On Certainty and Doubt

Two ways of thinking, explained by way of Dostoevsky

Upon reading Dostoevsky, one gets struck by the vast array of different characters the author portrays, and by the vast array of ideas these characters bring forth. All of these characters have different ways of thinking, and the clashing of these ways of thinking make up the dialectic that is the Dostoevsky novel. It could be said that Dostoevsky is a novelist of ideas. And each character is the expression of a different idea. Raskolnikov expresses the idea of nihilism, Alyosha expresses the idea of faith, and Prince Myshkin the idea of the holy fool. But if Dostoevsky is a novelist of ideas, why does he need so many characters? For Dostoevsky, as Mikhaïl Bakhtin writes, "the truth of the world is inseparable from the truth of the personality"[1] For Dostoevsky, there is no such thing as an abstract idea that lives apart from the personalities that contemplate it. Ideas only exist because they are created by people, and these people are nothing else than the incarnations of these ideas. There exists an inseparable unity between idea and personality, the idea is only what it is by grace of the person that gives it life, and the person is only given life because he or she expresses an idea. For Dostoevsky, a certain idea can only be had by a certain type of person. Not everyone is able to express the idea of nihilism, a certain type of life is needed to give birth to this idea. And likewise, not everyone is able to express the idea of faith, a certain type of life is needed to give birth to this idea. And thus, for Dostoevsky, the clashing of ideas amounts to the clashing of people.

I. Idea-Force

Like no other, Dostoevsky portrays this interplay between idea and life. Ideas are individual, they are not abstract concepts which exist as separate from individuals, and which can thus be contemplated by everyone in the same manner. Ideas are "idées-forces."[2] Forces of life that express themselves in the words of the living. But at the same time they impact the living, as driving forces, Ideas, that give direction and unity to the lives of those living the Ideas. Because ideas are always highly individual idées-forces, it follows that individuals don't really have ideas. Rather, every idea is an expression of the person in his entirety, for the entire individual in his most specific individuality is needed to give birth to an idea. An idea which can never be shared by anyone else. A person does not have an idea, he is an incarnation of the idea, he is driven by it, as we read in Dostoevsky's The Possessed: "you haven’t mastered the idea but the idea has mastered you, so you won’t put it off."[3] And one cannot put it off, because the idea is nothing else than the expression of the entire person.

It follows that we mean something specific with "idea." An idea in this sense, as idée-force that expresses itself through people, is not a clear and distinct concept. If so, it would mean that a person is entirely characterized by one abstract concept that he represents in front of his mind. And it would mean that the entire person (his physicality, his spirituality, his emotions, relations, etc) are needed to create this one abstract concept. Both are obviously absurd. What we mean by idea is more like a way of thinking. A mode of orienting oneself, through thought, in the world. A way of thinking that is nothing else than the expression or reflection of the mode of living that one is. The idea and the life are just different attributes of the same expressive force, two ways of seeing the same thing, two perspectives on the same reality. It are these ways of thinking, highly dynamic idée-forces, that like in The Possessed, take hold of people and drive them to be as they are. Not unlike Kantian Ideas, Dostoevsky's idea-forces are the problems that drive a person to think in a certain way. Be it not as highest possible universal thoughts that give unity and direction to our shared inquiries of reasoning as humans, but as highly individual modes of thinking that shape highly individual and concrete thoughts.

Raskolnikov is not the expression of "nihilism" as a well-rounded concept that has certain determinate characteristics, he is rather the expression of a nihilistic way of thinking, and living. Among the vast amount of characters-ideas that Dostoevsky has given us, two stand out. These are not just two characters among so many others, but two extremes of thought and life. These two characters function as archetypal ways of thinking that many other characters of Dostoevsky approach to a greater or lesser degree. I am talking about the Ridiculous Man, from The Dream of a Ridiculous Man (1877). And the Underground Man, from Notes from the Underground (1864). These two are archetypal expressions of two modes of thinking that run through Dostoevsky's novels, and make up the two sides of a never-ending conflict, a dialectic of two opposed ways of thinking. It is my conviction that the tension between these ways of thinking makes up the true subject of Dostoevsky's thought.

