Skepticism and Political Thought in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries ed. by John Christian Laursen and Gianni Paganini (review)
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Reviewed by
John Christian Laursen and Gianni Paganini, eds. Skepticism and Political Thought in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries. University of Toronto Press. vi, 298. $75.00

This fine collection of essays on early modern skepticism is the work of a truly international team of scholars, from institutions in Brazil, Canada, France, Italy, Portugal, Spain, and the United States. The editors' introduction is followed by thirteen scholarly and clearly expressed essays, of which one is in French and the rest in English.

In the mid- and later twentieth century a pioneering writer and researcher on skepticism and its influence on early modern European philosophy, and on thought in general, was Richard Popkin, whose ideas are frequently discussed in this volume. John Christian Laursen, one of the [End Page 282] co-editors of this book, did work on skepticism that departed somewhat from Popkin's approach by stressing the ethical and political aspects of the ideas of skeptical thinkers. The chapters in this work likewise have much to say about the political ideas of skeptics. The volume is largely on the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, but the first chapter, by Emidio Spinelli, concerns ancient Pyrrhonism, especially as it was expressed by Sextus Empiricus. Sextus and ancient Pyrrhonism also show up in many later chapters, as does the thinking of the sixteenth-century philosopher Michel de Montaigne and his slightly younger contemporary and disciple Pierre Charron.

Four chapters are concerned with seventeenth-century skeptics. Daniel R. Brunstetter discusses the political skepticism of François La Mothe Le Vayer, an influential intellectual and a teacher of Louis XIV. Gianni Paganini surveys the political thought of Thomas Hobbes, plausibly contending that he became increasingly familiar with French skeptical thinking (including the work of La Mothe Le Vayer) during his exile in France, and that its influence has left its mark especially on Leviathan. Jean-Charles Darmon's chapter is about French thinkers including Pierre Gassendi, La Mothe Le Vayer, and especially Cyrano de Bergerac. Sylvia Giocanti focuses on the Discours sceptiques (1657) of Samuel Sorbière (a friend of Hobbes), convincingly claiming that he subverted political skepticism.

Eight chapters are about the eighteenth century. Andrew Sabl arrestingly argues that skepticism is useful for understanding not the content of Hume's political work, but its form, style, and intended effect. Whitney Mannies claims that Denis Diderot was a materialist in the Epicurean tradition, and that some skeptical consequences flowed from this, but that he was far from being a complete skeptic. Mannies also interestingly contends that Diderot was not a supporter of benevolent despotism but of limited government, reform, tolerance, and freedom of thought. María José Villaverde investigates skepticism in the work of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, arguing that he was a skeptic on abstract philosophical questions but a dogmatist on politics. In religious matters he was an enemy of atheism, a skeptic concerning theological subtleties, and ambiguous about miracles. It is perhaps debatable whether his various attitudes were consistent with one another. More generally, it is arguable that there was a tension between the political activism and the skepticism of a number of thinkers of the Enlightenment. Rodrigo Branda˜o's chapter title neatly encapsulates the problem, asking the question "Can a Skeptic Be a Reformer?" Branda˜o addresses the case of Voltaire, concluding that he was less skeptical on moral and political issues than on other matters and so was able to avoid inaction in the moral sphere. Sébastien Charles shows that Jacques-Pierre Brissot de Warville combined a skeptical philosophical stance with outspoken practical reformism in Revolutionary France. Had his skepticism [End Page 283] exercised a greater influence on his actions he might perhaps have avoided losing his head in the Terror. Rui Bertrand Roma˜o presents a compelling account of Bernard Mandeville's political philosophy. Pierre Force offers a nuanced account of the role of skepticism in the economic thought of Smith, Hume, and Rousseau. Laursen's closing chapter is a fine discussion of the thinking of the German Christian, Kantian, and moderate skeptic Carl Friedrich Stäudlin.

The book lacks a bibliography and the index is brief. In most respects, though, this is a well-researched, lucidly...