In Praise of Doubt

June 11, 2012 in Uncategorized

In the previous book I reviewed for etcetera, A Brief History of Thought,  French philosopher Luc Ferry provided a whirlwind tour of key philosophical movements throughout history, beginning with the Greeks and ending with post-postmodernism.    In Praise of Doubt: How to Have Convictions Without Becoming a Fanatic, by Peter Berger and Anton Zijderveld, limits itself to the past several hundred years, but is some ways could be read in tandem with Luc Ferry’s ambitious venture.

The book begins by noting the role of reason and science in eroding faith over the past 250 years.  Voltaire’s writings and the French Revolution ( which actually enthroned the goddess of Reason in a church in Paris) serve as iconic markers for the beginning of the Enlightenment.  Auguste Comte soon paved the way for a very influential empiricist science, as seen in the later philosophies of Mark, Durkheim, and Weber.

The modern path to secularization seemed inevitable. When Neitzsche finally declared God was dead, many believed this would be the final nail in the religious coffin.

But “secularization theory” turned out to be just that – a theory.  Two World Wars brought about a disillusionment in the ability of science and reason to bring about a better world. A global explosion of religious movements revealed a world that was not so enamored by the promises of a godless Enlightenment as had been expected.  In addition, a rising communication network brought about what the authors call a “cognitive contamination” as people inevitably absorbed the ideas around them. Rather than moving everyone to a Neitzschean conclusion, this communication has brought more worldviews than ever to the table.  Modernity did not secularize the world.  Modernity pluralized the world.

Modernity has also heightened the desire for choice.  As people learned that life offered a buffet not only at Ponderosa, but in the realm of ideas, ideologies, religion, and personal values, they increasingly rejected the power of tradition and institutions and began to find their own way through life. This kind of shift does not happen without consequence. German social philosopher Arnold Gehlen explained how this modern shift toward choice changed the West:.

“The area of life in which choices are allowed Gehlen called the foreground, while the area in which choices are preempted he called the background.  Both areas are anthropologically necessary.”  

Here are some practical examples:

  • When Kobe Bryant shoots, his form is background – he’s practiced that shot release ten thousand times, so he doesn’t have to figure out each time where his elbow should be.  His decision when to shoot, however, is foreground .
  • When I leave my house, I wear clothes (background), but I choose to wear Ohio State colors (foreground).
  • At a blinking red light, I stop (background), and I go when there is an appropriate break in traffic (foreground).

Modernity moves the background to the foreground.  In other words, it takes what we accept as normative and makes it subjective. Berger and Zijderveld go on to note:

“A society consisting of foreground only, with every issue a matter of individual choice, couldn’t sustain itself for any length of time; it would lapse into chaos….a society consisting of background only wouldn’t be a human society at all, but a collectivity of robots…”

Before, people went about their daily routine without too much reflection (self-aware choice), as the background institutions in society brought predictability and normalized structure to their lives.  Since modernity has brought about an increasing amount of foreground reflection, we increasingly reject the power of institutions and embrace what Gehlen called secondary institutions, which “offer entire packages of beliefs, norms, and identities to individuals.” Read the rest of this entry →