My history professor recently told us that Michel de Montaigne—who I had never heard of before—had many of Descartes's ideas before Descartes did and that most of Descartes's arguments were not very original but only rehashes of Montaigne's and others' work. She also claimed that Descartes wrote his Discourse only as an angry retort to some of Montaigne's ideas.

I'm not sure about most of this and am wondering if anyone can shed a bit of light on her claims. (Did Descartes "rip off" Montaigne? Did Montaigne's ideas have more historical significance? Did Descartes write the Discourse (or any other works) solely/mostly as an angry response to Montaigne?) Thanks for your help!

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    I will not accuse your history professor of this, but there is an over-simplified way of understanding Descartes as rehashing Montaigne: Montaigne was a skeptic before Descartes, who is best known for his skepticism. Montaigne was preceded by many ancient skeptics, but is — as historians crudely sometimes lump things — perhaps the first modern one. It could be that that's all your professor means. That said, they are very different kinds of skeptics, in so far as Descartes uses skepticism to justify knowledge, whereas Montaigne doesn't. Commented Nov 2, 2013 at 20:16

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Most of what Descartes wrote was not original. Though there is some debate over whether or not he wrote (at least some of his work) in reaction to Montaigne, none of it could be deemed an angry response. Montaigne was one of France's most important thinkers at the beginning of the Modern period, but was not at all Descartes's sole source of inspiration. Descartes "borrowed" much of his philosophy from both his contemporaries as well as older sources, but this is really nothing new for philosophy or the sciences (Descartes thought himself a scientist)—example) Descartes's most famous quote, "I think, therefore, I am," was borrowed by his friend and contemporary Jean de Silhon. But much of his scholarship was based on his own observations, experiments, and reasoning abilities. A good overview of the sources from which Descartes drew his conclusions and/or directly borrowed his notions is Cambridge's Descartes's Meditations: Background Source Materials.

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