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Notes and Discussions METHODOLOGY IN THE HISTORY OF IDEAS: THE CASE OF PIERRE CHARRON Affanities, influences, borrowings, innovations, traditions, consistency--these are some of the key concepts of the time-honored and probably still dominant approach to the history of ideas. Scholars who seek to understand and interpret the philosophy and literature of the past in these terms tend to pay little attention to the social and institutional factors which constituted the working conditions under which the ideas were conceived, articulated and disseminated; and it is precisely on those grounds that the traditional school has been increasingly challenged, over the past several decades, by historians (myself among others) who are convinced that, apart from their social context, the ideas themselves are virtually incomprehensible. A recent article on Pierre Charron by Maryanne Cline Horowitz may serve to illustrate some of the questions raised by these differences in method. At the close of her article, Horowitz explains the assumptions upon which she has conducted her investigation. Citing Peter Gay's interpretation of Ernst Cassirer, she affirms that "the critic begins the process of understanding a philosopher's work by searching for a dynamic center of thought. He must regard doctrines not as a series of discrete positions but as facets of a single point of view. The critic's equipment must therefore include the gift of empathy: he must sympathetically enter--indeed, relive---the thinker's world of ideas.''1 Following her own insight into the spirit of De la sagesse, and supporting it, of course, with a display of textual evidence, Horowitz argues that Richard Popkin was wrong to lay exclusive stress upon Charron's rejection of Aristotelian epistemology from the perspective of Pyrrhonian scepticism. "I think," she says, "that Charron's De la sagesse is based primarily on Stoic, rather than Sceptic principles." Although I agree in general with the main thrust of Popkin's thesis, I too have been critical of his failure to give sufficient weight to the neo-Stoic dements of Charron's thought. Hence it is not this conclusion to which I take exception.2 Charron has, from the very beginning, been found to have said a great many things and been subjected to a wide variety of interpretations. Horowitz emphasizes "the seeds of virtue and knowledge [as] the dynamic center of De la sagesse"--a view which may appear perfectly plausible to some readers. But it can never compel widespread conviction, for the simple reason that it is impossible for a twentieth-century critic to enter--unaided--into a world of ideas now part of a remote past. A book written nearly four centuries ago is not immediately perspicuous. Before trying on our neo-idealist wings and taking flight into the empyrean of late Renaissance moral treatises, we would do well to explore as many as possible of the following questions: Just who was our author? For whom did he write? Who x p. Gay, Introduction to E. Cassirer, The Question of Jean-Jacques Rousseau (Bloomington, 1963), p. 22, cited by M. C. Horowitz, "Pierre Charron's View of the Source of Wisdom," Journal o! the History of Philosophy, IX, 4 (October, 1971), 457. 2 A. Soman, "Pierre Charron: A Revaluation," BibliothOque d'Humanisme et Renaissance, XXXII (January, 1970), 57 n. 3. [495] 496 HISTORY OF PHILOSOPHY in fact did read him? and how did his readers react? And what did our author think of their reactions.'?s Horowitz does not, apparently, give high priority to such questions. For rhetorical purposes, she readily agrees with Eugene Rice that "Pierre Charron's De la sagesse is the most important Renaissance treatise on wisdom." (Important to whom? and from what point of view? The criteria are not at all clear.) She assumes that Charron's epistemology was consistent, and that the second edition of 1604 represents a clarification of, or advance over, the first edition of 1601. (There is no historical evidence for making either assumption.) And she does not seem to entertain the possibility that Popkin could still be right about the impact of Charron's Pyrrhonian scepticism on the libertins Jrudits, although Charron may never in fact have been a Pyrrhonian sceptic.4 These are...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1538-4586
Print ISSN
0022-5053
Pages
pp. 495-501
Launched on MUSE
2008-01-01
Open Access
No
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