Certainty in uncertain times
We live, as we're constantly reminded, in uncertain times. But what does uncertainty actually entail? And do some certainties bolster the unjust system in which we live? And could the late philosophy of Ludwig Wittgenstein help us find a way to think through certainty and uncertainty politically?
The jumbled stream of voices in my email inbox don’t tend to speak in unison. There’s little in common – in tone, content, or purpose – between, say, a question from a student, an editor’s response, a skincare promotion, or a magazine newsletter. In the last two-plus years, though, an unusual chorus has emerged, echoing in email after email. Fundraising politicians, morning news round-ups, my university administrators, Con-Edison, non-profits, friends and strangers – they all agree: we live in “uncertain times.”
“In these uncertain times,” the messages begin, and there’s little mystery as to why the phrase has been resonating. In the midst of a deadly and disabling pandemic, environmental decimation, and potent fascism rising – among other crises – there is reason for dread. But well-grounded fear is not the same as generalized uncertainty. That a time of observable and growing peril for millions is presented in the language of totalizing doubt possessed by an epoch is worthy of further interrogation.
I’m hardly alone in bristling at the constant, breezy invocation of uncertainty. It has become a joke of sorts: think of Brecht, parodied: In the uncertain times, will there also be tweeting? Yes, there will also be tweeting. About the uncertain times. A number of thinkers have engaged critically, too. As the historian Beans Velocci highlighted in 2020, the barrage of “uncertain times” messaging spoke to a strategic manufacturing of “not-knowing” which enables powerful actors to evade responsibility during a pandemic with extreme discriminatory effects. As Velocci pointed out, it is convenient, to say the least, to gesture wildly and often invalidly towards uncertainty – around a pandemic’s trajectory, or around what would happen without police and prisons, or around challenges to constructed gender and sex binaries – to keep hierarchies and hegemonies firmly in place, producing violence of which we can be certain.
And uncertain times? “Times” are a peculiar subject to possess the psychic or epistemic capacity for uncertainty or certainty. Such states tend to be, after all, the preserve of conscious beings rather than eras. But I don’t want to fall prey to pedantry. After all, it’s just a phrase, and the poetry of quotidian speech is full of vague and nonetheless meaningful descriptions that capture moods and provoke responses. Talk of “uncertain times” works. It hits the right mark for enough people, or so it seems. But to speak of “times” is, of course, an expedient way to not speak about people, as if the historic contingencies of pandemic death, poverty, disenfranchisement, border regimes and climate devastation were happening to everyone in the same way, all at once; in these times, all are victims, so none can be villains.
Perhaps, then, what is at issue, and what is needed, is a more rigorous understanding of the logics of uncertainty. Behind the endless talk of uncertainty, we risk failing to attend to what is held certain – and it is contemporary certainties, rather than the uncertainty allegedly defining our moment, that give me most cause for concern.
Questions of doubt, certainty and knowledge have long occupied philosophers. Few have taken up the issue, though, in as compelling a manner as the Austrian-British philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. Published in 1969, 18 years after the philosopher’s death, “On Certainty” is a collection of notes written in the final years of Wittgenstein’s life that offer an invaluable roadmap through which we can begin to appreciate how uncertainty and certainty actually work. The notes are, in turns, works of analytic argumentation, affecting aphorism, open questioning and therapeutic monologue. In them, he hacks away at the centuries-old problem of Cartesian doubt: how do we answer radical skeptics, with their nagging hypotheses of brains-in-vats or deceiving demons, who question whether anything can be immune from doubt, whether we have justification to claim know to anything at all, even whether we can be sure of the existence of external objects. Rather than leading us to a stabilizing cogito, as Descartes had done, Wittgenstein – in line with his late philosophical approach – exposes the workings of certainty and doubt by drawing attention to the language games in which the activities of being certain or having doubt are necessarily embedded. Neither the epistemic skeptics nor the most prominent anti-skeptics escape unscathed. Both positions, Wittgenstein points out, miss something crucial about the operations of certainty and uncertainty, as well as what it is to know or not-know something.[book-strip index="1" style="buy"]
I’m not suggesting that the politicians and P.R. reps emailing about “uncertain times” are actually proposing some radical skeptical hypothesis in need of a Wittgensteinian dressing down. No one is conjuring that level of philosophical abstraction in a campaign email. But the constant reliance on Big Uncertainty messaging nonetheless suggests a situation of unending, boundless doubt. Wittgenstein points out, however, that uncertainty – the activity of doubting – has a necessary stopping point. As he wrote: “if you tried to doubt everything you would not get as far as doubting anything. The game of doubting itself presupposes certainty.”
