Pierre-Daniel Huet

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Pierre-Daniel Huet, the last Christian skeptic in the line of Michel Eyquem de Montaigne and Pierre Charron, was born in Caen, Normandy. His father had been converted from Calvinism. Young Huet studied with the Jesuits and, after taking a degree in mathematics, went in 1652 with the Protestant scholar Samuel Bochart to the court of Queen Christina of Sweden. There, he discovered a manuscript of Origen, which later led him to write Origenis Commentaria in Sacrum Scripturam (Rouen, 1668). En route home in 1653 he stopped in The Netherlands, where he met many savants. A discussion with one of them, Rabbi Menasseh (Manasseh) ben Israel, led Huet to write Demonstratio Evangelica (1679).

From The Netherlands Huet returned to Caen, where he founded the Academy of Sciences, corresponded with learned men throughout the world, and worked on his studies on Origen. He often traveled to Paris and entered several of the learned literary salons. His reputation as a man of letters and science grew, and in 1670 Louis XIV appointed him to be Jacques Bénigne Bossuet's assistant as the dauphin's teacher. While holding this post, Huet started a famous set of editions of classical authors, Ad Usum Delphini.

After several years Huet decided to become a priest and was appointed abbot of Aunay and afterward bishop of Soissons. He did not like that post and exchanged it for the bishopric of Avranches. In 1699 he retired to a Jesuit institution in Paris, to which he had donated his enormous library (transferred after the suppression of the Jesuit order to the Bibliothèque Nationale, where it constitutes a basic part of the collection).

Huet wrote many works on history, philosophy, theology, and literature and was regarded by figures like Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz as the most learned man of his age and as an excellent Latin poet. His most philosophically interesting works are the Demonstratio Evangelica, Censura Philosophiae Cartesianae (1689), Nouveaux Mémoires pour servir à l'Histoire du cartésianisme (1692), Questiones Alnetae de Concordia Rationis et Fidei (1692), and its notorious concluding section, the Traité philosophique de la foiblesse de l'esprit humain, published posthumously in 1723.

Huet's Skepticism

Demonstratio Evangelica shows signs of philosophical skepticism and empirical and liberal views. After arguing that no absolute certainty could be attained in mathematics or theology, Huet tries to establish religious truth inductively, by showing the common elements in all religions, ancient and modern. The privileged position of Christianity was primarily because of its expressing best the features of natural revelation. (Doctrinal differences within Christianity had little interest for Huet. Hence, he could join his friend Leibniz in trying to reunite all the churches.)

In Huet's papers there is some material that indicates the special flavor of his skepticism and religious approach. While he was bishop of Avranches, somebody noticed that a Jesuit from Normandy had received a doctorate for a dissertation claiming that there is no evidence that Christianity is true and that of all the religions in the world Christianity is the least probable. This raised a scandal, and the case was turned over to Huet to examine the Jesuit. Huet sent back a report saying that he agreed on everything. Since Christianity is a matter of faith, there should be no evidence and if it were at all probable, that would count as evidence. Further material about this may be found in the massive collection of his papers in the Medici library in Florence, Italy.

Huet's writings against Cartesianism show a much more developed epistemological skepticism. He utilizes all of Sextus Empiricus's weapons to attack René Descartes's claims that the cogito is the fundamental, indubitable truth and that whatever is clearly and distinctly conceived is true. Joining the previous critics Pierre Gassendi, Thomas Hobbes, and Simon Foucher, Huet, in an intensive examination of the Cartesian theory of knowledge, contends that "I think, therefore I am" is a dubious claim and that no certain knowledge about the world could be attained by Descartes's "way of ideas." In Censura and in an unpublished defense of it Huet argues not only that "I think, therefore I am" is an inference but also that it involves a time sequence from the moment when thinking is occurring to the moment when one realizes that one thought and that memory may be inaccurate. If one is immediately conscious of thinking, the realization about the existence is a possible future event. Hence, one cannot be simultaneously aware and certain of the ingredients of the cogito and, thus, of its indubitability.

