You are on page 1of 12

Zur Diskussion 209


Was There a “Pyrrhonian Crisis”

in Early Modern Philosophy?
0A Critical Notice of Richard H. Popkin*0

by Dominik Pe rler (Berlin)

Abstract: This paper critically examines R. H. Popkin’s thesis that the rediscovery of
Pyrrhonism in the sixteenth century provoked a “Pyrrhonian crisis” in all the human
sciences and philosophy. It is argued that there was neither a single crisis nor a uni-
form skepticism in early modern philosophy. Sixteenth and seventeenth-century phi-
losophers rather developed various skeptical strategies that had different sources and
aimed at different goals. This heterogeneity of skepticism is illustrated with the
examples of Sanches, Montaigne and Descartes.
Can we ever have certain knowledge in science and religion? A large number of early
modern philosophers focused on this fundamental question, thus making skepticism
the central issue of their debates. Skepticism became a philosophical “malady, which
can never be radically cur’d, but must return upon us every moment,” 1 to use Hume’s
famous phrase – a malady that spread over the Continent as well as England, over
rationalist circles as well as empiricist ones. What was responsible for the emergence
and the dissemination of this malady? In a series of influential books and articles,
Popkin gave a clear answer to this crucial question: the rediscovery of Sextus Empiri-
cus’ writings and other ancient sources documenting Pyrrhonism caused a “Pyrrho-
nian crisis” from which almost no early modern philosopher could escape. It was in-
deed this crisis that shaped the intellectual landscape from the sixteenth to the early
eighteenth century. First stated in 1960 and repeated in later works, this thesis is now
further defended in the expanded version of The History of Scepticism. Popkin
claims: “The nouveau pyrrhonisme was to envelop all the human sciences and philos-
ophy in a complete sceptical crisis, out of which modern philosophy and the scientific
outlook finally emerged.” (79)
In the new edition of his comprehensive work Popkin adduces an impressive
number of texts to corroborate this thesis. Not only does he evaluate in greater detail

*0 Richard H. Popkin, The History of Scepticism. From Savonarola to Bayle, Oxford

& New York, Oxford University Press 2003, xxiv + 415p.
1 Hume 2000, 144 (I, 4, ii).

Archiv f. Gesch. d. Philosophie 86. Bd., S. 209– 220

© Walter de Gruyter 2004
ISSN 0003-9101
210 Zur Diskussion

those sixteenth and seventeenth-century debates which had already figured promi-
nently in earlier editions, but he also presents new material and neglected authors to
document the “Pyrrhonian crisis”. Thus, he argues that Renaissance authors were
affected by Pyrrhonism long before Henri Estienne published his influential Latin
translation of Sextus Empiricus’ Outlines of Pyrrhonism. In 1494 already, Savonarola
ordered three of his monks to prepare a Latin edition of this work.2 There is no evi-
dence that this project was carried out, as Popkin remarks (6). But he assumes that
Savonarola’s fight with the papal authorities was nevertheless determined by a clear
awareness of skeptical arguments. Likewise, Gianfrancesco Pico della Mirandola,
Erasmus of Rotterdam and Sebastian Castello were all influenced by skeptical strat-
egies (7–12). These well documented cases show that there was indeed a strong inter-
est in Pyrrhonism before the relevant texts became available to a wider audience. In
addition, Popkin points out that Pyrrhonism continued to have a strong impact on
the philosophical debates throughout the seventeenth century, long after Descartes’
famous refutation of skepticism. Pyrrhonism played a prominent role among the
“new skeptics” Simon Foucher and Pierre-Daniel Huet (274) and was a driving force
for the “superskeptic” Pierre Bayle (283). Therefore, it would be inadequate to con-
sider Pyrrhonism a marginal phenomenon at the beginning of early modern philos-
ophy. Rather, it was a major intellectual movement that shaped philosophy for at
least two hundred years.
Despite the undeniable evidence for the presence of Pyrrhonian texts in the six-
teenth and seventeenth centuries, Popkin’s thesis that a “Pyrrhonian crisis” was re-
sponsible for skepticism in early modern philosophy needs to be critically examined.
For the mere presence of Pyrrhonian texts does not prove that all skeptical argu-
ments and strategies were influenced by Pyrrhonism. Nor does it show that early
modern philosophers were affected by a single crisis. I should like to look at three
skeptical strategies in order to discuss the question if and how we can speak of a
“Pyrrhonian crisis.”

