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Doubt, Skepticism, and Unknowing: An Interdisciplinary Exploration

20.06.2014 | 13:00 - 17:00

Joint Workshop of the Martin-Buber-Society and the SFB 980 “Episteme in Bewegung”

Among the many and varied faculties of the mind, one of the most familiar, possibly also most necessary, is the tendency to doubt. How can we know something is true, or real, or meaningful? Why should we feel certain about anything? We all know well, from inside, the sometimes insidious voice that casts doubt, that undermines and questions, that resists the authority of the external speaker. If this voice becomes generalized and dominant, we speak of skepticism, a philosophical stance or a way of life. Yet doubt and skepticism are by no means identical, and there is reason to attempt to define the difference. A step or two beyond them we reach agnosticism, perhaps a permutation of doubt, as in the hymn of the Rigvedic poet who asks repeatedly, somewhat plaintively, in the refrain: “Who is the god we worship?” (In the later Vedic period, “Who?” became the personal name of this god.) Some special beauty lies in the seemingly innocent question; the poet really doesn't know.

But doubt may not be only, or even primarily, an epistemic matter. Once we move outside the realm of intellection, we find ourselves in a domain where doubt, experienced as instinct or emotion, may be an existential choice, or a profound and only partly conscious part of the psyche. Can babies feel doubt? When do children become skeptical? Is there a line leading from the child's refusal to believe to the mature skepticism of the scientist? Is such skepticism a psychological achievement, a sign of maturity? What does doubt mean, or do, in such diverse fields as music, mathematics, economics, religion, historiography, poetry? What about formalized means of expressing doubt, as for instance in debate poems or other types of structured objection?

From there it is only a small step to a more general issue, namely the cultural and societal situation of doubt. When we observe societies, past and present, the attitudes towards doubt seem to differ substantially. Take for instance the assumption that societal configurations - often dubbed ‘conservative’ - are less susceptible to expressions of doubt: some would even systematically disencourage any sort of doubt, and refute the unknown. Does this make doubt and criticism an indicator for progress and innovation? Could we begin to put in place an integrated theory that would take account of these apparent disparities?

We want to explore doubt from this wide-angle perspective, not doubting the value of philosophical and logical analysis but not limiting ourselves to it. We seek to listen to voices from many disciplines and to make room for unconventional meditations on this particular continuum from minor hesitation to radically unsettling perspectives, usually, perhaps always, rooted in personal experience. We are also interested in traditions that are, in principle, skeptical from the start, like Theravada Buddhism or the Late Antique Skeptics. How does one build an operative set of cultural and social institutions that are based on metaphysical doubt? What does it mean, in historical and developmental terms, to doubt the integrity of the world as we see or experience it, or of the doubting self itself?

Konzeption: Eva Cancik-Kirschbaum, David Shulman


Um Anmeldung wird gebeten: info(at)sfb-episteme.de

Zeit & Ort

20.06.2014 | 13:00 - 17:00

SFB-Villa, Sitzungsraum, Schwendenerstr. 8, 14195 Berlin-Dahlem