16 March 2011

Notes on Wittgenstein’s “On Certainty”, Part 4

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90. “I know” has a primitive meaning similar to and related to “I see” (“wissen”, “videre”). And “I knew he was in the room, but he wasn’t in the room” is like “I saw him in the room, but he wasn’t there”. “I know” is supposed to express a relation, not between me and the sense of a proposition (like “I believe”) but between me and a fact. So that the fact is taken into my consciousness. (Here is the reason why one wants to say that nothing that goes on in the outer world is really known, but only what happens in the domain of what are called sense-data.) This would give us a picture of knowing as the perception of an outer event through visual rays which project it as it is into the eye and the consciousness. Only then the question at once arises whether one can be certain of this projection. And this picture does indeed show how our imagination presents knowledge, but not what lies at the bottom of this presentation.

Now we’re back to looking at “I know”. Here Wittgenstein points out that it is in the nature of the word (the nature of a word being its use, of course) that it is used in statements about the world. What is known must be the case, otherwise it is just a belief. This is captured by the standard, if unsatisfactory, definition of knowledge as justified true belief. Sentences beginning with “I know” do not describe my belief, but the world. At least, that is what we mean by it.

“So that the fact is taken into my consciousness.”

It is the way the world is that we have in mind when we claim to know something. I am talking about the world, if I am not misusing language, and I am not talking about my beliefs. Incidentally, this seems to be conceptually parallel with perception. I do not see images of objects, I just see objects. To claim otherwise is a misunderstanding that is curiously common among scientists and philosophers in the scientistic tradition.

“Here is the reason why one wants to say that nothing that goes on in the outer world is really known, but only what happens in the domain of what are called sense-data.”

But now he’s saying that such a view leads to scepticism and the inner-outer dichotomy. I don’t quite understand this. I can see how, if we use “I know” in something like the way we use “I see”, we will think of knowing as something like seeing. But it does not seem inevitable to me that we must then hit upon the idea of internal sense-data and knowledge-data. To be more precise, it does not seem inevitable that because we use “I know” similarly to “I see”, then we must think of ourselves as taking the known things into consciousness, as images, representations or projections.

“Only then the question at once arises whether one can be certain of this projection. And this picture does indeed show how our imagination presents knowledge, but not what lies at the bottom of this presentation.”

He seems to be presuming here that the cartesian-empiricist, indirect realist paradigm of inner and outer, is natural, that it is just what we naturally imagine knowledge to be like. I can agree that we have, in the modern world, come to think about knowledge and perception in this way, but this is conditioned by a particular social context, and far from being inherently commonsensical. But no matter: Wittgenstein and I can at least agree that this is an unsatisfactory way of picturing knowledge: it doesn’t reveal “what lies at the bottom of this presentation.”

But what does lie at the bottom of this presentation? This must be asking either what conditions make it possible, or what it is that gives us certainty. The concept of certainty is historically intertwined with the concept of knowledge, so the basis of one will tell us about the other. I suppose what the picture leaves out is the language-games and forms of life which together determine the logical framework, rules and so on. In other words, it does not pay enough attention to language and life.

91. If Moore says he knows the earth existed etc., most of us will grant him that it has existed all that time, and also believe him when he says he is convinced of it. But has he also got the right ground for this conviction? For if not, then after all he doesn’t know (Russell).

And when we do take this into account, we can see, from everything foregoing, that Moore has no ground, as such, for “I know that the Earth existed before I was born”, any more than the sceptic has ground for “the Earth was created ten minutes ago”, etc. The tempting misuse reaches out to demonstrate the steadfastness of the framework, but really he can only be said to know anything within, not of, that framework, according to its rules and presuppositions. So Moore does not have ground for the conviction, because the conviction that he is expressing, but which really ought to remain unsaid, is itself part of the ground.

It is becoming apparent that Wittgenstein’s relativism not only “crops up” from time to time, as I implied before, but suffuses everything. The key, I think, is in his much earlier Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus:

(TLP) 1.1 The world is the totality of facts, not of things.

(TLP) 5.6 The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.

The world that we have direct access to, that we are submerged in and which conditions and grounds everything we can do, is our world. Whether and how this corresponds to things-in-themselves or the noumenon is not something Wittgenstein was willing to talk about, because he thought that to do so was to indulge in nonsense — the nonsense of metaphysics.