In 1581 Francisco Sanches, a Spanish philosopher and medical doctor teaching at

the University of Toulouse, published a book with the provocative title Quod nihil sci-
tur. Popkin includes Sanches in his study, praising him to be “more interesting than
any of the other sceptics of the sixteenth century, except Montaigne.” (41) In the light
of this praise it is certainly tempting to examine Sanches’ book, which is opened by
the statement: “I do not know even this one thing, namely that I know nothing.”3

2 Surprisingly, Popkin does not pay attention to the first Latin translation estab-
lished around 1300. He quickly mentions it and attributes it to Niccolò da Reggio
(18), yet without examining the authorship of the translator or the impact this
text may have had on later discussions. For a detailed study and a critical edition
of this translation, see Wittwer (forthcoming).
3 Sanches 1988, 172.
Zur Diskussion 211

This avowal of absolute ignorance is followed by a careful analysis of the questions

of what knowledge is and how it may be attained. Sanches first examines various
Aristotelian-scholastic definitions of knowledge. Thus, he discusses the definition of
knowledge as “a mental disposition, acquired by demonstration” and a further defi-
nition that appeals to demonstration based on syllogisms.4 Sanches quickly dismisses
these definitions as obscure and unintelligible. In his view, they make use of technical
terms that are never explained by the Aristotelians. For instance, it is unclear what a
“mental disposition” (habitus) is unless one takes Aristotelian talk about disposi-
tions and acts to be self-explanatory. For that reason Sanches abandons the Aristote-
lian definitions and suggests one he takes to be basic and understandable: “Knowl-
edge is perfect understanding of a thing.”5 This definition involves three elements, as
Sanches points out: (i) a thing that functions as the object of knowledge, (ii) an
understanding as a cognitive relation established with that thing, and (iii) the perfec-
tion of this cognitive relation. Sanches examines all three elements and reaches the
conclusion that each of them can be questioned. We can critically ask if there is a
stable, graspable thing that may serve as the object of knowledge; we can further ask
if we are able to have an understanding of such a thing, given that our sensory and
intellectual capacities are very limited; and we can finally ask if perfection is possible,
given that we are so often victims of sensory illusions and intellectual deceptions.
In the light of all these skeptical questions we should concede that knowledge is im-
Is this a Pyrrhonian strategy? Sanches’ critical examination of Aristotelian-scho-
lastic definitions of knowledge shows no sign of Pyrrhonism. He does not make use of
the Pyrrhonian method of finding counter-definitions or counter-arguments, which
would illustrate that each definition can be balanced by an opposing definition. He
rather attacks the Aristotelian definitions by pointing out that they presuppose a
complex philosophical system. For instance, appealing to “a mental disposition”
makes sense only if one already knows that there is such a thing as a disposition and if
one knows that it can be actualized in order to bring about acts of knowing. But how
can we presuppose all that in our search for knowledge? This is the crucial point for
Sanches: a radical search for knowledge cannot and should not uncritically accept
the Aristotelian system. This critique is certainly remarkable because it raises the
crucial question of how a skeptic should proceed. Should he or she operate within a
certain philosophical system, e.g. the Aristotelian one, showing that certain assump-
tions of that system are not convincingly argued for? Or should she stand outside the
system and attack the very foundations of that system by pointing out that they are
uncritically taken for granted? Sanches’ attack is also remarkable because it makes
clear that a hostile attitude toward Aristotelianism was a driving force in the six-
teenth century. He did not simply question some elements of the Aristotelian theory
of knowledge (e.g. the technique of constructing syllogisms) but undermined the en-

