Models of Scientific Consensus



The beginnings of modern philosophy are routinely depicted as a break with tradition and authority, as a moment when the individual mind took charge of its own powers, shedding itself of idols and scholastic prejudices, adopting new criteria of certain truth either proper to the mind or based on direct observation and experience. One corollary of that well-rehearsed narrative is the demise of universal consent as a criterion of truth.

When focusing on canonical thinkers, the history of the early modern understanding of consensus mostly comes through as a story about how epistemologies based on authority, tradition, and general agreement were replaced by epistemologies based on criteria of self-evidence or empirical observation. And yet, when looking beyond the traditional rationalist-empiricist narrative, arguments from general agreement begin to resurface everywhere. Most importantly, the consensus gentium argument for proving the existence of God, as inherited from Plato, Aristotle, Seneca, and Cicero, remained popular throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. It was embraced by theologians, jurists, and philosophers alike.

In parallel, numerous seventeenth-century thinkers developed sophisticated epistemologies of universal consent, including Edward Herbert of Cherbury, Kenelm Digby, Nathaniel Culverwell, Spinoza, Pierre-Daniel Huet, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, and Pierre Bayle. Even Locke appeals to the consensus criterion he fiercely rejects in his earlier discussion of Lord Herbert’s theory of common notions.

Offering an ambitious reconstruction of these arguments, doctrines, and controversies about consensus and truth, our first research theme takes its point of departure in a concept that has been largely ignored; common notions, also known as prolepses, preconceptions, anticipations, pre-notions, presuppositions, and presumptions. When theories of common notions appear in early modern history of science, as in Peter Dear’s landmark study of the Jesuit science upended by Galileo, it is motly to emphasise their contrast to the “new science.” When they appear in early modern history of philosophy, it is in specialised studies on individual figures such as Herbert, Digby, Culverwell, Spinoza, and Bayle.

NOTCOM, as a historical and philosophical research project, sets out to show how common notions operate under their many avatars. It retraces their complex history throughout numerous controversies, paying special attention to natural philosophy and proposing a broad and unified field of investigation.

OpenEdition suggests that you cite this post as follows:
Mogens Lærke (June 8, 2023). Models of Scientific Consensus. NOTCOM. Retrieved July 22, 2024 from

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