Wittgenstein here is characteristically gnomic, but in one sense at least the claim is simply one about ordinary language. In our normal usage, “doubt” quite simply isn’t applied to, say, the very existence of physical objects. In almost every instance in which a person would really attempt to doubt everything – from the existence of physical objects, to the fact that the world has existed long before our births – we would simply conclude that they were mentally disturbed, or high. “If you are not certain of any fact,” Wittgenstein noted, “you cannot be certain of the meaning of your words either.” Without some structuring certainties, doubt can’t get off the ground. You can’t, for example, ask meaningful questions about specific objects in the world – “Is there any wine left in the bottle?” – without holding certain at the time of questioning that physical objects exist. You can’t meaningfully ask a specific question about an historic event – “when was the Russian Revolution?” – if, at the same time, you’re also doubting whether the earth existed before your birth.
Yet there are instances when these questions of radical doubt don’t elicit immediate presumptions of mental perturbation – like in philosophy departments, which while undeniably weird places, do permit such skeptical questions to be considered as meaningful rather than pathological. But Wittgenstein’s point is that, even in philosophical cases where radical skepticism can be meaningfully discussed, it’s still not the case that the skeptic can really doubt everything. Even they are holding certain things, well, certain in order to engage in their game of doubting in the first place. Each act of uncertainty or doubting requires what Wittgenstein (somewhat elusively) calls a “hinge” – an epistemic ballast held certain and unquestionable:
The questions that we raise and our doubts depend on the fact that some propositions are exempt from doubt, are as it were like hinges on which those turn …If I want the door to turn, the hinges must stay put.
It’s not my interest here to prove that the radical skeptic should be totally satisfied that Wittgenstein has dismissed all epistemic doubt and vanquished all brain-in-vat fantasies. It is enough for our purposes to appreciate that he has ruled out, as psychologically impossible, our ability to doubt the certainties that make it possible to engage in doubting at all. Whatever uncertainties we may have today, however existential they may feel, Wittgenstein reminds us that they stop somewhere.
So, what are we left with at the end of doubt? It’s tempting to say “knowledge.” And it would be reassuring if doubting were to end where knowledge begins, especially when we see doubt weaponized for reactionary purposes. Against, for example, the self-serving claims from some on the right of a supposed uncertainty regarding the number of young people coming out as trans, we could simply offer corrective knowledge: that trans children are not new, and that more than two centuries of scientific research have challenged the validity of gender and sex binaries. Or, in place of right-wing doubts about what would happen were we to abolish police and prisons, we could offer tomes upon tomes of evidence showing that the carceral system produces rather than reduces violence. Equally, when it comes to the valid uncertainties that we might share about, say, our future ability to get abortions in the U.S., or to afford housing, or access to healthcare, it's not a lack of knowledge that's the problem. The problem, in all these cases, is of course power. And power’s intersection with the operations of certainty is what I’m interested in here. Because at the end of our doubting we do not find knowledge, but certainty – a more unwieldy beast.
Certainty, as Wittgenstein points out, should not be conflated with knowledge. We don’t arrive at certainty – we don’t act with certainty – through the same practices by which we come to know something as a justified true belief. That is not how certainty works. For the most part that’s no big deal, as Wittgenstein illustrates with what he calls some “obvious truisms of the commonsense.” It’ll be necessary for us to appreciate his framing of certainty in these everyday cases first, before considering the implications for our political realities.
