ON POSTMODERNITY AND AMBIGUITY: Defending the Need for Certainty

. . . if metaphysics is indeed defined as the thought of a universal foundation,
it cannot not founder when the self-evidence of the obligation
of a foundation of being is called into question.

– Jean-Luc Marion

Ever since Nietzsche questioned the very point of the metaphysical enterprise with his question, “Why ask a why?”, the status of metaphysics has never quite remained the same. In a rallying cry taken up by Heidegger and subsequent others, the notion of the need for foundations and structures has fallen into a state of relative disrepute, with Descartes and his modern successors roundly condemned for having led philosophy into the long aporia of foundationalism.

There is certainly much to commend in Nietzsche’s basic insight. An overweening concern for comprehending, grasping and explicating reality in terms of grandiose structures leads to a viewpoint that ignores reality’s fundamentally dynamic and fluctuating character. Such a viewpoint, failing to recognize as it does a crucial aspect of reality, is bound to have its inadequacy exposed in the long run—if only because reality will always assert its essential truths. In a sense, what Nietzsche did was to reveal the inadequacy of a school of thought that had excessively dominated Western philosophy since Parmenides—namely that reality is fundamentally static and unchanging.

But Nietzsche’s accomplishment simply swung the pendulum from one extreme to another. He re-inaugurated the Heraclitean school of thought that emphasized the radically mutable character of reality, and therefore implied the futility of any search for a lasting and stable foundation. The point of this essay, however, is not to present a debate between foundationalism and anti-foundationalism (an argument that has exercised countless philosophers for the last two thousand years), but rather to highlight why the debate exists in the first place and why it continues to endure.

The answer lies in a phenomenological examination of the human being’s basic relationship to ambiguity. Phenomenologically speaking, human beings are profoundly uncomfortable with uncertainty. It is all too easy to presume that the human being’s deep-seated anxiety with regard to change is a uniquely contemporary phenomenon—especially with all the attention in recent decades being focused on the accelerating pace of change in a post-industrial, globalized world. But even a cursory look at the work of great thinkers from ages past (i.e., Augustine from the medieval period, Descartes from the modern period) will reveal that human beings have always been radically and profoundly unsettled by change and uncertainty. In the face of change and uncertainty, a human being will always look for something to hold on to—something immutable and eternal and absolute that will serve as an antidote to the nauseating and disorienting vicissitudes of life and reality. For Augustine, it was God. For Descartes, it was the cogito (and, as an apologetic Catholic afterthought, God). For countless others after them, it was some abstract principle or another (i.e., reason, freedom, etc.).

So while Nietzsche and his followers hold the intellectual currents of the day, the vast majority of human beings will look for a solution less intellectually rigorous but perhaps more existentially consoling. Nietzsche himself recognized the strain involved in his philosophy, when he designated the few who would be able to live it the “übermensche.” For really, what can be more monumentally superhuman than building an anchor for oneself in perpetually shifting sands—where the landscape changes day by day and the horizon offers no guiding landmark?

So to answer Nietzsche’s implicit question, “Why ask a why?”, I would respond: because we are not roses, who can bloom without whys.* It’s certainly possible to condition ourselves into states of being where we no longer ask “why?” without actually sinking into a state of utter apathy—in a nutshell, this encompasses the entire Buddhist solution to change and suffering—but the key word is “condition.”  What would benefit philosophy, beyond the endless argumentation over the existence or absence of foundations and absolutes, would be a recognition and acceptance of the human being’s existential unease with flux and change (evidenced by an entire medieval to contemporary vocabulary that names the condition, i.e., restlessness, homelessness, alienation, dislocation, disorientation, etc.).

For whether or not a foundation actually exists, a human being, by nature, will be compelled to posit one (even if his or her absolute foundation is a belief in the absence of all foundations). In a way, a performative contradiction is inherent in any insistence on the absence of over-arching principles or structures. In the same way that Husserl points out that human beings always perceive phenomena as unities of meaning, human beings will always have a natural tendency to view life and reality as possessing an over-arching unity of meaning. It’s exciting, intellectually, to believe in the dissonant, ephemeral and fragmented vision of reality that Nietzsche, and subsequent philosophers all the way up to Derrida, promulgates—but how many people can sustain such a belief existentially, without lapsing into nihilism or absurdity?

What is consoling is that, philosophically speaking, attempts are being made to find some sort of over-arching principle that does not possess the dogmatic rigidity of an absolute foundation. The focus in recent decades on discourse and dialogue constitutes a large part of these contemporary attempts, as does a modified conception of “truth,” where truth is no longer necessarily eternal or immutable (or if it is, its attainment—at least in this world—is recognized as falling short of the ideal). The attempts reflect genuine efforts to not merely perpetuate a millennia-old debate, but to find ways of synthesizing two radically divergent yet fundamentally accurate conceptions of reality. Reality does change, and in the times we live in, it is changing ever faster and ever more profoundly. Yet here we are still, grappling with the same questions grappled by the ancients before us. And while that fact may lead one to a sense of futility regarding any real progress in the human condition, it may also give one a sense of consolation—that at the end of the day, the foundation that ties us all together is not to be found in some over-arching and transcendent principle, but in our immanently fumbling and ever-questing humanity.

* This is an allusion to a quote by the German poet and mystic Angelus Silesius: “Die Rose ist ohne warum; sie blühet, weil sie blühet…” (The Rose is without ‘why’; she blooms, because she blooms…”).


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