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Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592)

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Who Was Montaigne?
Michel del Montaigne was a French statesman and writer. While during his time he was best known for the former role, in our times he is best known as the author of the Essais, literally meaning "attempts", a collection of short essays on the most disparate topics, ranging from cannibalism to skepticism.

The Apology for Raymond Sebond
The longest of the essays is titled Apology for Raymond Sebond. The title is somewhat ironic, in that Raymond Sebond was a well-known Catalan scholar, who lived between the thirteenth and fourteenth hundreds, and most famous for having attempted to explain through reason some of the hardest theological matters. Montaigne’s essay is directed to show that nothing can be known for sure and that Pyrrhonian skepticism is the best philosophical attitude.

Here are some of the most remarkable passages from the Apology.

"The Philosopher Pyrrho being at sea, and by reason of a violent storme in great danger to be cast away, presented nothing unto those that were with him in the ship to imitate but the securitie of an Hog which was aboard, who, nothing at all dismaied, seemed to behold and outstare the tempest. Philosophie after all her precepts gives us over to the examples of a Wrestler or of a Muletier, in whom we ordinarily perceive much lesse feeling of death, of paine, of grief, and other conveniences, and more undaunted constancie, than ever Learning or Knowledge could store a man withall, unlesse he were born and of himselfe through some naturall habitude prepared unto it."

"That ignorance which knoweth, judgeth, and condemneth it selfe, is not an absolute ignorance: for to be so, she must altogether be ignorant of her selfe. So that the profession of the Pyrrhonians is ever to waver, to doubt, and to enquire; never to be assured of any thing, nor to take any warrant of himself. Of the three actions or faculties of the soule, that is to say, the imaginative, the concupiscible, and the consenting, they allow and conceive the two former: the last they hold and defend to be ambiguous, without inclination or approbation either of one or other side, be it never so light."

Montaigne’s Influence
Montaigne’s philosophical work holds a special place in the history of early modern philosophy. Most significantly, this is because of the influence it exercised over Descartes. In the first of his Meditations on First Philosophy Descartes reproposes the main skeptical doubts raised by Montaigne. Arguably, Descartes’s exposition is more systematic. However, rehearsing that position will also sum up Montaigne’s main points against the possibility of a human epistemic point of view that can be considered true in some absolute sense.

First of all, we find the doubts pertaining to the senses – how can we really know that our senses do not skew our view of reality when we realize that other animals have different sensations and that, depending on our physiological state, we do perceive differently? Secondly comes the doubts concerning the very existence of material objects: according to some people, there are ghosts or spirits, while for others that’s nonsense; who’s right and who’s wrong? Finally, comes the doubts concerning our mathematical and logical abilities: who could tell whether our minds are fine-tuned to discern mathematical and logical truths or whether, instead, the brain evolved in such as way that it’s not truth-tracking but is more modestly able to solve some basic mathematical and logical issues that occur in our everyday business?

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