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Reliving the 17th Century in a Quest for Truth

A former dean of Georgetown’s’ College of Arts and Sciences, Chris Celenza, has written a thoughtful essay , discussing the search for the original thoughts of Augustine (from the 4th century), by a 17th century philologist (i.e., a student of language and its utility in historical textual analysis).

The scholar came to believe that the printed texts that he had read were the result of an organized conspiracy that led to the printed versions of Augustine’s work to be different from what he originally wrote. After all, the replication of a text prior to printing involved copying from handwritten notes, and then copies were made of the copies by another hand, producing the degradation over generations of versions of a manuscript. Celenza notes that close text analysis led to the belief by the philologist that various Latin phrases were unlikely to be those of Augustine but of someone from a different language culture.

Celenza notes that the quest for truth and discernment of errors had maddening features – with the development of printing, more information was available to find anomalies in meaning across versions of a text. In a way, the task became exponentially more difficult. With more information available, it became possible to invent conspiracies to explain the anomalies.

Academic codes of ethics require the citation of information derived from other sources. The purpose of the footnote listing the source is to permit the reader to check on the origin of a given section of text to see if they would draw the same conclusion. Asserting fact without revealing the source of the fact is not acceptable under the code. Effective peer review is designed to eliminate those occurrences.

The similarity between these quests in the 17th century and our current flood of information from internet sources is a central observation of Celenza. An earlier post in this series commented on practical ways of seeking the truth in this internet world .

In the context of deep fakes in video, large replication of similar text sent to millions of persons, use of influencers, and a host of other amplification techniques, finding the truth is complicated.

Celenza reminds us the “truth” is now and has been a bit of a social construction. A community of scholars must agree on whether new findings in a field are credible as replacements to old knowledge. We listen to friends and family with a different ear than others. When we have a long term relationship with an information source we have more confidence in our judgment of veracity of information they disseminate.

In some sense, our world is similar to that of 17th century students of manuscripts. When we have time, we have to seek out earlier versions of a text or video, seeking assurance that the version we consumed permits a tracking of provenance to a credible source. We try to answer, “where did this story come from?” We ask other trusted persons what they think and what they have done to determine the truth. We suspect disinformation when we fail to find multiple sources of information pointing in the same direction. We value transparency of sources of information in an internet entity.

Critical consumption of information, probing its authenticity, has been a requirement of searchers for truth for many centuries. While the tools might have evolved over the centuries, the job is the same.

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