I’m reading Nabokov’s Приглашение на казнь (Invitation to a Beheading), about Cincinnatus C, who sits in an empty prison awaiting execution, and I just got to the first mention of the crime for which he was arrested: “Обвиненный в страшнейшем из преступлений, в гносеологической гнусности…” [Accused of the most terrible of crimes, of gnoseological vileness…] I was familiar with the rendition in the published translation, “gnostical turpitude,” and was wondering what this unfamiliar “gnoseological” had to do with Gnosticism. Turns out the answer is “nothing,” and it annoys me that Nabokov, for whatever smartass reasons of his own, chose to render it in such a misleading way. As James I. Porter, in “The Death Masque of Socrates: Invitation to a Beheading” (International Journal of the Classical Tradition 17.3 [September 2010]: 389-422), says with some irritation (pp. 398-99):

Cincinnatus is to be executed, we later learn, for “gnostical turpitude” (72), whatever that may be, though we are assured it is “the most terrible of crimes,” utterable only euphemistically. Incidentally, to read the radical of the word “gnostical” in anything but its etymological sense is to becloud the meaning of the crime, and the allusion as well. “Gnostical” bears no relation to “gnostic,” as a great many readers of the novel have held—as though through a kind of interpretive parapraxis, viz., by referring to a misremembered “gnostic [sic] turpitude.” Any lingering doubts may be quelled by reference to the Russian: gnoseologičeskaja gnusnost’, “gnoseological vileness.” Cincinnatus’s crime is vaguely epistemological, and decidedly un-Manichean, let alone religious.

So what does gnoseological mean? Well, having to do with gnoseology, duh, but what’s that when it’s at home? M-W says “the philosophic theory of knowledge : inquiry into the basis, nature, validity, and limits of knowledge” [New Latin gnoseologia, from gnoseo- (from Greek gnōsis knowledge) + Latin -logia -logy]. But the OED (in an entry from 1900) spells it gnosiology and says it’s “The philosophy of cognition or the cognitive faculties.” Is that the same thing? It would take a more philosophical mind than mine to know. There is, of course, a fuller account in Wikipedia (under the -i- spelling), where we find:

Gnosiology (“study of knowledge”) is “the philosophy of knowledge and cognition”. In Italian, Soviet and post-Soviet philosophy, the word is often used as a synonym for epistemology. […]

The term “gnosiology” is not well known today, although found in Baldwin’s (1906) Dictionary of Psychology and Philosophy. The Encyclopædia Britannica (1911) remarks that “The term Gnosiology has not, however, come into general use.”

Meanwhile, the equivalent Russian Wikipedia article is headed Эпистемология (‘epistemology’) and says “Нередко (особенно в английском языке) слово выступает как синоним гносеологии” [Often (especially in English) the word is used as a synonym for gnoseology]. So English-speakers blame it on Italian and Russian, and Russians blame it on English. The whole mess makes me sympathetic to the idea that the world we perceive is the creation of a malevolent lesser divinity.

Addendum. I found this footnote in Brian Boyd’s superb biography of Nabokov (on p. 410 of my UK paperback edition of Vol. 1):

The original phrase, gnoseologicheskaya gnusnost′, seems repellent to a Russian ear. Words like gnusavit′, “to sing through one’s nose,” gnusnyy, “foul, vile,” and the substandard swearword gnus, “vermin,” give the gn combination a special hideousness. Marina Tsvetaeva once refused to attend a lecture whose title contained the word gnoseologia, because it sounded too disgusting to her. Cf. Robert Hughes, Triquarterly 17 (1970): 290.


  1. So English-speakers blame it on Italian and Russian, and Russians blame it on English.

    Introduced by Alexander Gottlieb Baumgarten (who also introduced the modern sense of aesthetics) on page 13 here ??

  2. “Нередко (особенно в английском языке) слово выступает как синоним гносеологии” [Often (especially in English) the word is used as a synonym for epistemology]. So English-speakers blame it on Italian and Russian, and Russians blame it on English
    I guess the translation into English mislead you here – the Russian says that epistemology in English is used as a synonym for (what the Russians call) gnoseologiya. So not one language blaming something on another, but one language using a different Graecism for the same thing than the other.

  3. Oswald Werner footnotes “English does not make the distinction between Erkentnisslehre (Epistemology) and Kentnisslehre (Gnosiology)”

  4. International Dictionary of Psychotherapy sv “epistemology”

    The term is used in two different meanings: the first, prevalent in Anglo-Saxon culture, identifies epistemology with gnosiology or theory of knowledge, the discipline that deals with the study of knowledge in general. The second, in a more restricted domain, indicates the philosophical inquiry on scientific knowledge and it is therefore synonymous with philosophy of science.

  5. Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy: Lvov-Warsaw School (and a couple other of similarly obscure references) is the only place I find ‘Gnosiology’ and they’re all the one book

    Kotarbiński, T., 1966, Gnosiology. The Scientific Approach to the Theory of Knowledge, Wrocław: Ossolineum.

    I’m inclined to say ‘Gnosiology’ _doesn’t_ appear in Anglo-Saxon philosophy. (Certainly it was new to me. ‘Gnostic’ I know well enough.)

