The Character of the Modern Skeptic in the Essais of Montaigne Restricted; Files Only

Matthews, Margaret (Spring 2020)

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This dissertation studies the epistemology of skepticism and its implications for toleration in the Essais of Michel de Montaigne. Whereas Montaigne is often viewed as a Pyrrhonian skeptic, I argue that Montaigne’s methodology is primarily indebted to Ciceronian skepticism, a form of skepticism that integrates the suspension of judgment into the pursuit of probable albeit fallible beliefs. Based on this constructive reinterpretation of Montaigne’s skepticism, I argue that his views on toleration are grounded on epistemological considerations about the nature of belief and the impossibility of coercion rather than the Pyrrhonian suspension of judgment as is often supposed. Whereas many narratives of early modern skepticism emphasize its negative and anti-intellectual potential, I show how Montaigne recovers skepticism as a positive tool for cultivating the type of character conducive to life in a pluralistic society—a use of skepticism with enduring relevance today.

Chapter One introduces Montaigne’s essay project showing how it’s philosophical character consists in the effort to free the mind from dogmatism. Chapter Two introduces the skeptical tradition, setting the stage for a discussion of Montaigne’s place in this tradition. Chapter Three argues that Montaigne is not a Pyrrhonian skeptic nor is he a fideist as is often supposed. Instead, he views the application of Pyrrhonism to religious matters as a self-undermining project. Chapter Four argues that Montaigne’s skepticism is closer to Cicero’s mitigated and constructive skepticism, showing how Montaigne reconstrues the suspension of judgment as a moderate strategy for mitigating presumption and cultivating intellectual freedom. Chapter Five considers Montaigne’s stance on toleration, arguing that his tolerance is not grounded on the Pyrrhonian suspension of judgment on what is good or bad by nature, but instead, on the positive epistemological conclusion that it is impossible to coerce belief. Chapter Six argues that Montaigne is not a relativist as is often supposed, but that reason and sociability act as limits on relativism. This dissertation concludes with a reflection on how the Essais themselves represent an effort to cultivate sociability at the level of character, and bring about the conditions for a stable social order.

Table of Contents


Chapter 1: The Essais as Philosophy

Chapter 2: The Skeptical Tradition

Chapter 3: Pyrrhonian Skepticism and the “Apology for Raymond Sebond”

Chapter 4: Ciceronian Skepticism and Intellectual Freedom

Chapter 5: The Epistemology of Toleration

Chapter 6: Sociable Wisdom and the Limits of Relativism


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