Beyond the Quest for Certainty

By Hutcheon, Pat Duffy | The Humanist, July 2001 | Go to article overview

Beyond the Quest for Certainty


Hutcheon, Pat Duffy, The Humanist


In 1929 the great American philosopher John Dewey published a book called The Quest for Certainty. It was one of his greatest works, but he was a thinker so out of step with prevailing ideas that few people could even understand his message--much less accept it.

Dewey concluded that most of the problems of society during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries stemmed from the colossal failure of philosophy. He claimed that philosophers had forsaken their responsibility to explain the findings of science as they came to light, and to provide leadership in the continuous forging of a world view compatible with those findings--that they had, instead, lost themselves in the "quest for certainty." The result was that much of the intellectual progress of the Enlightenment era stagnated and even regressed with the reemergence of a belief system that, once again, divided the world in two.

Dewey showed how Emmanuel Kant's "second Copernican revolution" adversely affected the cultural progress sparked by the first one. Thanks to the work of Copernicus and others, the empirical approach to knowing had begun to replace the old axiom-based, deductive science of the Scholastics. However, Kant's transcendentalism reversed that trend. In an effort to reinstate the concept of an isolated domain of immutable substance discoverable by science, Kant produced a model that effectively separated the knowing mind --and the "phenomena" accessible to that mind--from what he considered to be the essentially unpredictable, unconditioned domain of moral choice and action. He succeeded in reviving the older "mind-matter" dualism of Descartes, in updated form. Cartesian dualism had, in its turn, breathed new life into that which had been so long-entrenched in Western culture by the enduring theories of Plato and Aristotle. David Hume's monism--and, with it, his insight about the inevitably uncertain nature of human beliefs--was buried for at least another two centuries in the wholesale rush instigated by Kant to resume the age-old "quest for certainty."

According to Dewey, a major reason why Kant's explanations were so universally welcomed and have dominated our culture for so long was that they provided a means of reconciling religion and science. These explanations made it possible to view science and supernaturally based religion as mutually compatible. They glorified and rendered absolute the "knowing mind"--with its supposedly innate categories of logical thought for analyzing and classifying the "mechanistic" physical surroundings. Kant's explanations also succeeded in isolating that mind and its reasoning capacity from the presumed mystery characterizing the other defining aspect of human beings: their nature as autonomous "agents of morality" within a supersensual and indeterminate "realm of change." Altogether, Kant provided a world view within which science was itself a quest for certainty --but a quest appropriate only for "the inherently rational and immutable domain of material substance." As for that realm of change for which the methods of science are not applicable, humans were advised to rely on faith in metaphysical explanations, with their promise of escape from uncertainty through the soul's ultimate connection to a realm of perfect being.

All the major nineteenth-century versions of rationalistic realism and romantic idealism--including an American transcendentalism popularized by Ralph Waldo Emerson--built upon Kant's ideas. But then along came Charles Darwin, with his theory of natural selection, and this threatened to upset the applecart. Unless, that is, evolution could be restricted to what had been neatly categorized as the material domain which, alone, was considered open to logical analysis and thus discoverable through scientific research.

For well over a century we have witnessed a battle, virtually to the death, to fence off psychological, anthropological, and sociological studies from that remarkable ordering paradigm now providing the very foundation for our understanding of all living things. …

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