The Quest for Uncertainty: Representation, Resentment, Responsibility

Authors: Robert Lake*, Rutgers University
Topics: Social Theory, Geographic Theory
Keywords: Pragmatism, Enlightenment, knowledge production
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/11/2018
Start / End Time: 8:00 AM / 9:40 AM
Room: Galerie 3, Marriott, 2nd Floor
Presentation File: No File Uploaded

The Enlightenment promise that knowledge paves the way to progress offered the illusory presumption that, in Deborah Nelson’s words, “every source of pain…is already located somewhere on the path to (its) elimination.” That Baconian ideal generated, in turn, what John Dewey characterized in 1929 as The Quest for Certainty, the restless search for predictive laws guiding human action in the direction of progress. The Darwinian discovery of contingency, contextuality, indeterminacy, and conjuncturalism, however, challenged the necessitarian certainty of universalism, the retreat into abstraction, and the presumption of knowledge as stable representation of an external reality. The ontological insecurity produced by indeterminacy “generates the quest for certainty,” Dewey wrote, yet what is possible “at most (is) only a feeling of certainty” and “the attempt to include all that is doubtful within the fixed grasp of that which is theoretically certain is committed to insincerity and evasion.” Dewey’s solution was to replace knowledge with intelligence, rejecting the search for monopolistic, authoritarian knowledge of the antecedently real in favor of intelligence, by which he meant the capacity for judgment in the “selection…of means to effect consequences and…choice of what we take as our ends.” Practical judgment rests on a tripartite commitment: to replace the certainty of representation with an embrace of doubt; to relinquish resentment in favor of hope; and to supplant critique with responsibility. The quest for uncertainty offers what Melvin Rogers calls “an understanding of humility that does not extinguish hope.”

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