Now that I’m looking at the Tractatus, it’s interesting to see this:

(TLP) 1.13 The facts in logical space are the world.

This sits nicely with his contrasting of logical and empirical propositions, where the logical ones are grammatical, i.e., part of the ground of our language-game.

92. However, we can ask: May someone have telling grounds for believing that the earth has only existed for a short time, say since his own birth? – Suppose he had always been told that, – would he have any good reason to doubt it? Men have believed that they could make the rain; why should not a king be brought up in the belief that the world began with him? And if Moore and this king were to meet and discuss, could Moore really prove his belief to be the right one? I do not say that Moore could not convert the king to his view, but it would be a conversion of a special kind; the king would be brought to look at the world in a different way. Remember that one is sometimes convinced of the correctness of a view by its simplicity or symmetry, i.e., these are what induce one to go over to this point of view. One then simply says something like: “That’s how it must be.”

Here the relativism is even stronger. It doesn’t make sense to doubt that the Earth is much older than I am, but it could make sense. Certain language-games, in certain cultures, say, might have taken certain propositions and built everything around them. This goes back to §87…

87. Can’t an assertoric sentence, which was capable of functioning as an hypothesis, also be used as a foundation for research and action? I.e. can’t it simply be isolated from doubt, though not according to any explicit rule? It simply gets assumed as a truism, never called in question, perhaps not even ever formulated.

The king in Wittgenstein’s story has been brought up in a culture in which the proposition “The world began with you, your Highness” serves as foundational. But that is not to say that the foundation is always built up in this way. There are basic beliefs, many known to common sense, that, unlike the king’s belief or many of our current scientific beliefs, will never be overturned. But again, we cannot identify the essential character of these.

Surely, though, we can see a vast difference? Maybe so, but it does not align with the earlier distinction between logical insights and empirical propositions, because that the world began with the king is indubitable for him – it is logical and grammatical – and fits perfectly into his conceptual scheme or his language-games. It is part of the ground, and without it everything else would fall down.

The last sentence of §92 appears to promote something like the coherence theory of knowledge. Although there is always a background, it is different in different contexts, and in each case determines the network of concepts within which propositions can be seen to fit. Does Wittgenstein, then, have his cake and eat it? Coherence and foundation? Maybe this is what contextualism is.

Of course, if the foundation is arbitrary and shifting, as sometimes seems to be implied (or at least allowed, by Wittgenstein), then it is no foundation at all. And to say that the ground shifts beneath our feet as we move between different language-games and between different cultures and epochs, is to say that the world is not one world at all but infinitely many, as infinitely many as are our possible sentences. Here the notion of forms of life might be helpful, but I’m not very familiar with the concept. How is it different from language-games and how do they relate?

93. The propositions presenting what Moore 'knows’ are all of such a kind that it is difficult to imagine why anyone should believe the contrary. E.g. the proposition that Moore has spent his whole life in close proximity to the earth. – Once more I can speak of myself here instead of speaking of Moore. What could induce me to believe the opposite? Either a memory, or having been told. – Everything that I have seen or heard gives me the conviction that no man has ever been far from the earth. Nothing in my picture of the world speaks in favour of the opposite.

94. But I did not get my picture of the world by satisfying myself of its correctness; nor do I have it because I am satisfied of its correctness. No: it is the inherited background against which I distinguish between true and false.

95. The propositions describing this world-picture might be part of a kind of mythology. And their role is like that of rules of a game; and the game can be learned purely practically, without learning any explicit rules.

96. It might be imagined that some propositions, of the form of empirical propositions, were hardened and functioned as channels for such empirical propositions as were not hardened but fluid; and that this relation altered with time, in that fluid propositions hardened, and hard ones became fluid.

These sections nicely summarize many of the points so far made. In fact, much of On Certainty seems to be reinforcement and repetition, and a constant circling around particular problems. §93 emphasizes again that there are propositions that are presupposed, that cannot be genuinely doubted. And this is partly because nothing counts against them. There is no reason to doubt them, and because such reasons never appear, this might be how they become part of the framework, after which they cannot be doubted without subverting discourse entirely, or using words inappropriately.

