Seminar on History and Philosophy of Science
In the decades around 1700, Pierre Bayle (1647–1706) was perhaps the most famous man of letters in Europe. His most notorious idea was that a functioning society of virtuous atheists was theoretically possible. Bayle's intentions have been the subject of profound historiographical debate, even generating the idea of an insoluble ‘Bayle Enigma'. This talk will give a new account of Bayle's thought, based on a reading and contextualisation of everything he ever wrote (c. 10 million words). It will emerge that his ideas were not the product of a clandestine irreligion; nor can they be reduced to a Calvinist ‘fideism'. Rather, they should be understood as just one product of a wider, long-term shift in European attitudes towards the nature of knowledge and the capabilities of the human mind. That shift was itself the result of a long-term transformation in conceptions of the capacities of a perfectly rational human, which stemmed from changes in theological and philosophical method, philological scholarship, and new knowledge of non-European societies, especially those of Asia. Far from ushering in an Age of Reason, the period saw the development of a distinctively early modern Critique of Pure Reason. More generally, categories such as ‘rationalism', ‘scepticism', and ‘fideism' turn out to be of very limited use for understanding early modern thought.