Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
Skepticism and Political Thought in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries

Skepticism and Political Thought in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries

John Christian Laursen
Gianni Paganini
Copyright Date: 2015
Pages: 304
  • Book Info
    Skepticism and Political Thought in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries
    Book Description:

    Surveying the use of skepticism in works by Hobbes, Descartes, Hume, Smith, and Kant, among others, these essays demonstrate the pervasive impact of skepticism on the intellectual landscape of early modern Europe.

    eISBN: 978-1-4426-1972-2
    Subjects: History, Philosophy, Language & Literature, Political Science

Table of Contents

Export Selected Citations Export to NoodleTools Export to RefWorks Export to EasyBib Export a RIS file (For EndNote, ProCite, Reference Manager, Zotero, Mendeley...) Export a Text file (For BibTex)
  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-2)
  3. Introduction
    (pp. 3-16)

    This is a book about ideas about knowledge and politics. More precisely, it is about lack of knowledge, or skepticism, and what it can mean for politics. Presumably, if we have wide access to truth and knowledge, it must be pretty easy to figure out what to do in politics. But if we do not have such confidence, what should we do? This is a question that many thinkers have pondered over the centuries. And this is a book about some of the ideas they have developed in order to answer it.

    The idea that we should not have much...

  4. chapter one Neither Philosophy nor Politics? The Ancient Pyrrhonian Approach to Everyday Life
    (pp. 17-35)

    If we sought to provide a textual foundation for a historical enquiry into the stance adopted by ancient skepticism, especially in its Pyrrhonian version, with regard to politics, we would no doubt find ourselves in a tight spot. First of all, we would run up against an objective lack of works or textual fragmentsexplicitlydevoted to the topic. Most importantly, however, we would have to deal with a range of opinions, or rather genuine prejudices, that have been expressed over and over from antiquity down to the present day, and according to which a skeptical approach would ipso facto...

  5. chapter two La Mothe Le Vayer and Political Skepticism
    (pp. 36-54)

    François de La Mothe Le Vayer (1588–1672) was part of a group of scholars living in seventeenth-century France and known asles libertins érudits. They have been portrayed as opponents of superstition and fanaticism who doubted everything in order to challenge the authority of tradition and to satisfy their own intellectual pleasure.¹ La Mothe Le Vayer’s literary achievements, what Richard Popkin describes as “pedantic imitations of Montaigne,” earned him considerable renown in France.² He was elected to the Académie Française, was the protégé of Cardinal Richelieu, and was a teacher of Louis XIV. Influenced by the works of Sextus...

  6. chapter three Hobbes and the French Skeptics
    (pp. 55-82)

    The relations between Hobbes and skepticism are still in dispute. On the level of theory, some recent studies have established historical connections regarding specific aspects of Hobbes’s thought, from the theory of knowledge to the principles of first philosophy. On the grounds of moral and political philosophy it seems that the guidelines of criticism can be basically reduced to two:

    a) There is scarce or no relation at all between Hobbes and skepticism. For Hobbes, the great divide does not run between dogmatists and skeptics in the Pyrrhonian meaning of these terms, but beween “mathematici” (in the Greek extended meaning:...

  7. chapter four Questionnements sceptiques et politiques de la fable: les « autres mondes » du libertinage érudit
    (pp. 83-112)

    Les apports de ce que l’on appelle communément le « libertinage érudit » à la pensée politique moderne ont été largement sous estimés par les grandes histoires de la philosophie. Pour qui essaie aujourd’hui de réfléchir sur les relations entre libertinage et politique aux temps de la monarchie absolue,¹ ils apparaissent à la fois comme extrêmement riches et comme difficilement synthétisables.

    La diversité des figures et des usages du scepticisme chez les auteurs concernés n’est pas étrangère à cette situation. Ces « politiques sceptiques », ou plutôt inspirées par le scepticisme, affleurant dans le corpus libertin sous des formes diverses,...

  8. chapter five Obeying the Laws and Customs of the Country: Living in Disorder and Barbarity. The Powerlessness of Political Skepticism According to the Discours sceptiques (1657) of Samuel Sorbière
    (pp. 113-129)

    As the title suggests, theDiscours sceptiquesof Samuel Sorbière follows in the tradition of skepticism, more precisely in the libertine conception of the tradition, by its composition and its presentation of texts.¹ Alétophile sustains paradoxes, indulges in “Saturnine” opinion for the sake of exercise, makes use of the mobility proper to the skeptical spirit, and of the practice of retraction (palinode) in order to foil the opponent’s or the censor’s thrusts.²

    Presented as entertainment, the argumentation is not, however, a purely rhetorical game. It is, rather, an opportunity to test one’s judgment by measuring it against the criteria of...

