The Scottish Centre for Continental Philosophy is delighted to host a short essay on ‘Seeking Truth’ by our colleague Dr Luca Siliquini-Cinelli (Law, University of Dundee).

Luca specialises in comparative contract law, comparative legal traditions, and continental philosophy and political theory. He is currently working with Dr. Thom Giddens (Law) and Dr Dominic Smith (Philosophy) towards realisation of the ‘Frankenlaw’ Critical Legal Conference at Dundee, September 2021 (https://clc2021.com/

Seeking Truth 

Over the past few months, several compelling posts on the Covid-19 pandemic have appeared on various platforms globally which offer constructive insights on this delicate subject from various socio-political and socio-economic points of view. With this piece I wish instead to take a lateral step and consider a different, yet central and pervasive, theme. It is the ontological relation of knowledge to truth. 

The urgency to reflect on this theme is due to the widespread reliance on science to combat (and, possibly, defeat) the virus. Notwithstanding Covid-19 manifesting itself in various forms and raising a great variety of very serious challenges, most governmental action around the world has resorted to, and is therefore united by, the ‘we must be guided by science’ spirit. ‘Science will always guide my administration’, affirms for instance US President Joe Biden. Similar remarks have been made by other leaders as well. 

This general attitude points to a salient tract of our mind-set as post-Enlightenment subjects—namely, that we tend to treat science uncritically, assuming that it has got all the answers. In effect, we have reached a point in which, as Emanuele Severino put it, ‘[e]verything that manifests itself independently of a scientific method is held to be either non-existent or valueless’.1 This is because we typically take science to be reliable, and thus, trustworthy. Yet the scientific response to the pandemic has been visibly (and, at times, dangerously) problematic and unsettling, with scientists regularly arguing against each other, or advocating responses to the spread of the virus which were later openly rejected.  

To be clear, science is the only way out of this pandemic. However, in affirming this, one ought to be careful not to further the widespread stance which hinges ontologically knowledge on truth. Not doing this is particularly problematic for two reasons: 1) the ontological link between knowledge and truth is what grants science’s authority in the first place; 2) the ‘knowledge-as-truth’2 paradigm has been informing Western consciousness since the inception of philosophical thinking. Yet if tragic events inevitably call, as they do, for reflection and awareness, then the Covid-19 pandemic represents a valuable opportunity to critically point out and question the symbiotic relationship between knowledge and truth. This in turn requires one to pay close attention to how scientific inquiry operates and scientific progress is made.  

Philosophical Truth 

Quid est veritas?’, asks Pontius Pilate.3 The Roman prefect’s question well encapsulates Western consciousness’ obsession with truth’s normative power. By ‘normative’, I refer to truth’s capacity to make sense of the world. It is truth’s normativity that Jennifer Nagel alludes to when writing that ‘as soon as we recognize the falsity [of what we thought we knew], we have to retract the claim that it was ever known’.4 In short, there cannot be knowledge without truth. For knowledge which falls short of truth is mere dóxa—opinion, (untrue) belief, ‘fake news’. It is, literally, ‘non-sense’.  

Knowledge’s ontological dependency on truth is, first and foremost, a philosophical matter. Philosophical thinking emerged as analytical thinking, i.e. as myth-dispelling and truth-seeking thinking. Since its inception, philosophical inquiry has never stopped concerning itself with what causes the existence of the manifold as alterity be, and with the related issue of the orderability of particulars (to which philosophers oppose universals or similar constructs, such as concepts). The possibility, trajectories, and outcomes of these sorts of inquiries depend on our ability to make sense of the world—that is to say, it depends on our ability to intelligibly understand and communicate it. This is why meaning exerts a normative, guiding function both in philosophy and life more generally. The normative, ordering role played by the ontological notions of ‘identity’ and ‘difference’ (that is, what it means for someone/something to be her/itself and therefore, not someone/something else) has been a key-theme of this type of ontological questioning on what constitutes (that is, on how we can make sense of) the real. Things have not changed to date: ‘[T]he making sense relation is the basic normative relation’,5 David Owens has recently observed. 

It is from this operational6 attitude that the Western tradition’s preoccupation with the correspondence between what is certain (our experience of something7) and what is true (the objective and subject-independent validity of that which is, or epistḗmē) originated.8 Stuck in this concern, Western thinking (including jurisprudential thinking) has not only found it particularly difficult, if not impossible, to appreciate what distinguishes experience from knowledge. More fundamentally, it has subjugated the former to the latter (and reason). 

Modern Scientific Knowledge and (Probable) Truth 

Now, the pervasiveness of the ‘knowledge-as-truth’ paradigm is most evident in the case of what we have come to call and identify as scientific knowledge. The origins of scientific knowledge are philosophical. When it first emerged, scientific knowledge was categorised as that knowledge which is epistemologically (i.e. always and absolutely) certain because non-accidental9—that is, it is definitive, stable, unshakable (epi-hístēmi) knowledge.10 It was this type of knowledge that philosophical analysis sought to achieve.  

The present-day approach to, and understanding of, science is altogether different, however. As Karl Popper, Bertrand Russell, Severino, Massimo Cacciari, Giorgio Agamben, Naomi Oreskes, David Wootton and other philosophers and historians say, modern (i.e. post-Scientific Revolution) scientific knowledge is, and cannot but be, relative and imperfect. Were it otherwise, it would not be progressive.11 Needless to say, this applies to the study of, and elaboration of strategies against, Covid-19 as well. 

