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The History of Skepticism

In Search of Consistency


Renata Ziemińska

This book reconstructs the history of skepticism ranging from ancient to contemporary times, from Pyrrho to Kripke. The main skeptical stances and the historical reconstruction of the concept of skepticism are connected with an analysis of their recurrent inconsistency. The author reveals that this inconsistency is not a logical contradiction but a pragmatic one. She shows that it is a contradiction between the content of the skeptical position and the implicit presumption of the act of its assertion. The thesis of global skepticism cannot be accepted as true without falling into the pragmatic inconsistency. The author explains, how skepticism was important for exposing the limits of human knowledge and inspired its development.

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Chapter IV. Modern Skepticism


1. The Beginning of Modern Skepticism (Erasmus, Pico, Sanchez)

Renaissance discoveries of ancient texts constituted an important part of the history of skepticism and philosophy in general. In the Middle Ages, only the works of St. Augustine and passages from Cicero’s Academic Books were known, and they naturally became the main source of modern academic skepticism. The emergence of a printed Latin edition of Sextus’s Outlines of Skepticism had initiated a strong skeptical movement known as new or Christian Pyrrhonism.

The most influential Renaissance skeptics were: Erasmus of Rotterdam (1469–1536), Giovanni Francesco Pico della Mirandola (1469–1533), Francisco Sanchez (1551–1623), Michel de Montaigne (1533–1592) and his follower Pierre Charron (1541–1603). Izydora Dąmbska’s (1958) studies on French skepticism reveal that skepticism in the Renaissance manner, inspired by Montaigne’s thought, flourished as late as the 18th century in the works of François de La Mothe Le Vayer (1588–1672), Samuel Sorbière (1615–1670), Pierre Daniel Huet (1630–1721), Simon Foucher (1644–1696), and Pierre Bayle (1647–1706). Renaissance skepticism is analyzed in detail by Richard Popkin, who discusses many other, less known Renaissance skeptics (Popkin 2003: 28–35).

Desiderius Erasmus, like Nicholas of Cusa, underscored the limitations of intellect and ultimately found consolation in faith. Before the Latin translation of Sextus’s Outlines… appeared, Erasmus, much like Peter Ramus and Omer Talon later on, championed academic skepticism in his Praise of Folly (Popkin 2003: 31):


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