A Historical Exposition of Man’s Perennial Search for Certitude

Susan E. Schreiner, Are You Alone Wise? The Search for Certainty in the Early Modern Era (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), ISBN-13: 9780195313420, ISBN-10: 0195313429, pp vii-480

The age we live in is no less tormented by the search for certitude than all the previous historical attempts to justify and enforce one culture or another. Moreover, our inability to ground any epistemological, theological and moral assumption in the realm of certitude resembles the early modern quest for truth and assurance, being nevertheless “more radical than anything found in our past” (p. xii). Undertaking an inquiry into the past might, in Susan Schreiner’s opinion, satisfy our need to look for solid proofs of objectivity and might give us an insight into the epistemological settlement of men living in times of inconsistency and uncertainty. In her vast study, Schreiner is first of all looking for the origins of the individual’s struggle with his lack of cognitive capacity to acquire certainty. She acknowledges a particular image of reality characterizing the High Middle Ages which offers man the capacity to acquire epistemological certainty because God has given him access to his creation through his creative rationality. This triangular relation between creator, cosmos and its interpreter suffers irretrievable fragmentation once the via moderna becomes part of the academic institution curricula. Ockham turns Nominalism against the vain speculation of the via antiqua causing a deep rift inside the Scholastic philosophy. Scholasticism and Humanism – both originating in thirteen-century Italy – pose different solutions to the problem of certitude: according to the Schools, the study of logic rescues the scholar from the pit of doubt, while “good arguments” (p. 140) pervade the humanist search for assuredness. The “rhetorical humanism”1 grounded in the view that the individual is characterized by his historicity turns his back on the notion of absolute, eternal and rational truth promoting a type of certitude founded in the concrete, experienced world. The increased interest for the writing of national histories, and the translation of various philological and legal works determines a search for righteous examples and directions in ancient writings, such as that of Cicero, Halicarnassus and Dionysus.2 On theological grounds, certitude is searched for in the doctrines of salvation and authority, the doctrines that enforce the individual’s assuredness that he will be saved and direct him towards the authority he must turn to and which will guide him on his path of redemption.

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