Fruitful uncertainty

We tend to imagine the minds of great thinkers and scientists as fountains of knowledge, intelligence and certainty. That is what their brilliant works make us believe. The products are perfect; therefore, the minds that produced them must have been perfect.

Well, the opposite may also be true. Brilliant works can stem from an ability to endure ignorance, lack of clear-sightedness, and uncertainty – because such shortcomings motivate serious counter-attacks and hard work. Striving to overcome uncertainty and shortcomings can result in the most brilliant works.

These so-called “great minds” may have been people who loved their uncertainty because it alerted them to what requires more attention: “Here is a difficulty I must take more seriously!” But that is a moral quality rather than an intellectual one!  I just read some fascinating quotations from Linnaeus in Giorgio Agamben’s book, The Open, making me sense that moral quality in Linnaeus.

It must have been confusing for Linnaeus that he couldn’t find a given characteristic that clearly separates humans from apes. Still, he seemed to enjoy this uncertainty about our humanness and even teased those who couldn’t accept it by suggesting that the only difference he could find was a ridiculous dental detail without systematic significance:

  • “… just as the shoemaker sticks to his last, I must remain in my workshop and consider man and his body as a naturalist, who hardly knows a single distinguishing mark which separates man from the apes, save for the fact that the latter have an empty space between their canines and their other teeth.”

Linnaeus’ ability to stay with this uncertainty is further reflected in the name he gave our species: he didn’t add a given identifying characteristic to the generic name Homo.

I always believed that sapiens was meant as a given characteristic, just as Aristotle saw rationality as the distinguishing mark of the human. Agamben points out, however, that Linnaeus used the philosophical imperative nosce te ipsum, know yourself. The name Homo sapiens doesn’t appear until in the tenth edition of Systema naturae, and probably retains the sense of an imperative rather than a given characteristic.

In the absence of a given distinguishing mark, being human was for Linnaeus a task, Agamben suggests. The breathtaking name that Linnaeus originally gave our species, then, was:

  • Homo-know-yourself!

Only someone who is at home in uncertainty and is able to think in it would dare to “classify” our species as an imperative.

Although I’m sure that Descartes had the same moral character and derived nourishment from his own doubts, he was confident about what separates him as a human from the animals. He had mind, reason, while the animals were automata.

Linnaeus couldn’t share Descartes’ confidence and teasingly wrote:

  • “Surely, Descartes never saw an ape” (Cartesius certe non vidit simios.)

Don’t be ashamed of your uncertainty but value it as an asset!

Pär Segerdahl

The Ethics Blog - Thinking about thinking

3 Responses to Fruitful uncertainty

  1. Jacob Bull says:

    Great post!

    I agree with your reading of both Agamben and Linnaeus, and I think your point about embracing uncertainty is really important in so many ways for developing ‘scientific’ knowledge.

    I am however stuck with a slight uncertainty (!) about what the author means in the writing and they way that it is (possibly intended) to be read. How might the humour and playfulness in the imperative and teasing of Descartes by Linnaeus might become a mechanism for defining that which he considers undefinable? Especially given the way that humour has been used to marginalise particular issues, individuals and groups. I guess I’m wondering about how Linnaeus’ uncertainty becomes a mechanism for others to be certain – which is the point of your post!

    You inspire me to revisit this again! Thanks!

    • Thank you for visiting and commenting! I liked your question abut the effect Linnaeus’ uncertainty and teasing style might have on others. “Followers” tend to be more certain and less humorous than the person they try to copy, but maybe you intended another phenomenon?

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