The Paradoxes of Ignorance in Early Modern England and France
Sandrine Parageau


Contents and Abstracts
chapter abstract

Outlining the intellectual, political, and religious contexts of this study, the introduction emphasizes the role of the Reformation and "Scientific Revolution" in early modern reassessments of ignorance. It describes the doctrines of ignorance available to early modern authors: Socratic wisdom, Petrarch's Ciceronian ignorance, Cusanus's docta ignorantia, and the paradoxical discourse. Challenging the impact of skepticism, this study assesses the early modern legacies of those doctrines, arguing that ignorance was rehabilitated at the time, and that this rehabilitation took different forms in England and in France. The introduction also raises the question of a secularization of ignorance in the context of the emergence of modern science. This intellectual history of early modern ignorance contributes to the field of ignorance studies, which so far has neglected the historical relevance of ignorance. It sheds light on three virtues of ignorance: as a form of wisdom, a principle of knowledge, and an epistemological instrument.

1 Fortunes of Docta ignorantia in Early Modern England and France
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This chapter examines the legacy of Cusanus's doctrine of learned ignorance, or docta ignorantia, in early modern France, especially in the works of Montaigne, Charron, and Descartes, who presented ignorance as a superior mode of wisdom, hence their calls for intellectual humility and simplicity, and their denunciation of erudition. Although generally critical of docta ignorantia, the libertins érudits also testify to the interest in Cusanus's doctrine in early modern France. In England, on the contrary, learned ignorance was commonly interpreted as "epistemic restraint," following Calvin, and rarely associated with Cusanus. Although Cusanus's mystical theology was well received among religious radicals of the mid-seventeenth century, learned ignorance did not lead to an intellectual tradition in England as it did in France. For English theologians and philosophers, learned ignorance meant nothing more than the recognition and acceptance of the limits imposed by God on human knowledge.

2 English Experimental Philosophy and Doctrines of Ignorance
chapter abstract

Most English experimental philosophers strongly rejected medieval and Renaissance doctrines of ignorance, following Francis Bacon's systematic attack on all forms of ignorance in The Advancement of Learning (1605). This chapter contends that Bacon precisely aimed at followers of Cusanus and authors of paradoxical discourses when he wrote his defense of learning. The text had a strong impact on conceptions of knowledge and ignorance all along the seventeenth century in England. Fellows of the Royal Society thus defended Bacon's program for the advancement of learning against promoters of ignorance, especially against those who argued that God wanted men and women to remain ignorant, as his choosing illiterate fishermen for his apostles clearly showed.

3 Ignorance and the Internal Light
chapter abstract

Some argued in the seventeenth century that the internal light allegedly present in all men and women guaranteed an immediate and spontaneous access to truth through inspiration, making learning superfluous and even an obstacle to one's access to knowledge. The light thus shone all the more vividly in ignorant people. Two expressions of the internal light are studied in this chapter: the natural light related to reason and intuition in Descartes's philosophy, and the inner light or "Christ within" in Quaker theology—two conceptions that came to be assimilated in the seventeenth century, mostly in the Netherlands and in England, by Martin Schoock and Meric Casaubon, in particular. For them, Descartes and the Quakers similarly perceived learning as an obstacle to inspired knowledge, and therefore praised ignorance as a principle of knowledge.

4 Ignorance, Inspiration, and Religious Knowledge
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This chapter focuses on the debates raised by the idea that the internal light alone, and therefore ignorance, might paradoxically lead to knowledge. It first presents the stances of Charles Sorel and Richard Baxter, who insisted that ignorance could never be a precondition to knowledge. It then focuses on one of the consequences of the praise of ignorance in the religious context: with the rise of sectarianism in mid-seventeenth-century England, the claim that the internal light was sufficient in itself to know God entailed a radical questioning of the relevance and necessity of the church ministry. In the 1650s, a debate set the promoters of divine inspiration against the defenders of a learned clergy. To illuminate the relation between ignorance, inspiration and the internal light, this chapter finally focuses on the character of Ignorance presented in John Bunyan's widely read allegory, The Pilgrim's Progress (1678).

5 Fictions of Ignorance
chapter abstract

This chapter shows how various fictions of ignorance could be used as epistemological tools in the early modern period. By imagining a blank understanding or naked mind, ignorant of all forms of knowledge, natural philosophers hoped to convey a faithful image of this faculty. Fictions of ignorance were indeed used to get a representation of the understanding in its purest form, prior to the acquisition of knowledge. The aim was to improve the methods of discovery thanks to better knowledge of the mechanisms of the understanding. Fictions of ignorance were primarily the tabula rasa, narratives of autodidactic access to scientific knowledge, and the "conceptual persona" of the Idiot, often depicted as a model natural philosopher in England and in France, following Cusanus's De idiota. It was assumed that, thanks to their ignorance of classical learning, the Idiot could observe "the book of nature" better than scholars.

6 Ignorance and Chance Discovery
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This chapter examines the myth of the illiterate inventor, a topos in the early modern period, and inquires whether ignorant people were deemed to have specific qualities that rendered them more likely than scholars to make discoveries by chance. The chapter argues that one of those qualities was sagacity, which played an essential part in the philosophies of Francis Bacon and René Descartes. In the context of late seventeenth-century English and French scientific academies, artisans were supposed to be the very embodiment of such sagacity, and thus a model for the natural philosopher. But their illiterateness could also be conceived as an obstacle to polite interactions with natural philosophers. The chapter finally contends that the Baconian program devised means to imitate or experimentally reproduce the conditions that led to chance discoveries by the illiterate, with the aim to appropriate this kind of discovery and improve scientific method.

7 John Locke's Anthropology of Ignorance
chapter abstract

The main purpose of this chapter is to demonstrate that the notion of ignorance is central to John Locke's philosophy. After an analysis of Locke's conception of ontological ignorance, its nature, extent, causes, and consequences, the chapter shows how ignorance could be remedied and even made useful in Locke's thought. Locke resorted to fictions of ignorance, and therefore used ignorance to convey an image of the understanding. He also insisted on the measure of human ignorance as a preliminary step to the acquisition of knowledge, and, so doing, "anthropologized" ignorance. Moreover, the argument from ignorance enabled him to justify toleration in a political and religious context. Finally, the chapter insists on the importance of the social dimension of ignorance in Locke's philosophy, and its relation with education and the conduct of the understanding. This chapter thus shows how ignorance was introduced into the scientific discourse of the late seventeenth century.

chapter abstract

The conclusion shows that ignorance should be reinstated as one of the foremost conceptual issues of the early modern period. It synthetizes the distinction between two "national" traditions that revealed diverging receptions of medieval and Renaissance doctrines of ignorance: a French tradition that praised ignorance as a mode of wisdom and a principle of knowledge, and an English tradition that rejected all forms of ignorance, except as an epistemological instrument. The conclusion shows that this binary opposition should be complexified, as the examples of English radical religious groups and French libertins érudits demonstrate. It suggests that the various attitudes to ignorance may eventually be clarified thanks to a reevaluation of the relation between wisdom and truth in early modern England and France. Finally, the legacy of Locke's conception of ignorance in the eighteenth century is presented, through its success in encyclopedias and in Voltaire's Philosophe ignorant of 1766.