A great philosopher–like Plato or Kant, Laozi or Nietzsche–does not give doctrines for memorization, provide answers to life’s problems, nor demonstrate proofs that will forever explain being human. That such has often been taken away from the greatest minds in human history testifies to the ongoing desire to end care and sorrow. Indeed, who wants to be troubled or sad?
Yet philosophy as a way of life responds rather paradoxically to this tendency in our behavior. The love of wisdom seeks a life that is capable of believing in more than positive certainty. For how can a person ever be certain he/she is completely wise?
Philosophy is the willingness to embrace uncertainty in conjunction with the will to ask questions.
Because I am uncertain and willing to embrace my situation, I do not develop the intellectual hubris which closes me off from open communication with my fellows. There need be no violence in my contact with others, especially those with whom I may disagree. I should not exhibit intellectual superiority to keep my fellow beneath me. Nor am I compelled to manipulate someone into agreement with me just so I continue to be right.
Moreover, being uncertain, I must ask. My being awake and staying awake depends upon how I bid my fellows to engage in ever further inquiry. If I have no will to ask, I slip into the hands of forgetfulness. In that situation, taking the already discovered as never needing more disclosure, whatever has been thought becomes mere intellectual superstition. To take as always final that which is not-as-yet-finished distances me and puts me outside into false certainty.
And here is the existential ground of our uncertainty: as beings that never have the encompassing totality in our grasp, we do not have the wherewithal to claim certainty except in the smallest variety of circumstances. And even then it will be but a few of us who can make the claim. For such claims can only come from engaging in the loving struggle for such thinking.
The “I think therefore I am”, like any other proof, requires that the speaker has engaged the process so that he/she is not merely parroting Descartes. To teach it otherwise conveys the practice of false certainty and intellectual superstition.
To say that 2+2=4 is always true requires not only thinking on what numbers are but on grasping the truth of the additive principle. To teach it otherwise conveys the practice of false certainty and intellectual superstition.
All of those who use these certainties as examples of how we can be certain demonstrate more truly our uncertainty and desire for certainty than they show of what we can be certain. For when this–the ability to know that some processes always already obtain–is passed along as technical information, it supersedes the process of thinking as our basic praxis and ultimately retards profundity of contemplation in favor of the utility of memorization.
And a person does not put to memory the provocations of Laozi, Plato, Kant, or Nietzsche which testify to their willingness to be uncertain. Rather, so many will commit to memory certain temporary expressions that at best lead down paths of minimal inquiry while at worst proliferating an industry of explanations.
For shame that we allow this. We must encourage youth not to shrink from being unsure by showing how we are ourselves willing to admit, “I really have no idea… Let us investigate! And if nothing else, we may see how ignorant we really are.”
Posted by KWB wandering among the borderlands of the Ether.