II. The Underground Man: Doubt

In Dostoevsky's Notes from Underground, we read the thoughts of a sick and tormented individual who has renounced all belief in anything whatsoever. [4] There is something wrong with his liver. He knows he should probably, in his own best interest, see a doctor, but he refuses to do so. He gains nothing by refusing to see a doctor, except an increase in suffering, so why doesn't he? "If I do not consult a doctor, it is out of spite. My liver hurts - well, then, let it torment me even more!"[5] The man acts in spite of his own best interests, he willingly acts against his own mental and physical health. But why? Because he can, and he believes that the only true interest of man is in the pursuit of his own free will, and what better way to express one's free will than to use it to go against everything that is reasonable? As he explains, there exists some interest of man that is of more importance to him than his own well-being, "more essential and more advantageous than all other advantages, and for which man, if necessary, is willing to go against all laws, that is, against reason, honor, peace, well-being."[6] It is this freedom of will and thought that allows man the advantage of subverting all classifications, and all calculations of how one should act.

The man wants to affirm his own freedom above anything else, but how does he do this? And how does he come to do this? In fact, it is because of his own peculiar condition that separates him from other men, from all "spontaneous people and men of action."[7] The man is so tormented and incapable of helping himself, not only because he wants to affirm his own freedom over his own well-being, but also because he cannot possibly do otherwise. He considers himself as the most intelligent person he knows, and precisely this is his sickness, for he considers intelligence and consciousness as a sickness.[8] You see, when a normal person (what the Underground Man calls spontaneous people and men of action) wants to act, he has to be relatively firm in his convictions before he acts. If I want to act a certain way, I have to believe that this is the right way to act before I can do so. If I want to proclaim the truth of a certain idea, I have to first believe that this idea is in fact true. In order to act, there has to be an end to a prior process of reasoning or questioning. When this has ended, I have achieved certainty and doubt has been silenced, so that I can now act. It is precisely this that the Underground Man is incapable of doing, because of his intelligence, he never comes to silencing his doubts and questions. Where a normal person might see a solution to a question, or a certainty on which one can act, the Underground Man sees only more problems, ad infinitum. As he explains:

"I repeat, I stress: all spontaneous people and men of action are active because they are dim-witted and narrow-minded. How can this be explained? Well, here's how: because of their narrow-mindedness they take the most immediate and secondary causes to be primary, so they are convinced more quickly and easily than others that they have found the incontrovertible foundation for their action, and that's it, they've calmed down, and that, after all, is the main thing. For in order to take the first step, you must be completely calm beforehand, with no doubt whatsoever. So what about me? How am I to calm down? Where are the primary causes I can depend on, where are the foundations? Where am I to get them? I get to thinking, and as a result every primary cause immediately drags in yet another primary cause, even more primary, and so on to infinity. That is precisely the essence of all consciousness and thought."[9]

As the man explains, the spontaneous man of action, "l'homme de la nature et de la vérité", is stupid precisely because he takes what is only an obstacle for thought, for an unbreakable wall.[10] Where these men of truth and action see a solution to a problem, the Underground Man sees only a new opportunity to ask questions. He goes so far as to question the laws of nature and arithmetic, questioning if two times two is really four. "My God, what do I care about the laws of nature and arithmetic, if for some reason I don't like those laws and their two times two is four? Of course, I won't butt through such a wall if I really don't have the strength, but neither will I reconcile myself to it just because I've come to a stone wall and I'm not strong enough to break through it."[11]

Driven by his unrelenting questioning, he stops for nothing. We are witness of what seems like a paradox; if the man can find no clear and distinct truth or certainty from which he can start thinking or acting, how then is he thinking right now? If a principle of action or a first truth is needed to think or act, how can he act if he has none? What is able to drive him, if it is not a principle or truth? This is his spite, which "can trump everything, all my doubts, and therefore it can serve perfectly well in place of a primary cause precisely because it is not a cause."[12] The man doesn't need a firm ground to begin thinking or acting, because his beginning is precisely in the harming of every truth, and the problematization of every solution.

