Montaigne -- Comentary

More on reading to understand

You will find the section of the Apology for Raymond Sebond which you are going to analyze in your Class Packet. It follows the last of the Las Casas readings -- that by Juan Comas. The section we are looking at contains 8 pages of text from page 74 through page 81. We are reading Montainge for three reasons. First, there is an intrinsic philosophical interest in skepticism. It is a doctrine well worth understanding all by itself. Second, Renaissance skepticism, of which Montaigne is the best example, has interesting features of its own. Third, understanding skepticism, and Renaissance skepticism in particular, will help you to understand the philosophical efforts of Descartes, which we study next, much better than you would otherwise. Once again, I will try to show you what a detailed analysis of the parts of this text looks like. As you read through the text, take a pencil and mark what you take to be the boundaries of the parts. Pencil is better than pen because this is a process where you are very likely to have to make changes as you come to see the structure of the writing more clearly. Thus it is good to be able to erase.

Figuring out what the parts are is not always easy. Here we also have to consider what the editor had in mind since our eight pages is not a continuous chunk of the Apology. One mark of a division of parts is breaks in the text. Another is finding elipsis marks "..." at the end of a paragraph. More important, however, is Montaigne telling us that he is introducing a new topic -- "That subject has brought me to a consideration of the senses..." tells us that there was another topic being treated previously and now that has brought us to a new topic -- the senses. This is the boundary between one part and another. As it turns out, the part which is the discussion of the senses itself has parts. So, first one wants to find the larger parts. And then one wants to see what the parts of these larger parts are. This is often done by trying to determine what Montaigne thinks the subject of a particular paragraph is, and then looking at the connections between paragraphs. Thus, in the section on the senses (on Pg. 80) we find in the second paragraph, Montaigne argues that the condition in which we find ourselves in sickness and madness, leads the senses to present things to us in a particular way (our senses "accomodate" things to us, depending on our condition. Given this, the same thing is true abour how we view things when we are healthy and normal. In the next paragraph, we find Montaigne arguing that because our senses accomodate things to us, depending on our condition, nothing comes to us unaltered and falsified, so that we no longer know what things are in truth. Clearly there is a connection between these two paragraphs. To see what that connection is may not be obvious. It is something you must look for. When you find it you come to understand that passage. As you come to see how all the parts are connected, you come to understand the whole text. This process is often not easy. It regularly required rereading, asking yourself questions about the connections between the parts, and often enough, consulting secondary sources -- like this commentary.

Sometimes it just is not clear where one part ends and another begins. Here the best thing to do is to pick a point which looks like a plausible ending point and mark it. Even in such cases, however, frustrating as they sometimes are, the process of trying to determine what the parts are moves one towards understanding in a way which is bound to be valuable.

Raymond Sebond's Natural Theology

So, who is Raymond Sebond, and why does he need an Apology. If you are not familiar with the classical use of the word "apology" as in Plato's dialogue of that name, an apology is a defense. Raymond Sebond was a Spanish theologian (possibly a Catalan) who wrote a book called Natural Theology, written in the 1420s or 30s. The book, written in scholastic Latin, aims to firmly establish one in the Catholic faith, free of wavering and doubt. M.A. Screech, describing the book writes;

Sebond firmly bases his method on 'illumination.' He does not claim that human reason by itself can establish Christian truths. Quite the reverse. Without 'illumination' reason can understand nothing fundamental about the universe. But, duly illuminated, man can come to know himself, and his Creator as well as his religious and moral duties, which he will then love to fulfill. It is a method of freeing Man from doubts; it reveals the errors of pagan antiquity and its unelightened philosophers; it teaches Catholic truth and shows up sects as errors and lies. It does all these things by teaching the Christian the 'alphabet' which must be acquired if one is to read Nature aright. (Introduction to An Apology for Raymond Sebond, M.A. Screech, trans, Penguin Books, 1987. Pg. xv)
Screech goes on to explain that in Sebond's view, God gave two books to man -- one the book of creatures or Nature, the other the Bible. In the book of Nature -- given to man at the creation, all created things are like letters of the alphabet; they can be combined into words and sentences which teach lessons about man and God (hence the title of the book Natural Theology). In fact, both the Bible and the book of Nature teach the same lessons. At the Fall, man lost the ability to read the book of Nature. Now, he can only read the book of Nature, if he is enlightened by God and cleansed of original sin. This is why the ancient philosophers could not read the book of Nature.

