Un/certainty: between the concrete and the abstract

  1. Certainty, intolerance

What’s done is done; and whatever is done cannot be undone. Sometimes this is painfully obvious; most of the time it is hardly recognisable within the incessant flow of habitual and quasi-habitual practices. Action is thoroughly decisive, not only in the sense that it is irreversible, but also in the sense that it manifests confident knowledge of the entities it engages and their qualities, whether these are substances, tools/devices, or environments. Or as the philosopher Jason Stanley (2011, vi) put it: “…knowing how to do something is the same as knowing a fact” and “…learning how to do something is learning a fact” .

Even if our knowledge of a given situation is false or our understanding of a certain object is insufficient, the action drawing on them will be no less decisive. Something will be done, an operation will be executed, with or without meditation, with or without a clear goal in mind. And an indefinite range of other entities will be affected. The decisiveness I am thinking of here has nothing to do with intentionality, purposefulness or motivation. Rather it is about bear existence, as inescapable as occupying space or breathing. To be is to have an impact and make a difference (Bryant 2011).

There is more, however, to the decisiveness of being and action than its irreversibility. Crucially, it necessarily distinguishes relevant from irrelevant traits (Goodman 1978). Consider, for instance, the encounters a hypothetical piece of wood might have with fire, woodworms, a carpenter and a botanist. In each case different features would be relevant: For fire, it is fuel valued for its combustive qualities. For woodworms, it is a habitat valued for the shelter and nutrition it provides. For the carpenter, it is a raw material valued for its strength and/or elasticity, and for the botanist, it is a specimen valued for its capacity to signify a taxonomic category. Another example draws on the anthropologist Joshua Reno’s (2014) discussion of excrement. For the discharging body, it is potentially hazardous matter, whereras for a variety of other organisms it is food, and for the tracker it is a sign of life. What an object is ultimately depends on its engagement with others - an engagement that decides which of its attributes are relevant and which are not (Harman 2011).

Action and engagement, therefore, determine what an object is. It is the entities and relations they maintain with a piece of wood that decide if it is fuel, a habitat, raw material, a specimen or something else altogether. Further, one cannot engage an object in two (or more) different ways simultaneously, but only one at a time, and an object cannot be entangled in two (or more) engagements without inducing a trade-off between them (e.g. wood constituting a habitat for woodworms while being fuel that feeds a fire). Thus even if, in principle, something can be many different things (under different circumstances), at every point/moment it is only one. In this capacity it is certain.


  1. Uncertainty, tolerance

Language and speech, on the other hand, are entirely free of these corporeal restrictions. There is nothing to stop me from saying that an object is fuel, habitat, raw material and specimen – all together; or that a certain substance is both poison and nutrient. So long as paper does not refuse ink, symbolic expression can be paradoxical, self-contradictory, self-defeating, incoherent and/or plural. This is possible because language and its mediums of expression—speech and text—are abstractions; they speak of objects in the world, but they do so in a field that is (in principle, at least) a-temporal, a-spatial and immaterial.

Symbolic expression can extract an object from its corporeal entanglements and juxtapose modes of existence without trade-offs and compromises. Considering the piece of wood evoked above, it is clear that its consumption by fire amounts to its destruction; and that its infestation with woodworms renders it useless to the carpenter. In practice, each mode of being revokes others; in abstraction, all modes of being can be evinced together.

In other words, what contingent reality can only experience in succession, symbolic expression can manifest simultaneously. While in practice two entities cannot occupy the same position in space and time, there is nothing to stop them from doing so in abstraction. This is not to say that symbolic formulations are not real, but that their reality is of an order and a quality different from that of concrete bodies. These differences have both empowering and disruptive capacities. They enhance our practical and operational skills of reasoning, they make room for fiction and art, and they permit lies and deceit (Polanyi 1958, chap. 5). In this capacity abstraction invites uncertainty; but not so much because of its questionable relationship with concrete reality (i.e. correspondence, correlation, reflection), but because of its capacity to violate the principle of non-contradiction.


  1. Un/certainty

This brief discussion drew on a familiar and quite traditional kind of binary distinction. On the one side, it set up the concrete, substantial world, and, on the other, abstract knowledge/thought. Certainty, it was suggested, is a feature of the former on the grounds of decisiveness, irreversibility and inevitability of trade-offs when competing agencies meet; and uncertainty is a feature of the latter due to their capacity for pluralism, self-contradiction and incommensurability. A quest for certain knowledge, therefore, is a valid and justified goal given the monist nature of substantive reality and experience. But it is a goal that is largely incompatible with the abstract media that are supposed to deliver it.

This thread of thought could probably be developed further. But, it seems all too fitting to end this brief commentary on un/certainty with a heightened sense of ambiguity and confusion. It is worth recalling that some of the most compelling developments in recent years involve the tearing down of great constitutive divides like the one presented here (i.e. concrete/abstract, practice/theory) and setting up, in their place, networks, muddles, and assemblages, decentring the human and distributing agency across people, organisms and inanimate objects (Haraway 2016; Latour 2005). Knowledge, we are told, is not representational, but performative (Barad 2007; Chang 2012; Pickering 1995).

Given these insights, is the present discussion a performance of representation, or is it a representation of performance? Are the differences, outlined above, between the substantial world and its abstractions rooted in the nature of two distinct fields of reality, or are these fields made distinct because we perform them as such? Could the answer to this question be “both”? Might we be missing the point entirely?



Barad, K., 2007. Meeting the Universe Half Way: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning. Durham: Duke University Press.

Bryant, L.R., 2011. The ontic principle: Outline of an object-oriented ontology, in The Speculative Turn: Continenetal Materialism and Realism, eds. L. Bryant, N. Srnicek & G. Harman. Melbourne: re.press, 261–78.

Chang, H., 2012. Is Water H2O? Evidence, Realism and Pluralism. London: Springer.

Goodman, N., 1978. Ways of Worldmaking. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company.

Haraway, D.J., 2016. Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Durham: Duke University Press.

Harman, G., 2011. The Quadruple Object. Winchester: Zero Books.

Latour, B., 2005. Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Pickering, A., 1995. The Mangle of Practice: Time, Agency and Science. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Polanyi, M., 1958. Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Theory. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Reno, J.O., 2014. Toward a New Theory of Waste: From ‘Matter out of Place’ to Signs of Life, Culture & Society 31(6), 3–27.

Stanley, J., 2011. Know How. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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