Politics as a field of imperfect cognitive states

Our epistemologists have been thinking about knowledge for a long time and about how to define it. The standard view is that knowledge is justified true belief; but that hardly settles the matter since all three terms – justification, truth, and belief – are in need of further clarification. When it comes to the question where knowledge is to be found, we have tended to look at mathematics, or physics, or at cases where an object is clearly perceived under ideal conditions.

But in social and political life we are rarely dealing with knowledge in this sense. In these domains we encounter conjectures, surmises, guesswork, “convictions,” presumption, suspicion, interpretations, attempts to make sense, etc. I am particularly interested in states of uncertainty and disorientation because these seem to prevail now in our politics.

I have argued in Politics and the Search for the Common Good that politics is inherently a domain of uncertainty. Uncertainty affects all aspects of political life and brings about its characteristic volatility. Disorientation, on the other hand, is a malady that disrupts politics and can destroy political institutions. But the two are connected and for this reason we will need to look at them and their interrelation. We are uncertain when we don’t know (don’t know for sure) what has been, what is, or what will be. The difficulty we have in separating news from “fake news,” information from misinformation exemplifies this condition. We are disoriented, on the other hand, when we don’t understand what has been, what is, or what will be because we lack adequate words and concepts to do so. Our inability to analyze our current condition, to say what kind of political transformation we are experiencing and what might come after may count as an illustration. Though similar in some respects and interrelated as they are, uncertainty and disorientation belong, nonetheless, to different cognitive registers: one concerns our knowledge, the other our understanding.

We need to distinguish, however, between uncertainty and the feeling of uncertainty and likewise between disorientation and the feeling of being disoriented. The two are easily confused. The feeling is something that may or may not attach itself to an actual state of uncertainty or an actual condition of disorientation. But it is a secondary (and second-level) psychological state that relates to a primary (first-level) cognitive condition. We may be objectively uncertain about what is to come but feel confident that we know. In other words, we think we know when we really don’t. It is then said that we suffer from a sense of false certainty. False certainty is a common feature of political life and it goes hand in hand with its indubitable uncertainties. In his book Fire and Fury Michael Wolff writes that Donald Trump’s White House staff and members of his cabinet had become aware after a few months of “the baldly obvious fact that the president did not know enough, did not know what he didn’t know, did not particularly care, and, to boot, was confident if not serene in his unquestioned certitudes.” What holds for uncertainty, applies also to disorientation. We may feel that we understand what is going on, when this is, in fact not so. Disorientation is, in this respect, like dementia. Disoriented as we are we may still believe, just like the demented, that we are doing fine, are of clear mind, grasp what is going on, have things in hand.

We need to distinguish, moreover, between perceptual and conceptual forms of disorientation for it is the latter that is characteristically at stake in politics. We may be disorientated when we wake up in an unfamiliar room or when we are caught in a dense fog. Then we don’t know whether to turn left or right and find ourselves frozen in place. Even in the case of perceptual disorientation we must, of course, distinguish between being and feeling disoriented. Waking up in an unfamiliar pitch-black room we may still believe that we understand its lay-out but then bump unexpectedly into a wall. But both being perceptually disoriented and feeling perceptually disoriented are different from not knowing how to describe our situation adequately or not being able to act politically in an appropriate way because we lack the concepts for analyzing where we are and where need to go.

To make these distinctions does not mean to downplay the importance of feelings of uncertainty or disorientation in politics. Such feelings of uncertainty and disorientation may generate unease, anxiety, even nausea and these can stop us from acting or can drive us into precipitous action. But such feelings are still secondary to actual states of uncertainty and disorientation which have a far more direct impact on what happens. Actual uncertainty and disorientation, instead of creating anxiety, are often accompanied by opposite feelings of certainty and orientation, the resulting smugness may have an even more devastating effect than felt uncertainty and disorientation.

These insights have been captured well in Plato’s Republic. In its seventh book we read of humans living in an underground cave – an allegory for social and political life as we know it. Tied down, hand and foot, the inhabitants of the cave can see only shadows on the wall before them, not what produced them and also not the world beyond their cave. They are not only ignorant of the things beyond their range of vision, they are also unable to understand their own situation and they can also therefore not conceive of any alternative to their pitiful state. If anyone of the inhabitants of the cave manages to turn around and sees what produced the shadow play, he will, however, be “pained and dazzled and unable to see the things” whose shadows he had seen before. (514c) And if he should actually reach daylight, he will be dazzled once more until his eyes have adjusted to the above ground reality. But should he return into the darkness of the cave, he would once again be confused and “behave awkwardly and appear completely ridiculous.” (517d) There are thus for Plato two states of political disorientation: the first when one comes from the darkness of ignorance into the light of knowledge and the second when one returns from this light into the darkness of human social life. The inhabitants of the cave are convinced that they know and understand reality, but they are, in fact, familiar only with shadows and lack the concepts to understand their actual situation. They are both ignorant and disoriented but feel all the while certain and oriented. By contrast, the one who escapes from the cave will at first be thrown into a state of confusion. His felt uncertainty will make him realize that he lacks the words to understand reality as it is. He will be moved therefore to acquire the concepts necessary to describe how things are and in what way the world of common human life is one of illusion. But when he returns to the human habitat and encounters the false certainties of its inhabitants, he may not fare well. They may deride and resent him and even seek to get rid of him in order to preserve their precious illusions.