Besides analyzing the Cartesian arguments, Huet ridicules both the theory and its founder. Nouveaux Mémoires is a spoof about Descartes's life after his supposed death in Stockholm, Sweden, in which Descartes tries to expound his philosophy in Lapland. Huet also joins the Jesuit anti-Cartesians in accusing Cartesianism of irreligion and incoherence, advocating, instead, a type of probabilistic nonmetaphysical view of the world.

The 'TraitÉ Philosophique'

The full presentation of Huet's skepticism appears in the posthumous Traité philosophique, which the Jesuits denounced as a forgery written to embarrass the church. (The manuscript, which is in Huet's handwriting, and discussions in his correspondence eliminate any doubts about Huet's authorship.) The traditional Pyrrhonian position is set forth, criticisms of skepticism are considered and refuted, and a modern skepticism are advocated in opposition to Cartesianism. Huet's skepticism consists of doubting that any genuine knowledge about reality can be attained by human means while offering experimental science and pure fideism as the means for finding out something about nature, God, and man. In Traité philosophique, in his correspondence, and in his marginalia, especially in his copy of Blaise Pascal's Pensées, an extreme fideism appears, in which it is denied that there can be any rational defense of religion. Huet thought Pascal too rationalistic because of his wager argument. Faith, and faith alone, could lead to any religious views. It is difficult to determine what or how much Huet himself actually believed. As a prelate and theologian, he was extremely latitudinarian and was in friendly contact with scholars everywhere, regardless of their religious or nonreligious affiliations.

Huet's Traité philosophique, first published in 1723, was quickly translated into English, Italian, German, and Latin and was studied throughout the eighteenth century. David Hume read it and, like many others, was amused that the author was a total skeptic and a learned clergyman. Huet's contribution to skeptical discussion of the period underlines his explanation of how the skeptic can deal with normal human situations. Huet states, "It is one thing to philosophize, another to live." He then points out that the skeptic, like everybody else, lives according to customs and habits while at the same time doubting that there can be any justification. At the end of book 1, part 4 of A Treatise of Human Nature (1737), Hume gives pretty much the same explanation as Huet. Hume also cites Huet in the Dialogues on Natural Religion, posthumously published in 1779.

In his day Huet was influential and was taken seriously by Leibniz, Pierre Bayle, and others (Benedict [Baruch] de Spinoza even feared that Huet was writing a refutation of his views). A major transitional figure, he helped to destroy Cartesianism and to further empirical science. His immense erudition provided some of the basic materials for the Enlightenment. His pioneering work in comparative religion was taken by later scholars and was used as ammunition against traditional religion. However, his skeptical argumentation was taken less seriously than that of Bayle or Hume.

Recent studies suggest that Huet had an overall theological and philosophical perspective that would be united in the total corpus of his works. So far, there are only piecemeal pictures of it, which show him to be an important scholar of the early Enlightenment. There is still an enormous amount of unpublished material in his correspondence, his markings and notes on books in his library, and in manuscripts of works not completed.

See also Bayle, Pierre; Bossuet, Jacques Bénigne; Cartesianism; Charron, Pierre; Descartes, René; Enlightenment; Foucher, Simon; French Philosophy; Gassendi, Pierre; Hobbes, Thomas; Hume, David; Leibniz, Gottfried Wilhelm; Menasseh (Manasseh) ben Israel; Montaigne, Michel Eyquem de; Origen; Pascal, Blaise; Sextus Empiricus; Skepticism; Spinoza, Benedict (Baruch) de.


works by huet

Demonstratio Evangelica. Paris: Apud Stephanum Michallet, 1679.

A Philosophical Treatise concerning the Weakness of the Human Understanding. London: Printed for G. Dommer, 1725. Originally published as Traité philosophique de la foiblesse de l'esprit humain (Amsterdam: Henri du sauzet, 1723).