But (§94) it is not investigation, evidence or proof that have led me to be certain of these propositions. They are the “inherited background” against which such things take place, and they must be presupposed for me to determine truth and falsehood. I can conceivably find out if there is nitrogen in the atmosphere of Mars, and then (artificially speaking) decide whether the proposition “There is nitrogen in the atmosphere of Mars” is true or false. But I can only do this against innumerable of the most basic, most certain certainties, such as that there is a planet Mars, that the instruments I have that detect nitrogen actually do detect nitrogen and not radioactivity, that nitrogen is not water vapour, that Mars does not share any of its atmosphere with the Earth, and so on.

Recalling the king who believes the world began with him, it is interesting that, in §95, Wittgenstein uses the concept of mythology:

“The propositions describing this world-picture might be part of a kind of mythology”

It is an apposite choice of word, but does he mean it to apply to all language-games, even those we cannot laughingly dismiss? Do our foundations really just amount to arbitrary but coherent sets of beliefs (which is a fair description of our various mythologies)? Anyway, these propositions are the rules of the game, although, as stated before, they are not so definite as to be set down explicitly, and they are not followed with deliberation but only practically in social life, as we go along.

In §96 Wittgenstein revisits the puzzle of the distinction between logical and empirical propositions, leading up to the metaphor of the river-bed:

97. The mythology may change back into a state of flux, the river-bed of thoughts may shift. But I distinguish between the movement of the waters on the river-bed and the shift of the bed itself; though there is not a sharp division of the one from the other.

At any time, and in most cases, there is no confusion between the basic certainties and those beliefs that we can doubt. But there are borderline cases, and what was a doubtful hypothesis one day – as, for example, the Earth’s roundness may have been at one time – becomes part of the bedrock the next.

I don’t think this really gets to the bottom of the problem. I want to know what the primordial certainties are, or what that primordial relation is that the most basic certainties are rooted in. It must be more than mythology. (Here I feel the lack of Heidegger). That there are physical objects is, in some way, one of these basic certainties, even though just by using the term “physical object” I am conjuring up concepts of philosophy and science that play no part in the primordial belief itself. Surely we can say that this or that proposition is and always will be untouchable. Maybe Wittgenstein would answer like this: yes, maybe, but you cannot define the essential features of these propositions – in fact there are no essential features – and therefore you cannot attain transcendent certainty. Such a certainty would be a guarantee of a proposition’s inviolability, but there can be none: it only comes to be treated and used as inviolable.

Maybe we can never get to the bottom of the problem after all. And if there is more here, I don’t think we can get it from Wittgenstein.

98. But if someone were to say “So logic too is an empirical science” he would be wrong. Yet this is right: the same proposition may get treated at one time as something to test by experience, at another as a rule of testing.

99. And the bank of that river consists partly of hard rock, subject to no alteration or only to an imperceptible one, partly of sand, which now in one place now in another gets washed away, or deposited.

There is a solid and unchanging bedrock in our language-games, but we cannot define it, i.e., delimit it, precisely. We may disagree about whether particular beliefs belong to the bedrock or the river, but that there is such a bedrock – involving propositions we do agree on – allows us to discuss the evidence either way.

100. The truths which Moore says he knows, are such as, roughly speaking, all of us know, if he knows them.

101. Such a proposition might be e.g. “My body has never disappeared and reappeared again after an interval.”

102. Might I not believe that once, without knowing it, perhaps is a state of unconsciousness, I was taken far away from the earth – that other people even know this, but do not mention it to me? But this would not fit into the rest of my convictions at all. Not that I could describe the system of these convictions. Yet my convictions do form a system, a structure.

103. And now if I were to say “It is my unshakeable conviction that etc.”, this means in the present case too that I have not consciously arrived at the conviction by following a particular line of thought, but that it is anchored in all my questions and answers, so anchored that I cannot touch it.

And, he might have added, so anchored that I cannot know it.

104. I am for example also convinced that the sun is not a hole in the vault of heaven.

105. All testing, all confirmation and disconfirmation of a hypothesis takes place already within a system. And this system is not a more or less arbitrary and doubtful point of departure for all our arguments: no, it belongs to the essence of what we call an argument. The system is not so much the point of departure, as the element in which arguments have their life.