4 Ibid., 178 and 185.

5 Ibid., 200.
212 Zur Diskussion

tire theory. The crucial point is that this critique was not inspired by Pyrrhonism but
by an anti-Aristotelianism that has its own tradition.6
But what about the second part of Quod nihil scitur, namely the examination of
Sanches’ own definition of knowledge as the “perfect understanding of a thing”? Is it
inspired by Pyrrhonism? Popkin himself gives a negative answer to this question: “By
and large, Sanches’ totally negative conclusion is not the position of Pyrrhonian
scepticism, the suspense of judgment as to whether anything can be known, but
rather the more full-fledged negative dogmatism of the Academics.” (41) So Sanches
can hardly be said to be affected by a “Pyrrhonian crisis.” But I think that we should
also be cautious when using the label “negative dogmatism.” Sanches does not dog-
matically and unconditionally claim that nothing can be known. His claim is re-
stricted to a certain definition of knowledge: if one takes knowledge to be the perfect
understanding of a thing, then one has to concede that knowledge is not possible.
However, this does not exclude that one may suggest another definition of knowl-
edge, perhaps a more modest one that can be satisfied by certain cognitive states –
states that may not be perfect but nevertheless provide some understanding of a
thing.7 Given his cautious procedure, Sanches can only be said to defend a condi-
tional negative dogmatism.
I hope these remarks make clear that “Pyrrhonism” and “Academic dogmatism”
are hardly the magic words apt to explain Sanches’ skepticism. In order to under-
stand the specific structure and goal of his skeptical arguments one has to evaluate
his attack on Aristotelian definitions of knowledge and his critical examination of
the cognitive capacities.

Montaigne is certainly the best known skeptic of the sixteenth century who had
detailed knowledge of Pyrrhonism. In his famous “Apologie de Raimond Sebond”
(Essais II, 12) he extensively discusses the Pyrrhonian method and frequently alludes
to examples used by ancient skeptics. It is therefore not surprising that Montaigne
occupies a prominent place in Popkin’s study. In fact, the expression “Pyrrhonian cri-
sis”, which serves as the leitmotiv for the entire book, is introduced with respect to
Montaigne. According to Popkin, the “Apologie” was the “amazing product of his
own personal crise pyrrhonienne” (47). This crisis led Montaigne to develop three

6 This tradition can be traced back at least to the fourteenth century when Nicho-
las of Autrecourt launched an attack on Aristotle (see Nicholas of Autrecourt
1994) and it was prominent among a number of Renaissance authors. Unfortu-
nately, Popkin does not pay attention to this tradition. For detailed analysis, see
Zupko 1993; Thijssen 2000.
7 Sanches refers to a projected treatise De modo sciendi in which he intends to ex-
plain how such modest knowledge is possible (see Sanches 1988, 276). Although
we have no evidence of such a treatise, Sanches’ reference indicates that he does
not deny the possibility of knowledge tout court but of a certain type of knowl-
Zur Diskussion 213

