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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 beliefs as he exclaims “My judgment is restored, free and clear of the dark shadows of ignorance imposed on it by my grievous and constant reading of detestable books of chivalry”(P.935). As readers, we have already, at this point, grown used to and even admire Don Quixote’s actions. To have Don Quixote denounce his delirium seems to contradict everything we have read so far. Therefore, the only clue that Don Quixote gives to the answer of “que sais-je” is the idea that believing in what you know should come from only one source, whether is from chivalric texts or society. We see that when Don Quixote, for the most part of the book, adheres to his beliefs, he is able to influence others (which is the readers) into changing their ideas and even question society. From a novel that is centered around one man and his belief in literature, we arrive at Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Faust, a play that portrays a German alchemist’s who completely disregards works of literature, history and science. The play opens with a “Prologue in Heaven.” This scene introduces the groundwork for the rest of the play as Goethe’s directly compares Faust to Job in the Old Testament. After the scene in heaven, the character Faust is introduced. Faust’s discontent with his knowledge is immediately shown, as he expresses his dissatisfaction by exclaiming, “Alas, I have studied philosophy/the law as well as medicine/ and to my sorrow, theology…yet here I am, a wretched fool, no wiser than I was before.” It is during this passage that we see how Faust has completely disregarded and questions what he has learnt and therefore, chooses to pursue “magic.” Similar to what Cervantes alludes to in Don Quixote, even history can be influenced by false facts and therefore, Faust shows uncanny interest in the occult as he describes what he has learnt as not “worth knowing” and that he no longer wants to “dress” his useless knowledge with “empty words” and realizes that only mysticism can lead him to the inner-core of knowledge. Feeling depressed about the limitations of his learning, Faust tries to commit suicide as laments “You summary of gentle slumber-juices, / you distillate of all deadly powers.”
Faust seems to find purpose in living again once he realizes that the super-natural does indeed exist. This is shown when Faust makes his contract with Mephistopheles as he exclaims, “My breast no longer thirsts for knowledge/and will welcome grief and pain/ Whatever is the lot of humankind/ I want to taste within my deepest self.” One can almost say that Faust’s thirst for knowledge is derived from his need to explore all possible realms of existence—from the spiritual to the physical. In a sense, Faust knows and believes what he knows by direct experience. In fact, Faust seems almost triumphant to see the fruits of his occult knowledge come to fruition and consequently, starts to believe in mysticism. Faust’s newfound belief goes through a very scholarly process of theory and confirmation. One of the reasons why Goethe immediately introduces the skeptical character of Faust after the Prologue in Heaven is to show that mankind, unlike Job, has the ability to question and reject what has been taught whether it is from the bible or scientific text and if given the opportunity, make deals with the devil.
Even so, if we were to follow Faust’s example of answering the philosophical question of “que sais-je,” humankind would constantly be in a state of perpetual ambition. If Faust was indeed, able to attain even greater knowledge than the occult, what he had learned, regarding the occult would be as meaningless as philosophy and medicine. This idea conforms to what the poet, who during in the Prelude in the Theater chapter remarks, “What gleams like tinsel is but for the moment/ What’s true remains intact for future days.” According to Faust, how we know what we know is constantly challenged by the new and more powerful knowledge. We then proceed to finally examine Montaigne’s own work “On Experience.” In this essay, Montaigne emphasizes humanity is able to reason and think while at he same time, is constantly influenced by the world. Therefore, Montaigne provides us with the notion that human beings are an amalgam of reason and physical desires. Montaigne begins his essay by stating that “No desire is more natural than the desire for knowledge.” This quotation introduces the readers to the process of acquiring knowledge and that “When reason fails us, we make use of experience.” It is during this passage that Montaigne, introduces the incompleteness of human understanding. By contemplating about a dilemma through reasoning is not enough because “Reason has so many shapes that we do not know which to take hold of; experience has no fewer.” Arriving at the truth requires us to “not despise any medium” and therefore, Montaigne encourages humankind to make use of all his resources.
Montaigne uses law as an example of reasoning that has gone awry as there exists many interpretations of the law as he writes “For we have in France more laws than the rest of the world put together” and quoting Tactitus he declares “as we once suffered from crimes, so now we are suffering from laws” because “Anything that is divided into minute grains become confused.” Montaigne essentially declares that there should in fact be no laws as the different interpretations takes away from the general essence of the actions that take place as he explains that “experience shows us that all these interpretations dissipate the truth and destroy it.” Montaigne then continues to define the pitfalls of law by referring to a case where:
“a man stabbed in a hundred places, but still breathing, who begged them for pity’s sake to give him water and help him get up. They said that they dared not go near him, and ran away, fo fear the offices of justice might catch them there and, as usual with those found near a murdered man, that they would be held to account for this mischance…How many innocent people have we known who have been punished through no fault, I will say, on the judge’s part.”
This last quotation serves to introduce the potency of experience in arriving at the truth. When the complexity of reasoning fails, we rely on experience to confirm on the truth of the failure of reasoning. Yet, mankind cannot always rely on his own experiences to arrive at the truth as Montaigne explains that “the conclusions we seek to draw from the likeness of events are unreliable because events are always unlike…Dissimilarity enters itself into our works; no art can achieve similarity.” Because of this universal variance that defines one experience from the other, experience alone will not allow mankind to arrive at the truth. When Montaigne writes “In the experience that I have of myself I find enough to make me wise, if I were a good scholar.” This passage is evidently false and is Montaigne’s way of showing the inconclusive truth that comes from experience alone. The sentence itself lends itself to the power of reasoning as if requires an analysis and reasoning of these experiences to arrive at wisdom. Moreover, throughout the essay, Montaigne constantly quotes Aristotle, Cicero and other philosophers that has contributed to his learning. Montaigne concludes the idea of reasoning and experience with an analysis of himself and what he likes and what he dislikes as he writes “I study myself more than any other subject.” In the section where Montaigne describes his habits at the dinner table he writes “I have dropped into the habit of using a glass of certain shape, and do not like drinking from a common glass or being served by a common hand. I dislike any metal cup, and prefer one made of a clear and transparent material, so that my eyes can taste the drink too.” This passage shows a deep analysis regarding his drinking habits by pointing out that he likes transparent glasses rather than metal cups because the former allows his eyes to “taste the drink” is a perfect example of truth that is derived from experience and reasoning. Therefore to answer Montaigne’s question of “Que sais-je” Montaigne argues that truth is validated by experience and reasoning. There is an undeniable truth that mankind seeks to constantly seek truth and knowledge as Montaigne declares that “There is always room for someone to improve on us; indeed, for us to improve on ourselves; and there is always a different road to follow. There is no end to our investigation.” Goethe’s Faust has indeed demonstrated this universal truth. For Faust himself to confirm his own beliefs, he first has to disown his previous knowledge. Going back to what the poet in Faust in the section of Prelude in the Theater, “What’s true remains intact for future days.” This idea seems to resonate with Montaigne’s arrival at knowledge as he relies on experience that he can use to analyze in future days. Yet, even though Don Quixote derives his truth from chivalric texts, his actions are derived from the experience of the characters within these texts. In his own maddened ways, Don Quixote constantly cross-references what he sees to what he has read and therefore, in a sense, arrives at conclusions based on experience and reasoning. The question of absolute knowing is still without doubt a vast question that can still be answered by many texts. However, relying on reasoning and experience seems to be one of the ways in which we can understand our knowledge.

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