Doubt: Threat or Opportunity?

Issue 1708

15 September 2017

An emblematic term for our era

Doubt can be considered a watchword for people today. It is the premise for the construction of any solid, critical and complete thought based on reason alone without any recourse to authority or tradition that would penalize liberty or autonomy. The key philosopher of doubt is of course Descartes. According to him it is most useful because “doubt frees us from any sort of prejudice; it prepares for us an easy pathway to habituate our spirit to be detached from the senses, and lastly thanks to it we can no longer have any doubt about what we will later discover to be true.”[1]

But this enticing promise was not fulfilled. Without prior certainty, to which trust should somehow be given – for example, concerning the value of reason and its ability to recognise the truth – doubt in no way prepares an easy pathway; and instead of disappearing, it increases until it becomes a nightmare that renders all that is touched confused and uncertain as in the legend of King Midas. Descartes himself had to recognize this, noting that indiscriminate doubt risked upsetting everything: not only does it not help uncover truth, but it also makes knowledge itself impossible, becoming a sort of “skeptic devil”[2] that can never be exorcised.

Doubt, therefore, has become the unsurpassed master of the modern era, to the extent of becoming a nightmare from which we cannot free ourselves: the more a complete response is sought, the more doubt seems to emerge victorious. As Enrico Castelli acutely noted: “The history of modern philosophy has mostly been the history of an obsession with objectivity.”[3] Things have gone differently than expected: the only thing remaining of objectivity is an obsession with it.

In the Discourse on Method, Descartes proposes what is called in the subtitle, “the right use of one’s reason and the quest for truth in the sciences.” With it he wishes to lay down – by means of mathematics, geometry and the mechanical arts – solid foundations for the building of knowledge, substituting them for the “sand and the mud” of the ancients. Yet reading on, we encounter more of an autobiographical account and a series of images that are closer to poetry and narrative than to epistemology. “The Discourse on Method if we look carefully is not a discourse ‘on the method.’ Rather, if we are honest we do not even find in it a precise definition of what Descartes means by method.”[4]

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