Pierre Bunel, a Christian humanist from Tolouse, had visited the Chateau Montaigne sometime between 1538 and 1546 and recommended Sebond's book to Montaigne's father as an antidote against Protestantism. Montaigne's father suggested to Michel that he translate Sebond's Natural Theology. His father died in 1568 and in 1569 Micheld de Montainge published his translation of Raymond Seybond's Theologia naturalis. He wrote the Apology for Raymond Sebond in 1576 and it was published as the long twelth chapter of the second part of the Essays in 1580.

The Apology for Raymond Sebond

Why did Montaigne write a defense of the Natural Theology and given that Sebond's book aimed to remove man's doubts, what role could skepticism play in such a defence? In Montaigne's hands, Sebond's method shows enlightened Christians that revealed truths and the book of Nature properly read say the same things. The Apology is divided into two sections which correspond to two assertions of Sebond. The first is that man, when properly enlightened can read the book of Nature correctly. The second is that without God's grace, man can never read the book of Nature correctly. Sebond had been criticized on the grounds that "...Christians do themselves wrong in wishing to support their belief with human reason; belief is grasped only by faith and by private inspirtation from God's grace." (quoted in Screech trans, An Apology for Raymond Sebond Pg. xvi). Montaigne dismisses this view rather quickly. Once one has Faith, it is reasonable to draw on ones other faculties to support it. The second, and much longer section of the Apology is aimed to counter the charge that Sebond's arguments that unaided human reaon cannot read the book of Nature are weak. It is here that Montaigne deploys his arsnel of skeptical arguments to show that unaided human reason (not to mention the senses) cannot give us knowledge. If we were to look at a complete translation of the Apology for Raymond Sebond, we would find that all of the reading we are going to do comes near the end of the second and largest part of that work.

Text Map 1: Apology for Raymond Sebond
Part I of the Apology from Pg. 1 through Pg 10
Part II of the Apology from Pg.11 to Pg. 190
Our selection corresponds to Pp. 140-152 of the Screech translation

We can now turn to our text to look at the nature of skeptical reasoning, and the particular kinds of skeptical arguments which Michel de Montaigne deploys. If we consider the eight pages we are studying, Montaigne passes over a variety of topics. It is possible to cut these up in a variety of ways. In what follows I have maped them to suit my goals to teach you various things about skepticism and Renaissance skepticism.

PART I: Foundations and First principles
Pg. 74 First two paragraphs
PART II: That reality is determinate while human opinion is various and inconstant
Pp. 74 to 81
This section in turn has a series of parts

Part I: Foundations and First Principles

On the first page we are reading, Montaigne introduces an analogy which compares building up a system of knowledge from first principles to building up a house or other building from a foundation. In this analogy, the bulk of the system depends on the first principles in the way in which the bulk of a building rests on its foundations. Once you have first principles, the rest of the parts are easily done, without contradictions. By this path we find our reason well founded, and we argue with great ease."

A diagram of a building with its foundations, side by side with a diagram sytem of knowledge, its first principles -- to show how the parts correspond
This metaphor is one which Descartes adopts and it becomes a program in philosophy for the next three hundred years -- to put knowledge on solid foundations. This effort to base all knowledge in things which we intuitively or self-evidently know for certain is called foundationalism. It is really only in the twentieth century that philosophers have begun to offer alternatives to the search for secure foundations. Note that Montainge rejects this foundationalist approach. He claims that:
If you happen to crash this barrier in which lies the principal error, immediately they have this maxim in their mouth, that there is no arguing against people who deny first principles.
The first part of this sentence is a little ambiguous -- that is open to more than one meaning or more than one interpretation. One might think, for example, that the principal error lies in crashing the barrier -- one should stay within the limits imposed by first principles. This, however, does not seem to be what Montainge has in mind. A more likely interpretation is that the barrier imposed by first principles is the error. Thus it becomes important to crash that barrier, in order to overcome this "principal error." Given Montaigne's skeptical stance, this is far more likely. This intepretation is confirmed at least to some degree by the next sentence which suggests that those who use first principles have a defence against those who try to crash the barrier, which is to claim that there is no way to argue with such folks.

