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Scepticism, Renaissance

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-C038-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved July 07, 2020, from

Article Summary

Ancient Greek scepticism was revived during the Renaissance, and played an important role in the religious and philosophical controversies of the time. There is little evidence that ancient scepticism was known directly during the Middle Ages, or that its perplexing questions played any significant role in medieval thought. It was indirectly known from the writings of Augustine; some manuscripts of the texts of Cicero and Sextus Empiricus were available; and occasionally vague reference to some sceptical details appears in medieval discussions. However, the interests of scholastic philosophers were, by and large, far removed from the questions about the sources, reliability and certainty of knowledge claims that concerned the ancient sceptics. With the humanistic revival of interest in ancient literature there came a rediscovery of scepticism as presented in the writings of Cicero, Sextus Empiricus and Diogenes Laertius. Cicero’s Academics (Academica) was read from the fourteenth century on; Life of Pyrrho by Diogenes Laertius was rediscovered in the early fifteenth century; and Greek manuscripts of the writings of Sextus were brought from Constantinople into Italy in the mid-fifteenth century. These treasuries of sceptical argumentation were used in many ways in the Renaissance. At first they were seen largely as sources of information about the ancient world, but gradually more attention was paid to the actual arguments they contained. Some saw these arguments as a basis for rejecting Aristotelian philosophy, as well as other ancient dogmatic claims about nature and humanity. Others used them as ammunition in the great religious controversies between Catholics and Protestants. A full-fledged scepticism about knowledge claims was developed in the second part of the sixteenth century, through the work of Sanches and Montaigne. Montaigne was particularly inspired by the first published Latin translations of the writings of Sextus Empiricus. Scepticism in all its forms was closely associated with fideism. If it is impossible to acquire knowledge of anything through the senses and reason, then it is impossible to acquire knowledge of God in these ways, and one can argue that religious truth must be accepted on the basis of faith in divine revelation. The weak recommendation of ancient sceptics to suspend belief while accepting local customs as the guide for conduct was thus turned into a strong recommendation to adopt Christian beliefs. Only later did epistemological scepticism become associated with scepticism about religious beliefs themselves. Renaissance scepticism in its various guises was a major intellectual force in the transition from scholasticism to modern thought.

Citing this article:
Popkin, Richard H.. Scepticism, Renaissance, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-C038-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2020 Routledge.

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