Against certainty

One of the most appealing thing about philosophy is its claim of universal jurisdiction. It claims to police the boundaries of the most fundamental of categories, making rulings on issues like what kinds of statements are coherent, what kinds of arguments are valid, what kinds of claims are warranted. All other disciplines of human inquiry are expected to yield to philosophy’s judgments.

This view of philosophy supposes a certain idea about certainty. Certainty is something you can have if you follow the rules laid down by philosophy, and philosophy can more-or-less give you those rules. At least it’s working on the problem.

Raised in an orthodox Mormon family, I was led to believe that certainty was my birthright. Mormonism is only weakly committed to the kind of Enlightenment certainty that comes from following well-grounded procedures of inquiry, however. Instead, Mormonism’s certainty is supposed to come from an essentially emotional, individual moment or series of moments in which the believer receives an assurance of the truth from the Holy Spirit. This experiential groundwork is then supposed to support the whole superstructure of belief, including a heavy reliance on authority.

In this way, Mormonism is more like some forms of Protestantism, as I understand them, and less like traditional Roman Catholicism. The strands in Protestantism that emphasize the individual’s encounter with Scripture, Jesus, or the Holy Spirit, the Baptist concept of “soul freedom,” and the Methodist experience of a camp-revival conversion are similar to Mormonism in being ready-made for a liberal order of individuals choosing in a marketplace of competing beliefs. You need to have a reason for what you believe — given all those other people out there who believe differently — but your reason, to provide blessed certainty, needs to be a different kind of reason than the reasons for thinking the earth goes around the sun, since we’ve been wrong about that kind of thing before.

Studying philosophy gave me the hope that I could hold onto certainty while changing the content of my beliefs and the reasons for holding them. I had never had a problem with the idea that science could discover whatever was to be discovered about the physical world — not all Mormons are creationists — and now philosophy was claiming to have something to say about the “deeper” things, particularly issues of “values.” Philosophy isn’t what pushed me out of Mormonism, but it pointed the way to an exit.

The problem was, philosophy’s claims for itself began to seem too grandiose. I’d actually noticed a problem when I read my first piece of philosophy, Plato’s Euthyphro. Socrates is entertainingly questioning Euthyphro, trying to get him to see that he doesn’t know as much as he thinks he knows, and asks Euthyphro to define “holy.” Euthyphro’s first response is to name a particular action that is holy. But Socrates won’t have it. He sets up the rules of the game from the outset:

Well, bear in mind that what I asked of you was not to tell me one or two out of all the numerous actions that are holy; I wanted you to tell me what is the essential form of holiness which makes all holy actions holy.

This bothered me as a naïve reader. It occurred to me that some actions might be holy in one way, others in another way — performing a rite in a church is holy, but in a different way than helping a beggar is holy, for example.

But if you don’t play be this key rule — that the answer to questions of the form “What is x?” must either be univocal or must split x into entities that can accept univocal predicates — you can’t play along in the Western philosophical tradition. And it’s great fun. “What is good?” “What is knowledge?” “What is the mind?” “What is truth?” Endless moves can be made.

In my senior year of college I read the later Wittgenstein, the Philosophical Investigations and other stuff. Wittgenstein had earlier claimed to have solved all the problems of philosophy in a book about 70 pages long. He eventually reconsidered and began radically questioning the very enterprise of philosophy. Among his many contributions was the concept of family resemblances, the idea that not everything that is properly called a game, for example, has anything in common with every other thing that is properly called a game. In other words, Socrates’ demand wasn’t legitimate. He was assuming from the outset that there was a form or essence of holiness, contrary to the evidence of contradictory uses of the word.

The later Wittgenstein called into question the role of philosophy in policing other disciplines, in providing a foundational certainty for human knowledge. In fact, he said, no such foundation was possible, nor was it needed. I found his work persuasive, but enjoyed doing philosophy enough that I kept it up, enrolling in a Ph.D. program where I was promptly counseled to forget about the later Wittgenstein. He’d been wrong, see. The problems in his day had been incorrectly formulated, but now we’d formulated them productively, and soon we’d be making progress. Certainty would be ours.

Richard Rorty’s career thrived in the odd schizophrenia of contemporary analytic philosophy. On the one hand, the tradition has thinkers like Wittgenstein, William James, John Dewey, and W.V.O. Quine who have cast radical doubt on the current analytic project. (Some analytic philosophers are even familiar with thinkers outside their tradition, like Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Derrida, who make similar radical claims.) On the other hand, the project continues, trying to come up with the correct rules to use in policing human knowledge. The debates grow more sophisticated, the distinctions finer and more baroque. Most importantly, perhaps, Ph.D.s are minted and tenure is granted.

