Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

Philosophy of provisionality

Everything we do as humans is provisional. Because of time’s eroding power, everything is revisable. There is a reason for the word “decision” being a part of our language. Not accidentally, the term derives from the Latin for “cut”; in other words, when we decide something, we make a volitional “cut” of sorts in the sequence of events, or the reasonings concerning such events, that precede the decision – a concrete reminder that human beings are not equipped with an algorithmic device that enables them to “know” with absolute certainty what course of action to pursue. Every decision, therefore, represents an acknowledgement that we have to act with incomplete, provisional knowledge, and by implication, that more information could lead to a different decision.

Philosophers have known this for centuries, even if their philosophies sometimes give the opposite impression. Nietzsche – who was himself a thinker of provisionality, as evinced in his exhortation, to overcome the “spirit of revenge” against time’s irreversible passage – did Socrates an injustice when he used his name as shorthand for the excessive rationalism of Western culture. Rather than “Socratism”, he should have used the term “Platonism”, provided he meant the reception of Plato’s work, and not the Greek master’s work “itself” – even if the latter is “itself” only available to us after centuries of translations.

After all, anyone who has read Plato’s texts carefully – even in translation – and not only through the eyes of his countless commentators, soon recognises the distance that separates two faces of Plato. There is the metaphysical, idealist Plato who gave rise to a never-ending series of “footnotes” among Western philosophers since his time, according to Alfred N. Whitehead, and the poetic Plato whose writings (perhaps unexpectedly) reveal what one might call his nuanced awareness of the ineradicable provisionality of even the ostensibly strictest distinctions.

In the Phaedrus Plato shows that he knew, for instance, that a “pharmakon” is both poison and remedy, that language is simultaneously rhetorical instrument of persuasion and the arena where struggles for truth are enacted; both the soil where poetic powers germinate and metaphysical armour for the protection of mortal bodies. Poets and dithyrambic music do not belong in the ideal republic, according to the philosopher in him, but the poet in Plato is harnessed for the sensorily evocative linguistic embodiment of the epistemic inferiority of the senses, as the myth of the cave in the Republic demonstrates. Do these paradoxes not reflect Plato’s awareness of the provisionality of his metaphysical bulwark against human uncertainty and finitude?

The clearest indication that Plato knew about the ineradicably provisional status of human life lies in his depiction of his teacher, Socrates, who did not write anything himself, as the archetypal philosopher of provisionality – unambiguously captured in Socrates’s famous docta ignorantia (learned ignorance), that the only thing humans know with certainty is “how little they know”. Despite these signs in Plato’s work, that he was quite conscious of the limitations to human knowledge (further demonstrated in his notion of the paradoxical, errant causality of the Khôra in his Timaeus), what the philosophical tradition has sought to emphasise, is Plato’s own strenuous attempt, in his metaphysical doctrine of the archetypal Forms, to provide supra-sensible protection against the inescapable erosion of human knowledge by TIME – for this is what is ultimately indexed in an awareness of provisionality.

These considerations – which could be extended significantly – make a mockery of the idea that there is a failsafe methodology (with its accompanying methods), which would guarantee the time-resistant validity of human knowledge, instead of acknowledging that, despite our very best efforts at securing precise, unassailable knowledge, it is nonetheless always already infected with the germ of time. This is the sobering insight gained from one of Jacques Derrida’s most exemplary poststructuralist essays in Writing and Difference (1978), namely “Structure, sign and play in the discourse of the human sciences”, where (following Claude Lévi-Strauss) he distinguishes between the image of the “bricoleur” (tinkerer, handyman, Jack-of-all-trades) and the “engineer”. The former avails him- or herself of any tool or material at hand to construct or “fix” things in order to restore them to working condition, while the engineer insists on failsafe instruments and working materials to guarantee exactitude of measurement and time-resistant functioning of the products of their design and work.

