. 42.Google Scholar
  9. 6.
    Yvon Belaval must be credited with this witticism. See his “Rationalisme sceptique et dogmatisme du sentiment chez Jean-Jacques Rousseau”, Annales de la Société J.-J. Rousseau, Vol. 38, 1969–1971, pp. 7–24. At the end of the present essay I examine an important thesis offered by Belaval in this article.Google Scholar
  10. 7a.
    Discours de la Méthode, 3, in Oeuvres de Descartes, Charles Adam and Paul Tannery, eds., Paris: J. Vrin, 1897–1913 (hereafter referred to as ‘AT’), Vol. 6, pp. 28–29Google Scholar
  11. 7b.
    Diogenes Laertius, Life of Pyrrho, in Lives of Eminent Philosophers, R.D. Hicks, ed., Loeb edition, vol. II;London: W. Heinemann, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1950. See also Descartes’ Lettre-Preface to Principes de la Philosophie AT, Vol. 9B, p. 6.Google Scholar
  12. 8.
    Sextus Empiricus, Outlines of Pyrrhonism, trans, by R.G. Bury, London: W. Heinemann, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1933 (hereafter referred to as ‘PH’), p. 7: Sexti Empirici Opera quae extant... Pyrrhoniarum Hypotyposeon libri III... Henrico Stephano interprete.. etc. Paris, Geneva: P. & J. Chouet, 1621, p. 2.Google Scholar
  13. 9.
    I argue in “The Meaning of Sceptical Doubt” (Revista Latinoamericana de Filosofia Buenos Aires, Vol. 1,1975, pp. 27–37) that if epoché is a suspension of dubious (and so of perturbing) judgments, it is at least confusing to identify doubt and epoché.Google Scholar
  14. 10.
    Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Émile, Barbara Foxley, tr., London, New York: Everyman’s Library, s.d., p. 230. All passages quoted in the text are from this edition unless otherwise indicated. See also Letter to Voltaire, OC, Vol. 4, pp. 1070–1071 and OC, Vol. 1, p. 879.Google Scholar
  15. 11.
    Ibid, p. 272.Google Scholar
  16. 12.
    Jean Pierre de Crousaz, Examen du pyrrhonisme. The Hague: publisher unknown, 1733.Google Scholar
  17. 13.
    See the exposition of the ten modes as a (perhaps Democritean) counterpoint of physis and nomos, PH, pp. 59,78, 87, 93,100–103,119,123,125,128,129,132,135,140, and 163. Except for the ninth mode he appears always in search of physis.Google Scholar
  18. 14.
    PH, pp. 23–24.Google Scholar
  19. 15.
    I have labelled this attitude “Limitationism”, see supra note 9.Google Scholar
  20. 16.
    G. Tonelli, “Pierre-Jacques Changeux and Scepticism in the French Enlightenment”, Studia Leibnitiana, Vol. 6, 1974, pp. 106–126; see especially: “But as Locke, in my opinion, was in fact an academic sceptic, French XVIIIth Century Lockeanism, being in most of the cases a kind of scepticism, seems to me to be much more genuine than the British. If Hume as a sceptic did not arouse much interest in France, this may well have happened because the ‘philosophes’ were very well acquainted in advance with many basic traits of Hume’s scepticism, which had been developed within the local tradition, e.g., by Maupertuis”, p. 112. Compare this with Popkin’s claim in “Skepticism and anti-Skepticism in the Latter Part of the Eighteenth Century” in The High Road to Pyrrhonism, San Diego: Austin Hill Press, 1980, pp.58–59.Google Scholar
  21. 17.
    P.H. Masson, cited by Burgelin, op. cit., p. 100.Google Scholar
  22. 18a.
    Pierre Villey, Les sources et l’évolution des essais de Montaigne. Paris: Hachette, 1908.Google Scholar
  23. 18b.
    Richard H. Popkin, The History of Scepticism from Erasmus to Spinoza. Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press, 1979, p. 43 et passim.; The High Road to Pyrrhonism, p. 229.Google Scholar
  24. 19.
    Notae in programma, AT, Vol. 8, p. 367.Google Scholar
  25. 20.
    The term “critère”, as Bouchardy points out, was diffused by Rousseau; see OC, Vol. 3, p. 1248, OC, Vol. 4, p. 1518, and Gouhier’s remarks OC, Vol. 4, pp. cxci-cxcii.Google Scholar
  26. 21.
    “I find that the Cartesians are ridiculous because they want to give a reason of every natural effect by means of their assumptions, and I find that the Newtonians are even more ridiculous because they take their assumptions as if they were facts: let us be satisfied with our knowledge of matters of fact without pretending to investigate how things are, because such a knowledge is beyond our means”, Mémoire à Mably, OC, Vol. 4, p. 30. In a footnote Spink considers that “this statement is too Pyrrhonian for 1740”, OC, Vol. 4, p. 1264, footnote 6.Google Scholar
  27. 22.
    Les méditations métaphysiqus de J. -J. Rousseau. Paris; J. Vrin, 1970, Ch. 2. In the first part of the Creed, Rousseau’s attacks are directed mainly against the author of the article “Evidence” of the Encyclopédie who, according to Rousseau, is either Condillac or Buffon, although nowadays is supposed to be Quesnay; OC, Vol. 4, pp. 1129 and 1304.Google Scholar