Against Cartesian Philosophy. Translated by Thomas M. Lennon. Amherst, NY: Humanity Books, 2003. Originally published as Censura Philosophiae Cartesianae (Paris: Apud Joannem Anisson, 1689).

works about huet

Barthomèss, Christian. Huet, évêque d'Avranches, ou, Le scepticisme théologique. Paris: Imprimerie de Marc Ducloux et Comp., 1850.

Dupront, A. Pierre-Daniel Huet et l'exégèse comparatiste au XVIIe siècle. Paris: Librairie E. Leroux, 1930.

Lennon, Thomas M. "Huet, Descartes, and the Objection of Objections." In Skepticism in Renaissance and Post-Renaissance Thought: New Interpretations, edited by José R. Maia Neto and Richard H. Popkin. Amherst, NY: Humanity Books, 2004.

Maia Neto, José, and Richard H. Popkin. "Bishop Pierre-Daniel Huet's Remarks on Pascal." British Journal of the History of Philosophy 3 (1) (1995): 147160.

Popkin, Richard H. "Bishop Pierre-Daniel Huet's Remarks on Malebranche." In Nicolas Malebranche: His Philosophical Critics and Successors, edited by Stuart Brown, 1021. Assen, Netherlands: Van Gorcum, 1991.

Popkin, Richard H. "Pierre Bayle and Bishop Huet, the Master Sceptics." In The Columbia History of Western Philosophy, edited by Richard H. Popkin, 404411. New York: Columbia University Press, 1999.

Popkin, Richard H. "The New Sceptics: Simon Foucher and Pierre-Daniel Huet." In The History of Scepticism: From Savonarola to Bayle. Rev. ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.

Popkin, Richard H. "The Manuscript Papers of Bishop Pierre-Daniel Huet." In Year Book of the American Philosophical Society, 449453. Philadelphia, PA: American Philosophical Society, 1959.

Rapetti, Elena. Percorsi anticartesiani nelle lettere a Pierre-Daniel Huet. Firenze, Italy: L. S. Olschki, 2003.

Tolmer, Léon. Pierre-Daniel Huet, 16301721: Humaniste-physicien. Bayeux, France: Colas, 1949.

Richard H. Popkin (1967, 2005)

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Huet, Pierre-Daniel (1630-1721)

A celebrated French bishop of Avranches who collected some early reports of vampires. Huet was born on February 8, 1630, at Caen. He was educated at a Jesuit school and by a Protestant pastor and became a great classical scholar. In addition to editing Origen's Commentary on St. Matthew, he studied mathematics, astronomy, anatomy, ocular research, and chemistry and learned Syriac and Arabic. With Ann Lefèvre, he edited 60 volumes of Latin classics.

Huet took holy orders in 1676 and became bishop of Soissons in 1685 and later bishop of Avranches. He died on February 26, 1721. In his Memoirs (translated, 2 vols., 1810) there are many interesting passages relating to the vampires of the Greek archipelago. "Many strange things," he states, "are told of the broucolagnes, or vampires of the Archipelago. It is said in that country that if one leads a wicked life, and dies in sin, he will appear again after death as he was wont in his lifetime, and that such a person will cause great affright among the living." Huet believed that the bodies of such people were abandoned to the power of the devil, who retained the soul within them for the vexation of mankind.

Father François Richard, a Jesuit employed on a mission in the islands, provided Huet with details of many cases of vampirism. On the island of St. Erini (the Thera of the ancients) occurred one of the greatest chapters in the history of vampirism. Huet states that the people of St. Erini were tormented by vampires, and were always disinterring corpses to burn them. Huet states that this evidence is worthy of credence, having come from a witness of unimpeachable honesty who saw what he wrote about. He further says that the inhabitants of these islands cut off a person's feet, hands, nose, and ears after death, and they called this act acroteriazein. They hung the severed parts around the elbow of the dead.

The bishop appears to have thought that the modern Greeks might have inherited the practice of burning bodies from their forebears in classical times, and that they imagined that unless the corpse was burned the soul of the deceased could not rest.

Huet died February 26, 1721.