Doubting as Traveling (Self-Certainty as a Road to Nowhere)

By Heidi Salaverría

One of the biggest problems of our civilization is a misguided idea of the self. Conceptually, as well as in everyday practices, the general expectation is to display a self-certain, determined posture and to act correspondingly.

The Quest for Certainty, which the pragmatist philosopher John Dewey considered one of the most dangerous attitudes of modernity, has suffused our western everyday thinking and acting. Doubt nowadays is considered mainly an obstacle to avoid (or to be rapidly overcome) for maintaining a strong position in the world, towards oneself and towards others. The position of the doubter is seen as a position of weakness, accompanied by suffering, exclusion of recognition, and the inhibition to act decisively. The mainstream climate in politics and in public debates, as well as in private life is one of a vague, but nevertheless powerful pressure: The pressure to be sure of ones own position, to know what one wants, to come up – at best instantly – with solutions to given problems, to have an opinion on any topic at stake. In short, it is the fantasy to inhabit the god’s eye view.

The phantasm of the self-certain, autonomous and impermeable ego has been proven to be dangerous and fictitious long ago. And it has been linked to the – likewise fictitious – idea of masculinity, which – proving its alleged autonomy wrong from the beginning – has always been dependent on its complement in the equally fictitious idea of femininity as self-uncertain, heteronomous, and permeable. Notwithstanding its fictitious character, this binary gender model has been very powerful and continues to be so. It seems very difficult to think, to feel, and to act outside of this frame, as on a deeper level, our western philosophy is pervaded by this violent dualist paradigm.

Of course, as we aren’t gods, this climate of certainty-pressure does not resolve any doubts or make them disappear, it only suppresses them. And suppressed doubts suppress judgment-formation as well. As a result, common sense and the public media are marked by an alarming lack of a thoughtful and responsible formation of judgment, one of the most precious capacities of human beings.[1] With the increasing velocity of digital communication and information flow we are even more in dire need of cultivating our opinion-formation, instead the increase of information is accompanied by a decrease of adequate coping.

The consequence is the prevalence of a posture which could be called the pro-con-whatever-posture: Either being instantly in favor of or instantly against something, or, if neither one of those options seems fit, not to care at all – which, in the end, amounts to the contra position, except for the fact that the manifested indifference doesn’t even bother saying no and saves the effort of taking responsibility. The pro-con-whatever-posture seems to suppose that being impermeable and self-satisfied leads to success and happiness.

And, at first sight, it in fact does seem to lead to success, as this posture makes people functional within most of the given globalized economic and political systems. But it represents a functionality in the sense of the functional drug-addict or alcoholic who, viewed from the outside, succeeds in behaving as expected, while, viewed from the inside, fights a war against all kinds of desires and doubts which, having been cut off from conscious reflection, become less and less controllable, until one day the system collapses. Repressed doubts and desires turn into aggression and exponentially increase the violence, which originally caused them.

This mechanism not only applies to the psychological microstructure of the individual, it applies as well to the macrostructure e.g. of nations. The more impermeable a nation claims to be, the stronger the fictitious “we” is being opposed to the “others” by building a fortress, the more likely a collapse of civilization is to be expected.

Underneath all, this posture is nurtured by a profound fear. Fear that anything else but certainty amounts to nothing and renders one’s existence worthless. If you are not determined in your own position, fear seems to ask, isn’t everything just random? If there is no absolute evidence, isn’t everything just a joke? This either-or-claustrophobia is partly a remnant of Christianity, partly it reflects our deeply ingrained Cartesianism – namely to feel and to think in a binary logic: Body/soul, male/female, nature/culture, good/bad, yes/no, everything/nothing.

The translation of Christian’s fear of god into our own times is this: If one does not partake in infinite certainty, one ends up living in the hell of insignificance. The own being, seen from this perspective, will then effectively amount to nothing. In a strange way, the pro-con-whatever-posture hold itself captive in some kind of purgatory, trying to avoid at any price the role of the doubting lost soul by adopting the position of a god’s eye view (instantly knowing what is certain) while simultaneously accomplishing the role of the devoted believer desperately trying to know what god would want without daring to ask. As these two roles are completely irreconcilable, an inner war (of course not admitted) is inevitable and simultaneously unsolvable.

Denying doubts and denying the value of doubts is disastrous, because unchanging and indubitable identity is a fiction, which can only be established and maintained through structural, indirect, or direct violence. Instead, it seems less violent, more realistic and more fruitful to acknowledge that subjects are living organisms, as much as political systems, science, language, and relations are. These living organisms constantly alter. Their identity travels. Trying to fix them into a static position is like cutting off every branch a tree grows. If not shaped in a friendly and very skillful manner – as in the bonsai art – the result will be a crippled plant with very low life expectancy. Also the question would remain: Who should be the bonsai artist cutting our tree?


Slightly modified extract from: Salaverría, The Eros of Doubting, in: Women in Philosophical Counseling, Luisa de Paula (eds.), Lexington Books, Lanham Maryland 2015.


[1] For a discussion of the relation between Kantian reflective judgments and pragmatist doubts, see Heidi Salaverría, “Critical Common Sense, Exemplary Doubts, and Reflective Judgment,” in: Confines of Democracy. The Social Philosophy of Richard Bernstein: Essays on the Philosophy of Richard Bernstein, ed. Ramón de Castillo, Ángel M. Faerna, Larry A. Hickman, New York 2015.