Wittgenstein takes specific aim at philosopher G.E. Moore’s famous anti-skeptical argument, in which Moore claimed to prove the existence of external objects by holding up his hands and saying: “Here is one hand … and here is another.” Moore argued that he knows his hands exist, so he knows external objects do, too: “How absurd it would be to suggest that I did not know it, but only believed it, and that perhaps it was not the case!”
Wittgenstein agrees that it indeed makes no sense for Moore to have doubt in his hands existing in this scenario, but that does not mean Moore can talk sensibly about knowing that his two hands are there. That’s not how knowing works in our language games. You don’t learn that your hands are there as a fact – a justified true belief – like you learn that, say, wasps can sting, or that the 5 train runs from President Street, or that the industrial revolution relied upon the bloody fruits of slavery. In almost all normal circumstances, you don’t have to check the existence of your hands by consulting past experience or historical records. It would make no sense to hold up two hands and say, while looking at them, “I have two hands here, but I don’t know it.”
Nor is your certainty about the existence of your hands, and other everyday external objects, reached through theoretical deduction. Such hinge beliefs also aren’t analytic truths, made true by the meanings of the terms occurring in them. Nor are they beliefs for which we can offer more compelling grounds or point to deeper justifications. They are immune from doubt, but not proven with further proofs. We might learn to recognize and describe the various certainties we hold fast, but that’s post hoc. We don’t hold fast to them because we have learned them to be true facts about the world, rather they are a special class of convictions that are not claims to knowledge but that are nevertheless foundational within collective practices, part of the language game, which, Wittgenstein reflects, “is not based on grounds. It is not reasonable (or unreasonable). It is there – like our life.”[book-strip index="2" style="buy"]
We see grim examples of such groundless conviction in the operations of white supremacy. For the most part, white supremacy is not taught explicitly. Instead, it is transmitted as a practice, a background assumption or hinge that organizes how its beneficiaries, and even its victims, might see the world. For those for whom white supremacy is a certainty, empirical truths that challenge its standing as a hinge are a priori rejected.
Now, I’m not proposing that white supremacist beliefs are certainties in the same way as our constant certainty about the existence of external objects. But for Wittgenstein, all propositions of certainty are context dependent. Like meaning, they are embedded in a language game, and there are all too many shared language games and background forms of life in which white supremacy is held no less fast than the existence of external objects. It speaks to a morbid terrain of certainty that cops and civilian vigilantes can kill Black children in the name of “self defense,” and have confidence that a court will agree; the undergirding certainty, which is lived out without needing to be stated, is that of white standing. These are violent certainties, but they still work like certainties: shared practices which serve as the stopping point for doubt, the hinges on which other propositions about the world get to turn.
Crucially though, what counts as certain in a given context can enter the realm of the uncertain in another. Certainty, because it is always embedded in our lived activities, can shift with context – even with regards to Moore’s example of his own hands. Wittgenstein doesn’t mention this in “On Certainty”, or anything else of a personal nature, but his brother Paul was a celebrated concert pianist who lost an arm in the First World War. He then learned to play with only his left hand. We might imagine Paul, waking dazed from a dream with the ache of a phantom limb, and not knowing – without a somber reality check – whether his right hand was still there. This would make sense for Paul in a way that Moore’s performance of knowing that his hand’s exist does not. Terrains of certainty can and do change.
As I noted, it would be one thing if such certainty only applied to seeming truisms of daily life, like the fact that external objects exist or that you are not a brain in a vat. Yet if we understand certainty in the Wittgensteinian sense, we realize it applies to a far broader scope of collective cognitive action, including the holding of entrenched political convictions. The philosopher did not interrogate the ethical stakes of certainty formation and maintenance; he doesn’t write explicitly about power. But the class of certain propositions – resistant to doubt but unsupported by further grounds – consistently includes the tenets of dominant ideology and belief systems.