  6. Around the traps in philosophy we anglophones would only speak of epistemology, with adjectives epistemic and epistemological (often treated too synonymously, for my liking). People would also use these terms when their focus was not knowledge but belief; but there the available and understood term doxastic would have been more accurate.

    Exceptions most often arose when Kant was the topic. Erkenntnis and the wissen* words were then wheeled out, and we should also note Noumenon (from νοούμενoν, plural -να) in his writings. Noumena are the objects of cognition or Erkenntnis, as opposed to Phaenomena which are the objects of perception. Umm … it gets complicated after that.

    These noumena (so naturalised into English) lead us to νοῦς or νόος (which we have as nous), and the indispensable adjective νοητικός (intellectual, of the mind, hence the neuter plural νοητικά, “things of the intellect” on the model of φυσικά, “things of nature”), as opposed to αἰσθητικός, of perception, the senses, and (mere) phenomena. Few philosophers of my acquaintance make enough of the mind-object meaning of noumena, taking these perversely as realia that cannot be clearly or reliably apprehended at all – underlying the phenomena, which are then “all we can truly know”. Note also a shift in the meaning of aesthetic, which in English and many other languages retains far less of the perceptual and far more the “sense of beauty” meaning though it’s vigorously present in anaesthesia of course.

    Husserlians and their fellow-travellers speak of noesis, noemata, and a host of associated notions that need not detain us. It should of course be pointed out that noetic can here and there mean “of Noah”, as in arca noetica, just as mosaic has two delightfully different meanings.

    I have not seen words of the gnosis family used to mean anything “epistemic” in mainstream philosophical anglophony; nor is the scientia family commonly recruited for the purpose. But of course we gnote gnosis in diagnosis and the like. I once had a fabulous book called Pharmacognosy – not this one, but replete with wonderful monochrome images of lumps of opium and Burtonesque descriptions. I gave it to a friend who was hands-on with such things. More than most of us, I mean. But my favourite gnostic word is anosognosia. Of abiding philosophical interest, for me.

  7. It seems to me that

    philosophy of knowledge = Anglo “epistemology” = Russian etc “gnosiology”

    philosophy of science = Anglo “philosophy of science” = Russian etc “epistemology”

    I don’t know which “Erkenntnislehre” means, but “Kenntnislehre” does not appear to be an established word.

  8. David Eddyshaw says

    The WP page on Invitation to a Beheading suggests that very many readers have managed to find Gnostic symbols in a work in which they presumably never existed in the first place, based on this linguistic confusion.

    Nabokov may very well have done this on purpose, I imagine.

    Much modern “Gnosticism” seems to be somewhat analogous to California Zen, and its adherents can probably find Gnostic symbols without difficulty whenever and wherever it may prove convenient. (To be fair, real historical Gnosticism seems often to have had something of this sort going on too. One of the more irritating religious traditions … the Effective Altruism of its era …)

  9. the Russian says that epistemology in English is used as a synonym for (what the Russians call) gnoseologiya.

    Woops, I completely misread that — I’ll fix the translation. Thanks!

  10. cuchuflete says

    … the creation of a malevolent lesser divinity

    and so are they all.

  11. >who also introduced the modern sense of aesthetics

    You’re all gonna hate this but the cool teens, at least the ones that hang with my kids, now say “That’s so aesthetic!” to mean lovely. It’s used to describe clothing, rooms, objects and even landscapes — a sunset can be “so aesthetic” —but not people.

  12. Thanks, I’ll try to remember to impress my grandsons with my knowledge of that.

  13. J.W. Brewer says

    Just for kicks, I googled “epistemological turpitude.” I got one hit where someone was offering that as a better translation of Nabokov’s Russian and one other hit involving the following exemplar of academic prose: “But more to the point, the philosophical language, precisely as such, _redeems_ the category of language from the epistemological turpitude and iterative isolation in which the Baconian character planners found it.” This from a chapter by James Dougal Fleming titled “‘Not a Hundred Sorts of Beasts, Not Two Hundred of Birds’: Universal Language and the Early Modern End of the World,” which is in a 2015 volume titled _Knowing Nature in Early Modern Europe_, edited by David Beck.

    I think the “philosophical language” in question has to do with this:,_and_a_Philosophical_Language I thought the whole thing sounded rather like a hoax made up by Borges and then I scrolled down and Borges is indeed somehow involved!

  14. David Marjanović says

    So he did it just for the gn?


    In German today, that’s the study of medicinal plants, fungi and animals, a subdiscipline of pharmaceutics (Pharmazie).

    I don’t know which “Erkenntnislehre” means, but “Kenntnislehre” does not appear to be an established word.

    …and I struggle to understand, from the words themselves, what the difference is supposed to be; Kenntnis and Erkenntnis overlap a lot. (Plurals in -nisse, whence the pre-orthographic spelling -niss that Werner used.)

  15. Maybe cf. différance.

  16. To DM on pharmacognosy, yes. Same in English: “The branch of science that deals with drugs, esp. natural drugs in their unprepared state” (SOED).

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