Rorty himself characterized his work as unoriginal, a synthesis of the anti-foundationalist thinkers I’ve cited along with some others like Kuhn and Feyerabend. He owed his greatest debts to Wittgenstein and the American Pragmatists. Rorty was brilliant, though, in taking the fight to the analytic establishment, writing highly readable and persuasive attacks on the most up-to-the-minute analytic doctrines and debates, attacking most of the major figures and even some of his allies.

Rorty preached the end of certainty. We can’t describe something in terms that will carry the same meaning outside of our culture and time, since no terms carry meaning outside of the whole context in which they are used. This means we can’t ever be sure that our descriptions of the world won’t be replaced by other descriptions in new vocabularies. We must give up the idea of finding an ultimate vocabulary in which our descriptions can be made to last, can achieve certainty.

Rorty’s insistence that certainty is not possible and his provocative ways of phrasing that insistence bothered people. For one thing, if he was right, most of analytic philosophy was a waste of time. I happened to think he was right, rediscovering my Wittgensteinian convictions, and I left grad school largely because I couldn’t continue working on a project I no longer saw as viable or worthwhile. Some part of many philosophers’ contempt for Rorty, I believe, lies in their unwillingness to face the consequences of his being right for their careers and their discipline.

But there’s something else. Rorty was considered dangerous not just to philosophy but to society. His pragmatism was a threat to certainty.

Just as much as religious believers, most nonbelievers think they need certainty. But Rorty argues that not only is certainty impossible, but it’s unnecessary. Philosophy hasn’t yet discovered the foundation of human knowledge, yet we somehow manage, leading our lives, learning about the world, arguing about specific knowledge claims and judgments. We get along just fine without the kind of certainty that philosophers say they can provide.

It’s odd, losing the religious form of certainty in favor of what I’ll inaccurately call Enlightenment certainty. I felt the loss, and I still feel the absence. It can be equally odd losing Enlightenment certainty in favor of a radically pragmatic position. You realize that although disputes can often be resolved, they have no ultimate referee. Contingency rules.

But there’s an accompanying freedom in the loss of certainty. When we have what he calls “a sense of the ralativity of descriptive vocabularies to periods, traditions, and historical accidents,” we are better able to look at ourselves, at the limitations of our own vocabularies. Knowing we cannot transcend time and place, we can better push at the (after all contingent) boundaries of our world.

10 responses to “Against certainty”

  1. Lane says:

    And this leads me to Richard Serra.

    In Peter Scheldahl’s New Yorker review, he concludes by noting how Serra’s work evokes a past time when the world seemed confidently in the hands of “fabulously qualified” adults who would make everything better. The effect arises from the combination of Serra’s sculpture and the new MOMA’s outsized building, they are a flawless match.

    Serra’s work is about fact, what is known, what can be known. He is very much a “modern” artist. His work is the physical expression of the Western Tradition.

    And sure it might not be believable anymore.

    But go see that show. The works on the second floor, in totality, are a singular achievment. Easily as amazing as the Sistine or Scrovegni Chapels.

    Once in a lifetime.

  2. Rachel says:

    So Dave, what led you to post on this? Rorty’s death or the supremely uncertain Sopranos finale?

  3. Marleyfan says:

    I grew up with a father who has very black and white thinking, and when he learns something new, which challenges his old way of thinking, he discards the old, and embraces the new [still within black and white]. It was during my undergraduate work in psychology, when each of my professors taught that their version was the correct version (behaviorists, analytical, cognitive, etc.). It wasn’t until my final semester, that I learned that ethics v. metaphysics can coexist, and my life has then begun in shades of grey.

    Simon Blackburn wrote “Its investigations are based upon reason, striving to make no unexamined assumptions and no leaps based on faith or pure analogy. Different philosophers have had varied ideas about the nature of reason, and there is also disagreement about the subject matter of philosophy. Some think that philosophy examines the process of inquiry itself. Others, that there are essentially philosophical propositions which it is the task of philosophy to prove.”

    Pope John Paul II said that “Man always travels along precipices. His truest obligation is to keep his balance”. Balance is where it’s at. G.L. Smith once wrote “life is about learning to play alone on a teeter-totter without falling off”. However, learning to live in the grey is not easy, because of the forces of the extremes [black and white], we constantly are being pulled to one side or the other. The beauty of the American political system is the checks and balances. I often wish for a more definitive process, yet, its opposition that maintains the stability; enlightenment and religion can coexist. Therein is the struggle to search for the balance between faith and humanity that keeps me looking towards the best shade of grey.

  4. bryan says:

    Dave — your story sounds so similar to mine — but my link through to Rorty came through Barthes and (gasp) Derrida and then through some 20c intellectual classes that historicized those fellows. Rorty broke me free of them and more. What he did for your approach to philosophy he did to my engagement with poststructuralism and even to the need to have some workable theory. It was liberating. I’ve been sad since I heard he died — he was sort of a patron saint. Bless him.

