Graduation Year


Document Type




Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)

Degree Granting Department


Major Professor

Roger Ariew, Ph.D.

Co-Major Professor

Douglas Jesseph, Ph.D.

Committee Member

Alexander Levine, Ph.D.

Committee Member

William Goodwin, Ph.D.


Academic, Cartesian, Humean, hyperbolic doubt, Montaigne, Pyrrhonism


The aim of this dissertation is to provide a critique of the idea that skepticism was the driving force in the development of early modern thought. Historian of philosophy Richard Popkin introduced this thesis in the 1950s and elaborated on it over the next five decades, and recent scholarship shows that it has become an increasingly accepted interpretation. I begin with a study of the relevant historical antecedents—the ancient skeptical traditions of which early modern thinkers were aware—Pyrrhonism and Academicism. Then I discuss the influence of skepticism on three pre-Cartesians: Francisco Sanches, Michel de Montaigne, and Pierre Charron. Basing my arguments on an informed understanding of both ancient Greek skepticism and some of the writings of these philosophers, I contend that it is inaccurate to predominantly characterize Sanches, Montaigne, and Charron as skeptics. To support his thesis about the singular influence of skepticism on early modern thought, Popkin says that René Descartes’ metaphysical philosophy was formed as a response to a skeptical threat and that Descartes ultimately conceded to the force of skepticism. He also argues that David Hume was a Pyrrhonist par excellence. I disagree with Popkin’s claims. I argue that Descartes was not as deeply affected by skepticism as Popkin suggests and that it is inaccurate to characterize Hume as a Pyrrhonist. By offering this critique, I hope to make clear to the readers two things: first, that Popkin’s thesis, though it is both enticing and generally accepted by many scholars, is questionable with regard to its plausibility; second, that the arguments I present in this dissertation reveal that further research into the role of skepticism in early modern philosophy is in order.

Included in

Philosophy Commons