Our Certainties and Doubts

In our current ego centred society, it seems important to have a strong profile, otherwise, one is not seen nor heard. One needs to be convinced of oneself and maybe even a bit narcissistic to appear front stage. But with 7.8 billion ‘egos’ on this globe in 2021 it is quite an effort to stick your head out, and to be someone and to survive in the struggle for attention. It was already Georg Simmel (1903) in his famous essay on the “The Metropolis and Mental Life”, who noted that on the one side, the dense and anonymous urban life creates the liberty to be who one likes to be and to not be pigeonholed by the rigid structures of a closed community, but that on the other side of that same coin, one needs to put a lot of effort in gaining a recognised position and identity in these same anonymous urban settings. These kinds of urban conditions seem now to have become ‘planetary’, and in our daily life, we seek our own place and identity, our own certainty of who we are and what we stand for,  while at the same time we try to avoid being pinpointed and fixed, and we try to overcome our current situation and envision an alternative future. We thus also question and doubt our current position. We are torn between our assumed certainties and hopeful doubts.

I, myself never had the self-confidence of a strong ego, and always felt the doubts and the struggle for recognition. Having lived at many different places, where one, over and over again, needed to find one’s own position again, and maybe as a side-effect, I also was lacking the expressive eloquence to state the ideas I stand for loud and clear, the constant struggle for who-we-are became very apparent to me. Although science and an academic career was never my pre-set goal, when it by coincidence happened to me, also legitimised my doubts and my continuous search for my own convictions. In science, it is our profession to always ask critical questions and to scrutinise all presupposed certainties. Science is not about finding final answers, but about continuously posing questions. This also resounds in the, for me so inspiring, philosophical anthropology of Helmuth Plessner, who states that we cannot essentialise who we as human being, or as a single person are. We are the undetermined being (homo absconditus), and as a consequence, we continuously need to (re-)create ourselves. But of course one cannot profile oneself without an audience. Who we are is, therefore, not the result of a lonely creative act, but of creative inter-actions, it is a social construction, it is ‘teamwork’. Who we are, what we know, and what we stand for is created in interaction and in team-work. We never do this alone. This also coined my vision on the development of scientific knowledge in general. The core of what we do as scientists is to express to our audience what we claim to know and invite others to scrutinise these claims and come up with better and new ideas. Although we are very aware of all the shortcomings of the current scientific institutions and practices in this respect, it is still the core of knowledge production. Based on these ideas, it might not be surprising that also the Theory of Communicative Rationalisation of Jürgen Habermas (1985), and similar later ideas, such as those of Axel Honneth et al. (2017), have been a source for inspiration for me. But since doubt is also inherent in the social construction of knowledge, also the enemies of these ideas became dear to me, and helped me to understand my own position, and to also discover the shortcomings of my own and their tentative ‘truths’. The continuous struggle and partly even conflict is the core of the production of knowledge and wisdom (see also the work of my colleagues at our own Department: Landau, 2019 and van Leeuwen, 2007). This is also well reflected in the following quote of the Swiss psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Carl G. Jung:

But current times are rather refractory to this scientific process of jointly making sense of the world around us. The individualisation in the assessment of our scientific production denies the social- and team efforts involved. The exaggerated celebrity and ‘excellence’ culture around certain ‘stars’ in science suppress the productive force of doubts and critique. The publish or perish culture forces scientists to stay within the comfortable and well-established mainstreams of thought instead of delving into more marginal critical approaches. Of course, being critical is not necessarily better than being mainstream, but it is the debate between them, which should be the core of our scientific endeavours. Relativisation and scrutinisation of our own and other’s position are not appreciated. Being a critical mind, even within an academic setting does not contribute to our career. University administrations rather prefer tame and easy-going functionaries, who do not ask uneasy questions. What is true for academia is also true in general in society and in governance. Also there we do not seem to cherish the doubt and debate, or openness and recognition of others, sufficiently. Simple undisputed truths and ‘leaders’ who forcefully express and apply these truths are called for by many populist movements. Former US President Donald Trump fulfilled that role with fervour, while Barack Obama, as expressed in his latest book, was blamed to be hesitant and doubting. Robert Putnam in his famous book with the title Bowling Alone, addresses how in society one increasingly seems to lose the ability to engage with political inter-action and debate, to engage in the dialectics of certainty and doubt. To reinstall or revive our ability to find wisdom in the social interaction and scientific debate is however more than re-creating a community of equally minded people as an immunised comfort zone, within which we can find confirmation of what we already thought to know.  As Helmuth Plessner argues in his The Limits of Community: A Critique of Social Radicalism (1999), it demands to actively engage with the ‘other’ with the ‘unknown’ and ‘uncertain’ and to actively position one-self and one’s convictions in between certainty and doubt. Of course we can also interpret the mutual identification and recognition of ourselves and our potential opponents as a kind of ‘knowledge’ community in which also disagreement may persist, but which nevertheless could lead each of us to new insights.


Habermas, J. (1985) The Theory of Communicative Action, Vol. 1: Reason and the Rationalization of Society, and Vol. 2: Lifeworld and System: A Critique of Functionalist Reason. Beacon, Boston.

Honneth, A.,  Rancière, J., Genel, K., & Deranty, J-Ph. (2017) Recognition or Disagreement. A Critical Encounter on the Politics of Freedom, Equality, and Identity. Columbia University Press, New York.

Krüger, H.P. (2019) Homo Absconditus: Helmuth Plessners Philosophische Anthropologie Im Vergleich. [Homo Absconditus: Helmuth Plessners philosophical anthropology in comparison]. de Gruyter, Berlin.

Landau, F. (2019) Agonistic Articulations in the ‘Creative’ City. Routledge, Abingdon.

Leeuwen B. van (2007) A Formal Recognition of Social Attachments: Expanding Axel Honneth’s Theory of Recognition. Inquiry. Vol. 50, No. 2, pp.  180-205.

Plessner, H. (1999 [1924]) The Limits of Community: A Critique of Social Radicalism. Humanities Press, Amherst.

Putnam, R.D. (2000) Bowling Alone. The collapse and revival of American community. Simon & Shuster, New York.

Simmel, G. (1976 [1903]) The Metropolis and Mental Life. The Sociology of Georg Simmel. Free Press, New York.