How I Learned to Stop Worrying (about Rules and Procedures) and Love Ambiguity and Uncertainty

Uncertainty, defined as the indeterminacy of the future, is almost universally experienced as a major problem among philosophers as well as among businessmen and politicians who wish, in the famous words of Descartes, a philosopher, “render ourselves the lords and possessors of nature.” But it has not always been so. Renaissance humanism in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries had a very different attitude, embracing the complexity, diversity and chaos of the world with interest. Yet, everything changed in the seventeenth century, when humanism gave way to rationalism. Why? The answer to this question is provided by the work of the philosopher Stephen Toulmin.

Toulmin observes that before 1600, theoretical research was counterbalanced by concrete discussions, practical questions, such as the specific conditions on which it is morally acceptable for a sovereign to launch a war, or for a subject to kill a tyrant. From Erasmus to Shakespeare and Montaigne, the writings of Renaissance humanists showed open-mindedness and skeptical tolerance, which were innovative features of this new secular culture. In this, scholars and educators were indebted for a crucial characteristic of Aristotle’s ethics, politics and rhetoric: the sensitivity to the ‘circumstantial’ nature of a practical question. In a modest approach typical of this thought, Montaigne maintained that it was better to suspend one’s judgment on questions of general theory and to concentrate on the accumulation of a rich perspective. Naturalists thus rejoiced in the profusion and diversity of the world, which was discovered at this period, notably through travels to faraway places and the study of nature.

From 1600 on, on the other hand, most philosophers began to engage in questions of abstract, universal theory, to the exclusion of these concrete questions. Where Montaigne rejoiced at the richness of the world and its ambiguity, those who seek a universal model saw nothing but chaos and confusion. Modern philosophy thus put aside all questions relating to the argumentation – in particular persons in specific situations, dealing with concrete cases where various things are at stake – in favor of evidence that could be written and judged in writing. It moved to a higher stratospheric plane, in which nature and ethics conform to abstract, timeless and universal theories. According to Toulmin, it thus made four fundamental changes and operated a 180° turn in relation to humanism, in a veritable counter-revolution:

  • Rhetoric, the art of language and discussion, which was the way of doing philosophy, gave way to formal logic;
  • The discussion of individual cases gave way to general principles;
  • Concrete diversity gave way to abstract axioms;
  • The transient gave way to the timeless.

What explains this change? It is here that Toulmin’s thesis is interesting. He begins by recalling the historical context. The Reformation movement had grown since the beginning of the 16th century and the conflict between Protestants and Catholics threatened to degenerate. In this context, the French King Henry IV, a Protestant prince who converted to Catholicism to become King, pursued a measured policy, trying to reconcile the two parties, which naturally earned him much criticism. He considered that one could be honestly Catholic or Protestant and be a loyal subject of the Kingdom. Facing the pressure of clear choices, he defended a compromise solution that dissociated national loyalties from religious affiliations. The pragmatic attitude of Henry IV in politics recalled that of Montaigne in the intellectual domain, and this was no coincidence as the two were close. Just as Henri did not allow doctrinal dogmatism to go beyond the political pragmatism, Montaigne did not allow philosophical dogmatism to surpass the testimony of familiar experience. Both men placed modest experiential demands above the fanatical demands of doctrinal loyalty, and were thus (in the true sense) skeptics.

Montaigne: The real McCoy

But Henry IV was assassinated on May 14, 1610. The event created a considerable shock wave across Europe. What people saw, according to Toulmin, was that a policy of religious tolerance had been attempted, and had failed. After Henry, such policy no longer had any chance. The intellectual debate between the Protestant reformers and their opponents of the Counter-Reformation ended, and there was no alternative to the sword and the torch. Everyone hardened their positions and the conflict finally broke out in 1618. It would be the 30 years war and it would devastate Europe, leaving behind a field of ruins. In the course of hostilities, it soon became obvious that attempting to “prove” by the sword that one’s side was right on a question of faith was vain, but both sides were caught in a hellish gear and the situation was out of control.

The more brutal the war became, the more massacres followed the massacres, the more each side sought a means of proving that their doctrine was the right one. The prudence and modesty of Montaigne was now distant memory and had become unacceptable: the hour called for clarity, for universal truth. If uncertainty, ambiguity and acceptance of humanist pluralism had led in practice to an intensification of religious warfare, then it was time to discover a rational way of demonstrating the essential accuracy or inaccuracy of philosophical, scientific or theological doctrines. What the war could not decide, without it being possible to stop it, would have to be decided by “science”.

The era called on men of mind to propose a means to access the truth, a truth that could not be challenged, an indisputable basis of which society could be rebuilt. For this, it was necessary that this truth be independent of the human contingencies of which everyone could see what they are capable of. One had to withdraw from the real world of passions which only produced blood. And it is Descartes, a young French philosopher, who answered this call.

Descartes persuaded his time to renounce fields of study such as ethnography, history or poetry, rich in content and context, and to concentrate exclusively on abstract and decontextualized fields such as geometry, dynamics and epistemology. His hope, and that of his successors, was to bring all the subjects back to the field of a certain formal theory.

The result was a change from a style of philosophy, from one that took into account the questions of local and temporal practice as well as of universal and timeless theory, to one in which only the latter has the right to figure in the “new philosophy”.

Descartes was not so much the murderer of humanism, which died in 1618, as his gravedigger. Contrary to his image as a philosopher detached from material contingencies, his philosophy responded to an urgent social demand, the quest for certainty, which arose from troubled times. But its impact was major. It marked the passage from a time when uncertainty and ambiguity were seen as a source of richness and enjoyment to a time when they are the source of all evil. This philosophy modified up to the very conception of the world and of society, the whole being seen as a system, with God reigning over the world, the King over men (the “Sun King”!) the husband over his wife, the nobleman over the peasant, and so on. From then on, the path was open for a thought that would constantly produce tools to reduce uncertainty, either by reducing everything to a series of equations or by trying to plan, or clearly separating the domain of the Thought form the domain of human passions.

Yet, this quest to remove uncertainty is futile and desperate… After Descartes and his legions of followers, it took centuries for this futility to be admitted and for uncertainty and ambiguity to be once again recognized as essential and fruitful characteristics of our environment. In economics, for instance, it is not until 1921 that uncertainty was recognized by Nobel prize winner Frank Knight as no less than the source of profit in the capitalist system. But more generally, uncertainty is the ultimate source of our freedom and the condition of our free will: with uncertainty, the world cannot be deterministic, and the field of human action opens, without limit. We must now re-read Montaigne, who turns out to be furiously “modern,” and learn to love uncertainty… again.

Stephen Toulin, Cosmopolis: The Hidden Agenda of Modernity. The University of Chicago Press (1992).

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2 responses to “How I Learned to Stop Worrying (about Rules and Procedures) and Love Ambiguity and Uncertainty

  1. Hi Philippe, are you familiar with the concept of VUCA world? Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous. This military acronym is born after the Cold War to describe the chaos in which the world put itself. Bob Johansen wrote a book about it. If you don’t know yet have a look at it. Content de t’avoir lu.

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