the methodological principle of doubt

On a recent Saturday, I had to watch over high school juniors taking a practice ACT, which gave me the opportunity to finish Giddens’ Modernity and Self-Identity in a room that smelled like stressed-out teenagers. I’d been working on this book for a long time because, while it’s on a topic I’m very interested in (namely, myself), it’s not always an easy read. I generally do a pretty poor job summarizing a book I’ve just read, and this book is harder to summarize than most, I think. In a nutshell, it’s about how modernity has affected how people think about themselves.

Interesting idea number one. Sorry in advance for the long quote, but it’s worth the read, which you won’t know unless you read it:

“The original progenitors of modern science and philosophy believed themselves to be preparing the way for securely founded knowledge of the social and natural worlds: the claims of reason were due to overcome the dogmas of tradition, offering a sense of certitude in place of the arbitrary character of habit and custom. But the reflexivity of modernity actually undermines the certainty of knowledge, even in the core domains of natural science. Science depends, not on the inductive accumulation of proofs, but on the methodological principle of doubt. No matter how cherished, and apparently well established, a given scientific tenet might be, it is open to revision – or might have to be discarded altogether – in the light of new ideas or findings. The integral relationship between modernity and radical doubt is an issue which […] is existentially troubling for ordinary individuals.” (21)

In other words, modernity has created a bunch of irritating devil’s advocates. They always have a point!

It wasn’t too long ago that I was growing as a person in college and even more fascinated by religion than usual, especially ritual-heavy religions like Catholicism and Judaism, because of the security-blanket aspect of religious traditions (and because rituals are engaging topics of thought in themselves). It was all for naught, though, precisely because you can’t choose to have the experience of tradition that comes from never questioning it. I think this is partly what Giddens means when he talks about ‘reflexivity’ in the modern age. I knew I was trying to choose tradition– in essence choosing to give up some of my ability to make choices for myself to a higher authority. It takes a pretty intense will to remove all doubt and really make that conscious decision, and I couldn’t, so I was existentially troubled for a while and then moved on to books about modernity and self-identity. And now I’m fine! You’re all modern readers– have you ever felt troubled by the radical doubt Giddens is talking about, perhaps feeling adrift in a world full of known unknowns?

This is obviously to be continued, as I didn’t even get to self-identity. Don’t worry– it won’t be as bad as waiting for the new season of Mad Men. Can you believe than season finale? I can, actually.


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