types of doubts: doubts about religious knowledge (“the theological crisis”), doubts
about cultural knowledge (“the humanistic crisis”), and doubts about scientific
knowledge (“the scientific crisis”) (55). In Popkin’s view, all of these doubts were the
outcome of Montaigne’s nouveau pyrrhonisme.
It is certainly correct that Montaigne worked out his different types of doubts in
closely examining and using Pyrrhonian sources. But does this alone prove that he
subscribed to Pyrrhonism? An answer to this question requires an analysis of the
structure of the doubts we find in Pyrrhonian sources and in Montaigne’s text.
As is well known, the method of doubting presented in Sextus Empiricus’ Outlines
of Pyrrhonism is a procedure involving four steps. These may be summarized as fol-
lows:8 (1) The skeptic makes use of his natural capacity to find a counter-argument or
a counter-phenomenon to each argument or phenomenon he is presented with. (2) He
then realizes that there is an equipollence (isostheneia) in the opposed arguments or
phenomena. (3) This leads him to withhold his judgment (epochê) about which argu-
ment or phenomenon he should assent to. (4) Being no longer disturbed by a search
for the better argument or phenomenon, he reaches a state of tranquillity (ataraxia).
It is important to note that the Pyrrhonian skeptic can apply this method to every
argument or phenomenon that may be presented to him. And in every case he can
find the appropriate counter-argument or counter-phenomenon that outbalances the
one he is confronted with. For that reason he can always reach the point at which he
realizes that he should withhold his judgment. Reaching this point may require more
or less time and more or less effort, depending on the type of argument or phenom-
enon he is dealing with. But in the end he is always able to reach a judgment-free state
and, consequently, a state of tranquillity.
Can we find this method in Montaigne? Does he follow the four steps when devel-
oping his doubts? He certainly starts with step one. In many passages of the “Apolo-
gie” he presents counter-arguments to well known arguments. For instance, he comes
up with a series of arguments testifying that animals can think, thus opposing the ar-
guments showing that only humans are able to think.9 Likewise, he presents argu-
ments designed to prove that animals have virtues, thus opposing the arguments sup-
porting the thesis that only humans are virtuous creatures.10 Now one may expect
that this procedure leads Montaigne to find an argumentative equilibrium which, in
turn, leads him to withhold his judgment. However, this is not the path he follows. In
a crucial passage he states:
“Maintes-fois (comme il m’advient de faire volontiers) ayant pris pour exercice et
pour esbat à maintenir une contraire opinion à la mienne, mon esprit, s’applicant
et tournant de ce costé là, m’y attache si bien que je ne trouve plus la raison de
mon premier advis, et m’en despars. Je m’entraine quasi où je penche, comment
que ce soit, et m’emporte de mon pois.”11

8 See PH I, 8–10 (engl. transl. 4–5).

9 Montaigne 1999, 462a-465a (II, 12).
10 Ibid., 476a-481a.
11 Ibid., 566b.
214 Zur Diskussion

Obviously, Montaigne does not reach the stable state in which he realizes that every
argument is outbalanced by a counter-argument. Rather, he finds himself in a state of
permanent instability. Every time he examines an argument he attaches himself to it
and is completely convinced by it. When he then turns to a counter-argument he is
equally absorbed by it and equally convinced. This leads him to run forth and back
between argument and counter-argument without ever reaching the point at which
he could rest and notice that the arguments outbalance each other. Consequently, he
cannot withhold his judgment. All he can do is fix his attention to a given argument
at a certain time and assent to it for that time; as soon as he turns to another argu-
ment he changes his assent. Given this permanent change, it is not surprising that
Montaigne compares his faculty of reason to an instrument made of lead or wax that
can easily be bent and twisted:12 it adapts itself to new contexts in which new argu-
ments are presented. This means, however, that the “waxen” reason will not be free of
judgments. It will rather make temporally limited judgments that change as soon as
the context and the arguments it is presented with change. In such a situation no state
of tranquillity can be reached. There will be a constant search for new arguments in
new contexts, requiring new judgments.
I hope this brief summary of Montaigne’s skeptical strategy shows his own method
of doubting to drastically differ from the Pyrrhonian method. Of course, assessing
this specific method is not an easy task. A. Hartle, a recent commentator, thinks that
Montaigne radically transformed Pyrrhonian skepticism by introducing a form of
“accidental philosophy” that is always open to new arguments and new contexts.13
F. Brahami even argues that Montaigne opposed Pyrrhonism by giving up the ideal
of intellectual tranquillity and by turning the faculty of reason into a low-grade fac-
ulty that has no power to compare and evaluate arguments. For that reason Brahami
speaks of “a new skepticism” that is far away from the ancient model.14 This may be
an exaggeration because Montaigne clearly uses elements of ancient Pyrrhonism.
But the important point is that his use and eventual transformation of Pyrrhonism
needs to be distinguished from Pyrrhonism itself. Being a reader of Pyrrhonian texts,
Montaigne is not necessarily a nouveau pyrrhonien.
Popkin acknowledges that there are other types of skepticism besides Pyrrhonism
that should be taken into account. One of them is skepticism based on arguments
about divine omnipotence. These arguments rely upon the following hypothesis:
could it not be that God intervenes in our cognitive processes by using his absolute
power? Could it therefore not be that he makes us believe something that is not the
case? W. Courtenay, A. Funkenstein and H. Blumenberg have convincingly shown
that this form of doubt was prominent among philosophers and theologians from the
fourteenth up to the seventeenth century.15 Popkin briefly mentions it, calling it

