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13 April 2018

Perplexity: What It Is and Why Now

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The Oxford Dictionary defines “perplexity” as “Inability to deal with or understand something. A complicated or baffling situation or thing. An entangled state.” If you enter the English term in Google, the search engine’s autocomplete suggestions bring together some curious bedfellows: Maddthelin lyrics, music or scape room.

The term originates from the Latin perplexitas, itself derived from the word perplexus, a combination of the prefix “per-” (an intensifier) and the verb “plectere” (weave, twist and turn). A twisted mess? Its meaning could no doubt perfectly define the social and political times we are living now, an age to which other words that are synonyms of perplexity could be applied: confusion, disorientation, vacillation, uncertainty, mess, muddle, maremagnum, turmoil, etc. As language is very rich perplexity is very complex!

Quien está perplejo no sabe qué decisión tomar o cómo resolver una situación. También surge cuando algo resulta contrario a lo esperado u ocurre un hecho que causa conmoción. / Imagen: Amer, Jaipur, India by Randall Honold on Unsplash.

Why is this the age of perplexity?

The exponential growth of technology and the potential of scientific progress have transformed the world we know. We now increasingly experience reality through data. The media are entrenched in a process of mutation, and it’s difficult to draw a clear demarcation line between people, information and the truth. Democracy is questioning itself while populism is gaining ground, and activism and war are moving onto the Internet.


Amid this whirlwind of transformation and change, feminism is fighting to open up a path, while religion, particularly in the Arab-Muslim world, still has to find its role within the reconfigured world order. The system appears increasingly convinced of the need to turn to the East, specifically the Asian continent, under the umbrella of China and its own interests. Is the economic and military power of China really capable of challenging the American hegemony that has shaped the times and society in which we have lived so far? And amid this turbulence, markets and economy have to answer to adapt and survive a fundamental transition towards whatever world we are going to be living in over the coming decades.

Everything will change – in fact, it’s already changing: from how ordinary individuals will earn their living to compete with robots doing the same job, to the failed promise of productivity that must increase at the rate of technological progress. Globalization and the Welfare State are also shifting ground and losing their traditional role; they are changing the form they take and must be redefined if they are to continue to have a meaningful place. On the economic and geopolitical front, renewal of the social contract and even a reassessment of non-capitalist forms of work and organization are now considered relevant issues on the intellectual agenda.

Financial systems must adapt to the digital language as quickly as possible to guarantee the welfare expected from the technological revolution, although this may be more of a medium-term outcome. However, it’s not always a case of “macro-concerns.” The daily life of people will also change, even in the most everyday or mundane things. What will happen with care for the elderly in an increasingly aging society? Will all these reconfigurations work together with technology and science to eradicate extreme poverty? In this scenario of changes and comprehensive, labyrinthine and practically omnipresent transformations, it’s clear that perplexity is more than justified.

Philosophy in the face of perplexity

“[The task is] to destroy apparent certitudes in order to gain genuine ones; to cast doubt on everything, in order to free oneself from doubting.” (Kolakowski, 1977: 15).

But what is it exactly that perplexity questions? Many writers in the history of philosophy have dealt with the concept of certitude. In this case, perplexity may perhaps be the necessary first step, the phase in which we can question the “certitude of a given”; it is the state of tension that the individual experiences at the time of deciding between two or more options. Now, what options does contemporary society actually have?

In the last OpenMind book, “The Age of Perplexity, we analyze all the issues arising from the uncertainty that is inherent to the age of perplexity: politics, society, the world order, technology, religion, etc. / Image: CC0 Public Domain

We have to stop and think if we want to analyze and transform all the sectors affected by this transition. We must not only anticipate and imagine the potential of the new technologies and what this potential will lead to, but how to integrate the transformation into the dynamics of our world to ensure that none of these advances work against us. We have to apply the correct policies, and adapt the legal, ethical and social frameworks to avoid confusion and fear. We cannot allow the disruption caused by digital technologies to break up the established order; we have to adapt the order to the new scenario resulting from technological development. And philosophy is the recipe to overcome the deadlock and cross the boundaries of perplexity.

Dory Gascueña


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