Reading “RM” 4: Starting on Skepticism, Cartesian and Pyrrhonian

Montaigne’s Book III essays are crossroads of skepticisms.  As a way taking up Merleau-Ponty’s take on Montaigne’s skepticism, I want to say a little about the skepticisms that I do not find as such in Montaigne.

Cartesian Skepticism.  I certainly do not mean by this that there are no moments of epistemological skepticism in Montaigne.  There are.  But they are not Cartesian, as I understand Cartesian skepticism.  Cartesian skepticism incorporates a method, first and paradigmatically exampled in the Meditations. The crucial phenomenological feature  of Cartesianism—namely the gap it finds between itself and the world—is the residue of the method.  I do not mean that the gap is methogenic, in Marvin Farber’s term, i.e., an artificial and properly discountable effect of the method itself, one overcome not by solving it within the confines of the method, but enlarging the conception of method, so that the feature vanishes, much like certain optical illusions do when we allow ourselves to get up and walk around the source of the illusion, instead of staring fixedly at it. No, I am not claiming that the Cartesian’s gap is methogenic. But I do want the connection between the method and the gap to be clear:  the Cartesian method is a gap-displaying method.  But in Montaigne, even in his moments of epistemological skepticism, no gap yawns. And, even more clearly, there is little if any method of any Cartesian sort in Montaigne’s moments of epistemological skepticism.  We need to understand such moments; but treating them as speciations of Cartesian skepticism will not help us.

Pyrrhonian skepticism.  Montaigne favors epistemic modesty but he is not advocating epistemic chastity, an epistemic policy of withholding of assent (whether it is withheld generally or only in the face of a particular class of propositions). One reason why disentangling Montaigne from Pyrrho is tricky is that Montaigne’s skepticism permeates him, permeates what he takes to be an artful, and so happy, life.  Call this the existential demand of Montaigne’s skepticism.  Pyrrhonism makes its own existential demand.  (Cartesian skepticism makes no existential demand. In fact, in the argumentative economy of the Meditations Cartesian skepticism not only makes no existential demand, but it is crucial that its making an existential demand is not fully intelligible.)  The state that the Pyrrhonian seeks to cultivate, call it a state liberated from the coils of dogmatism, differs from the one that Montaigne seeks to cultivate, although he is no fan of dogmatism.  I will investigate that difference when I turn to characterizing Montaigne’s skepticism positively.

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