Wittgenstein himself includes a pretty broad set of things in his discussion of hinge commitments. In one telling example, he asks us to consider the story of a man who claims to have recently traveled to the moon. At the time of writing, some two decades before the moon landing, the philosopher noted that we can be certain that the man did not; not because we checked and tested the man’s knowledge and background and deemed that his story happened to be false, but because getting to the moon was held to be impossible then:
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If we are thinking within our system, then it is certain that no one has ever been on the moon. Not merely is nothing of the sort ever seriously reported to us by reasonable people, but our whole system of physics forbids us to believe it. For this demands answers to the questions "How did he overcome the force of gravity?" "How could he live without an atmosphere?" and a thousand others which could not be answered. But suppose that instead of all these answers we met the reply: "We don't know how one gets to the moon, but those who get there know at once that they are there; and even you can't explain everything." We should feel ourselves intellectually very distant from someone who said this.
Yet the year in which the notes were finally published, men did indeed walk on the moon. The certainty had nonetheless functioned as immune from doubt in a previous context. This doesn’t show a flaw in Wittgenstein’s framework, it highlights something about the language game of certainty, which he himself emphasized. “Our system” can change; scientific paradigms, as the philosopher Thomas Kuhn would later put it, do shift. What was once certain permits of doubt in a different circumstance. “What men and women consider reasonable alters”, wrote Wittgenstein. “At certain periods, men and women find reasonable what at other periods they found unreasonable. And vice versa.”
This is not, crucially, some affirmation of liberal progress narratives: that we tend towards greater knowledge and banish poorer thinking. Rather it’s a point about certainties – on which doubting depends – being themselves embedded in a world picture (Weltbild). These can shift not as a matter of historical determination towards greater and better truth, but as a matter of historical contingency and collective meaning-making. Not all people living in a given epoch hold the same Weltbilder. This we know all too well. “When language-games change,” Wittgenstein reminds us, “then there is a change in concepts, and with the concepts the meanings of words change.”
The uncertainties we face today are a problem precisely because they are hinged on violent certainties – commitments held fast, which discipline the very shape of how and what it is considered reasonable to doubt. We know, for example, that nation states do not transcend history, but we are also only taught, implicitly but constantly, that we must act within and under border regimes. Those of us who would challenge this ordering regime and highlight its contingency are seen as unhinged from the realm of realpolitik. Like the radical skeptics whose doubts only make sense in a specialized philosophical context, anti-border activists are dismissed as entertaining that which cannot be entertained. In the same way, while talk of “uncertain times” has characterized the pandemic, the certainties of capital – make work and let die – have continued to prove world-ordering in ways far beyond the uncertain behaviors of the novel coronavirus.
The moon example is instructive here. Human beings didn’t just discover the possibility of space travel as a part of some inevitable, teleological process. The paradigm shift, by which a moon landing entered the realm of possibility, happened within the Cold War context of world-power brinkmanship. The terrain of what is held certain is, in such examples, not neutral. We may not hold things certain because we explicitly learn that they are true, but that does not mean there are no explanations for why various certainties have the status that they do in given contexts and at given times.
It might sound like I’m using “certainty” here as a synonym for “ideology.” All ideology is indeed undergirded by certainty in the way Wittgenstein frames it, but not all certainties function as ideology. Certainty about the existence of external objects is not ideological. But why then, when it comes to political struggle, talk about certainty at all, and not just use concepts like ideology, or hegemony, or other terms more common to left-wing theorizing? For me, Wittgenstein’s understanding of certainty conveys something harder to budge, once held stable as a collective episteme. As such it speaks to the need for collective shifts towards more liberatory forms of life; a removal of all fascist hinges. Talking in terms of certainties rather than ideology makes clearer why it’s so hard to shift entrenched ideological commitments without changing the conditions under which they’re held steady.
The late philosopher Charles Mills proposed the concept of “white ignorance” not to mean “things people with white skin don’t know,” but rather “a cognitive tendency – an inclination, a doxastic disposition” historically and structurally engendered through European colonialism and racist domination. White ignorance is no less than an epistemic block, foreclosing knowledge of the brutal material realities of racial capitalism, and negating the humanity and lived experience of Black and other people of color:
White normativity manifests itself in a white refusal to recognize the long history of structural discrimination that has left whites with the differential resources they have today, and all of its consequent advantages in negotiating opportunity structures… a delusion of racial superiority [that] insulates itself against refutation.
