26 May 2011

Notes on Wittgenstein’s “On Certainty”, Part 5

Part 1 Part 2 Part 3 Part 4 Part 5 Part 6 Part 7

117. Why is it not possible for me to doubt that I have never been on the moon? And how could I try to doubt it? First and foremost, the supposition that perhaps I have been there would strike me as idle. Nothing would follow from it, nothing be explained by it. It would not tie in with anything in my life. When I say “Nothing speaks for, everything against it,” this presupposes a principle of speaking for and against. That is, I must be able to say what would speak for it.

To suggest to me that for all I know I may actually have been to the moon would strike me as frivolous or facetious. One often sees – in online philosophy forums more than among real philosophers, it has to be said – people playing the tedious game in which facile affected doubt passes for philosophy. It is easy, but hardly productive, to sabotage a discussion with a sceptical doubt, whereupon everyone else involved will groan wearily. Unless they keep themselves to themselves – or take part only in discussions specifically about scepticism – sceptics only succeed in spoiling the party. At least Descartes, with his hyperbolical doubt, was making serious intellectual efforts, based on what seemed like decent philosophical reasons.

The sceptic is a kind of pedant, as described by Schopenhauer:

Pedantry also is a form of folly. It arises from a man’s having little confidence in his own understanding, and therefore not liking to leave things to its discretion, to recognize directly what is right in the particular case. Accordingly, he puts his understanding entirely under the guardianship of his reason…

The pedantic sceptic retreats from the world to ponder ordinary words and concepts by applying reason in the abstract, and in doing so uses them differently, i.e., he changes their meaning. He is thus left not knowing very much about the words and concepts he was attempting to investigate.

Now, getting back to §117, in reply to a sceptical doubt we should not only be able to say “Nothing speaks for, everything against it”, but also “Tell me what would speak for it.” Not only is there no ground for doubting that I have two hands, but we would struggle to recognize such a ground, i.e., it would be difficult to think what kind of evidence might call it into question. As before, we can conceive of particular circumstances in which doubting might be appropriate, but this only goes to show that the universal or detached doubt is being offered in the absence of such particular circumstances, out of context and therefore without sense. With the moon example, you could easily enough tell a story about how I might have been to the moon without my knowledge (especially now that people have been to the moon), and describe what kind of evidence would point to this. But this story does not amount to evidence that makes doubt meaningful and real – it only imagines a meaningful doubt; or as Husserl says, thinks a doubt:

The world is not doubtful in the sense that there are rational grounds which might be pitted against the tremendous force of unanimous experiences, but in the sense that a doubt is thinkable

The challenge, “Tell me what would speak for it”, is most forceful for the sceptical ultra-doubts, or universal doubts, such as Descartes’s demon. Perhaps everything I experience and know could be a deception by an all-powerful demon, because I can never tell one way or the other. But it is for this very reason that one cannot say what the evidence for this state-of-affairs might be like. Ordinary doubt, on the other hand, is quite different. Apart from philosophy, doubting takes place only where we would recognize the evidence that might confirm the doubt, where we know the signs to look out for. It seems clear that the sceptical so-called doubt is something quite different: a philosophical confusion.

118. Now would it be correct to say: So far no one has opened my skull in order to see whether there is a brain inside; but everything speaks for, and nothing against, its being what they would find there?

119. But can it also be said: Everything speaks for, and nothing against the table’s still being there when no one sees it? For what does speak for it?

To say that everything speaks for the existence of the table when no one sees it might suggest that we have evidence, that we have explicitly considered arguments and proofs, and interpreted observations, to come to the conclusion that the table continues to exist. But no such process takes place. Some things are always already accepted. To speak of them being “accepted” might actually be inaccurate; better to say they are always presupposed. But even that’s too strong. We can only talk of presuppositions and acceptances – that is, they only appear as such – once they have come to be questioned by philosophers. Otherwise, they are not the kind of things that are supposed or accepted at all, and perhaps cannot even be described as “things”.

Come to think of it, can these indubitable presuppositions be said to exist at all? I don’t think so. Whether the table carries on existing when no one is looking is a purely philosophical question. Most (non-philosophical) people answer “Of course it does, don’t be silly”, but this is not evidence of a pre-existing belief or unconscious presupposition; it is just that the question has no practical significance and has never even been considered (until the philosopher came along).