The man here takes his side in an age-old philosophical debate concerning the question: where does thought begin? With prior knowledge that is employed in thinking, or in absolute unknowing and questioning? What is first, truth or question? The first position is perhaps most popular in Western thought, from Plato's affirmation of anamnesis, Descartes' postulation of a lumen naturale, or Heidegger's thesis that Dasein has pre-conceptual and intuitive knowledge of Being. All of these traditions affirm that before all our questioning and problematization, there are truths that precede all possible questioning (be it that maybe the philosopher is needed to remind us of these, to thematize them). There are truths in which we share as our essence, and this essence is our truth. The Underground Man takes a violent counter-position. Thought does not begin its proper activity, questioning, as the employment of some natural and already present truth. Rather, when thought begins, it knows nothing, and it is precisely this unknowing that drives it forward, not some drive to know the truth, but a drive to unveil all perceived truth as problematic. The Underground Man does not live in truth like Heidegger's Dasein, nor does he want the truth, refusing to listen to Aristotle's "all men by nature desire to know." And because of his endless subversion of certainties, he isn't capable of reaching the truth, as he isn't gifted with Descartes' lumen naturale. This endless subversion is, and here we should take his words seriously, not something that he can choose to not do. No, it makes up the essence of his condition. The Underground Man believes that, like Michel Meyer writes, "what imposes itself as first in the interrogation on what is first is the questioning itself, through the general question that is asked. This is why questioning is the principle of thought itself, the philosophical principle par excellence."[13]

The Underground Man portrays a way of thinking for which thought is not concerned with truth and certainty, but exists only in a perpetual questioning. Thought does not want truth, but wants to subvert truth. Thought does not know truth, but exists by grace of unknowing. Thought is not capable of truth, but is, in essence, doomed to mere questioning.

III. The Dream of a Ridiculous Man: Certainty

Dostoevsky offers an anti-thesis for the Underground Man's way of thinking in his short story The Dream of a Ridiculous Man. This ridiculous man is capable of grasping truth, be it in a peculiar manner. The story tells about a man, a self-proclaimed "ridiculous man."      He is struck by the experience of nihilism, a deep-rooted conviction "that nothing in the world mattered."[14] As this feeling grows stronger and stronger, the man contemplates suicide and eventually proceeds to roll out his plan. On the night that he plans to shoot himself, by chance, he falls asleep before he has the opportunity to pull the trigger. What follows is a dream.

The man dreams that he is carried away towards another planet, a planet that looks just like earth, and which is inhabited by people just like on earth. The difference however, is that these people know not of the suffering that we do. They live in perpetual joy and harmony with each other. There are no wars, no conflicts, not even the slightest disputes. There is no sickness, and people only die a natural death when they are of old age, smiling and with no regrets. As the man is shown around the planet by its inhabitants, a feeling awakens in him: "A sweet, thrilling feeling resounded with ecstasy in my heart: the kindred power of the same light which had given me light stirred an echo in my heart and awakened it, and I had a sensation of life." For the first time in years, his nihilism subsides, life is given meaning again, life feels alive again. This doesn't happen as a direct effect of what he sees in his dream, nor of new thoughts he has, but by way of a direct feeling that the dream offers, a feeling that has nothing to do with thought, nor with intention. "I gave up caring about anything, and all the problems disappeared. And it was after that that I found out the truth." When the man eventually wakes up, the feeling is still with him, a feeling of love and being alive, of truth. All his previous problems have disappeared, and suicide is the last thing on his mind. All he cares about is this feeling, and he proceeds to spend his days preaching, telling others about it. When doing so, he tells others that it is possible to know love and truth, but he is only mocked. People ridicule him everywhere he goes, telling him it was only a dream, and that dreams can't convey truth. The man answers:

"But does it matter whether it was a dream or reality, if the dream made known to me the truth? If once one has recognized the truth and seen it, you know that it is the truth and that there is no other and there cannot be, whether you are asleep or awake. Let it be a dream, so be it, but that real life of which you make so much I had meant to extinguish by suicide, and my dream, my dream--oh, it revealed to me a different life, renewed, grand and full of power!"