This brings to light a confusion of mine. I’ve been thinking of language-games as the different situations and contexts of everyday life, but here it’s apparent that a language-game can span the boundaries between these situations. The language-game of argument and the testing of hypotheses is one that we use in innumerable contexts, and is, as I see it, fundamental to our life (and to our form of life, perhaps?). So while I previously saw relativism in Wittgenstein’s apparent grounding of truth and certainty in the indubitable – yet in a sense arbitrary or free-floating – propositions that frame our various situations, it might be more accurate to say that there are certain language-games which are fairly fixed in character and which are used by us all the time. This seems to temper the relativism and put the bedrock on its own even deeper foundation. No doubt I ought to read Philosophical Investigations to get a clearer picture of this. Right now, I’m tempted to think of it like this: there are various bedrocks belonging to various language-games, but these are themselves founded on a bedrock which is our form of life.

106. Suppose some adult had told a child that he had been on the moon. The child tells me the story, and I say it was only a joke, the man hadn’t been on the moon; no one has ever been on the moon; the moon is a long way off and it is impossible to climb up there or fly there. – If now the child insists, saying perhaps there is a way of getting there which I don’t know, etc. what reply could I make to him? What reply could I make to the adults of a tribe who believe that people sometimes go to the moon (perhaps that is how they interpret their dreams), and who indeed grant that there are no ordinary means of climbing up to it or flying there? – But a child will not ordinarily stick to such a belief and will soon be convinced by what we tell him seriously.

There are a couple of things to say about this. First, Wittgenstein did not know that these passages would come to demonstrate the fluidity of propositions; that some of them, which seemed so solid, can dissolve out of the bedrock. Second, it is plain from the prevalence of conspiracy theories that the proposition “Men have landed on the Moon”, which is the contrary of Wittgenstein’s indubitable proposition, has not become so indubitable as was the original: I have met sane people who doubted the fact that men landed on the Moon in 1969 and in subsequent years. It is a good example of an empirical proposition, which I can conceive might be false (after all, some people actually do believe it to be false) although I am certain of its truth. I accept that there are facts that could destroy this certainty, and yet I remain certain of it; I have not the shadow of a doubt that men have been to the moon.

But I feel that the truth of our having been to the Moon ought to become an indubitable fact which is so solid that doubting it is nonsense. And we see the sense of §108: conspiracy theorists are so unhinged from the language-games of everyday life that we “feel ourselves intellectually very distant” from them. Although they are sane, they have unwittingly, and in a small way, opted out of human life — they are as unreasonable and inhuman as the tiger that is about to pounce on you.

Of course, in Wittgenstein’s day, his proposition, “no one has ever been on the moon”, was a certainty, as certain as mine is now. And yet, Wittgenstein seems to base this certainty on a belief that it is impossible for people to go to the moon. There is something of the deluded king in Wittgenstein here.

107. Isn’t this altogether like the way one can instruct a child to believe in a God, or that none exists, and it will accordingly be able to produce apparently telling grounds for the one or the other?

108. “But is there then no objective truth? Isn’t it true, or false, that someone has been on the moon?” If we are thinking within our system, then it is certain that no one has ever been on the moon. Not merely is nothing of the sort ever seriously reported to us by reasonable people, but our whole system of physics forbids us to believe it. For this demands answers to the questions “How did he overcome the force of gravity?” “How could he live without an atmosphere?” and a thousand others which could not be answered. But suppose that instead of all these answers we met the reply: “We don’t know how one gets to the moon, but those who get there know at once that they are there; and even you can’t explain everything.” We should feel ourselves intellectually very distant from someone who said this.

He doesn’t directly answer the question that he puts, from the mouth of an imaginary interlocutor, at the beginning of the paragraph. What we notice here is that the thousand questions we have about how anyone could have made it to the Moon can now be answered, though Wittgenstein, while treating the prospect as ridiculous, was right in saying that they could not be answered then. But he was wrong also. The questions could not be answered only because no one had made the effort of actually going to the Moon. The “whole system of physics” did not forbid belief in the prospect of a lunar landing, because it was merely an engineering issue. It might be thought to be philosophically unenlightening to dwell on Wittgenstein’s short-sightedness here, however I think it reveals the accuracy of the picture he is painting here of language, knowledge and certainty. Fortuitously, the river-bed analogy comes alive just a few paragraphs later when we see the fragility of Wittgenstein’s own certainties.