Yet truth, even if momentary, continues to be science’s objective.12 Moreover, while science’s télos might have changed (from certain to probable truth), the underlying belief that how one progresses towards truth matters a great deal has not. Thus it is said that what distinguishes the scientific production of knowledge from other cognitivist enterprises lies in the sophistication of the methodologies employed by the inquirer, among which stand the ‘systematic observation and experimentation, inductive and deductive reasoning, and the formation and testing of hypotheses and theories’.13 In short, scientific knowledge is organised and ‘path-dependent’14 knowledge. A path which, if followed, safely leads us out of the woods (even if for a while). 

Knowledge-as-Truth vs Knowledge-as-Information 

As mentioned, the widespread understanding of, and faith in, scientific knowledge as the only type of knowledge capable of effectively dispelling myth and achieving truth are as old as philosophy itself.15 Yet, in modern times they have been reinforced by the complex linguistic and intellectual16 changes that occurred during the Scientific Revolution, that is, at a time when the human intellect found new17 ways18 to make ‘reliable predictions’.19 

What the ‘knowledge-as-truth’ categorisation misses is that, simply put, knowledge is knowledge, no matter what techniques are used to produce it. Western thinking’s strive to assign knowledge epistemic validation by hinging it on truth has had the regrettable result of concealing that as information – that is, as the possession of that which ‘is intellectually known (ipsum intellectum)’20 – knowledge is truth-independent. This is because knowledge is but a metaphysical end-result of intellectual processes of ontological abstraction. And it cannot be more than this.  

To better grasp what knowledge (including scientific knowledge) is, we should consider why, as Ernst Cassirer noted, ‘[i]t is science that gives us the assurance of a constant world’.21 Despite what might be thought, science can do this because knowledge is – and cannot but be – ‘uncertain’22 (rather than because knowledge is truly knowledge only if certain). Yet, knowledge is uncertain not because, as Nicholas of Cusa and other Humanists thought, due to our finitude, it confronts insuperable limits; but, rather, because, through reason’s ‘harmonious consistency’,23 it manages to transcend them.  

Endnotes

[1] Emanuele Severino, The Essence of Nihilism, trans. Giacomo Doni; eds. Ines Testoni and Andrea Carrera (2016) 3.

I am examining the importance of Severino’s thought on this topic (particularly, on Prometheus), also contextualising it from the perspective of what the study and practice of law are and entail, in a new book, under contract with Edinburgh University Press.

[2] David Wootton, The Invention of Science: A New History of the Scientific Revolution (2016) 421.

[3] John 18:38.

[4] Jennifer Nagel, Knowledge. A Very Short Introduction (2014) 8.

[5] David Owens, Shaping the Normative Landscape (2012) 12.

[6] Emanuele Severino, La Filosofia dai Greci al Nostro Tempo. La Filosofia Antica e Medioevale (2010) 36–38. For a jurisprudentially-charged historical analysis, see Donald R Kelley, The Human Measure. Social Thought in the Western Legal Tradition (1990) Ch 2.

[7] The skeptics would, of course, doubt that our experiences are certain in the first place. I am leaving this theme aside to not overcomplicate the discussion.

[8] Emanuele Severino, La Filosofia dai Greci al Nostro Tempo. La Filosofia Moderna (2013) 12–13.

[9] See e.g. Post. Anal., I 71b10, 71b28; Metaphysics, 1026b.

[10] Emanuele Severino, Il Giogo. Alle Origini della Ragione: Eschilo (1989) 27–29; id. (n 8), 21–23, 29.

[11] Wootton (n 2) 304, 398.

[12] See e.g. Bertrand Russell, The Scientific Outlook (2001) xxviii.

[13] Hanne Andersen and Brian Hepburn, (2015) ‘Scientific Method’, in Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/scientific-method/.

[14] Wotton (n 2) 527.

[15] The step from ‘the simple straightforward rationality of the Presocratics’, to which Popper wanted to return (Conjectures and Refutations, 2002, 183; see also ibid. Ch 10), to the World Health Organization’s (WHO) ‘Myth Busters’ webpage (https://www.who.int/emergencies/diseases/novel-coronavirus-2019/advice-for-public/myth-busters), is a small one.

[16] Wootton (n 2) 51–54, 72–73, 81, 104, 312, 319, 327, 347, 417.

[17] But cf. Lucio Russo, La Rivoluzione Dimenticata. Il Pensiero Scientifico Greco e la Scienza Moderna (2019).

[18] Amongst which stands the creation of the ‘fact’ as a medium to gain valid knowledge of the world and dispose of it: see e.g. Emanuele Severino, La Filosofia dai Greci al Nostro Tempo. La Filosofia Contemporanea (2013) 124; Wootton (n 2) 251–309; and cf. Russell (n 12), 40. Not coincidentally, the WHO’s myth busters’ page is facts-based.

[19] Wootton (n 2) 1, 393.

[20] Étienne Gilson, Being and Some Philosophers, 2nd edn, (2016), 190. Emphasis in original.

[21] Ernst Cassirer, An Essay on Man (1944) 207.

[22] Richard H. Popkin ‘Theories of Knowledge’, C B Schmitt, Q Skinner, E Kessler, and J Kraye eds., The Cambridge History of Renaissance Philosophy (1988) 668–684, 673.

[23] Brad Inwood and Peirluigi Donini, ‘Stoic Ethics’, K. Algra, J. Barnes, J. Mansfeld, and M. Schofield eds., The Cambridge History of Hellenistic Philosophy (1999) 675–738, 724.

Dr Luca Siliquini-Cinelli 

Senior Lecturer, School of Law – University of Dundee 

l.siliquinicinelli@dundee.ac.uk