  9. chapter six Bernard Mandeville’s Skeptical Political Philosophy
    (pp. 130-148)

    Bernard Mandeville (1670–1733), one of the most famous and controversial pamphleteers, satirists, and thinkers of his time, was seriously opposed by most of his contemporaries, including George Berkeley, George Bluet, and Francis Hutcheson, and only posthumously recognized as a remarkable political and moral philosopher by, among others, David Hume and Adam Smith.¹ After a period of relative oblivion generally corresponding to the nineteenth century, Frederick Kaye generated a Mandeville revival. His critical edition ofThe Fable of the Bees, first published in 1924, remains today a landmark of Mandeville studies.² In the second half of the twentieth century Mandeville’s...

  10. chapter seven David Hume: Skepticism in Politics?
    (pp. 149-176)

    Among this volume’s distinguished scholars of skepticism, I must start by admitting that I am not one of those. In fact, I have just completed a book on David Hume’s political thought, with particular attention to hisHistory of England, without saying much at all about his skepticism.¹ Some of this is due to my background as a political theorist of “realist” sympathies, not trained primarily in philosophy. Since I have never harboured either an aspiration to model politics on rationalist lines or a belief that this was possible, I have felt little need to wonder whether philosophical skepticism is...

  11. chapter eight Denis Diderot and the Politics of Materialist Skepticism
    (pp. 177-202)

    What is the connection between Diderot’s skepticism and his political thought? Diderot’s skepticism is not thepyrrhonisme outréthat suspends judgment even about external reality and sense perception; he thinks this radical notion only devolves into absurdity. But while some see his affirmation of external reality and sense perception as signalling only the limits of Diderot’s skepticism, it is in fact also its origin: his skepticism is best understood as the logical consequence of his materialism. Though materialism is often equated with a mechanical, predictable view of nature that is inimical to skepticism, this is not Diderot’s view. In the...

  12. chapter nine Rousseau: Philosophical and Religious Skepticism and Political Dogmatism
    (pp. 203-226)

    To take Rousseau’s skepticism into consideration scholars focus unanimously on the “Vicar’s Creed” included inEmile. Nevertheless there are many other works which also should be taken into account such as theLettres morales, theLettre à Christophe de Beaumont, theRêveries, theLettre à Voltaire, theDiscours sur les sciences et les arts, La Nouvelle Héloïse, theLettre à M. de Franquières, and theLettres écrites de la montagne. According to Rousseau, all of his books breathe the same maxims but the creed of the author is expressed more freely in some of his writings than in the “Vicar’s...

  13. chapter ten Skepticism and Political Economy: Smith, Hume, and Rousseau
    (pp. 227-239)

    Skepticism in Adam Smith has rarely been studied. When it has been analysed, the focus has been on cognition, natural philosophy, or religion.¹ There has been relatively little work on the function of skepticism in the moral and political philosophy of Smith.² I would like to argue here that skeptical arguments play a fundamental role in all discussions about justice and utility and suggest even further that skeptical arguments play a foundational role for political economy itself. My analysis of Smith will lead to a discussion of Hume and then will come back to Smith.

    Let us begin with the...

  14. chapter eleven Can a Skeptic Be a Reformer? Skepticism in Morals and Politics during the Enlightenment: The Case of Voltaire
    (pp. 240-255)

    The rather rhetorical question in the title is intended to be a reformulation of a traditional problem addressed to skeptics, concerning the difficulties of coherently living skepticism. All those traditional caricatured narratives of Pyrrho’s life actually address the problem of the criterion for action. How can a skeptic live his skepticism if his actions seem to depend on beliefs, which skeptics are not supposed to have? Life without beliefs or life without judgment? The debate on the ethical and political consistency of skepticism is rich.¹ However, my aim here is not to fully analyse that debate, but to contribute to...

  15. chapter twelve From General Skepticism to Complete Dogmatism: Jacques-Pierre Brissot de Warville
    (pp. 256-273)

    At first blush, the relationship between skepticism and politics is far from obvious. Politics is often assumed to be a sphere in which decisions flowing from well-established principles are applied; and this seems to be in contradiction to the skeptical practices ofisostheniaand the suspension of judgment. Skeptics for their part appear to grant little attention either to political theory – attacking it, like morality, on the basis of the argument from the variety of human laws and customs, which appears to make it impossible to guarantee the universalization of common public rules – or to political practice, which...

  16. chapter thirteen Carl Friedrich Stäudlin’s Diagnosis of the Political Effects of Skepticism in Late Eighteenth-Century Germany
    (pp. 274-286)

    Carl Friedrich Stäudlin (1761–1826) wrote the first substantial standalone history of philosophical skepticism that did not just weave skepticism into the history of philosophy as a whole, but that established its own canon of great figures and works and treated it as a subject worthy of study on its own.¹ I am going to draw attention to three aspects of his work. The first is his understanding of skepticism, the second his understanding of Kant, and the third his understanding of the political implications and effects of skepticism, both philosophical and non-philosophical. It will emerge that he liked some...

  17. Contributors
    (pp. 287-288)
  18. Index
    (pp. 289-292)