Does Wittgenstein expect us to accept the Moon proposition, “No one has been to the moon”, as an untouchable proposition of the kind he has mentioned — a presupposition, perhaps, of all talk about the Moon or flight or travel? If so, he was certainly wrong, but his view still stands. What it might emphasize is the relativism and instability of certainty implied in his view.

109. “An empirical proposition can be tested” (we say). But how? and through what?

110. What counts as its test? – “But is this an adequate test? And, if so, must it not be recognizable as such in logic?” – As if giving grounds did not come to an end sometime. But the end is not an ungrounded presupposition: it is an ungrounded way of acting.

Contrary to all the talk, both mine and Wittgenstein’s, of propositions and presuppositions, the ground consists rather of just the way we act, i.e., the way we talk, and to whom, and in what contexts. In other words, the logical insight into the framework that we express when we say “I know (I have two hands)” is an insight into something that cannot be known or easily stated but which shows itself in what we do. The rules are manifest in our actions, and following these rules implies that we have the most basic certainties.

111. “I know that I have never been on the moon.” That sounds different in the circumstances which actually hold, to the way it would sound if a good many men had been on the moon, and some perhaps without knowing it. In this case one could give grounds for this knowledge. Is there not a relationship here similar to that between the general rule of multiplying and particular multiplications that have been carried out? I want to say: my not having been on the moon is as sure a thing for me as any grounds I could give for it.

There is much packed into this, and again it has extra significance since the Apollo missions, for we now live in a world in which this statement, “I know that I have never been on the moon”, now sounds different in pretty much the way Wittgenstein imagines here. In his time, it was more akin to saying “I know there are external objects”, but now it joins the empirical propositions, because I might have been to the Moon, because we know it is possible. So in Wittgenstein’s case, it is as certain as any grounds that could be given for it – because going to the moon is not a possibility – but in our case, today…Well, I should be careful, because he is imagining a world in which many people go to the Moon, some of them without knowing it. In that case, grounds for the belief might be thought to be necessary. As it is, the fact that people have been to the Moon hardly makes my belief that I haven’t been to the Moon any less certain.

But the wider point is that grounds must come to an end somewhere. Moore, I think, made the same point: however unassailable your sceptical argument might be, it is not as certain as the very fact at issue. This is why Moore can flip things around using the Moore shift , beginning with a premise that is simply the denial of the sceptical conclusion: “I am sure that I have two hands in front of me”.

112. And isn’t that what Moore wants to say, when he says he knows all these things? – But is his knowing it really what is in question, and not rather that some of these propositions must be solid for us?

Ah! Whether it’s wise or not, I’m reading On Certainty more or less section by section, writing my responses often without knowing what’s coming next. It’s quite pleasing when I find I’ve been thinking along the same lines as Wittgenstein. He also points out here that Moore need not have brought in knowledge. It is enough that there are certainties that we cannot conceivably doubt.

113. When someone is trying to teach us mathematics, he will not begin by assuring us that he knows that a+b=b+a.

We learn about the bedrock certainties by following the rules and fitting them into our life. Adding is this. The teacher’s assurances in themselves have little value. He shows what is correct, leading by example.

114. If you are not certain of any fact, you cannot be certain of the meaning of your words either.

This is ambiguous. He must mean if there are no facts that you are certain of, for otherwise he is obviously wrong. I can be uncertain of the date of the Battle of Waterloo, though I am confident in the words I am using. So what he is saying here is that all talk requires certainty at some level. You cannot doubt everything. And…

115. If you tried to doubt everything you would not get as far as doubting anything. The game of doubting itself presupposes certainty.

116. Instead of “I know…”, couldn’t Moore have said: “It stands fast for me that…”? And further: “It stands fast for me and many others…”

Again, Moore could have made his proof (though it wouldn’t have been a proof as such) on the basis of his certainty, rather than his knowledge.

Next part


Wittgenstein, L., ed. G. E. M. Anscombe, G. H. von Wright, 1969: On Certainty, Harper & Row

Wittgenstein, L., 1961: Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Routledge

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