The ancient Greek philosopher Sextus Empiricus taught his students that skepticism relieved two terrible diseases that afflicted mankind: anxiety and dogmatism. But it’s hard for most of us to live with systematic uncertainty. Only great spirits, those blessed with courage and good humor, can fully embrace it. Yet it is central to human creativity, and its value is only recognized at moments when the old consensus is falling to pieces, and the world’s direction is unknowable.
Most “knowledge” nowadays is contained in virtual boxes, sorted by specialties: economics, sociology, literature, statistics, anthropology, psychology. They are all formalized in university departments, and they aren’t flourishing. Au contraire, they are imploding. Look at all the economic theories that burned in the bonfires of the global crash starting in the fall of 2008. Look at the seemingly endless revisions to atomic theory, which apparently needs anti-matter to account for the behavior of matter. Psychological models are discarded with regularity, and now, all of a sudden, we’re told that salt is good for us!
So it’s not surprising to find a revival of skepticism. My Italian friend, Giuliano da Empoli, has written a wonderful little book called Against the Specialists; the Revenge of Humanism. It nicely lays out the case against stultifying certainty and praises humanistic skepticism. He argues elegantly that the recognition that we’re going to be wrong much or even most of the time, combined with an unrestrained search for understanding and possible solutions to our many woes, stimulates creativity.
It’s entirely appropriate for such thoughts to come from a citizen of Florence, since Renaissance humanism was part of an epic revolt against (Aristotelian) certainty. The great souls of the Renaissance famously ranged across diverse areas of knowledge. Leonardo and Machiavelli, for example, worked together on military/engineering schemes to divert the flow of the Arno River around Pisa, to besiege the city.
Giuliano, and several other keen-eyed thinkers, see signs of a possible humanistic renaissance today. There are plenty of examples of such creative intellects. One of my favorites is Albert Hirschman — polyglot, wandering Jew, economist, warrior, historian, philosopher and punster — who died last year, aged 97. An encomium to him described Hirschman as a “developmental economist,” which is like calling Leonardo a dyslexic cartographer. His skeptical credentials are totally in order. He formed a club called the 4W Club: for Where We Went Wrong. And then there’s Daniel Kahneman, the only person to win a Nobel Prize in Economics…who never attended a lecture on the subject. He delights in the realization that error abounds, and he’s written a delightful book to explain how error is built in to the human mind. “After a crisis we tell ourselves we understand why it happened and maintain the illusion that the world is understandable. In fact, we should accept the world is incomprehensible much of the time.”