Voltaire’s epistemological theory

If you think about it, you might come to the conclusion that a large part of our lives can be summed up in one task: knowing how to deal with our doubts. We are unable to fully know everything around us, Or even ourselves, but we are still frustrated by it, even if it cannot be avoided. This leads us to feel compelled to position ourselves in the face of these unanswered questions: which of the possible options will we bet on?

Voltaire, the great French philosopher of the Enlightenment, decided to tackle precisely this question. Since there are many things we cannot be sure of, what criteria should we follow to trust some beliefs more and less others? Below we will see what was Voltaire’s theory and how it can be applied to our daily life.

Who was Voltaire?

The word Voltaire is in fact a pseudonym used by the French philosopher and writer François Marie Arouet, Born in Paris in 1694 in a bourgeois family. Although he studied law at university, from an early age he stood out above all for his talents as a writer, and as a teenager he already wrote a tragedy called Amulius and Numitor.

In 1713 Francis managed to get to work at the French Embassy in The Hague, and although he was soon expelled from it by a scandal involving a French refugee, from that point on he began to make himself known in as a writer and playwright, although his popularity also brought him problems. In fact, he was jailed more than once for insulting the nobility and ended up being banished from France. At that time, he had already adopted the pseudonym of Voltaire; more precisely, he did so during one of his exiles in a French rural locality.

So, Voltaire he was expelled from France in 1726 and headed for England, A place where he is imbued with the philosophy and epistemology of the place. Upon his return to France in 1729, he published writings defending the line of thought of materialist philosophers such as John Locke and the areas of scientific knowledge of Newton that Voltaire considered to have not yet reached a dogmatic and irrational France.

During this time, Voltaire began to enrich himself through speculation and his writings, although many were banned given, among other things, his criticisms of the religious fanaticism of Christian roots which abounded in the country. He died in 1778 in Paris.

Voltaire’s theory of knowledge

The main characteristics of Voltaire’s work are as follows.

1. Certainty is absurd

Voltaire’s philosophical starting point may sound pessimistic, but in reality, in the context of his time, he was revolutionary. In Europe, until the time of the Enlightenment, the task of philosophy and much of science had been to rationalize the explanations of how the existence of the Christian god was revealed through what could be investigated. Basically, the Church’s word on any subject was taken for granted, so that knowledge was erected on a structure of dogma which, as such, could not be questioned.

Voltaire’s epistemological theory begins with a total rejection of dogmatism and a proactive search for valid knowledge acquired by empirical contrast.

2. Rejection of innatism

Voltaire completely broke with the rationalist tradition which had taken root in France so strongly since René Descartes published his works. This implies, among other things, that for Voltaire we were not born with innate concepts in our brains, But we learn totally by experience.

3. The doubt is reasonable

As we only depend on experience to learn, and as this is always incomplete and mediated by senses that often betray us, Voltaire comes to the conclusion that it is impossible to know faithfully the whole truth about what is real and what is not. It can be disheartening, but any other conclusion cannot be logical.

4. We can handle the doubt

Beyond knowing if we can get to know the exact reflection of what exists, Voltaire believes that what matters is what we do with the doubts we have, and the way in which we learn to distinguish between reasonable possibilities and unreasonable ones. How do you get there?

5. Reject dogmas

This point is derived from the above. If the doubt is reasonable and innate knowledge does not exist, there is no reason to take some ideas for granted just because they are widely accepted or some institutions vehemently defend them.

6. The importance of education and science

Absolute certainties may be dead, but this, in turn, gives us the opportunity to create more authentic and much better constructed knowledge. Through freedom of expression, critical thinking fueled by education and the test-submission of hypotheses by science, it is possible to bring our ideas closer to the truth.

So what it takes to deal with doubts is, according to Voltaire’s theory, an attitude that makes us doubt everything, the ability to develop ways of seeing how our beliefs fit in with reality, and science, which for this philosopher would not be more of an institution, but a new form culturally perfected to obtain much more reliable information to which we were accustomed.

Of course, not all of us have scientific measuring devices or tools for analyzing knowledge and data, but these philosophical principles help us understand something important. To know something, you need to put effort into it, analyze it critically, and turn to factual sources of information.

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