How Do We Know What We Know

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The idea of “que sais-je?” which translates in English to “What do I know?” is a question that that originated from Michel De Montaigne. This question allows us to contemplate and question what we have learnt. Perhaps it is Montaigne’s experience as a statesman that has allowed himself to question the very foundations of human society or more notably laws and legislations as nothing is hardly ever seems obvious when it comes to deciding the punishment for a convicts. Works like such as Don Quixote written by Miguel Cervantes and Faust written by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe also questions the validity of social views and learning. By delving into Montaigne’s essay On Experience we also get glimpses of how the originator of this philosophical dilemma deals with the affirmation of knowledge. Even though the question of “que sais-je?” seems like a vast topic, the inherent human qualities, such as ambition, deduction and experience, that are discussed in these three works might be able to provide insight into this puzzling dilemma. To answer Michel De Montaigne’s question that has puzzled many philosopher for centuries, we begin by exploring Miguel De Cervantes’ story of Don Quixote. Don Quixote’s actions and his knowledge, stems from romantic chivalric text such as Arthurian legends. The story is first told by Cervantes himself who attempts to convince the readers that he is basing his work from a historic text as he writes “what I have discovered written in the annals of La Mancha.” Later on, Cervantes informs his readers that he is translating the manuscript of Cide Hamete Benengeli, an Arabic historian. At this point of the story, we are intentionally asked to doubt the legitimacy of the story. In fact, even the name “Don Quixote” is a subject of dispute as Cervantes writes “he undoubly must have been named Quixada and not Quexada, as others have claimed” (p.23). Therefore, throughout the novel, readers are asked to question works of literature. The reason why Cervantes chooses to intentionally label his work of fiction as historical text is because even history itself can be subjected to falsehood—we realize that Don Quixote is a novel. What the priest and the barber realizes when they were trying to burn Don Quixote’s books is the dilemma of truth as the priest muses, “the truth is, I can’t decide which of the two is more true or, I should say, less false”(p.47). The only character in the story that seems resolute on his own beliefs is Don Quixote as he takes on the role of becoming a knight errant. Don Quixote’s belief in the truth of fiction translates into reality as he demonstrates Montaigne’s power of imagination. When Don Quixote reaches a run-down in during his chivalric journey, he immediately labels it as a castle. Moreover, when the innkeeper gives him a badly prepared cod, Don Quixote exclaims “it might well be that these little cod are like veal, which is better than beef, and kid, which is better than goat”(p.29). He also decided to label the “the innkeeper the castellan of the castle.” Don Quixote decision to use the phrase “it might well be,” reveals that he does realize that cod is related to the lower class, yet, similar to the prostitutes and the innkeeper, he chooses to elevate their worth. What is interesting is Don Quixote’s completely different perspective, rather than misrecognition, makes the readers question the validity of social views and how even prostitutes, as he sings a ballad of Lancelot, can be elevated to the status “fair damsels.” Cervantes alludes to the idea that for many, “Que sais-je” can be answered by societal perspective. How is it that something is not true when everyone seems to think the same way? Yet it is during moments like these within the novel that we are left to doubt society and begin to admire Don Quixote’s struggle in his chivalric quest. The ending of the novel leaves much to be desired as Don Quixote supposedly recovers from his illness and condemns his previous...
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