Interim — Seventeenth-Century Skepticism

  • Craig B. Brush
Part of the Archives Internationales D’Histoire des Idees / International Archives of the History of Ideas book series (ARCH, volume 14)


A century and two years passed between the 1580 publication of the “Apologie de Raimond Sebond” and the appearance of the first major work of Pierre Bayle’s. During these years philosophical and religious controversy often turned on the Pyrrhonist problems so forcefully expressed in Montaigne’s resurrection of the epochê of Sextus Empiricus.1 When the essayist himself was not the center of debate, either his predecessor or his literary heirs, primarily Charron, often provided the focus of controversy.


External Reality French Philosopher Distinct Idea Church Father Axiom Versus 
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  1. 1.
    Several partial histories of this period have been written. Richard H. Popkin’s The History of Scepticism from Erasmus to Descartes, which I follow in this chapter, is the best and the closest to the subject of this dissertation. Popkin intends to supplement his study with more volumes in the hopes of bringing his history up to the present. Other works of major importance are: Henri Busson, La Pensée religieuse française de Charron à Pascal (Paris: Vrin, 1933),Google Scholar
  2. 1a.
    René Pintard, Le Libertinage érudit dans la première moitié du XVIIème siècle (Paris: Boivin, 1943),Google Scholar
  3. 1b.
    and Alan M. Boase, The Fortunes of Montaigne, A History of the Essays in France 1580–1669 (London: Methuen & Go. Ltd., 1935).Google Scholar
  4. 1.
    La Sagesse was put on the Index in 1606. French publishers traditionally paid little heed to the Index. Pierre Bayle’s complete works, already censured in Rome, were edited and published by the Jesuit press of Trévoux in 1727 with the fictitious notation that they were printed in The Hague.Google Scholar
  5. 2.
    Popkin, History of Scepticism, p. 67.Google Scholar
  6. 4.
    Boase, Fortunes of Montaigne, p. 130, finds no significant influence of the essayist on the saint. Strowski regards the Essais as the secular work that Saint Francis de Sales most admired; see his Saint François de Sales, nouvelle édition revue et corrigée (Paris: Plon, 1928), p. 78. Be that as it may, the point is that fideism was not regarded with suspicion in Catholic circles.Google Scholar
  7. 1.
    See Paul Hazard, La Crise de la conscience européenne 1680–1715 (Paris : Boivin & Cie., 1935), Part II, Chap. iii.Google Scholar
  8. 2.
    For Bayle’s comments on this matter see infra, pp. 223–224, 232–234, 298–299.Google Scholar
  9. 1.
    Pintard’s very careful researches conclude that Montaigne had almost no influence on Gassendi and very little on La Mothe le Vayer (who cites the Essais only five times as compared with 150 times for Diogenes Laertius). Naudé and Patin, however, show great admiration for the essayist. All four regarded Charron very highly. See Le Libertinage érudit, pp. 139, 162, 595.Google Scholar
  10. 3.
    See Henri Berr, Du Scepticisme de Gassendi, ed. and trans. in part by Bernard Rochot, Centre International de Synthèse (Paris: Albin Michel, 1960), valuable primarily for the numerous French translations of Gassendi’s Latin.Google Scholar
  11. 4.
    See Berr, Du Scepticisme de Gassendi for excerpts from his works against the Rosicrucian Robert Fludd, Descartes, and Herbert of Cherbury. See also Popkin, History of Scepticism. Google Scholar
  12. 1.
    See Boase, Fortunes of Montaigne, pp. 178–185.Google Scholar
  13. 1.
    Its precise formulation is ego cogito, ergo sum, sive existo, see Discours de la méthode, ed. by Etienne Gilson (Paris: Vrin, 1947), note to p. 32, 1. 19.Google Scholar
  14. 1.
    Gassendi so considered it and criticized Descaites’s logic. On this point see Gilson, note to “je pense, donc je suis,” p. 32,1. 19, and Descartes’s letter to Clerselier at the end of the Fifth Objections to the Meditations. Google Scholar
  15. 1.
    See Gilson, Discours, note to p. 37,11. 30–31. As will be made clear, Bayle subscribed to these Cartesian principles (which are not innovations, but go back at least to Aristotle).Google Scholar
  16. 1.
    Popkin finds Gassendi’s objection stronger than I do: History of Scepticism, pp. 203–205. Descartes’s theory is perfectly capable of handling it. In actual practice Descartes himself may have been deluded into accepting as self-evidences ideas that were far from clear and distinct, but Gassendi would have to prove that there are clear and distinct ideas that are false if he is to upset the criterion totally.Google Scholar
  17. 3.
