TWO IDEALS OF KNOWLEDGE
DISCIPLINARY specialization and most of the humanities actually derived from two different approaches to knowledge. European education had since antiquity encompassed two more or less distinct wings: rhetoric (roughly, the art of persuasion) and philosophy (roughly, the science of demonstration). This division in turn reflected a more basic divide between what we would call two modes of knowledge. 1
We would say two modes of knowledge: they did not, for one of these types of “knowledge” counted in the Middle Ages and Renaissance only as “opinion.” Opinion then meant something close to what probabilistic knowledge does now, that is, knowledge of facts, which might attain a very high degree of probability (“moral certainty”) but could never reach absolute certainty. “Opinion” or probabilistic knowledge formed the educational realm of rhetoric; for, where proof was strictly impossible, one perforce resorted to persuasion. The other type of knowledge (“truth”; “science”) we would subdivide into perhaps three areas: immediate intuition (such as that 2 + 2 = 4); divine revelation; and logical demonstration from the unquestionable axioms provided by intuition and revelation. This sort of “science” was the educational domain of philosophy, which dealt with true knowledge. In philosophy complete certainty was possible, though at the price of a certain abstraction from mundane reality. 2 Philosophy had lorded it over knowledge in the Middle Ages and continued to dominate university education through the seventeenth century.
Yet, outside the universities, Renaissance humanism rehabilitated the prestige of rhetoric—and its kindred study, philology. Philology is a term that in the nineteenth century grew remarkably flexible in the studies it covered. But in earlier times it was understood as the branch of scholarship devoted to reconstructing, analyzing, and interpreting ancient texts. Philology was already sophisticated in the ancient world, but when the western Roman Empire fell upon hard times, so did it. 3 Its resuscitation in the Renaissance goes far to explain why there was a Renaissance, for philology enabled the recovery of the heritage of classical antiquity. Later, northern humanists like Erasmus turned their attention increasingly to a different sort of ancient text, the Scriptures, and in doing so founded modern textual criticism of the Bible. For all its varied achievements, though, humanist philology did nothing to bridge