Uncertainty is generally seen as problematic, but it wasn’t always so: Renaissance humanism in the sixteenth century embraced the complexity, diversity, and chaos of the world. But all that changed in the seventeenth century. How did this happen?
One clue to understanding how uncertainty became unacceptable comes from the work of the philosopher Stephen Toulmin. Toulmin observes that before 1600, theoretical inquiry was counterbalanced by concrete discussions of practical issues, such as the specific conditions under which it is morally acceptable for a ruler to wage war or for a subject to kill a tyrant. From Erasmus to Shakespeare and Montaigne, the writings of the Renaissance humanists displayed the open-mindedness and skeptical tolerance that were innovative features of this new secular culture. In this, scholars and educators were indebted to a crucial feature of Aristotle’s ethics, politics, and rhetoric: sensitivity to the “circumstantial” nature of a practical question. In a modest approach typical of this thought, Montaigne maintained that it was better to suspend judgment on questions of general theory and concentrate on the accumulation of a rich perspective. In this way, naturalists rejoiced in the richness and diversity of the world that was being discovered at the time, especially through travel to distant lands and the study of nature.
From 1600 on, however, most philosophers began to concern themselves with questions of abstract, universal theory, to the exclusion of these concrete questions. Where Montaigne rejoiced in the richness of the world and its ambiguity, those who sought a universal model saw nothing but chaos and confusion. Modern philosophy thus set aside all questions of argumentation-especially people in specific situations, dealing with concrete cases where different things are at stake-in favor of evidence that could be written and judged in writing. It moved to a higher stratosphere where nature and ethics conform to abstract, timeless, and universal theories. Thus, according to Toulmin, it made four fundamental changes and made a 180° turn in relation to humanism, in a veritable counter-revolution:
— rhetoric, the art of language and discussion, which was the way of doing philosophy, gave way to formal logic;
— the discussion of special cases gave way to general principles;
— concrete variety gave way to abstract axioms;
— the transitory gave way to the timeless.
A new search for certainty
What explains this change? Toulmin begins by recalling the historical context. The Reformation movement had been growing since the beginning of the 16th century, and the conflict between Protestants and Catholics threatened to degenerate. In this context, the French King Henry IV, a Protestant prince who converted to Catholicism in order to become king, pursued a moderate policy of trying to reconcile the two parties, which naturally earned him much criticism. He believed that one could be honestly Catholic or Protestant and be a loyal subject of the kingdom. Faced with the pressure of clear choices, he defended a compromise solution that separated national loyalties from religious affiliations. Henry IV’s pragmatic approach to politics was reminiscent of Montaigne’s in the intellectual realm, and this was no accident, for the two were close. Just as Henri did not allow doctrinal dogmatism to transcend political pragmatism, Montaigne did not allow philosophical dogmatism to transcend the testimony of intimate experience. Both men placed the modest demands of experience above the fanatical demands of doctrinal loyalty.
But on May 14, 1610, Henry IV was assassinated. The event sent a considerable shock wave through Europe. What people saw, according to Toulmin, was that a policy of religious tolerance had been tried and had failed. After Henry, such a policy had no chance. The intellectual debate between the Protestant Reformers and their Counter-Reformation opponents ended, and there was no alternative to the sword and the torch. Everyone hardened their positions and the conflict finally broke out in 1618. The quest for certainty would be the 30 Years’ War and it would devastate Europe, leaving behind a field of ruins. As the hostilities progressed, it soon became clear that trying to “prove” by the sword that one’s side was right on a matter of faith was futile, but both sides were in a hellish frenzy and the situation was out of control.
The more brutal the war became, the more massacres followed massacres, the more each side sought a means to prove that its doctrine was the right one. The prudence and modesty of Montaigne were now a distant memory and unacceptable: the hour called for clarity, for universal truth. If uncertainty, ambiguity, and the acceptance of humanistic pluralism had in practice led to religious wars, it was time to find a rational way to demonstrate the essential correctness or inaccuracy of philosophical, scientific, or theological doctrines. What war could not decide, “science” would have to decide.
The era called upon men of reason to propose a means of gaining access to the truth, a truth that could not be questioned, an indisputable basis on which to rebuild society. For this, it was necessary that this truth be independent of human contingencies. One had to withdraw from the real world of passions, which only produced blood. And it was Descartes, a young French philosopher, who answered this call.
Descartes persuaded his contemporaries to abandon fields of study rich in content and context, such as ethnography, history, or poetry, and to concentrate exclusively on abstract and decontextualized fields, such as geometry, dynamics, and epistemology. His hope, and that of his successors, was to bring all subjects back into the realm of a particular formal theory. The result was a change from a style of philosophy that took into account questions of local and temporal practice as well as universal and timeless theory, to one in which only the latter had the right to figure in the “new” philosophy.
Descartes, who died in 1618, was less the murderer of humanism than its gravedigger. It marked the transition from a time when uncertainty and ambiguity were seen as a source of richness and pleasure to a time when they were the source of all evil. This philosophy changed the very conception of the world and society, the whole being seen as a system, with God ruling over the world, the king over men (the “Sun King”!), the husband over his wife, the aristocrat over the peasant, and so on. From then on, the way was open for a thought that would constantly produce tools to reduce uncertainty, either by reducing everything to a series of equations, or by trying to plan, or by clearly separating the domain of thought from the domain of human passions.
The futility of certainty
But this search for the elimination of uncertainty is futile and desperate… After Descartes and his legions of followers, it took centuries for this futility to be admitted and for uncertainty and ambiguity to be recognized again as essential and fruitful features of our environment. In economics, for example, it was not until 1921 that uncertainty was recognized by economist Frank Knight as no less than the source of profit in the capitalist system. But more generally, uncertainty is the ultimate source of our freedom and the condition of our free will: with uncertainty, the world cannot be deterministic, and the field of human action opens up without limits. We should re-discover Montaigne, who turns out to be furiously “modern,” and learn to love uncertainty… again.
📖 This article is an excerpt from my book “Welcome to Uncertainty“
Stephen Toulin, Cosmopolis: The Hidden Agenda of Modernity. The University of Chicago Press (1992).
📬 If you enjoyed this article, don’t hesitate to subscribe to receive future articles via email (“I subscribe” in the upper right corner of the home page).
🇫🇷 French version of this article here.