Vol. 44 No. 1 (2024): Topographies of Risk. Theoretical Approaches

Risk, Uncertainty and Unpredictability: A Historical-Philosophical Analysis of the Idea of ‘Radical Uncertainty

Osvaldo Ottaviani
Israel Institute of Technology

Published 2024-06-12


  • radical uncertainty,
  • risk,
  • probability,
  • unpredictability,
  • time

How to Cite

Risk, Uncertainty and Unpredictability: A Historical-Philosophical Analysis of the Idea of ‘Radical Uncertainty. (2024). Teoria. Rivista Di Filosofia, 44(1). https://doi.org/10.4454/pks1jg76


The distinction between risk and uncertainty seems to be a very intuitive one, at least at first sight. There are cases in which we know that the future will be similar to the past, and, accordingly, we can use probabilities as a reliable guide for our decisions. Other times, however, we simply do not know because of the unpredictability of the future. As Keynes noted: “About these matters there is no scientific basis on which to form any calculable probability whatever”. After it was originally discussed by authors like Frank Knight and John Maynard Keynes in the 1920-30s, the idea of radical uncertainty has been systematically overlooked, and even harshly rejected by many scholars. The idea of completely unpredictable future scenarios seems to be unpalatable for many social scientists who are affected by what F. Hayek called the “pretence of knowledge”. Things have partially changed only recently, mostly because of the impact of dramatic events like the financial crisis of 2008 and the Covid pandemic of 2020-22, which led some social scientists to question their own presuppositions. Drawing on recent contributions on this topic, I will focus on some moments of the discussion concerning the risk/uncertainty distinction and its philosophical background. I also want to show that several authors in different ages and context have dealt with this notion of uncertainty, thus presenting a sort of philosophical genealogy of it and stressing the theoretical as well as the practical importance of the idea of (un)knowledge and (un)predictability.