Monday February 5, 2007
A couple of days ago I received through the post my latest copy of The Philosophers’ Magazine. I’ve not had a chance to read much of it yet, but I was taken by the cover of the magazine, which announced, “Certainty & Doubt: Is there too much of both?”
This, it seemed to me, was an interesting question. Certainly the Western philosophical tradition has hovered uneasily between the two, with on the one side the facile claim that we can never known anything at all, full stop, and on the other hand the obsessive drive for absolutely certain knowledge. A little knowledge, we are told by our elders and betters, is a dangerous thing. Both tendencies, however, seem to me to be unhelpful. I’ve never been convinced by the certainties so easily trotted out by true believers – whether Buddhist, Kantian, Christian, Islamic, Nihilist, or what have you. But at the same time, I’m not entirely convinced by the various forms of radical and systematic doubt that it is possible to encounter, often in the form of the self-defeating claim that it is impossible to know anything for certain.
Between these views, however, there is much room to manoeuvre. We do not need to sign up either to a commitment to certain knowledge or to a commitment to radical doubt. Michel Serres puts it well in his book Genesis:
We always assume that we don’t know, or else that we know everything, yea or nay. Whereas commonly we know a bit, a meagre amount, enough, quite a bit…
A little knowledge is a dangerous thing? Only, I think, when we assume that this is all that there is to know; because from our births to our deaths, this, it seems, is what we have to get by on: a little knowledge, a bit, a meagre amount, quite a bit, enough…
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