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  • Skepticism and Political Thought in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries eds. by John Christian Laursen and Gianni Paganini
  • Peter S. Fosl
John Christian Laursen and Gianni Paganini, editors. Skepticism and Political Thought in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2015. Pp. vi + 292. Cloth, $75.00.

Edited by two leading scholars of the history of early modern skepticism, this volume collects thirteen essays from a variety of North and South American as well as European authors. Following the groundbreaking work of Richard H. Popkin and others such as Richard A. Watson, José Maia Neto, and James Force, much has been made about skepticism in relation to early modern natural sciences and to religion. Curiously little, however, addresses skepticism and early modern politics. This volume works to fill that lacuna and takes another step along the path on which Laursen embarked in his The Politics of Skepticism (Brill, 1992) and in the cascade of publications following it. The volume adds complexity and scope, too, to Paganini’s remarkable work articulating the dynamics of skeptical controversy during the period, most recently in Skepsis (Vrin, 2008). About politics, this new volume brackets the question of whether skepticism yields any specific kind. Rather, the volume’s principal task is to exhibit how skepticism was and can be political at all. [End Page 682]

The idea that skepticism, coherently conceived, cannot be political is an extension of the ancient charge of skeptical apraxia or inaction (e.g. Diogenes Laertius, Lives 9.11.62; Cicero, Academica 1.10.31). Since, the critics hold, action requires knowledge or at least dogmatic belief, and skeptics refuse them, action, including political action, is impossible for consistent skeptics. In the volume’s first essay, Emido Spinelli describes how Sextus Empiricus responds to this j’accuse by describing a practice of living “according to appearances” in a “fourfold” way by deferring to custom, heeding the passions, yielding to the guidance of nature, and employing the technical arts (24). The essays in this volume may be interpreted as political elaborations of that Pyrrhonian fourfold.

Samuel Sorbière, in Sylvia Giocanti’s reading, follows Cato the Younger’s objection to Carneades in holding that skepticism is a subversive danger to the political order. More commonly, however, many have interpreted the skeptical appeal to custom and common life to imply a quietist or at least conservative posture. Michel de Montaigne, in particular, is read this way, as are variously Bernard Mandeville and David Hume. Spinelli, however, following out ideas he advanced in his edition of Against the Ethicists (Bibliopolis, 1995), argues convincingly to the contrary that an appeal to the non-philosophical teresin (observance) of common life and to a pre-theoretical prolepsis (preconception) related to it offers grounds for resistance to tyrannical political authority independent of dogmatic philosophical science (25; see Sextus, Adversus mathematicos 11.165–66). Sébastien Charles shows, in his essay on Brissot de Warville, how when the order of custom and tradition dissolves in revolutionary situations, not only resistance or reform but even skeptical revolutionary action may emerge.

Skeptical yielding to natural passions centers Paganini’s essay, which holds that Thomas Hobbes’s political philosophy—and in particular in Hobbes’s political imperative to limit self-love and presumption or vainglory—was deeply influenced by his encounters with the French skeptics Montaigne and Pierre Charron. It is, of course, to sentiment and feeling—rather than to abstract principle or the divine—that Adam Smith, Hume, Mandeville, and even Hobbes, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Voltaire appeal. Moreover, the characteristically skeptical leveling of distinctions between human and non-human animals marks a challenge to hierarchy per se, including the political dominion of some humans by others.

That political theory itself may serve as a kind of skeptical technē is explored variously by Rui Bertrand Romão, Andrew Sabl, and Rodrigo Brandão in their fascinating essays on Mandeville, Hume, and Voltaire. Undermining claims to ultimate political and theological knowledge, these philosophers simultaneously undermine what the skeptics identify as toxic grounds for political faction and violence. Sabl understands Hume to have a “technological attitude towards politics” (163), which refuses claims to politics grounded in the divine...


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