Le Clerc, Jean (1657–1736)

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Although Jean Le Clerc, the philosopher and Arminian theologian, was not a major figure, he had a considerable influence on eighteenth-century French philosophy. He championed rational religion, which was later widely accepted, and was also the first disciple of John Locke, whose work he introduced to Continental audiences. Through his learned reviews, the Bibliothèque universelle et historique (16861693), the Bibliothèque choisie (17031713), and the Bibliothèque ancienne et moderne (17141727), he stated and defended Locke's views.

Raised in Geneva during a period of strife over the Calvinist dogma of predestination, Le Clerc was a confirmed rationalist when he left the Geneva Academy. He believed that the fundamentals of Christianity (God's existence and the divinity of Scripture) are capable of demonstration. Scripture must be rationally interpreted; one cannot believe what conflicts with rational truths, and doctrines over which rational men disagree are not essentials of faith. For this doctrine, Le Clerc was expelled from Geneva in 1683.

He went first to England and then settled permanently in Holland, a haven for political and religious exiles. He found a spiritual home in the rationalistic Remonstrant Church and soon became professor of Hebrew, philosophy, and belles-lettres at the Remonstrant College at Amsterdam. At this time Le Clerc met John Locke, then in exile, and acquired a systematic philosophy. In 1688, two years before the English publication of the Essay concerning Human Understanding, he printed a long French summary in his Bibliothèque universelle. He also helped popularize many other English writers and published a long review of George Berkeley's New Theory of Vision in the Bibliothèque choisie (1711).

Le Clerc's philosophy was purely Lockean. He rejected innate ideas, used the notion of abstract ideas, and continued the critique of the idea of substance. He opposed René Descartes, Nicolas Malebranche, Benedict de Spinoza, and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz because their theories claim knowledge beyond human ideas. However, whereas Locke was indifferent to the rise of radical skepticism, Le Clerc was quite critical of it. He vigorously asserted the reality of human knowledge, although restricting its scope, and tried to refute each of the leading skeptics (Sextus Empiricus, Michel Eyquem de Montaigne, Pierre-Daniel Huet, and Pierre Bayle). He became involved in an acrimonious dispute with Bayle, who argued that the conflict between fundamental Christian doctrines and the principles of reason must be considered as a basis for skepticism regarding reason. To Le Clerc, Bayle's view led to irreligion or fanaticism. He insisted that reason is the criterion of truth and that faith and reason are compatible.

See also Arminius and Arminianism; Bayle, Pierre; Berkeley, George; Descartes, René; Determinism, A Historical Survey; Huet, Pierre-Daniel; Innate Ideas; Leibniz, Gottfried Wilhelm; Locke, John; Malebranche, Nicolas; Montaigne, Michel Eyquem de; Rationalism; Sextus Empiricus; Skepticism, History of; Spinoza, Benedict (Baruch) de.


works by le clerc

Logica, sive Ars Ratiocinandi. Amsterdam, 1694.

Ontologia, sive de Ente in Genere & Pneumatologia. Amsterdam, 1694.

Physica, sive de Rebus Corporeus libri quinque. Amsterdam, 1696.

Vita et Opera ad Annum 1711. Amsterdam, 1711. This work includes the philosophical texts listed separately above.

works on le clerc

Barnes, Annie. Jean Le Clerc et la république des lettres. Paris: E. Droz, 1938. Contains details on Le Clerc's often stormy career.

Colie, Rosalie. Light and Enlightenment, a Study of the Cambridge Platonists and Dutch Arminians. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1957. Contains a discussion of Le Clerc's thought.

Haag, Eugene, and Émile Haag. La France protestante. Paris: J. Cherbuliez, 1846. This work and the Barnes mentioned above contain bibliographies of Le Clerc's diverse works on philosophy, theology, history, philology, and biblical criticism.

Phillip D. Cummins (1967)

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Le Clerc, Jean (1657–1736)

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