Echoing James Baldwin’s grim recognition that his survival has been dependent on outwitting white people, Mills notes that, “correspondingly, on the positive epistemic side, the route to black knowledge is the self-conscious recognition of white ignorance.” And, crucially for Mills, the “virtually unassailable framework” of white ignorance is in fact “not insuperable.” It was forged by and is maintained in the material forces of colonial conquest and its world ordering consequences. To undo white ignorance would require a radical break in a social epistemology which is everyday reinforced. Which is not to say it’s impossible: the maintenance of white ignorance, Mills stresses, is “dependent on the denial of memory.” And in this time of fierce organized white backlash, it’s no accident that we see fervid Republican efforts to banish all history that tells the truth of the U.S. as a white supremacist, elimationist project, or honors Black liberation struggle. Little wonder I never learned about British colonialism during my elitist British schooling.[book-strip index="4" style="buy"]
If we read Mill’s “white ignorance” alongside Wittgenstein’s idea of certainty, we can see the contours of an idea of “white certainty” as a social epistemology. It, too, is in contrast with, and blind to, black knowledge. A more rigorous philosopher than myself might take issue with this – Mills is explicit that we can only talk about “ignorance” and “knowledge” in this way because the knower, unlike the ignorant, can make justified claims to truth. “The phrase ‘white ignorance’ implies the possibility of a contrasting ‘knowledge,’ a contrast that would be lost if all claims to truth were equally spurious,” he noted. Wittgenstein’s framing leaves us in a trickier spot in this regard, and it’s an ongoing debate as to whether his remarks in “On Certainty” assert a relativist approach to truth. It’s beyond the purview of these paragraphs to fully address that here; but suffice it to say that I do not believe we are committed to a moral relativism by permitting the groundlessness with which certainty operates.
Further, I think it’s useful to bring in Wittgenstein’s notion of certainty to emphasize that the cognitive tendency of white ignorance works like certainty in that it is borne of lived practices, its propositions do not have further justification, and it resists doubt. We can trace, as a point of genealogy, the historic forces of colonialism, capitalism and border regimes that produced and maintain many organizing certainties today. But those are explanations, not grounds: racist epistemology is not learned as a set of explicit facts. Yes, there is a long and unbroken history of attempts to offer defenses and justifications of racial hierarchies using bogus science, but children, for example, don’t learn to be racist by being taught from Charles Murray’s The Bell Curve. As philosopher Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò notes in his recent book, Elite Capture, “it’s worth remembering that our information environment – our ‘systems of education,’ to use [the historian] Carter G. Woodson’s term – are less about strong-arm indoctrination of people and more about making system-preserving uses of information easy while rendering system-altering uses of information difficult.”
White certainty means that you can teach that “all men are created equal”, while ensuring that the opposite conviction is held fast and that U.S. history is wiped clean. White certainty is a hinge, there, like life, so long as life – the ability to live and flourish – is ordered by the interests of racial capitalism and the defense of white standing. The question then becomes not how to simply add knowledge and correct ignorance, but how to disrupt the oppressive forms of life that produce racist epistemologies.
Mills was clear that combatting white ignorance requires structural, socio-economic shifts. You can’t just add a few anti-racist how-to books and diversity training sessions to dismantle an oppressive certainty. White certainty must not be treated with kid gloves. Indeed, the greatest historic challenges to its standing have seen the cognitive tendency used against itself. Political theorist Geo Maher has written recently on “racial hubris” and the “cunning of resistance” – anti-colonial struggle and successful slave revolts relied on the “‘zero-point hubris’ characteristic of colonial thought,” a cultivated blindness, which the oppressed could see clearly and take advantage of. I recently watched a video from 1976, shot in what was then Rhodesia, under white minority rule. The then-Prime Minister, Sir Ian Smith said that year that "there will never be Black majority rule in this country in over a thousand of years." The other whites interviewed in the footage see no end to their ruling status in sight. Just two years later, Smith was forced, in response to the war of liberation, to concede to majority rule; independent Zimbabwe was established in 1980.[book-strip index="5" style="buy"]
“Decolonial cunning,” wrote Maher, “takes full advantage of the blindspot of its purveyors, wrapping itself in the cloak of invisibility that white supremacy has imposed and cultivating resistance in those same clandestine shadows.” There is power in the recognition of white certainty, its limits, and its groundlessness – and that includes when we perform it ourselves. It is with this in mind that talk of “uncertain times” feels particularly inapt, and indeed itself potentially representative of white ignorance. In the face of climate apartheid, white backlash and rising fascisms, if only more toxic certainties were attended to, dislodged and used against themselves.
