Making Truth – Administrating Truth. Establishing Credibility in Early Modern History

15.-17.11.2017, Konferenz, DHI Rom

Deutsches Historisches Institut Rom


In the early modern period, the demarcation and the self-affirmation of Christian denominations did not only tangle with confrontation between various competing confessions, but also with pluralization within them. In this field of tension, Christian churches did not only claim a binding authority over doctrinal and canonical matters, but also over emerging scientific disciplines. As these started to claim a certain degree of autonomy for their growing body of knowledge, conflicts between these different realms were bound to erupt. Such conflicts became, as a matter of fact, a hallmark of “the Age of Critique”, yet failed to stifle scientific prowess or erode the appeal of religion. This suggests it might be productive not to juxtapose critique and religion. Instead, students should explore how uncertainty and the resulting quest for certainty was deeply rooted in religious experience and confessional culture. 

This conference will delve into the practices that produced knowledge, in between modes of confrontation, baroque strategies of verbal equivocation or dissimulation, and adaptation, with the help of examples from the natural sciences, theology, the humanities, and law. It raises the question of how beliefs and findings could be verified to the extent, that they became regarded as full-blown truths: the contributions to the conference should address, in other words, the credibility of knowledge, its practices and its communities within and in confrontation with organized religion. The immediate context is furnished by the quickly evolving worlds of early modern Catholicism. This intra-confessional approach is a vantage point to explore the plurality of post-Tridentine Catholicism, with different currents – the so-called “isms” – throwing their weight around and competing, through various networks, for domination. These multiple variations of early modern Catholicism shared the ambition to claim the management of Truth for themselves, through the institutions of the Catholic Church, and to sanction deviant forms. The boundaries of truths that could be articulated on the one hand, and the canonization of truth on the other hand, were continuously under negotiation. Scholars, whether they operated in an academic context or in the offices of Church and State, or whether they sought to make history present or were active in the natural sciences, were continuously confronted with tradition, indeed often sought to appropriate a conveniently ill-defined and heterogeneous body of tradition and fielded related rhetorical strategies in order to legitimize innovations in their respective fields. Orthodoxy, for its part, needed to be believed or was owed obedience to: which raises questions about the strategies that were deployed to diffuse or produce an opaque body of doctrine through increasingly formalized religious practices; through censorship; through the affirmation of truth and the condemnation of error on behalf of secular and ecclesiastical authorities.

However, this also raises the question of which strategies were fielded by scholars when their knowledge could not be legitimized anymore by or accommodated with tradition, or when their findings contradicted theological truth. Did the hierarchical ordering of truth offer a way out of similar deadlocks? Did methodological refinement help to (re-)establish credibility, or did institutional, social or cognitive practices facilitate a withdrawal from such conflicts? The Roman curia is a case in point. Experts who were active within the Roman congregations faced claims to truth aired by learned disciplines emerging and emancipating from religious knowledge systems. These learned disciplines gradually developed their own modes of finding truth and started to assert the validity of these findings. As a consequence, knowledge systems pluralized, in line with Pascal’s bon mot that truth became error on the other side of the Pyrenees. There is more, however. Truths in different realms were claimed through different practices. Yet claims to truth could collide with ecclesiastical authority, leading to different strategies to cope with the resulting conflicts: on the one hand, truths could be ranked in a hierarchy of probabilities topped by absolute truth. On the other hand, references to “double-truth theory” abounded, an epistemology that sprang from the Middle Ages and that had already repeatedly been banned, among others at the V. Lateran Council of 1517. This theory, which held that religion and philosophy as separate sources of knowledge could reach different and even contradictory truths without harming each other, was not only used to oppose theological and philosophical truth, but also to assert the physical truths of nature. 

However, it is Actors, not abstract “fields” of knowledge, we should take into consideration. Actors did not only detain personal beliefs, but were also simultaneously tied to the Church’s apparatus as much as to the Republic of Letters. How did these actors position themselves and which strategies did they deploy when their learned activity collided with the Catholic dogma they claimed to defend? Did they contrariwise apply, with or without success, criteria from the natural sciences to the evaluation of theological conundrums? How should we involve in the analysis on the one hand the multi-tiered affiliations of scholars to the Church, through the papal curia, through religious orders or through local ecclesiastical authorities; and on the other hand the strategies of distinction of the Republic of Letters towards dilettantism or occultism? Credibility was attributed to the position of the scholar in question; his rank in church hierarchy, or his scientific standing, which, in return, fed into the trust that was attributed to scientific performance; a trust that can be compared, after Steven Shapin, to the trust vested in a physical person. As a consequence, the focus is on networks and allegiances as a passage point to membership of and a voice in the respective communities. In this context, the question should be raised of how ‘true findings’ could be communicated: church doctrine had to be distributed everywhere, whereas the relationship between de Republic of Letters and a broader public is more problematic and was closely watched by the watchdogs of doctrine.These themes and questions will be addressed in three sections. A first section will deal with matters pertaining to Theology and the historicizing of truth. The second section delves into Law, Management, and managerial practice. A third section focuses on the truth of natural sciences and their relationship to Dogma, in the light of the medieval differentiation of double-truth. Contributors are invited to reflect on the following topics:

  • religious motivations behind the “age of critique”;
  • appropriation of tradition as a way to legitimize innovation;
  • baroque strategies of verbal equivocation and dissimulation
  • early modern focus on method as a source of credibility;
  • early modern epistemological theory: probability, double truth;
  • strategies for transferring doctrine to a social body, including bureaucracy;
  •  the formalisation of religious practice and method as a source of credibility;
  •  the precise way in which the internal (e.g., sinfulness, heresy, misfortune, historical discontinuity) or external (e.g., atheism, Epicureanism, magic, Turks) challenges for the existence or homogeneity of a social body (Church, State) are conceptualised. Also, the ‘social imaginary’ through which such social bodies articulate themselves. Also, the precise strategies which are articulated over these challenges.
  • social credibility as criterion of epistemic credibility.

Organisation: Andreea Badea, Bruno Boute, Steven Vanden Broecke und Marco Cavarzere