The next paragraph suggests that one can only have first principles if the Divinity reveals them -- and without such revelation, the whole structure of knowledge, from so called first principles through the middle to the last inference deduced, is all "dreams and smoke." Montaigne then suggests that every proposition has as much "weight" as any other, unless reason says otherwise. Here Montainge introduces another metaphor which is characteristic of skeptics, though certainly not confined to them. He suggests that reason is like a scale and that we are going to weight one proposition against another. The metaphor here suggests that if there is more evidence for the truth of one proposition than a competing one (competing propositions are ones which cannot both be true), it is like there being more weight in a balance scale on one side rather than the other. If the scale goes down one way we hold that the proposition is true, if it goes down the other we hold that it is false, and if the scales are equally balanced, we suspend judgement. This is, indeed, a perfectly reasonable way to think about evidence, and about which propositions we should accept as true.

An image of a scale, or perhaps three scales, illustrating the points made above - or perhaps an animation that illustrates all three states of the scale.
Montaigne seems to believe that by proceeding in this way, particularly in regard to first principles, we will come to see that certainty "is a certain token of folly and extreme uncertainty." It is somewhat of an irony that Montaigne goes on to deploy what one might call "the first principle of skeptical reasoning." It is well to try to get clear about this, for we shall encounter it again. We now turn to the second and main part of the reading.

1. Pg. 74 First paragraph after break
"That things do not lodge in us..."Reality is determinate.
2. Pg. 74 Second para. to Pg. 75 "...that our century has produced."
The general nature of the variability and inconstancy of human opinion.
3. Pg. 75 Last full paragraph
The humanist skeptical crisis
4. Pg. 75 Final paragraph to bottom of last full para. on Pg. 76
Scientific skeptical crisis -- Astronomy, Medicine, Physics
5. Pg. 76 Final paragraph to Break on Pg. 77
Discovery of the new world adds to scientific crisis -- Geography
6. Pg. 77 after break to Pg. 80 "...need a judge that never was."
Skepticism in regard to the senses.
This section also has a variety of parts
7. Pg. 80 "To judge the appearances..." to Pg. 81 "...never be finished."
Judging appearances and the problem of the criterion
8. Last five paragraphs on Pg. 81
Existence is not constant

Part II: Parts 1-2 The basic principle of skeptical arguments

In the next paragraph on Pg. 74 Montaigne introduces perhaps the most basic principle of skeptical arguments. Skeptics in the ancient world were inclined to distinguish between appearance and reality, much as Plato did, and to hold (again much as Plato did) that in respect to appearance all we ever have is opinion, while if we grasped reality, what we would have would be knowledge. So:

What is the difference between grasping reality and appearance? One mark of that difference is the assumption made by both Platonists and skeptics alike that reality is determinately one way or another, that a thing has one property or another -- it is one way rather than another. The world of appearance, on th eother has, is a world of change in which things are sometimes one way sometimes another, this in relation to A but not in relation to B and so on. Perhaps a pure example of the determinate character of reality is what Plato says about the Idea or Form of Beauty in the Symposium:
...a nature which in the first place is everlasting, not growing and decaying, or waxing and waning; secondly, not beautiful in one point of view and ugly in another, or at one time or in one relation or at one place beautiful, at another time or in another relation or at another place ugly, as if beautiful to some and-ugly to others, or in the likeness of a face or hands or any other part of the bodily frame, or in any form of speech or knowledge, or existing in any other being, as for example, in an animal, or in heaven or in earth, or in any other place; but beauty absolute, separate, simple, and everlasting, which without diminution and without increase, or any change...
So, if both of us see the form of Beauty -- which is the essence of the beauty in all beautiful things, we will see exactly the same thing. This is what marks it out as being real, rather than apparent beauty. Apparent beauty is beautiful from one perspective but not from another, beautiful at one time but not another, beautiful in one place but not another and so on. The skeptics agree with Plato completely about this. The difference between the skeptics and Plato is that while Plato was convinced it was possible to grasp reality through the exercise of reason and philosophy, the skeptics deny this possibility.