12 Ibid., 565a: “[…] c’est un instrument de plomb et de cire, alongeable, ployable et

accomodable à tous biais et à toutes mesures.”
13 Hartle 2003, 13–25.
14 Brahami 1997, 58–78.
15 Blumenberg 1988; Courtenay 1990; Funkenstein 1986, ch. 3.
Zur Diskussion 215

“theological skepticism”, but dismisses it as not being relevant for Montaigne (50).
Unfortunately, in his dismissal he does not consider the passages in the “Apologie” in
which Montaigne alludes to the theory about divine omnipotence. This theory even
plays a crucial role in Montaigne’s anthropology, as R. Imbach has shown.16 Even if
one draws a sharp distinction between “theological” and “Pyrrhonian skepticism”,
as Popkin suggests (50), one should not overlook the fact that Montaigne appeals to
both and tries to combine elements of both. The so-called “theological skepticism” is
not simply overshadowed by Pyrrhonian doubts. This becomes again most evident in
the “Apologie”, where Montaigne undermines the privileged place of human reason
by attacking it from two sides: on the one hand, he uses Pyrrhonian examples to il-
lustrate the considerable cognitive capacities of animals, in some cases even surpass-
ing those of humans; on the other, he refers to God’s omnipotence in order to show
that our reason is too weak and dependent on God to attain certain knowledge. Both
strategies serve, as it were, to downgrade human reason.
Given Montaigne’s original use of Pyrrhonism and the way he combines it with
theological skepticism, it is hardly helpful to assign to him a nouveau pyrrhonisme.
What we need is a close examination (a) of the structure of his skeptical arguments,
(b) of the function of these arguments in the contexts in which he uses them, and
(c) of the overall goal of skepticism in the Essais.

Descartes is certainly the most famous figure to have fought in the early modern
battle over skepticism. Popkin devotes to him two entire chapters, one dealing with
the skeptical strategy presented in the First Meditation and another discussing the
skeptical consequences of the Cartesian theory of knowledge. In the first chapter
Popkin closely examines the different types of Cartesian doubt and suggests that we
should distinguish three levels: the level of “partial Pyrrhonism”, which questions
the reliability of our senses; the level of “metaphysical Pyrrhonism”, which is intro-
duced with the dream hypothesis; and the level of “total Pyrrhonism”, which is
reached by means of the evil demon hypothesis (156). No doubt, differentiating be-
tween three levels is a convincing way to structure the First Meditation. But do we
find Pyrrhonism on all three levels, as Popkin argues? In particular, is the third level
to be qualified as “total Pyrrhonism”? To answer this question it is, again, helpful to
briefly look at the structure of Pyrrhonian doubt and to compare it with the doubt
engendered by the evil demon hypothesis.
The Pyrrhonian skeptic introduces his doubt by using the so-called “tropes” that
have a common argumentative structure. The skeptic looks at a certain phenomenon
and then argues as follows:17

16 Imbach 1983, 99–119.

17 For a detailed exposition, see Annas & Barnes 1985, 21–26; Hankinson 1995,
216 Zur Diskussion

(1) x appears F to me in situation S.

