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The epistemological theory of Voltaire

The epistemological theory of Voltaire

July 29, 2022

If you think about it, you may come to the conclusion that a large part of our lives can be summarized in one task: knowing how to manage our doubts. We are unable to fully know everything that surrounds us , or even ourselves, but in spite of that we are frustrated by it, although it can not be avoided. This leads us to feel obliged to position ourselves before these unanswered questions: for which of the possible options will we bet?

Voltaire, the great French philosopher of the Age of the Enlightenment, decided to address this issue fairly. Given that there are many things that we can not be sure of, what criteria should we follow to trust more in certain beliefs and less in others? We'll see now what was this theory of Voltaire and how can it be applied to our day to day .


Who was Voltaire?

The word Voltaire it's really a pseudonym used by the French philosopher and writer François Marie Arouet , born in 1694 in Paris in a middle class family. Although he studied law at the university, from a very young age he was especially noted for his writing skills, and as a teenager he had already written a tragedy of name Amulius and Numitor.

In the year 1713, François was able to enter the French embassy in The Hague, and although he was expelled from it soon after a scandal involving a French refugee, from that moment on he began to gain fame as a writer and dramatist, although his popularity also brought him problems. In fact, he was imprisoned more than once for insulting the nobility, and ended up being banished from France. By then, he had already adopted the pseudonym Voltaire; specifically he did during one of his exiles to a rural French town.


So, Voltaire he was expelled from France in the year 1726, and headed for England , place where it was imbued with the philosophy and epistemology of the place. When he returned to France in 1729, he published writings defending the line of thought of materialist philosophers such as John Locke and Newton's science areas of knowledge that Voltaire considered had not yet reached a dogmatic and irrational France.

Meanwhile, Voltaire began to be enriched by speculation and his writings, although many were prohibited given, among other things, his criticism against the religious fanaticism of Christian roots that abounded in the country. He died in 1778 in Paris.

Voltaire's theory about knowledge

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

1. Certainty is absurd

Voltaire's philosophical starting point may seem pessimistic, but in reality, in the context of his time, he was revolutionary. In Europe, up to the time of the Enlightenment, the task of philosophy and much of science had been to rationalize explanations about the way in which the existence of the Christian god was revealed through what could be investigated. Basically, the word of the Church was taken as good on any subject, so that knowledge was built on a structure of dogmas that, as such, could not be questioned.


Voltaire's epistemological theory begins with a total rejection of dogmatism and a proactive search for valid knowledge obtained through empirical testing.

2. Rejection of innateness

Voltaire broke completely with the rationalist tradition that had taken root in France in such a strong way since René Descartes published his works. That implies, among other things, that for Voltaire we are not born with innate concepts in our brains , but we learn totally through experience.

3. The doubt is reasonable

As we only depend on experience to learn, and since it is always incomplete and mediated by meanings that often betray us, Voltaire concludes that it is impossible to get to know in a faithful way the whole truth about what is real and what not. This can be discouraging, but any other conclusion can not be logical.

4. We can manage the doubt

Beyond whether or not we can get to know the exact reflection of what exists, Voltaire believes that the important thing is what we do with the doubts we have, and the way in which we learn to discriminate between reasonable possibilities and others that are not . How to get this?

5. Reject the dogmas

This point is derived from the previous ones. If doubt is reasonable and innate knowledge does not exist, there is no reason to accept certain ideas simply because they are very accepted or certain institutions defend them with great vehemence.

6. The importance of education and science

Absolute certainties may have died, but that, in turn, gives us the possibility of creating a more genuine, much better constructed knowledge. Thanks to freedom of expression, critical thinking fueled by education and the testing of hypotheses through science, it is possible to make our ideas closer to the truth.

So, what is necessary to manage the doubts is, according to Voltaire's theory, an attitude that leads us to doubt everything, the ability to develop ways of seeing how our beliefs fit with reality, and science, which for this philosopher It would not be just another institution, but a new culturally improved way to obtain much more reliable information than we were used to.

Of course, not all of us have scientific measuring devices or knowledge and data analysis tools, but these philosophical principles help us understand something important. To know something, you have to dedicate effort to it, analyze it critically, and go to sources of information based on evidence.


PHILOSOPHY - René Descartes (July 2022).


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