Now let us turn to the world of the senses where we drink wine and find that wood and iron have particular textures. If each of us were to encounter these things and find in them the same properties, we might conclude that we were getting at the reality of things. But it does not work this way. For a variety of reasons we see the same things in different ways. Now the assumption that reality is determinate means that conflicting appearances cannot be true. If we see things differently, both of us cannot be correct. One or the other (or both) of us have failed to grasp the truth. And we need a criterion to decide which one of us has got it right. And that takes you back to the problem of the criterion. So, we cannot accept appearances because they conflict, and we cannot judge between the conflictingin opinions based on them, because we do not have a criterion. Consider now what Montainge says:

      That things do not lodge in us in their own form and essence, or make their own entry into us by their own power and authority, we see clearly enough. Because, if that were so, we should receive them in the same way: wine would be the same in the mouth of a sick man as in the mouth of a healthy man; he who has chapped or numbed fingers would find the same hardness in the wood or iron he handles as another.(Pg. 74)

Montaigne goes on to point out the implications. On the one hand, if we all grasped reality we would have universal consent. On the other, what is actually the case is "that men are in agreement about nothing." (Pg. 75) He then goes on to point out that this kind of disagreement occurs not only between different people but even within ourselves. He then points out that from this knowledge of the mobility of his own opinions he has "accidentally engendered in myself a certain constancy of opinions, and have scarecly altered my original and natural ones." In particular, "...I have, by the Grace of God, kept myself intact, without agitation or disturbance of conscience, in the ancient beliefs of our religion, in the midst of so many sects and divisions which our century had produced." Here we have the alliance between skepticism and Catholicism."

Parts 3-5 The humanist and scientific skeptical crises

In the next couple of paragraphs we get a reference to the humanist skeptical crisis and the skeptical crisis in natural philosophy. --- Montainge's opinions are taken first one way, then another by the ancient authors -- "I find each one right in his turn, although they contradict one another." Rather clearly, this is not a satisfactory situation, if you want to decide which one is right. (Remember reality is determinate!) Montaigne then goes on to consider two conflicting propositions, which we may slightly simplify to the following:

P1. The stars move about the earth.
P2. The earth moves while stars remain still.

Here is an exercise. Answer the following questions:

  1. If you assume that reality is determinate, what follows about about P1 and P2? [Answer: They contradict one another and so cannot both be true.]
  2. Suppose that you have no criterion to determine which of these is true. What should you conclude? (There being no criterion to decide between these two propositions was very much the state of things in the 1570s when Montaigne wrote this. The telescope had not yet been invented or pointed at the stars by Galileo -- this would occur in 1609 -- and even that would not resolve the problem decisively.)[Answer: You should suspend judgement.]

After giving this skeptical argument in regard to astronomy, Montaigne goes on to consider medecine, physics and finally geography. The arguments all turn on the idea that things change, that new things may be discovered, but that we have no reason to trust the new. The arguments in regard to each of the four topics are pretty much the same. What is interesting about the geography argument is that it shows that the discovery of the new world and the voyages of discovery had a direct impact on certain philosophical issues. By showing that the ancients were wrong in their geography it reinforced Renaissance skepticism.

Parts 6-8: Skepticism in regard to the senses (Pp. 77--80)

For many of us, as well as for a philosopher like Aristotle, the senses provide the foundation for human knowledge. We get an enormous amount of information about the world from our eyes and ears, nose, mouth, hands and other parts of our bodies. So, skeptics are at pains to try to demonstrate that judged in terms of the determinate character of reality, the senses are unreliable. Montaigne's discussion of the senses raises issues which remain important through the entire period we are studying.