(2) x appears G to me in situation S*.
(3) I have no criterion that would allow me to prefer S over S* or vice versa.
(4) Therefore I cannot judge how x really is, but only how it appears to me in a cer-
tain situation.
The important point is that the Pyrrhonian skeptic does not make any judgment
about the real essence of x – the essence that remains the same in all situations. He
cannot even judge if there is such an essence at all. That is why he pursues an essential
skepticism.18 But the Pyrrhonian skeptic does not introduce an existential skepticism,
i.e. doubts about the existence of the things presented to him. For instance, when deal-
ing with a stick partly submerged in water that looks bent to him, he has no doubt
about the existence of this stick. He does not say: “I think there is a stick partly sub-
merged in water, but perhaps there is no stick at all.” All he can say is: “When partly
submerged in water, the stick appears bent to me.” It is the stick itself that appears
bent to him. Even if one extends Pyrrhonian doubts to a large number of examples
that might be presented in order to create a “total Pyrrhonism”, in most cases it will
still be skepticism about the appearance of material things, not about their existence.19
In the First Meditation, by contrast, we do find skepticism about the existence of
material things. We even find global skepticism that does not concern a restricted
number of items, but all things indiscriminately, including the meditator’s own body.
So it cannot simply be a “total Pyrrhonism” that is formulated by means of the evil
demon hypothesis. A new form of doubt, a global existential skepticism, is intro-
duced. This form can be traced back neither to Pyrrhonism nor to any other ancient
form of doubt, as M. Burnyeat convincingly showed.20 For that reason it is not very
helpful to include Descartes in the tradition of the so-called nouveau pyrrhonisme. On

18 I borrow this terminology from Hankinson 1995, 26. Note, however, that
“essence” is to be understood in a broad sense, i.e. as being equivalent to “real
nature” (see PH I, 78, 87, 93, 123, 125, where Sextus speaks about the physis of a
thing), not as an expression referring to an Aristotelian essence that should be
distinguished from accidents. The skeptic does not judge that a thing as a certain
structure comprising essence and accidents.
19 To be sure, there are some passages which may be interpreted as hinting at skep-
ticism about the existence of external things, as Fine 2003, 341–385, recently
pointed out. For instance, in PH II, 72–75, Sextus seems to characterize appear-
ances (phantasiai) not simply as things that appear in a certain way, but as inter-
mediate entities blocking our access to external things. However, even if one fol-
lows Fine in her interpretation of this passage, one can only point out that Sextus
may have supported a local external world skepticism, i.e. a form of skepticism
that questions our access to the existence (not just the essence) of external things
in some particular cases. But one can hardly argue that Sextus defended a global
external world skepticism which would question our access to the external world
in general. For there are many passages, as Fine acknowledges, in which Sextus’s
use of the crucial term “appearances” does not hint at an opposition between in-
termediate entities and external things.
20 See Burnyeat 1982, 3–40; see also Bermúdez 2000, 333–360.
Zur Diskussion 217

the third and last level of his doubts Descartes introduces a form of skepticism that
goes beyond Pyrrhonism.
How then was this new form possible? What led Descartes to come up with exist-
ential skepticism? Unfortunately, Popkin never addresses these questions. But I think
that they ought to be asked and discussed because they are pivotal for an under-
standing of both the function of Cartesian doubts and the assumptions these doubts
are based on. Let me sketch a way to find an answer.
In his existential skepticism Descartes presupposes that we can and should distin-
guish internal objects from external ones. Only when making this distinction can we
ask “Is there really a stick out there in the world when I am thinking about a stick?”,
for only then can we set apart the external stick, whose existence is doubted, from an
internal stick (i.e. the content of my thought) that is immediately present and not
called into question. Yet this distinction is far from being trivial. Not only does it
take for granted that some internal, indubitable object can in fact be grasped by each
of us. It also presupposes a strong thesis in philosophy of mind – a thesis nowadays
called “internalism”. What we think about can be explained by invoking internal
things without assuming any necessary connection with external things. So the cru-
cial question is: how did Descartes become familiar with this internalism that
allowed him to raise doubts about the existence of external things?
I think we need to turn to late scholastic debates to answer this question. For in these
debates, most prominently in discussions about so-called “intelligible species”, we find
the idea that internal objects – the “intelligible species” in our intellect – are the only
objects we can immediately grasp.21 And in some of these debates we find the thesis
that there may be such inner objects without there being any causal link with external
objects.22 Since Descartes was well trained in late scholastic philosophy he knew of this
theory.23 And he also knew that late scholastic authors used the hypothesis of an evil
demon in order to turn this theory into a skeptical challenge. For could it not be that an
evil demon generates an “intelligible species” in our intellect without there being any
external thing represented by it? And could it therefore not be that we only have access
to an internal thing without ever knowing if there is a corresponding external thing?
This is, of course, nothing more than a sketch of an answer to the questions I have
raised.24 Substantial work needs to be done to reconstruct the genesis of Cartesian
internalism; and more work needs to be done still to shed light on the relationship be-
tween late scholastic cognitive theory and Descartes’ philosophy of mind. But I hope
that the sketch at least helps to see that it was hardly Pyrrhonism that motivated
Descartes, but a new conception of the mind and its internal objects.

