The unknown [...] the unforetold, the unproven, that is what life is based on. Ignorance is the ground of thought. Unproof is the ground of action. If it were proven that there is no God there would be no religion [...] But if it were proven that there is a God; there would be no religion...Tell me, Genry, what is known? What is sure, predictable, inevitable -- the one certain thing you know concerning your future, and mine?
That we shall die.
Yes. There's really only one question that can be answered, Genry, and we already know the answer...The only thing that makes life possible is permanent, intolerable uncertainty: not knowing what comes next. From Ursula LeGuin, The Left Hand of Darkness, p. 57
The Left Hand of Darkness is an exploration in Socratic political philosophy because it explores the institutional and cultural possibilities of the human species (genetically) mutated into hermaphrodites. It does so by imaging them on a cold planet, Gethen, -- "the dominant factor in Gethenian life is not sex or any other human thing: it is their environment, their cold world" -- where conditions make it hard to move (quickly) much beyond mere sustenance. In The Dispossessed, LeGuin had also used the device of an extreme environment in that case to think through the nature of anarchic institution. On Gethen the two main societies are states: one is a kingdom without strong sense of nationhood, while the other is a dirigiste police-state with full employment run by a kind of politburo (or, perhaps, the deep state of the secret service).
By Socratic political philosophy (recall), I mean the ongoing theoretical exploration of richly textured models of comparative institutional frameworks that are humanly possible, but unavailable given the near-impossibility to solve the transition problem (that is recall), how to create an ideal political future with a population raised under bad institutions (or worse, that is, bad breeding). from any present status quo.
Ambisexuality is, of course, at the very edge of human possibility. (In the novel planetary visitors speculate that the Gethens may be the product of an immoral experiment in the distant past.) On Gethen, perverts are those (few) with a single sex. Another time I discuss the exploration of sex/gender in this novel.
Although there is some technology, including radio, it seems science is not very developed on Gethen (astronomy is mentioned by the characters, but hard to pursue given the "meteorological conditions"). There are engineers and physicians, a few (not very impressive) mathematicians, but no scientists it seems. (The reader is left to ponder the question if one could discover radio waves absent the kind of theoretical work produced by Maxwell.) While there are temporally specific stories of the past, there is no history something symbolized by the calendar on Gethen: the current year is the base year. (So, the past year is the year 'one-ago.')
One might say, then that symbolically the Gethens live in the ever-present. (The novel's action takes place in the period when that's changing because they have made sufficient technological and political progress to move their standard of living away from bare survival.) Whatever motion that occurs is slow--something exemplified by the slow motion of their motorized caravans.
While there is plenty of mysticism, there seems to be no philosophy on Gethen. In fact, the wise on Gethen "exhibit the perfect uselessness of knowing the answer to the wrong question." (p. 57) Interestingly enough, this is said by one of those who cultivate the practice of Foretelling, which is a major institution in the Kingdom (Karhide). The Foretellers live modestly even though the sell their services. (And so almost certainly are the richest institution in the Kingdom). In fact, the Foretellers pool a trained group's hunches in a cultivated manner. It's not hard to see in this a metaphor (and satire) of mid-twentieth century science of forecasting The Left Hand of Darkness was published in 1969, by which time the authority of such science was waning.
The lack of philosophy [this is a theme in LeGuin] is made visible, indirectly, in the quoted passage above. Death is called "sure, predictable, inevitable... certain," but not necessary. This is a society that lacks investigation in modality, conceptually and practically.
The lack of philosophy is not explicitly explored. But we can speculate on the reasons for its absence. In Karhide the social mores have evolved in such a way that preventing embarrassment to another has been developed into second nature. This has a peculiar consequence, in that they don't know how to lie, but rather have "long practiced the art of going round and round the truth without ever lying about it." (122) They have, in fact, built up all kinds of norms that prematurely and routinely end inquiry in social affairs. Now, obviously, this need not have prevented speculative philosophy. But it would not encourage it either.
In fact, the only time that modality is mentioned in any significant fashion is in the quoted passage above. Now there are a few different ways to gloss 'making life possible' in that passage. But I think one fair way to restate the position is the idea that that the only thing that makes life worth living is permanent, intolerable uncertainty. If this is true, then the philosophical enterprise, which as a regulative ideal refuses to accept such a possibility, may well be a hindrance to the good life.