120. But if anyone were to doubt it, how would his doubt come out in practice? And couldn’t we peacefully leave him to doubt it, since it makes no difference at all?

Because scepticism is idle, and because often there is no way in principle of telling if sceptical hypotheses are true or false (they are deliberately composed to be like this), it has no practical consequences. Only the mentally disturbed act according to beliefs such as that only they exist or that they are brains in vats. Even if one seriously believed in sceptical hypotheses (though probably only the mentally disturbed actually do), one need not behave differently to be true to one’s beliefs.

But maybe we shouldn’t leave the sceptic in peace. Maybe we should be able to attack him for misusing language and causing confusion; while his hypotheses may have no practical consequences, they do have unfortunate philosophical consequences – such as, I would say, the whole discipline of epistemology.

121. Can one say: “Where there is no doubt there is no knowledge either”?

122. Doesn’t one need grounds for doubt?

123. Wherever I look, I find no ground for doubting that…

124. I want to say: We use judgments as principles of judgment.

What about that last one there? I think it means that rather than having underlying principles to tell us how to judge something as true, it is the complex of judgements in the language-game that shows us how to judge. But surely the crypto-propositions, or the truths that they point to, supply the foundation here? Surely they are the underlying principles, and cannot be described as judgements, being always already presupposed? Well, I think these are compatible. Remember, the crypto-propositions are just artificial appeals to the implicit logical structure that is shown, that is manifest in our activity – activity such as judging.

125. If a blind man were to ask me “Have you got two hands?” I should not make sure by looking. If I were to have any doubt of it, then I don’t know why I should trust my eyes. For why shouldn’t I test my eyes by looking to find out whether I see my two hands? What is to be tested by what? (Who decides what stands fast?) And what does it mean to say that such and such stands fast?

“If a blind man were to ask me “Have you got two hands?” I should not make sure by looking.”

This is generally true of course – remembering the quasi-rule “in normal circumstances” from §27 – but in the particular circumstances discussed in part 1 , in which one wakes up in a hospital in bandages, I may indeed “make sure by looking”.

Under “normal circumstances” I answer the question “Have you got two hands” immediately with a yes or no, demonstrating my certainty. But if, also under these same “normal circumstances”, I have some doubt about whether or not I have two hands, then I don’t know what to look for to confirm it, because I don’t have a conception of what would count as grounds for doubt – aside from the aforementioned special circumstances. Further, if it is possible to have this doubt in normal circumstances, then anything could be doubted, such as that I have eyes.

It is worth remembering here that the indubitable beliefs are ungrounded: there are no grounds that could be more immune to scepticism than the belief itself already is. A proof of the existence of the external world could not make me any more convinced than my life already does. Likewise, grounds for doubt, to be grounds at all, must be more certain than the belief being doubted, but such grounds cannot exist for doubting the most certain beliefs of all. As this is the kind of doubting that universal scepticism engages in, we can see that it can never have any grounds.

It might also help – although it could have been inserted in just about any of the previous posts as well – to include this quote from Crispin Wright’s “Wittgensteinian Certainties”:

nothing external holds these basic certainties in place: they are not grounded, solid foundations after the fashion of the classical Cartesian aspiration — foundations of the kind which primitive and especially sure cognitive achievements would provide.

This is a useful reminder, because sometimes it feels like every time I use the words “bedrock” or “foundation” I am beginning to think about Wittgenstein’s mission as a foundational quest, along the lines of traditional epistemology. But he is emphatically not looking for a set of secure axioms on which we can build knowledge, because at the bottom of the language-game is not really the propositions themselves but rather our activity and speech, which exhibit or manifest our basic certainties.

Epistemology is concerned with knowledge, but Wittgenstein has shown that at the bottom of our language-games is not a body of certain knowledge at all, but beliefs which are embedded in our lived experience in the world of people and things. According to Wittgenstein you do not know that here is a hand at all. Your certainty is a consequence of the logic of language, and not a matter for epistemology.

Anyway, that I have two hands stands fast for me. Wittgenstein asks who decides this, and what it means. Has he not already answered this? Is it not enough to say that we act and talk as if these things stand fast – that, in fact, this is just what standing fast consists in? But maybe he is trying to go deeper, to ask, again, about the rules that govern what stands fast and for whom.

126. I am not more certain of the meaning of my words that I am of certain judgments. Can I doubt that this colour is called “blue”? (My) doubts form a system.

