Much modern thought, in the wake of Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud has been characterized as anti-humanist: as minimizing human beings' autonomy and casting doubt on their self-understanding. Human beings' spontaneous understanding of their experience is deeply flawed. But this critical stance towards experience can be traced in the thinkers studied here, even if, for various reasons (Descartes's ideal of man's mastery of nature through science and technology; Pascal's religious pessimism) they may seem unpalatable to many moderns. Methodologically, the book adheres to Quentin Skinner's position that understanding historical texts involves a grasp of the author's intentions, and the context with which he or she is engaging, so that we should not blithely substitute our set of problems and concepts for theirs, though the occasional comparison with subsequent bodies of thought is argued to be justified.
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