  28. 23.
    Nouvelle Héloise Vol. 6, p. 2; OC, Vol. 2, p. 708. See also Émile, OC, Vol. 4, p. 1513.Google Scholar
  29. 24.
    The Vicar is not dogmatic regarding metaphysics, as Rousseau says to Beaumont. He is a sceptic. Already in his letter to Voltaire he “ingenuously” confesses that in respect to God’s existence “the lights of reason” show neither its pros nor its cons, “and that if the theist bases his feelings on probabilities, the atheist, even less accurate, seems to base his own feelings only on the opposite possibilities. Furthermore, the objections raised by both sides are always unsolvable because they concern matters about which we do not have true ideas” (in manuscript “2” there are the following crossed out words: “such as infinite, eternity, substance, matter, mind, necessity, contingency, and other words that mean nothing to us”). OC, Vol. 4, pp. 1070–1071. See also the important paragraph of Rousseau Juge de Jean Jacques, OC, Vol. 1, p. 879. The conclusion is paradoxical: the best metaphysics is the spiritualist, although it is certainly beyond the reach of human mind and may even be false.Google Scholar
  30. 25.
    See my essay “Leibniz et l’art de disputer”, Studia Leibnitiana Supplementa, Vol. 5, Wiesbaden: Franz Steiner, 1975, pp. 207–228. Rousseau had this in mind when he wrote his letters to Sophie, the Creed’s first sketch: “I agree that they are only conjectures without probability, but if the opposite cannot be proven then it is enough for me to infer those doubts that I desire to state. Where are we? What do we see, what do we know, what does exist? We are only running after evanescent shadows”, OC, Vol. 4, pp. 1098–1099; see Nouvelle Héloise OC, Vol. 2, p. 707; and in the same work: “we don’t assume that we are active and free, we feel it. They have the burden of proving (‘c’est a eux de prouver’) not only that this feeling could deceive us, but that in fact it does deceive us”, OC, Vol. 2, pp. 683–684.Google Scholar
  31. 26.
    “Here I have, therefore, abandoned reason and consulted nature, i.e. the inner feeling that guides my belief independently from reason”, Correspondence générale, Vol. 3, p. 287, quoted by P. Burgelin in OC, Vol. 4, p. 1517, footnote 4.Google Scholar
  32. 27.
    See Belaval’s essay quoted supra in note 6. Yet Rousseau’s originality, about which he was completely aware, lies in his refusal to identify moral conscience’s voice and judgment. See Nouvelle Héloise, OC, Vol. 6, p. 7; OC, Vol. 2, p. 683.Google Scholar
  33. 28.
    Letter to Voltaire, OC, Vol. 4, p. 1072.Google Scholar
  34. 29.
    See supra note 14 and PH, 1, 193.Google Scholar
  35. 30a.
    The acts of conscience would, then, form an autonomous domain, extrinsic to reason. For analysis of the difficulties implied by this thesis for Rousseau’s own doctrine, see Y. Belaval, “La théorie du jugement dans L’Emile”, in Jean Jacques Rousseau et son oeuvre, Paris: Klincksieck, 1963, p. 154Google Scholar
  36. 30b.
    For some problems concerning the interpretation of this notion of conscience, see L.G. Crocker, Nature and Culture. Ethical Thought in the French Enlightenment, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1963, pp. 171–176.Google Scholar
  37. 31.
    “Although, following the ordinary life, we affirm undogmatically that Gods exist and reverence Gods and ascribe to them foreknowledge, yet as against the rashness of the Dogmatists we argue as follows…” PH, 3, 2. Is not this passage a rough anticipation of the Vicar’s program concerning religion?Google Scholar
  38. 32a.
    As far as I know no one has yet studied the similarities between Rousseau’s and Kant’s style of rejecting classical metaphysics. It has not yet even been remarked either by Cassirer or by posterior commentators. See Ernst Cassirer’s “Kant and Rousseau” in Rousseau, Kant, Goethe, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1945, pp. 1–60Google Scholar
  39. 32b.
    S.J. Al Azm’s, The Origins of Kant’s Arguments in the Antinomies, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1972.Google Scholar
  40. 33.
    See my booklet Scepticism and Enlightenment, Valencia: Barabobo University Press, 1982.Google Scholar
  41. 34.
    I wish to express my thanks to Leiser Madanes and Pina Montoreano who helped me translate this essay from Spanish and also for translating some of Rousseau’s texts from French. I also express my thanks to Richard A. Watson for many valuable suggestions concerning the translation into English.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, Dordrecht 1988

Authors and Affiliations

  • Ezequiel De Olaso
    • 1
  1. 1.National Council for Scientific ResearchArgentina

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