I cannot just gratuitously doubt everything. I cannot doubt the meaning of “blue” and at the same time doubt whether the sea over there to the East is blue or some shade of green. Doubts must work together in a system.

127. For how do I know that someone is in doubt? How do I know that he uses the words “I doubt it” as I do?

But this appears to be precisely what Wittgenstein is doing, doubting that sceptics are using “doubt” in the same way that people ordinarily do. On the other hand, it’s probably important to remember that these sceptics appear to be using the word in the same way, and believe themselves to be doing so. It is as if, in the middle of the night and surrounded by darkness, I said to you, “look, isn’t the grass a lovely bright shade of green?” It’s clear that I’m using the words “bright” and “green” in something like the normal way, but there’s something very wrong with my use of the words nevertheless.

128. From a child up I learnt to judge like this. This is judging.

And this goes back to §124 above: judgements as principles of judgement. What is it doing here, at this point? Perhaps he is showing that our judgments in general, like our doubts, form a system.

129. This is how I learned to judge; this I got to know as judgment.

130. But isn’t it experience that teaches us to judge like this, that is to say, that it is correct to judge like this? But how does experience teach us, then? We may derive it from experience, but experience does not direct us to derive anything from experience. If it is the ground for our judging like this, and not just the cause, still we do not have a ground for seeing this in turn as a ground.

131. No, experience is not the ground for our game of judging. Nor is its outstanding success.

This takes us back to empirical vs logical propositions. We learn by doing, but this is not to say that we are taking lessons from experience and applying them in life. Rather, in learning by doing we are becoming skilled at a practical activity, at taking part in particular language-games, thereby following the rules which determine, among other things, which propositions count as logical and which count as empirical – which belong to the riverbed and which to the river.

To say that experience is the ground for our game of judging would be to say that experience supplies the reasons that justify our practice of judging. But this is not so. We might base particular judgements on evidence from experience, but experience does not give us grounds for doing this in the first place (basing judgements on experience). Empirical evidence is not the be all and end all.

132. Men have judged that a king can make rain; we say this contradicts all experience. Today they judge that aeroplanes and the radio etc. are means for the closer contact of peoples and the spread of culture.

But people judge differently, at different times and in different cultures. What was once riverbed is now river, and vice-versa.

133. Under ordinary circumstances I do not satisfy myself that I have two hands by seeing how it looks. Why not? Has experience shown it to be unnecessary? Or (again): Have we in some way learnt a universal law of induction, and do we trust it here too? – But why should we have learnt one universal law first, and not the special one straight away?

134. After putting a book in a drawer, I assume it is there, unless… “Experience always proves me right. There is no well attested case of a book’s (simply) disappearing.” It has often happened that a book has never turned up again, although we thought we knew for certain where it was. – But experience does really teach that a book, say, does not vanish away. (E. g. gradually evaporates.) But is it this experience with books etc. that leads us to assume that such a book has not vanished away? Well, suppose we were to find that under particular novel circumstances books did vanish away. – Shouldn’t we alter our assumption? Can one give the lie to the effect of experience on our system of assumption?

135. But do we not simply follow the principle that what has always happened will happen again (or something like it)? What does it mean to follow this principle? Do we really introduce it into our reasoning? Or is it merely the natural law which our inferring apparently follows? This latter it may be. It is not an item in our considerations.

These seem to re-iterate earlier sections about rules as being implicit in speech and action, along with the more recent and complementary comments about experience. Wittgenstein seems to be approaching the level at which I imagine he would say we ought to remain silent, because he is trying to elucidate the conditions of language-games – what our certainties consist in, which he feels is deeper or of a more logical character than the idea of following rules based on experience would suggest.

136. When Moore says he knows such and such, he is really enumerating a lot of empirical propositions which we affirm without special testing; propositions, that is, which have a peculiar logical role in the system of our empirical propositions.

137. Even if the most trustworthy of men assures me that he knows things are thus and so, this by itself cannot satisfy me that he does know. Only that he believes he knows. That is why Moore’s assurance that he knows… does not interest us. The propositions, however, which Moore retails as examples of such known truths are indeed interesting. Not because anyone knows their truth, or believes he knows them, but because they all have a similar role in the system of our empirical judgments.

