Philosophy Based on Doubt

Erasmo Calzadilla

University of Havana.  Photo: Caridad
University of Havana. Photo: Caridad

“… life is tragedy, and tragedy is perpetual struggle, without victory or the hope of it; it is contradiction.”  – Miguel de Unamuno

Truth -like its relative: the muse- can seldom be caught, and much less caged.  We are not even able to put it to pasture, like one 20th century thinker attempted, without dying of boredom from the melody of a flute.

Truth surrounds us when it matters least to us, but it bolts away with the slightest attempt to restrain it.  Only by translating our yearning for it into dance can we perhaps realize it conceding a piece of it to us.  But not as a docile dancer; rather, we must stand when we crouch, lean when we stand, and turn to the right as we move to the left, always in contradance.

Philosophy, a knowledge that wanders in search of truth, must be based on placing all assumptions in doubt.  Perhaps such extreme flexibility is the only way of preventing truth in its differing measures from breaking into pieces.

Neither the most implausible or marginal idea must be exempt from doubt.  Otherwise, since everything is connected to everything else, certainty would not delay expanding into other implied or related ideas.  It would be only a question of time before we would find ourselves in a rigid environment where there was barely a chance for thought…or love or life.

Since one of the tasks of philosophy has often been the study of economic and political doctrines, I therefore believe that any philosophy class that approaches these subjects must teach neither socialism nor capitalism.  Instead, it must create conditions so that those who study are able to reflect correctly, broadly and deeply about the diverse social systems that existed and continue to exist.  In this way, a fair and free assessment can be made by the student.

In my point of view, anything else -in addition to being disrespectful- would be counterproductive.

If one wants to build a more human social system (let’s call it socialism or by any other name), it’s epistemology must be sustained by the wisdom of uncertainty.

Doubt should not be paralyzing, though it must in fact be sufficiently dry to prevent the glue of the revolution from crystallizing, alienating and being alienated from the hands of its creators.

To teach about such a form of human socialism in a philosophy class would be nothing other than teaching how to think (and especially to doubt) about the question of how to build a society that allows us to continue doubting, building and living in the best possible way – for the featherless biped as well as the rest of the beings that accompany it on this cosmic ship of stones.

8 thoughts on “Philosophy Based on Doubt

  • Michael, did you invent “Lake Mooselookmeguntic?” ha!

    You know, I’m not a “Proudhonist”–if there is such a thing–but I do consider his later conclusions a millioin miles closer to “workable” socialism than Engels and Marx ever came. His later conclusions regarding private property and the state are indeed key theoretical components of modern coop socialism.

    Bourgeois thinkers had said that the institution of private property is necessary for a free society. Proudhon seemed at first, in his youth, to have disagreed, calling private property “theft.” He changed his mind later however and agreed somewhat with bourgeois philosophers.

    He said that, yes, private property is necessary, in order to balance the raw power of the state & keep it from becoming tyrannical. This has been proven true by the Marxian/Stalinist experience of state socialism.

    But Proudhon also said that private property should be owned by those who work it, not by capitalists or the state!

  • Although I agree with you, Grady, that no sooner does man shuck-off old orthodoxies then he has a proclivity for creating new ones. I tend to look at this through comic, nay, Bunuelian, lenses, rather than tragic ones, though given the mountains of corpses this tendency has produced throughout history (e.g. the religious wars of the Reformation, the Great Purges of the 1930’s, etc.) perhaps I shouldn’t make light of this.
    Grady, you remind me of my best friend, Fred R. Fry,II, who passed away a decade ago. During a pilgrimage, in August, 1993, to “Organon,” the home and final resting place of one of our heroes, Wilhelm Reich, we were camped out on the shores of Lake Mooselookmeguntic. Fred awoke around 6:00 a.m. one morning and immediately launched into a long monologue about Proudhon, Bakunin, etc. Meanwhile, drifting in-and-out of sleep, from time I interjected an “uh-hu,” “indubidably,” “for sure,” etc. Guess I am not good for polemics before noon.

  • . . . has been mainly occupied in undoing Luther’s shoddy work; do not let us leave humanity with a similar mess to clear up as a result of our efforts. I applaud with all my heart your thought of bringing all opinions to light; let us carry on a good and loyal polemic; let us give the world an example of learned and far-sighted tolerance, but let us not, merely because we are at the head of a movement, make ourselves the leaders of a new intolerance, let us not pose as the apostles of a new religion, even if it be the religion of logic, the religion of reason. Let us gather together and encourage all protests, let us brand all exclusiveness, all mysticism; let us never regard a question as exhausted, and when we have used our last argument, let us begin again, if need be, with eloquence and irony. On that condition, I will gladly enter your association. Otherwise — no!”

    This is the philosophic heart of a “real” socialism.

  • It will be good to look at Proudhon’s reply to Marx, May 17, 1846:

    “First, although my ideas in the matter of organization and realization are at this moment more or less settled, at least as regards principles, I believe it is my duty, as it is the duty of all socialists, to maintain for some time yet the critical or dubitive form; in short, I make profession in public of an almost absolute economic anti-dogmatism.

    “Let us seek together, if you wish, the laws of society, the manner in which these laws are realized, the process by which we shall succeed in discovering them; but, for God’s sake, after having demolished all the a priori dogmatisms, do not let us in our turn dream of indoctrinating the people; do not let us fall into the contradiction of your compatriot Martin Luther, who, having overthrown Catholic theology, at once set about, with excommunication and anathema, the foundation of a Protestant theology. For the last three centuries Germany . . .

  • As a child, I often puzzled over the opening line of a popular Christmas carol, “We Three Kings of Orient Are…” Are what? Complete the sentence, damn it!!! Later, on reflecting who they were, and by extension, who each individual “I” was, can we posit, with any real assurance, that merely because I think does it really mean that I am? Who I am is constantly changing. More estoy than soy. My soy keeps transmuting into estoy, then back again. Like Einstein dropping the rock from a train, where it is depends on the vantage point, and the grid, from which the observer operates. Are we looking at the rock from a hillside, or from between the passenger cars as it is dropped? Likewise, with the self. What it is and who it is all depends on who is doing the observation, and also when and where the observation takes place. Hence, I would doubt the “objectivity” of existence itself. Existence is a fleeting, will-of-the-wisp phenomenon. Hence, “Being & Nothingness.”

  • Erasmo, Are you referring in this post to the Cartesian doubt? As a way of finding truth?

    He (Descartes) mentioned the same as a mean to find out about truth
    Until he got all the way to something he could not doubt at all
    cogito ergo sum

    ( I think therefore I am)

  • Erasmo, have you ever read “Letters to a young Contrarian” by Christopher Hitchens? I believe you would enjoy it.

  • You do have a poetic way of expressing yourself, Erasmo! Are you sure your natural role is that of a professor of philosophy? I think it might rather be that of a novelist (even though some critics say “the novel is dead,” I thinik they do protest too much). If you did decide to write a novel, you might be joining the first ranks, like Lezama Lima, Cabrera Infante and Carpentier (Don’t ask me about Arenas! His novels are so avante garde and difficult to understand that they make my head hurt; they’re like reading James Joyce’s “Finnegan’s Wake”!) On the other hand, you might be able to write a great series mixing history and philosophy, like my favorites, Will and Ariel Durant (I’m racing to finish their multi-volumed opus before the Grim Reaper catches up with me!) In any event, tragedy and comedy seem to be all mixed up, like some absurd dream. If only we had the correct Freudian, or Einsteinian, or Marxian keys to unlock these absurd psychodramas!

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