Contrary to the standard reading of this essay by Derrida (where this is but one of the stages of his complex argument), which erroneously attributes to him a kind of postmodernist privileging of the bricoleur over the engineer, he states explicitly that humans are in no position to choose between these two paradigmatic figures of knowledge – inescapably we have to choose both. What does this mean? Simply that while we have the epistemic duty to emulate the engineer, we also have to face the sobering thought that, our best efforts at constructing unassailable knowledge notwithstanding, our knowledge-systems – even in its most “tried and tested” form, namely the sciences – cannot evade the ruinous effects of time, or history.

This is amply demonstrated with regard to the history of physics in Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962), although it has many rationalistic detractors, who cannot bear the thought of science being equally subject to temporal constraints as any other form of human knowledge. Such champions of epistemic absolutism need only remind themselves of the exemplarily Socratic admission of the leader of one of the two teams at CERN’s Giant Hadron Collider that worked on the project to confirm the “existence” of the “Higgs Boson” (or so-called “God particle”) – a female Italian physicist called Fabiola Gianotti – that the confirmation of its “probable” existence, far from representing the summation of “complete” knowledge in the realm of physics, means that the work of understanding the physical universe is only beginning. Socrates all over again, and from a natural scientist.

How is this possible? What she was referring to is the fact that physicists now face the daunting prospect of probing the nature of dark energy and dark matter which, they claim, together comprise the largest part of the physical universe, and of which physics knows hardly anything except its extent. And who knows how many revisions will be made regarding the “standard model” of physics in the course of unravelling the structure, nature and functioning of these two “dark” entities – if they can be called “entities” at all. Another confirmation of the provisionality of human knowledge.

This, incidentally, is also related to Jacques Lacan’s notorious claim, that the structure of human knowledge is “paranoiac”, by which he evidently meant that we are deluded into believing that human knowledge-systems are far more enduringly unassailable than they actually are – a Lacanian claim that resonates with the insights of the redoubtable English novelist, John Fowles, in his novel The Magus (for a fuller account of this, see my post.

Returning to Plato’s oft-ignored wisdom concerning provisionality, it is not difficult to establish a connection between him and Lacan, who was a very thorough reader of Plato, for instance of the latter’s Symposium – perhaps the most important of his dialogues on love. Plato shows with admirable insight that, what makes one into a lover – and indirectly also a philosopher – is the fact that the beloved, insofar as she or he remains a beloved, instead of, supposedly, a possessed, always has to be just out of reach of the lover.

We are lovers, or philosophers, to the extent that we “desire” our beloved, or in the case of the philosopher (and the same goes for the scientist), knowledge. What this suggests, of course, is that the lover or philosopher never quite reaches fulfilment of their desire – should you “attain” the desired beloved, or knowledge, your desire would evaporate, because there would be no need for it any longer. Desire is, in Lacanian terms, a function of absence or lack. This makes a lot of sense – provisionally, at least.

This post is loosely based on my essay, published in 1998 in the Afrikaans journal for Philosophy and Cultural Criticism Fragmente, and titled Filosofie van Voorlopigheid

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    • Richard

      I imagine that as the realisation of the provisionality of things increases, so people might attempt to dig in their heels. In our time, I think of movements such as Islamic fundamentalism, which thinks it can arrest this provisionality and make a once-and-for-all stand for an absolute timelessness. Most religious cosmologies do this, but have re-fashioned themselves to be vague and guiding, rather than prescriptive and dogmatic.

      Of course, all our efforts are “ultimately” (whatever that really means) futile, in the face of entropy in its various forms, and it is salutary to remember this. Even the best cake is either eaten or is reduced to mould. I think Heidegger conceptually encapsulated it so well. We seem able to grapple with the concepts in which this notion is encapsulated, but cannot fathom the actuality, or we might be able to adjust. Though I imagine it would take some doing for the prisoner to overwhelm this particular guard!

      It brings to mind the Robert Penn Warren poem, or at least [B] of that poem (“Tell Me a Story”) which speaks of this avoidance:

      Tell me a story.
      In this century, and moment, of mania,
      Tell me a story.
      Make it a story of great distances, and starlight.
      The name of the story will be Time,
      But you must not pronounce its name.
      Tell me a story of deep delight.