  5. Miller says:

    Dave, the more I read your posts the more I realize how drawn I am to philosophical theory. So, at the risk of sounding dense, I must admit that your last sentence flew a bit over my head. Are you addressing the knowledge that one cannot transcend time and space spiritually? Intellectually? If the way we deal with the present is so relative, can we impact other generations, cultures, etc. effectively? Does the knowledge that there are no certain boundaries to the world allow us to expand them? Does this mean that these boundaries are socially constructed? Is there a limit to all of this? And, lastly, am I looking too much into this all-too-fascinating sentence?

    It looks like I need to read some of Richard Rorty’s work. Where should I start?

  6. Dave says:

    Thanks all for the comments. Miller, I’m a terrible philosopher, but what I meant by the last sentence was I guess something along the lines of, “If we keep thinking of our task as finding the ultimate, timeless vocabulary, we’re going to fall again and again into the mistake of thinking that we have found it, or outlines of it, already. We’re going to mistake the knowledge we have — which is knowledge; Rorty isn’t making the claim that we don’t know anything — for apodictic or at least permanently-fastened-down knowledge. It’s not. And if we recognize that, if we learn to better appreciate our own historicity, we can better learn from other cultural viewpoints, whether from the past or simply radically other cultures in our own time. Even though we’re basically imprisoned in our own language, time, culture, etc., we can learn to look past the boundaries if we’re not looking for the eternal or the transcendent (which simply isn’t there) but for something other.”

    That’s probably a load o shit, but there you go.

    As for a Rorty recommendation, even non-specialists like Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, which I confess I haven’t read (but I will!). If you’ve had at least a couple years of analytic philosophy courses, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature is fantastic.

  7. Dave says:

    P.S. So I don’t think Serra is about certainty in the sense Rorty is against. Serra’s stuff is too heavy, rusted, obviously the result of specific and massive industrial processes to reach for any bullshit transcendence. “Here’s what I did with this metal. Deal with it.” No room for theory, as Bryan says.

  8. Lane says:

    “to reach for any bullshit transcendence.”

    I know introducing Serra here may not really apply, apples and . . . sardines? perhaps.

    His early work has all that macho industrial process stuff that communicates “deal with it” but these new pieces are so fu**in” REFINED! notice the perfection of all the edges and how they form these amazing dimentional drawings, notice the light as it falls on those curved edges.

    The EXQUISITNESS of it all is mind boggling. To me they are not so much about the brute force of the ship building technology but the supreme intellegence of the computer.

    Anyway, just a thought.

  9. Dave says:

    Cool. I’m seeing the show in two and a half weeks. Can’t wait.

  10. Wayne says:

    Dave, your article is especially meaningful to me since I have devoted much of my intellectual energy for the last four or five years to foundational studies. In my case foundations of logic and mathematics. Given that absolute certainty is an illusion, how do I justify the amount of time and energy that I have spend on foundational questions? I don’t think I have ever asked myself this question before, so the “answer” I give now is very preliminary. I suspect that I do not have a strong craving for certainty. I am, and have been for some time, comfortable with my lack of faith. Uncertainty, like taxes and death, just seems to be a basic part of our condition. If there is a divine plan, our inability to know what the plan is part of that plan. So I am an agnostic, not applied to me personally, but collectively to all of us. Additionally, my research has led me to call into question standard textbook practices of logic (for example, the use of modus ponens). No doubt someone will come along later and point out where I too have erred. I thrive on this kind of give and take. As you put it, uncertainty can be liberating.

    I remember when I was younger wishing I was raised Jewish and not Mormon where, so I thought in those days, instead of appeals to authority, rational inquiry into religion was encouraged. I think more than anything else, it is the false sense of certainty of most Mormons that first distanced myself from my Mormon upbringing. When I left Provo and moved to Cambridge I hoped to find a niche for myself in an unorthodox form of Mormonism and sought out Mormons without this false sense of certainty, but the few I met were on the way out. I haven’t been to church since.

    So if not certainty, what is my motive for studying foundations? I think the goal is clarity, not certainty. It is a pragmatic not a spiritual quest fueled by curiosity. It is a quest that is optimistic but humble, avoiding somehow the twin dangers of absolutism and intellectual defeatism.

    I have been fortunate to know philosophers of a pragmatic stripe. Several of the leading philosophers of science and mathematics at UC Irvine and other places, call themselves naturalists and reject a prescriptive role for philosophy. They take to heart much of Quine and the later Wittenstein, but without excessive reverence for these or any other intellectual figures. A great example is Penelope Maddy. Here are some links describing her work: her new book, her book on mathematics, and a longish description, which I confess I haven’t read but it does looks interesting and accessible.