Voltaire’s Epistemological Theory

This French philosopher was one of the great defenders of freedom of expression and science.

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 around us, or even ourselves, but despite that we get frustrated by it, although it cannot be helped. That leads us to feel obliged to position ourselves before these unanswered questions: which of the possible options will we bet on?

Voltaire, the great French philosopher of the Enlightenment era, decided to tackle precisely this issue. Given that there are many things we cannot be sure of, what criteria should we follow to trust certain beliefs more and less on others? Next we will see what this theory of Voltaire consisted of and how it can be applied to our day to day.

Who was Voltaire?

The word Voltaire is actually a pseudonym used by the French philosopher and writer François Marie Arouet, born in 1694 in Paris into a middle-class family. Although he studied law at university, from a very young age he stood out especially for his writing skills, and as a teenager he had already written a tragedy called Amulius and Numitor .

In 1713, François managed to work at the French embassy in The Hague, and although he was soon expelled from it due to a scandal in which a French refugee was involved, from that moment he began to gain fame 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. By then, he had already adopted the pseudonym Voltaire ; He specifically did it during one of his exiles to a rural French town.

Thus, Voltaire was expelled from France in the year 1726, and went to England, where he imbibed the philosophy and epistemology of the place. When he returned to France in 1729, he published writings defending the line of thought of materialistic 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 enrich himself through speculation and his writings, although many were banned due to, among other things, his criticism of the religious fanaticism of Christian roots that 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 seem 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 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 for granted 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 from a total rejection of dogmatism and a proactive search for valid knowledge obtained through empirical testing.

2. Rejection of innateness

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

3. 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 get to know in a faithful way the whole truth about what it is. real and what not. This can be daunting, but any other conclusion cannot be logical.

4. We can handle the doubt

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

5. Reject dogmas

This point is derived from the previous ones. If doubting is reasonable and innate knowledge does not exist, there is no reason to accept certain ideas as good simply because they are widely accepted or are strongly defended by certain institutions.

6. The importance of education and science

Absolute certainties may be dead, but that, in turn, gives us the ability to create more genuine, much better constructed knowledge. Thanks to freedom of expression, critical thinking fueled by education, and hypothesis testing through science, it is possible to bring our ideas closer to the truth.

Thus, what is necessary to manage 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 perfected way to obtain much more reliable information than we were used to.

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

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