21 For a history of this theory, see Spruit 1994–95.

22 This thesis can already be found in fourteenth-century texts, for instance in Cra-
thorn’s Commentary on the Sentences. See Pasnau 1997.
23 He could find it, for instance, in Eustachius a Sancto Paulo’s Summa philosophiae
quadripartita, a work he knew quite well and intended to comment.
24 For a more detailed answer, see Perler 2003, 481–512.
218 Zur Diskussion

What consequences can we draw from all these remarks for the history of skepti-
cism in early modern philosophy? Thanks to Popkin’s important work spanning
over five decades we know about the importance of skeptical discussions. And
thanks to his pioneering study of the reception of Pyrrhonism we are aware of
the importance of Hellenistic philosophy in the sixteenth and seventeenth cen-
turies. The value of Popkin’s rediscovery of forgotten sources and neglected auth-
ors cannot be overestimated. However, his thesis that early modern skepticism was
the product of a “Pyrrhonian crisis” needs to be re-evaluated. Unfortunately, the
label “Pyrrhonian” is quite vague because it can be used as characterizing (a) a spe-
cific philosophical method, or (b) a general attitude inspired by ancient sources
which, however, does not necessarily adopt the method described in these sources.25
I hope my previous remarks make clear that the skepticism we find in Sanches,
Montaigne and Descartes cannot be called “Pyrrhonian” in sense (a), because
these authors did not simply use the Pyrrhonian method described by Sextus Em-
piricus. Rather, they appealed to different methods with different scopes and dif-
ferent origins. For that reason they can hardly be called nouveaux pyrrhoniens. It is
not even clear that their skepticism can be qualified as being Pyrrhonian in sense
(b), because not all of them were inspired by Sextus Empiricus and other ancient
authors reporting the Pyrrhonian method. Sanches, for instance, seems to have
been motivated by anti-Aristotelianism. He does not even hint at Sextus’ text as a
source for his skepticism.
So what about the thesis of a “Pyrrhonian crisis”? Perhaps it shares the fate of all
great theses: it is too good to be true. Early modern skepticism can hardly be ex-
plained with reference to a single crisis.26 Nor can it be described as a unified phe-
nomenon with a single source. I think that we should conceive of it as a bundle of
different skeptical strategies that had different sources and different goals. Some of
these strategies were indeed inspired by Pyrrhonism, others by academic skepti-
cism, still others by anti-Aristotelianism, by theological speculations about divine
omnipotence, or by late scholastic cognitive theories. It is this rich variety that
makes early modern skepticism such a fascinating topic for historians of philos-
ophy. And it is the very same variety that makes it appealing to contemporary phi-

25 In order to be methodologically cautious, we should also distinguish between our

use of the label “Pyrrhonian” and the use made by early modern authors. Further
studies are required for assessing the early modern use, which may well differ
from our own, based as it is on new text editions and new interpretations.
26 It may even be misleading to speak about a crisis. Borrowing the term crise pyr-
rhonienne from P. Villey, Popkin assumes that early modern thinkers were shaken
by a psychological crisis. But there is hardly any evidence for such a personal ex-
perience. Larmore 1998, 1158, dryly remarks: “Indeed, the thesis that there was a
sceptical crisis in the early seventeenth century seems generally an exaggeration.
Sceptics such as Charron lived their scepticism without any sense of crisis at all.”
Given the lack of signs indicating a crisis, it would be more appropriate to speak
about a skeptical attitude, in some cases (e.g. with regard to the First Meditation)
even about a skeptical strategy used for non-skeptical purposes.
Zur Diskussion 219

losophers. For it shows that there is no unified form of doubting. What we doubt
and why we doubt always depends on the specific context in which we develop our