Here, Dostoevsky delivers the archetypal expression of a truth that precedes all thought and is in essence indubitable, for its experience is of such a character that it cannot be doubted. It reminds one of Descartes' Passions of the Soul. In article 26 of this text, Descartes once again starts doubting, in order to arrive at that kernel of truth that cannot be shaken from its place. Descartes asks us to imagine that we are dreaming all sorts of images to which certain affects are connected. I dream of being chased and feel fear, I dream of seeing a deceased relative and feel joy. I can always doubt the images that I see, whether there was really someone chasing me, or whether I truly saw a person. And I can also doubt the affects, whether what I felt was truly fear, or whether I really felt joy. But there is one thing that I cannot doubt, the fact that I felt myself feeling. And the certainty of this statement, the certainty that I truly felt myself feeling, does not vanish because it was a dream; for "even when one is asleep and dreaming, one cannot feel sad or moved by any other passion, unless the soul truly has this passion in itself."[15]

Descartes here offers the archetype for what we can consider an intuitive certainty or knowledge of truth. A type of subjective certainty that is also present in for example Heidegger's Da-Sein, and on which Fichte's Wissenschaftslehre is based. The peculiarity of this type of knowledge consists in the fact that it acts as the indubitable core of all experience and thought, its fundamental pre-supposition, and that as such it cannot be doubted. We can object to its truth by focusing on the conditions in which it occurs, (it was just a dream, it was just subjective, it cannot be scientifically verified, peer-reviewed, etc.) but these objections miss the mark, for referring to conditions to refute what is unconditional amounts to not objecting at all, but to admitting one's own inability to comprehend.

We can distinguish such a truth based on unconditional certainty from a truth based on conditional certainty. The latter's certainty is based on a prior condition, that can be doubted. The former's certainty is based on no condition at all, for it itself is the unconditional that underlies all possible thought or feeling, that underlies all experience.  A truth based on conditional certainty might be the fact that I felt angry at seeing this person. One can, in philosophy at least, question the truth of this fact by asking if the emotion I felt was really anger, and not something else (jealousy hiding itself as anger?), or if there truly was a person corresponding to my perception (was I hallucinating? Is there really something outside of my own perceptions? etc.) Its truth is thus derived from the meaning of certain conditions, meanings which can be questioned. An unconditional certainty on the other hand might be of the sort Descartes gave, I can doubt all the conditions pertaining to my feeling something, whether there truly corresponds a thing to my perception, whether what I felt was really this affect and not some other, but I cannot question the fact that I felt myself feeling, the fact that I experienced myself experiencing. For this truth is conditional on nothing, for it itself is the underlying unconditional condition of all perceiving and questioning.

In the dialogue La Recherche de la Vérité, Descartes proves that one cannot doubt that one thinks, and thus that one exists, and that one intuitively feels what this means. This statement is objected to: "But what it means to doubt, what it means to think, do you know this?"[16] We could imagine this objection coming from the Underground Man. You say that you have an intuitive certainty of thinking, "but what is thinking?" You say that you have an intuitive certainty of being, "but what is being?" This is the spiteful attitude that is perhaps characteristic of philosophy, the fight against the most evident of certainties, against any urdoxa, that might stop the process of questioning thought like the "wall" in Dostoevsky's story. Descartes replies vehemently to the spiteful objection: "I don't think there has ever been anyone so stupid that he first needed to learn what existence is before he was able to conclude and affirm that he exists."[17] There is a certain stupidity that comes with excessive questioning. Precisely because the indubitable truth that Descartes is expressing is the pre-condition for all questioning. A stupidity that is precisely the sickness of the Underground Man. An incapacity to let thought, understood as the questioning of doxa, be tamed by truth understood as experience.

