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The Specter of Skepticism in the Age of Enlightenment

Anton M. Matytsin

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Enlightenment confidence in the power of human reason was earned by grappling with the challenge of philosophical skepticism.

The ancient Greek philosophy of Pyrrhonian skepticism spread across a wide spectrum of disciplines in the 1600s, casting a shadow over the European learned world. The early modern skeptics expressed doubt concerning the existence of an objective reality independent of human perception. They also questioned long-standing philosophical assumptions and, at times, undermined the foundations of political, moral, and religious authorities. How did eighteenth-century scholars...

Enlightenment confidence in the power of human reason was earned by grappling with the challenge of philosophical skepticism.

The ancient Greek philosophy of Pyrrhonian skepticism spread across a wide spectrum of disciplines in the 1600s, casting a shadow over the European learned world. The early modern skeptics expressed doubt concerning the existence of an objective reality independent of human perception. They also questioned long-standing philosophical assumptions and, at times, undermined the foundations of political, moral, and religious authorities. How did eighteenth-century scholars overcome this skeptical crisis of confidence to usher in the so-called Age of Reason?

In The Specter of Skepticism in the Age of Enlightenment, Anton Matytsin describes how skeptical rhetoric forced philosophers to formulate the principles and assumptions that they found to be certain or, at the very least, highly probable. In attempting to answer the deep challenge of philosophical skepticism, these thinkers explicitly articulated the rules for attaining true and certain knowledge and defined the boundaries beyond which human understanding could not venture. Matytsin explains the dialectical outcome of the philosophical disputes between the skeptics and their various opponents in France, the Dutch Republic, Switzerland, and Prussia. He shows that these exchanges transformed skepticism by mitigating its arguments while broadening the learned world’s confidence in the capacities of reason by moderating its aspirations. Ultimately, the debates about the powers and limits of human understanding led to the making of a new conception of rationality that privileged practicable reason over speculative reason.

Matytsin also complicates common narratives about the Enlightenment by demonstrating that most of the thinkers who defended reason from skeptical critiques were religiously devout. By attempting either to preserve or to reconstruct the foundations of their worldviews and systems of thought, they became important agents of intellectual change and formulated new criteria of doubt and certainty. This complex and engaging book offers a powerful new explanation of how Enlightenment thinkers came to understand the purposes and the boundaries of rational inquiry.

Reviews

Reviews

... enriching study of previously neglected sources of epistemological transformation during the Enlightenment ear. Matytsin's work uncovers a dialectical pathway in which interchanges between skeptics and their opponents formed a new conception of reason, sufficiently modest to have relinquished metaphysics, but sufficiently bold to motivate the encyclopedists' expansive ambitions, and to play a formative role in establishing the modern disciplinary structure of knowledge.

The Specter of Skepticism in the Age of Enlightenment is an admirable exercise in intellectual history, free of the assumption that the Enlightenment has, by definition, to be shown to be the origins of the modern secular liberal world.

An ambitious and excellent study, The Specter of Skepticism in the Age of Enlightenment is an important reminder that every movement in the history of ideas or philosophy needs to be understood in terms of who is debating with it, and why.

Elegantly written and broadly informed, this sophisticated study of 18th-century efforts to secure "reason" against the onslaught of "doubt" will be essential reading for anyone interested in the European Enlightenment and its aftermath. With insight and erudition, Matytsin explores an essential context for understanding 18th-century thought—the persistent specter of skepticism—showing us that the so-called "Age of Reason" was also a critical and creative "Age of Doubt."

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Table of Contents

Acknowledgements
Introduction: The "Age of Reason" and the Specter of Skepticism

Part 1: The Spectrum of Anti-Skepticism
Chapter 1: The Walking Ignorant: The Skeptical "Epidemic" in the Eighteenth

Acknowledgements
Introduction: The "Age of Reason" and the Specter of Skepticism

Part 1: The Spectrum of Anti-Skepticism
Chapter 1: The Walking Ignorant: The Skeptical "Epidemic" in the Eighteenth Century
Chapter 2: Pierre Bayle—Bete Noire and the Elusive Skeptic
Chapter 3: The Specter of Bayle Returns to Haunt France
Chapter 4: Secret Skepticism: Huet’s Fideistic Fumbles
Chapter 5: A New Hope: The Critics of Pyrrhonism Strike Back
Chapter 6: The Berlin Compromise: Mitigated Skepticism and Probability
Part II: Disciplining Doubt
Chapter 7: Matter over mind: Dualism, Materialism, and Skepticism in Eighteenth-Century Epistemology
Chapter 8: A Matter of Debate: Conceptions of Material Substance in the "Scientific Revolution"
Chapter 9: War of the Worlds: Cartesian Vortices and Newtonian Gravitation in Eighteenth-Century Astronomy
Chapter 10: Historical Pyrrhonism and its Discontents

Conclusion
Bibliography
Notes
Index

Author Bio
Anton M. Matytsin
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Anton M. Matytsin

Anton M. Matytsin is an assistant professor of history at Kenyon College. He is the author of The Specter of Skepticism in the Age of Enlightenment.