    Gilson seems to find this evasive logic convincing, note to p. 38, 11. 18–19.Google Scholar
  18. 1.
    Dictionnaire historique et critique, Pascal G and Zénon, philosophe épicurien D. See Pascal’s Pensées, number 272 in the Brunschvicg edition: Œuvres de Blaise Pascal, ed. Léon Brunschvicg and Pierre Boutroux, 14 vols., Les Grands Ecrivains de la France (Paris: Hachette, 1914–23).Google Scholar
  19. 2.
    Edouard Droz in his Etude sur le scepticisme de Pascal considéré dans le livre des Pensées (Paris: Alcan, 1886) rejects Victor Cousin’s thesis that Pascal’s thought can be explained as a constant struggle against skeptical doubts. Although he overstates his case by defining reason vaguely and by confusing skepticism with incredulity, Droz is right when he claims that the Jansenist never underwent a crisis in which his Christian faith was in doubt and that philosophical skepticism of a restricted sort plays a role vastly subservient to Christian revelation in Pascal’s thinking.Google Scholar
  20. 3.
    Pascal’s crushing evaluation of Descartes, and rationalism in general, was — “inutile et incertain” (Pensée 78). He condemned philosophy as not worth an hour’s trouble (Pensée 79), for even if reason could persuade a few men, their conviction soon yielded to new doubts (Pensée 143).Google Scholar
  21. 1.
    On Huet, see Abbé Léon Tolmer’s monumental Pierre-Daniel Huet (1630–1721) Humaniste-physicien (Bayeux, Colas: n. d.) and Joseph d’Avenel, Histoire de la vie et des ouvrages de Daniel Huet évêque d’Avranches (Mortain: Lebel, 1853), useful for its summaries of Huet’s ideas.Google Scholar
  22. 1.
    In the understatement of the nineteenth century, d’Avenel concludes, “En somme, toute cette partie de la Démonstration parait peu admissible,” Huet, p. 163. Bayle knew Huet’s work and referred to it frequently in footnotes. In a letter to his father he admired the author’s erudition, but not his judgment, “mais au fonds il emploïe indifferemment les raisons probables & les raisons convaincantes; il fait flèche de tout bois, il appuie sur des faits qui ne sont gueres certains” (OD I B, 116 r, 1 April 1679).Google Scholar
  23. 2.
    Anselme, archevêque de Cantorbéri1 A, Brunus, Jordanus1 E (Huet quoted), Kepler1 E, Leucippe 1 B (quotation), Péréira 2 I (quotation).Google Scholar
  24. 1.
    The titles of Foucher’s works — and their content — are confusing and repetitious. In the following list the word “recherche” is capitalized when it refers to Malebranche’s work. The Dissertations sur la recherche de la vérité ou la logique des académiciens, containing the kernel of all his ideas, was published in a very limited edition in 1673 before the appearance of the Oratorian’s work. Subsequent books are the Critique de la Recherche de la vérité (1674), Réponse pour la Critique à la préface du second volume de la Recherche de la vérité (1676). Nouvelle dissertation sur la Recherche de la vérité (1679), Dissertation sur la recherche de la vérité, contenant l’apologie des académiciens (1687), and Dissertations sur la recherche de la vérité contenant l’histoire et les principes de la philosophie des académiciens (1693). The present analysis is based primarily on the last of these works. Foucher’s argument against Malebranche will be mentioned later, infra, pp. 261–262. On Foucher, see Richard H. Popkin “L’Abbé Foucher et le problème des qualités primaires,” XVIIème Siècle, 33 (1956), 633–647, and Henri Gouhier, “La Première Polémique de Malebranche,” Revue d’Histoire de la Philosophie, I (1927), 23–48, 168–188.Google Scholar
  25. 2.
    Dissertations sur la recherche de la vérité contenant l’histoire et les principes de la philosophie des académiciens (Paris: Jean Anisson, 1693), p. 145.Google Scholar
  26. 1.
    See Francisque Bouillier’s Histoire de la philosophie cartésienne, 2 vols. (Paris: Durand, and Lyons: Brun & Gie, 1854), which, though somewhat outdated, is still the only general study on the fortunes of Gartesianism.Google Scholar
  27. 1a.
    See also Paul Dibon and others, Descartes et le cartésianisme hollandais (Amsterdam: Editions Françaises d’Amsterdam, and Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1950).Google Scholar
  28. 1b.
    Finally, some very detailed accounts of the dissemination of Cartesian ideas can be found in J. D. Spink’s French Freethought from Gassendi to Voltaire (London ; Athlone Press, 1960).Google Scholar

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© Martinus Nijhoff, The Hague, Netherlands 1966

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  • Craig B. Brush

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