Photo by Jennifer Mass

How do we know? It’s the quintessential modern question.

It’s the question we closely associate with Montaigne and Kant, each of whom asked it for different reasons, each inaugurating with it an epoch in modernity. When Montaigne published the first edition of his Essays (1580) bringing a new genre of writing into existence, he was (in part) responding to the European discovery of ancient Greek skepticism with the publication of Sextus Empiricus and encounter with Pyrrho of Elis. Montaigne’s response was fully embodied, that’s to say, by intellectually acknowledging that in a skeptical framework the only certainty was hyper-local. This led him to focus on himself as a possible basis of certainty, and then to discover that even at that level—the sub-atomic, as it were, compared to the grand narrative of History—there was constant change and variation. And yet the body was all that there was that was even the slightest bit certain. It was this realization that also led him to a form of writing that captured the recoil from the unitary and the grand: the essay, or probe, that took just one small part of reality for its subject matter. This same skepticism fed both the new sciences of nature and of humans, creating new ways of defining facts and determining truths. But too much skepticism and too many facts could also become unsustainable. Kant’s Critiques of Pure Reason, Practical Reason, and Judgment (1781/87, 1788, 1790) were about balancing a priori and a posteriori claims in ways that allowed for enlightenment without lapsing back into dogmatism. This meant accommodating the practice of skepticism that had proved so fruitful intellectually without, at the same time, abandoning the possibility of some overarching universals. The modern sciences of knowing are, therefore, a post-skeptical venture. Even the late 19th century return of Kant in the age of physics (“Neo-Kantinism”) was a response to science that gave birth to many of the large-looming figures in the human sciences of the first half of the twentieth century, people with interests as different as Max Weber and Martin Heidegger.

But “how do we know?” also points, literally, to the means by which we know. To the various tests by which we prove the truth, or reality, of some thing or statement. To Socratic elenchus, Euclidean proof, Chinese imperial examinations, early modern European Hilfswissenschaften, technical analysis as performed by objects conservators. All of these matter as ways in which humans have tried to assure themselves that they really did know some thing. Proof emerged in dialogue with doubt; indeed, it is only because of a refined doubt that a refined system of proof could emerge. The need for proof generated logics of proofing but also a material culture of proof: the devices that humans create to put their theories about the past, and nature, and peoples to the test, and also the new kinds of evidence that these new questions in turn unlocked.

“How Do We Know?” focuses on another of the basic questions (following “What is distance?”, “When is After?” and “Whose Story?”) that defines the intellectual horizon of the Bard Graduate Center.