Montaigne begins, just as I did above, by noting the importance of the senses. He knows his Aristotle, as well as other philosophers who put great emphasis on the senses. So, he begins by saying things like: "Now all knowledge makes its way into us through the senses...Knowledge begins through them and is resolved through them." He continues: "After all, we would know no more than a stone, if we did not know that there is sound, smell, light, taste...weight, softness, hardness, color..." But it is plain that he is going to argue that all of this is not knowledge. For the very first sentence in this section is: "This subject has brought me to a consideration of the senses, in which lies the greatest foundation and proof of our ignorance." So, how is Montaigne going to convince us that what we get from the senses is ignorance and not knowledge?

Skepticism in regard to the senses
Pg. 77 to end of last full paragraph
The importance of the senses to knowledge
Pg. 77 last paragraph to Pg. 78 "...and in its essence..."
Not enough senses to grasp reality as it is
Pg. 78 to Pg. 80 "that never was."
The error and uncertainty of the operation of the senses
This section has a number of parts which together make an argument.
  1. Pg. 78-9 The senses present false impressions to reason, the emotions falsify impressions.
  2. Pg. 79 Being awake we may be dreaming.
  3. Pg. 79 The senses of animals, different from us, should also be consulted.
  4. Pg. 79 To those who are ill with jaundice or hyposphagma things differently than to us. Which of the two is true judgement?
  5. Pg. 80 The senses in normal people vary.
  6. Pg. 80 Every condition -- sickness, madness, dreaming, health imposes a particular appeance on us.
  7. Pg. 80 Since conditions make things appear to us differently, we no longer know what things are in truth.
Pg. 80 "...Furthermore..." to Pg. 81 never be finished."
There is no one able to judge the differences.
Pg. 81 last five paragaphs
Existence is not constant

Montaigne's first point is that we may not have "all the senses of nature" -- which he might need to grasp reality. And he may not even be aware of that fact. Some animals lead fine lives without sight, people blind from birth cannot conceive that they do not see, and many properties which seem hidden to us, e.g. magnetism, may perhaps be perfectly clear to another sense.

Next Montaigne turns to the "error and uncertainty of the operation of the senses." First we are often deceived by our senses, the a trumpet sounds like it is coming from in front of us because it is echoing from a valley but really comes from miles behind and so on. The senses can master reason -- so even a philosopher may be afraid that he will fall from a great height, even though his reason tells him otherwise. Going from the soul to the senses, rather than the senses to the soul, we find that emotions such as anger and love can distort the images we see, making them seem more beautiful and ugly than they would seeem if we were not affected by these passions.

The difference between waking and sleeping also provides some basis for doubt about the adequacy of our senses. When we are dreaming "our soul authorizes the actions" with the same approbation as when we are awake, so perhaps when we are awake we are in a sort of sleep from which it is possible to awake. Then the world might appear very different. Animals see things differently, perhaps better than we do. Similarly, those who are ill, see things differently than healthy people. Whose perception is the correct one? Since we are not in agreement with ourselves or with the animals, how can we tell which impression is the right one? Since each different condition, sickness, health, madness, dreaming and waking, produce different appearances in us, there is no telling what tthings are in truth.

Since there are all of these different ways to perceive things -- animal versus human, mad versus sane, sick versus healthy, passionate or calm, dreaming or waking -- who will judge of the differences between them, to tell us which is the true perception and which false? The judge will always be in one condition or another. To judge the appearances we need an instrument, to verify the instrument we need a demonstration, to verify the demonstration we need an instrument, and we have just reasoned in a circle. This is one piece of the problem of the criterion. We get the second piece in the next paragraph. The senses cannot decide our dispute about which appearance to accept as true, so we must turn to reason. But a reason will require another reason to justify it, and so we get an infinite regress. Thus there is no way to justify a criterion.

Moreover, the images which are provided to us by the senses are different from the objects of which they are images. But how can the soul determine that the images resemble the objects which they represent when it only sees the images and never the objects? It would be like trying to determine if a portrait of a person were accurate without ever having seen the person!

Part 9: Becoming and being

Montaigne concludes by considering that existence is not constant -- both that which judges and that which is judged are in constant change and motion. So nothing can be firmly established. The only way to pass beyond this condition is if God should lend him a hand, and by abandoning and renouncing his own means to rise above his condition. The point of Montaigne's skepticism is then to get humans to renounce their own means of grasping knowledge so as to let himself be raised by purely celestial means.