Book of the Month: Stephen Chan, ‘The End of Certainty’

June 19, 2009 12:00 am Published by Leave your thoughts

If there is a book written with a broader scope than Stephen Chan’s The End of Certainty I have yet to read it. In order to explore some of the great questions of our time, Chan sets out to fuse together the thoughts of scholars, philosophers and theologians spanning the globe. Most writers have their favourite authors or periods of history from which they draw their inspiration, but as Chan plunders the life of Alexander the Great, the South African constitution and the writings of modern day Iranian intellectual Abdolkarim Soroush, it becomes clear that he has no preference for time or place.

In so doing he reveals the inadequacies of Western thought which has dominated the field of International Relations. In the late 1980’s Francis Fukuyama thought that the fall of communism and the dominance of capitalism had bought us to the end of history, while more recently Samuel Huntington argued that the great conflicts of our time would be between ‘incompatible’ civilisations, particularly between the West and Islam. Rejecting these dogmas and critiquing their over reliance on Western sources and perspectives, Chan argues that if we are to fully understand the world we need an internationalist perspective which utilises the thoughts of many civilisations, philosophies, religions and strands of academia.

Chan chose this gargantuan task ‘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.’ As certainty is rejected, Chan takes the reader on a journey beginning with a love story on the battlefields of Eritrea and ending with the fusion of antiquity and modernity found today in Iran.

Because the author has taken up such a unique project, and because the strands of thought which are drawn upon are so diverse in origin, at times Chan’s writing can be hard to absorb. Read it and then read it again. For, if like me, your knowledge of Hindu and Buddhist theology, the origins of Wahhabism or the Greek play Antigone is limited, you’ll find yourself introduced to new and intriguing ideas which help to illustrate and give meaning to the common humanity that runs through us all.

In the book’s final pages Chan asks what are we to do? As citizens we must reject the simplistic assumptions that declare with certainty that there are clear distinctions between us and them, good and evil, the victim and the persecutors. In essence Chan is asking for us to be inquisitive, to try to see the similarities between what at first may seem like incompatible ideals and to draw our inspiration from as wider spectrum as possible.

The End of Certainty: Towards a New Internationalism by Stephen Chan is published by Zed Books and is out now.

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This post was written by Matt Genner

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