SEM :19/02/2021, S. Parageau, “Ignorance, inspiration and the inner light in early modern England”, 5.30 pm

The second session of the Paris Early Modern Seminar (PEMS) for 2021 will be held online on February 19, 2021, from 5.30 to 7pm (Paris time):

Sandrine Parageau (Université Paris Nanterre/IUF), “Ignorance, inspiration and the inner light in early modern England”


In seventeenth-century England, ignorance was commonly defined as a disability inherited from Adam’s Fall, and as such it was perceived as a sin by the Calvinist clergymen of the time. In the non-religious discourse, ignorance was defined as a flaw or as a disease that should be cured in order to prevent dramatic consequences, especially credulity and the dangerous behaviour it could entail. Yet, in the same context, a number of theologians and philosophers seemed to view ignorance in a favourable light, even as a principle of knowledge. They argued that learning obscured man’s internal light, which was supposed to guarantee an immediate and spontaneous access to truth. They believed as a consequence that the inner light shone all the more vividly in the ignorant man or woman. Hence their calls to make oneself ignorant in order to reach truth and knowledge. This is how Quaker theology and Cartesian philosophy were interpreted by defenders of learning in Restoration England: the emphasis placed on inspiration by the religious sect and the “radical doubt” promoted by the French philosopher were assimilated and perceived as two equally dangerous celebrations of ignorance that might eventually endanger the very order of society.

            This talk will first present the role of ignorance in relation to inspiration and the internal light in Quaker theology and Cartesian philosophy. It will then examine the arguments of those who interpreted such doctrines as calls for ignorance, and who therefore endeavoured to refute them.


Sandrine Parageau is Associate Professor at Université Paris Nanterre and a fellow of the Institut Universitaire de France. Her main research interests lie in the history of ideas of the early modern period. She has worked extensively on early modern women philosophers (Les Ruses de l’ignorance. La contribution des femmes à l’avènement de la science moderne en Angleterre, Presses Sorbonne Nouvelle, 2010, and, ed. with Line Cottegnies, Women and Curiosity in Early Modern England and France, Brill, 2016). She also works on Francis Bacon’s natural histories. She is preparing a French translation and critical edition of Sylva sylvarum (1626) with Claire Crignon and Sylvie Kleiman-Lafon, and has co-edited an issue of Archives de philosophie (2021) on Bacon’s conception of experimentation. Finally, she recently completed a monograph on the history of ignorance in early modern England and France, which focuses on the virtues attributed to ignorance at the time. The paper that she is going to give for the Paris Early Modern Seminar presents one aspect of this enquiry into early modern intellectual history.

Respondent: Luc Borot (Université Paul Valéry – Montpellier 3)