Wittgenstein describes certainty as forming “the riverbed” of our thoughts – the channels through which doubting and learning and knowing can flow. Yet riverbeds, as we know, are subject to shift. We “distinguish between the movement of the waters on the river-bed and the shift of the bed itself; though there is not a sharp division of the one from the other.” Nonetheless, at a single, given moment, a riverbed functions as a stable object, Likewise, Táíwò, in Repairing Reparations, describes how “the stones of the aqueducts that contain and discipline the continuous motion of the past into the future were laid in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries.” He notes that, “The patterns in how advantage and disadvantage flow have changed very little ... We can tell, because things still fundamentally move in the same directions.” The container of the motion of history and its violences can appear immovable.
“The difficulty is to realize the groundlessness of our believing,” Wittgenstein noted. But that does not condemn us to thinking all certainties have equal worth and must be left to stand or fall in the winds of time, even while we might not be able to offer some deeper proof for them being true while we hold them. Philosopher Amia Srinivasan has written about how “critical genealogists” have been made anxious about the fact that their beliefs and representations about the world have specific, historically contingent origins; born in a different time, place, context, it’s likely they’d have different ones. But that doesn’t mean our believing is some sort of moral free-for-all. “The crucial question for such critical genealogists,” notes Srinivasan, is not: are “our representations true, but what do our representations do? What practices and forms of life do they help sustain, what sort of person do they help construct, and whose power do they help entrench?” We can apply the same approach to our discussion of certainty, particularly since, for Wittgenstein, our certainties are always manifested or expressed in our ways of acting. We act with the certainty that external objects exist; we don’t attempt to walk through walls.
Certainties are not, after all, simply representations of the world, but ways of ordering the world as we live in it. And we do, after all, have the ability to observe the consequences of widely held certainties. On the quotidian level, we see that holding certain our belief in external objects is necessary for us to talk meaningfully about objects in particular – a great certainty! But we uphold that certainty not by repeating it or relearning it, by stating its truth, but by living with it as certain. We pass each other wine and food, we hold each other, we open doors, we carry groceries, we march down streets – together.[book-strip index="6" style="buy"]
When it comes to political and ethical hinges, we can demonstrate, in the world, that anti-fascist, anti-capitalist, anti-racist, abolitionist, feminist and trans-celebratory commitments – certainties – produce conditions of possibility for less suffering and greater flourishing. Those certainties are shored up by our actions. I do not need to – in fact I likely cannot – convince a committed transphobe that trans women are women. And trans women shouldn’t need to prove it to anyone else, ever. It’s a certainty, one among many world-ordering hinges, which we help ensure as an unchallenged, lived reality by acting collectively, en masse – supporting our trans comrades, celebrating trans kids.
Equally, it’s not uncertain what the consequences are of holding fast to oppressive certainties by contrast: to border regimes, white supremacy, sex and gender binaries and capitalist labor relations; such certainties ensure mass death and immiseration. We cannot convince fascists of the falsity of what they hold fast, but we can take anti-fascist action to make upholding their certainties intolerable enough that they are forced to abandon them. We can and must collectively act outside and against such fascist certainties, such that their uncertainty – and in turn their falsehood – is made plain.
Act, that is, in the certainties on which we want our practices to hinge; only then can we begin to dream of more joyful uncertainties. As the anti-border activist and theorist Harsha Walia reminds us, “Empires crumble, capitalism is not inevitable, gender is not biology, whiteness is not immutable, prisons are not inescapable, and borders are not natural law.”
Natasha Lennard is the author of Being Numerous: Essays on Non-Fascist Life and teaches at The New School for Social Research in New York.[book-strip index="7" style="buy"]