The End of Certainty – Stephen Chan

The End of Certainty: I am advised not to write this book…
May 25, 2009, 1:13 pm
Filed under: Read from the Book

The End of Certainty

Towards a New Internationalism

Stephen Chan


I am advised not to write this book. Firstly, because there is no tradition of the intellectually formed and philosophically informed essay in Britain that, nevertheless, aspires to be accessible to a wide reading public. There are the US models of writers such as Edward Said and Susan Sontag, and of course the French models ranging from the dashing extremes of André Malraux and Bernard-Henri Lévy to the brooding intensities of Sartre. I am advised I shall be accused of putting on airs. London is not New York or Paris, the Thames is not the Hudson or the Seine. The British digression into thought is via historical works — empirical, narrative, with foundations, girders and roofbeams to anchor any speculation. There is no Left Bank, there is the politesse of Bloomsbury.

And that is the second body of advice. I am advised not to write this book because it will do me no good in my professional career as an academic. Whether I work in a Bloomsbury institution or not — but particularly if I do — the nation’s officialised and centralised measures, adjudications and financing of research,  The end of certainty upon which universities depend, have crafted thought into carefully policed technical parameters. This is not a book that can be entered in any Research Assessment Exercise, or be assessed by any governmental ‘bibliometric’ scheme, and my reputation will fall.

I wish to write this book, however, precisely because there is an intellectual vacuum in British political and social life. Three decades of dogged soundbite phraseologies of both Thatcherism and Blairism have made debate a contest between assertions of certainty, and these certainties are about the best form of coercion to apply in any international moral impasse. Intellectuals sign petitions, perhaps march in the streets, attempt their own soundbites when broadcasting, but confine their extended energies
to debate and discourse among themselves. This discourse borrows from continental thought — the British being still not very good at original philosophy — and is, because continental thinkers have said it is, meant to be emancipating. By itself, it emancipates no one. The French tradition was one of thought coupled with action — even if the two were not always properly related. The German tradition remembers the concentration camps and was meant to make philosophy too critical, and too complex, ever to be appropriated by dictators again. What has happened is that it is now too complex to be spoken in public by anyone. The illusion of emancipation exists in small classrooms.

Outside the classrooms of Bloomsbury a world burns with slaughters and starvations and serious illnesses. No word is enough for those who die in such fires. And no book, whether technical or not, is enough. This book is an unashamed, perhaps overweening, effort to inaugurate a new anglophone tradition: to speak about complex things, with imagination, in public; to let imagination carry some of the complexity; and to discharge an intellectual’s public role — to say ‘this is how the world is, this is not how the world should be, this is how to think about the world as we wish it to be, this is how to turn that wish into action, this is how not to despair when action fails, this is how to try again, this is how to defy the rulers, this is how to make the rulers themselves think.’

The book is constructed like a meandering novel. Characters and points of thought disappear, reappear and are developed in unusual ways. I asked, ‘What would a magical realist novel look like as an intellectual essay?’ Even so, it became necessary to lighten such an approach, to vary it. There are three parts to this book. The first six chapters are where key themes and thoughts are introduced and discussed, and weave in and out, and much play is made upon the imagination of readers; this is particularly the case in the first two chapters. The second part comprises three chapters and, without losing the ethos of the book, provides a more sustained look at its subject matter. The third part, a long concluding chapter, seeks to render all the woven threads into a rainbow scarf that can be worn, with sober dark coats if necessary, to ward off the winters of our troubled world.

I apologise to those readers who may find this approach initially annoying or unsettling. I do hope they can persevere to the end, treating the book with the same patience as a novel. In Anglophone literature there are few examples of such an approach. The closest there is in any sustained European tradition — even if it is a minority aspect of a larger tradition — is in francophone work. Hélène Cixous’s (1) apparently stream-of-consciousness but carefully plotted meditation on the life of Jacques Derrida is a case in point. But my point is that, in the literatures of many of the cultures we misunderstand, this approach to reasoning is much more common and mainstream. I have tried to convey the method in English.

I make acknowledgements at the end of the book. I am of course grateful to many people, including many kind (and not so kind) sceptics who made me go away and rethink my work. What is here contains, I am confident, many spectacular faults.
They are mine alone.

This book also concludes my part of a very long conversation with my brothers and sisters. It has gone on exactly 38 years. It is unlikely to satisfy all members of my family — and it may fail to satisfy many readers at all — but it was written in a spirit of seeking a way forward to a new and better world.

Pimlico, London, March 2008

(1) Hélène Cixous, Portrait of Jacques Derrida as a Young Jewish Saint, New York: Columbia University Press, 2001.

About Stephen Chan
May 25, 2009, 1:00 pm
Filed under: About Stephen Chan

Stephen Chan is Professor of International Relations at the School of Oriental and African Studies in the University of London. He has lived and worked in many parts of the world and has been engaged with international relations both diplomatically and academically. However, he has also worked directly in many of the deprived areas of Africa, and has helped African efforts to represent the continent in the face of looming Chinese interest.

Tariq Ramadan
May 25, 2009, 11:44 am
Filed under: What People Have Said About this Book

‘Stephen Chan was advised not to write this book. The reader would be advised to read it and even to read it again. It is a novel of true philosophy, it is philosophy through a novel, it is impressive and fascinating. It is about thought, commitment and love. The point is not to agree or not with Chan but to embark with him on his journey, from certainty to compassion, and to try, with humility and dignity, to find and to give some meaning to our common humanity. This important book is like a circle crossed by woven threads, it is a window to the world as much as a mirror to the self. Profound and refreshing.’ – Tariq Ramadan

Helena Kennedy
May 25, 2009, 11:11 am
Filed under: What People Have Said About this Book

‘This is a gloriously ambitious book. No one has done anything like it. The great scholar Stephen Chan sought to write an intellectual essay which would read like a magical realist novel and succeeds. He wanted to speak about complex things with imagination, drawing upon literature, music, history, philosophy and psychoanalysis. He wanted to take us on a journey across continents so that we might challenge the political orthodoxies of our times, which insist with certainty that the values to be championed in a conflicted world are those of the West. The project has produced a book light in touch but displaying extraordinary erudition, which unveils the riches and illuminating perspectives of other cultures and which shows us that there are other ways of creating a better world. Forget Francis Fukuyama and Samuel Huntington. Stephen Chan is the public intellectual with his finger on the global pulse.’ – Baroness Helena Kennedy