IV. A Dualism of Thought

Dostoevsky's two stories give us two modes of thinking, two ways in which we can understand the practice of thought. Two ways in which we can understand what thinking means, what its essence is, and what it wants. One way, the thinking of the Underground, understands thinking as in essence problematization, that is, as the questioning of what seems certain, as the questioning of what is in front of thought. The other way, the thinking of the Ridiculous Man, allows this problematization to be secondary to an understanding of thought as the search for certainty and truth, as the search for that which cannot be doubted. As all opinions on the world can be questioned and polished to better represent a state of affairs, to better grasp reality, it follows that what cannot be doubted is that which is unconditional, what doesn't depend on our fallible thoughts and perceptions, what is present and true despite what we may think. What cannot be doubted is of the order of intuition: Descartes' doubting/thinking/existing or his sentimus nos videre, Fichte's intuition of the I, or the Ridiculous Man's feeling of life. It might be that philosophy must choose one road over the other, or it might be that these two roads are part of a dualism inherent in all thought. A matter of judgement, to know in what situation it is best to think in one way, and in what situation it is better to think in another. To know how to question and problematize as is philosophy's proper activity, but to not let this questioning be driven so far that we fall prey to the stupidity Descartes speaks about, and share in the spiteful and miserable existence of the Underground Man.

A solution is conditional in reference to a prior ground that offers certainty and gives reason to the solution. Such a grounding reason can be questioned, and so on ad infinitum. A chase for truth without any possible end. The question is if one believes in a truth that escapes this order of reasons. If one believes in a truth that isn't granted its certainty by way of its being a condition for something else, but by way of its being evident in its indubitable unconditionality. The Underground Man might be right in ridiculing those men of action who take one reason in the infinite chain of reasons for the principle of their actions, but is he right concerning those who know the ecstasy of the Ridiculous Man?

[1] Bakhtine, La Poétique de Dostoïevski, 125. Own translation from the French.

[2] Bakhtine, 139

[3] Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Possessed, Translated by Constance Garnett. Part III, Ch. IV, Section II

[4] Fyodor Dostoevsky, Notes from the Underground, 17.

[5] Dostoevsky, Underground, 17.

[6] Dostoevsky, Underground, 33.

[7] Dostoevsky, Underground, 22.

[8] Dostoevsky, Underground, 20-22

[9] Dostoevsky, Underground, 29

[10] Dostoevsky, Underground, 23

[11] Dostoevsky, Underground, 25.

[12] Dostoevsky, Underground, 29.

[13] Michel Meyer, De la problématologie, 11. Own translation from the French.

[14] Dostoevsky, The Dream of a Ridiculous Man.

[15] Descartes, Œuvres III, 973. Own translation from the French.

[16] Descartes, Œuvres II, 1134. Own translation from the French.

[17] Descartes, Œuvres II, 1136. Own translation from the French.


Descartes, Œuvres Philosophiques II, Édition de Ferdinand Alquié. Paris: Garnier.

Descartes, Œuvres Philosophiques III, Édition de Ferdinand Alquié. Paris: Garnier.

Dostoevsky, Notes from the Underground. Edited and Translated by Kirsten Lodge. Broadview Press, 2014.

Dostoevsky, The Dream of a Ridiculous Man. Translated by Constance Garnett.

Dostoevsky, The Possessed. Translated by Constance Garnett.

Michel Meyer. De la problématologie: Philosophie, science et langage. Paris: PUF, 2008.

Mikhaïl Bakhtine. La poétique de Dostoïevski. Traduit par Isabelle Kolitcheff. Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1970.