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The Specter of Skepticism in the Age of Enlightenment

, 376 pages

3 halftones

October 2016



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The Specter of Skepticism in the Age of Enlightenment


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.

Anton M. Matytsin is an assistant professor of history at Kenyon College.

"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.""

"While we reflexively apply Kant’s adage, "dare to know," to the Enlightenment, Anton Matytsin argues, in this brilliant and recondite book, that eighteenth-century philosophy is better understood as a response to the opposite injunction: the skeptical call "not to know," and to doubt all knowledge. Faced with the prospect of general uncertainty, Enlightenment philosophers devised new arguments and probabilistic methods for grounding knowledge. This book will be required reading for anyone grappling with questions about epistemology in the so-called Age of Reason."

"... 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."

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