This has mostly been said before. The final point is that the propositions chosen by Moore happen to be those that function grammatically/logically, which live among or beneath our empirical propositions. To Wittgenstein, this is what is interesting, now that he has dispensed with Moore’s claim to knowledge.

But it’s worth noting here that §136 could be taken to mean that it is propositional beliefs which make up the bedrock of our language-games, and this is contrary to my interpretation, which has it that these “hinge propositions” are artificial philosophical tools that Wittgenstein is using to show us the way – that they merely point to something more basic. Moore’s mistake (“I know...”) gives Wittgenstein a way in to some deep problems, and it is this line of attack against the philosophical tradition that results in his appeal to propositions. Having said that, it might be that he had always thought in those terms anyway. This is probably one of the most fundamental sticking points in the interpretation of On Certainty, and one I mean to address as I go along.

138. We don’t, for example, arrive at any of them as a result of investigation. There are e.g. historical investigations and investigations into the shape and also the age of the earth, but not into whether the earth has existed during the last hundred years. Of course many of us have information about this period from our parents and grandparents; but mayn’t they be wrong? – “Nonsense!” one will say. “How should all these people be wrong?” – But is that an argument? Is it not simply the rejection of an idea? And perhaps the determination of a concept? For if I speak of a possible mistake here, this changes the role of “mistake” and “truth” in our lives.

What’s wrong with just telling the sceptic to get lost? As many philosophers have pointed out, arguments are of little use against global scepticism. If I reply to the sceptic as above, by saying “How should all these people be wrong?”, and the sceptic replies “Maybe they made a mistake – it’s possible”, then we can legitimately tell him to get lost because his suggestion is a misuse of “mistake”. Mistakes are such only in relation to a context of normally correct judgements.

139. Not only rules, but also examples are needed for establishing a practice. Our rules leave loop-holes open, and the practice has to speak for itself.

The sentence I’ve emphasized is a great line, and widely applicable. It immediately made me think about two other things that have been on my mind lately: the Kripkensteinian paradox; and vagueness, the “sorites paradox” and the Ship of Theseus. In Kripke’s book, Wittgenstein on Rules and Private Language, he interprets Wittgenstein in such an eccentric way that this interpretation has been labelled “Kripkenstein”. Kripke concentrates on the paradox brought up by Wittgenstein in Philosophical Investigations §201, which states that “no course of action could be determined by a rule, because any course of action can be made out to accord with the rule”, in other words (and in short) no rule can determine a course of action because there will always be different possible and logically legitimate interpretations of the rule. This observation launches Kripke on a quest to find a solution in the pages of PI. I am already tempted to agree with those critics who think that Kripke has fundamentally misunderstood Wittgenstein. §201 continues on to give a solution that has nothing in common with Kripke’s efforts: when rules are followed in reality, there are no such problems, and this practical rule-following, rather than the interpretion of rules, is what is crucial. “Our rules leave loop-holes open, and the practice has to speak for itself.”

The sorites paradox comes about when we consider at what point we create a heap of sand by adding one grain at a time, beginning with a single grain. The single grain does not make a heap, but neither do two, three or four, and we would further say quite naturally that there is no specific number of grains that make a heap. The paradox is that, therefore, no amount of sand can make a heap. But we should not be surprised that language has such vagueness in places, that it allows us to create these puzzles and paradoxes. We still manage to use the word “heap” perfectly well. Once again, “Our rules leave loop-holes open, and the practice has to speak for itself.”

The sorites paradox is similar to the Ship of Theseus. Theseus, in Greek legend the founder of Athens, had a ship that was maintained for many years, during which its worn-out component parts were replaced one-by-one to keep it seaworthy, until eventually all parts were replaced. Was it the same ship?*

I could happily repeat it all day: “Our rules leave loop-holes open, and the practice has to speak for itself.”

*I once put this question to a biker, and used a motorbike as an example instead of a ship. In response, he asked me what kind of bike it was: was it a Honda, Kawasaki, Triumph, BMW or what? Apparently this would determine how long the various parts would be likely to last. He was clearly far too sensible to be a philosopher.

Next part


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

Pritchard, D. 2001: “Wittgensteinian Pyrrhonism”, available here

Wright, C. 2004: “Wittgensteinian Certainties”, in Denis McManus (ed.), Wittgenstein and Scepticism, Routledge.

Husserl, E., 1913, Ideas: General Introduction to Pure Phenomenology, trans. W.R. Boyce
Gibson (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1931).

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