Sextus Empiricus:
PH Pyrrôneiôn Hypotypôseôn libri tres. In Sexti Empirici Opera, vol. I, ed.
Mutschmann, H. & Mau, J., Leipzig 1958 (engl. transl.: Outlines of Scep-
ticism, transl. J. Annas & J. Barnes, Cambridge 1994).

Annas, J. & Barnes, J. 1985. The Modes of Scepticism. Ancient Texts and Modern In-
terpretation, Cambridge.
Bermúdez, J. L. 2000. “The Originality of Cartesian Skepticism: Did it Have Ancient
or Mediaeval Antecedents?”. History of Philosophy Quarterly 17: 333–360.
Blumenberg, H. 1988. Die Legitimität der Neuzeit, Frankfurt a. M.
Brahami, F. 1997. Le scepticisme de Montaigne, Paris.
Burnyeat, M. F. 1982. “Idealism and Greek Philosophy: What Descartes Saw and
Berkeley Missed”. Philosophical Review 91: 3–40.
Courtenay, W. J. 1990. Capacity and Volition. A History of the Distinction of Absolute
and Ordained Power, Bergamo.
Fine, G. 2003. “Sextus and External World Scepticism”. Oxford Studies in Ancient
Philosophy 24: 341–385.
Funkenstein, A. 1986. Theology and the Scientific Imagination from the Middle Ages
to the Seventeenth Century, Princeton.
Hankinson, R. J. 1995. The Sceptics, London & New York.
Hartle, A. 2003. Michel de Montaigne. Accidental Philosopher, Cambridge & New
Hume, D. 2000. A Treatise of Human Nature, ed. by D. F. Norton & M. J. Norton,
Oxford & New York.
Imbach, R. 1983. “‘Et toutefois nostre outrecuidance veut faire passer la divinité par
nostre estamine’. L’essai II, 12 de Montaigne et la genèse de la pensée moderne.
Construction d’une thèse explicative”. In Paradigmes de théologie philosophique,
ed. by O. Höffe & R. Imbach, Fribourg, 99–119.
Larmore, Ch. 1998. “Scepticism”. In The Cambridge History of Seventeenth-Century
Philosophy, ed. by D. Garber & M. Ayers, Cambridge & New York, 1145–1192.
Montaigne, M. de 1999. Les Essais, ed. by P. Villey, Paris.
Nicholas of Autrecourt 1994. His Correspondence with Master Giles & Bernard of
Arezzo, ed. by L. M. de Rijk, Leiden.
Pasnau, R. 1997. Theories of Cognition in the Later Middle Ages, Cambridge & New
Perler, D. 2003. “Wie ist ein globaler Zweifel möglich? Zu den Voraussetzungen des
frühneuzeitlichen Skeptizismus”. Zeitschrift für philosophische Forschung 57:
Sanches, F. 1988. That Nothing is Known (Qvod nihil scitvr), ed. by D. F. S. Thomson,
introduction by E. Limbrick, Cambridge.
220 Zur Diskussion

Spruit, L. 1994–95. Species intelligibilis. From Perception to Knowledge, 2 vols.,

Thijssen, J. M. M. H. 2000. “The Quest for Certain Knowledge in the Fourteenth
Century: Nicholas of Autrecourt against the Academics”. Acta Philosophica Fen-
nica 66: 199–223.
Wittwer, R. (forthcoming). Sextus Latinus. Die erste lateinische Übersetzung von Sex-
tus Empiricus’ Pyrrôneioi Hypotypôseis, Leiden.
Zupko, J. 1993. “Buridan and Skepticism”. Journal of the History of Philosophy 31: