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20 July 2011

Notes on Wittgenstein’s “On Certainty”, Part 6

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

140. We do not learn the practice of making empirical judgments by learning rules: we are taught judgments and their connection with other judgments. A totality of judgments is made plausible to us.

Wittgenstein is continuing to develop the idea contained in the statement from §124: “We use judgments as principles of judgment”, and thereby elucidating his conception of rules. To come to certainty or doubt may involve a judgment, and this judgment may be said to conform to a rule, but we did not learn that rule and then apply it to real life; as with many activities, we learn by doing.

In saying that we become aware of a totality of judgments, he is echoing the thought from §102 and §126, that one’s beliefs and doubts form a system. We hold the coherence of a new proposition with our other beliefs as a criterion of its veracity. This also goes back to §74, in which beliefs that have a ground can be doubted, that is, doubt can be “fitted in”.

141. When we first begin to believe anything, what we believe is not a single proposition, it is a whole system of propositions. (Light dawns gradually over the whole.)

142. It is not single axioms that strike me as obvious, it is a system in which consequences and premises give one another mutual support.

He is always reminding us that language and life are organic and must be treated as such (Don’t think – look!), in contrast to philosophical analysis, which breaks everything down to its purported constituents, which can be isolated for the purposes of investigation. Also we might see this as a hint that the traditional project of epistemology, to establish or discover the foundational axioms of knowledge, is wrongheaded, because we recall that the framework of mutually supportive beliefs has no clear delineation or demarcation, and can actually change. Parts of the river bed can melt into the river, and the river’s sediment can solidify into the river bed. The only way, as I see it, that Wittgenstein’s project could be that of a foundational epistemology is if he thought we could tell, in every case, that a particular belief would always remain part of the river bed. I think we’ve seen plenty enough relativism in On Certainty, e.g., the king in §92, to indicate that this is not so.

Looking back at §92 I’m struck by this:

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.”

Back in part 4 of this series I talked only of coherence in reference to this passage, but now I look at it again it is so strongly evocative of aesthetic experience that I don’t know how I missed it. Simplicity and symmetry are common characteristics of what is beautiful, and correctness – of a possibly indescribable kind – is part of what artists strive to achieve in their work. A painter tries to get the painting right, and there comes a moment when things just work. It’s probably never clear to the artist exactly in what way the painting is right or just works (and this is why an artist is an unreliable guide to his or her work), but I think it’s central to artistic creativity. In photography, web design and programming I often experience this myself. I’m sure mathematicians must experience it too; it’s no coincidence that that they often explicitly describe mathematics as beautiful. Perhaps art is important to us because it represents, in a pure form, our search for truth.

I’m sure I’m on to something, but to pursue it here would lead me far afield. I see myself writing some elaborate paper in the future, investigating the intersection of Wittgenstein, Schopenhauer and Heidegger.

143. I am told, for example, that someone climbed this mountain many years ago. Do I always enquire into the reliability of the teller of this story, and whether the mountain did exist years ago? A child learns there are reliable and unreliable informants much later than it learns facts which are told it. It doesn’t learn at all that that mountain has existed for a long time: that is, the question whether it is so doesn’t arise at all. It swallows this consequence down, so to speak, together with what it learns.

Before we doubt, indeed before we can doubt, we already have a network of mutually supportive beliefs, some more or less certain, and others unquestionable. These unquestionable beliefs are consequences, which is to say they are implicit. This is the bedrock “grammar” of language-games, what might be referred to elsewhere as hinges. But they are not propositions, and I have difficulty in even accepting them as beliefs. To borrow Stephen Jay Gould’s striking metaphor, they are like the spandrels between the stone arches of a church, which serve no function in themselves but are a necessary consequence of the functional arches. Between our empirical beliefs, and between our doubts, there are spandrels which themselves have no positive function – they are merely a by-product of empirical knowledge: “Here is a hand”, “I have never been to Mars”, etc. But as I think I’ve said before, even this reifies or objectifies them too much, and is an artificial response to an artificial doubt.

144. The child learns to believe a host of things. I.e. it learns to act according to these beliefs. Bit by bit there forms a system of what is believed, and in that system some things stand unshakeably fast and some are more or less liable to shift. What stands fast does so, not because it is intrinsically obvious or convincing; it is rather held fast by what lies around it.

The part that I’ve emphasized here again supports a reading of On Certainty as non-foundational and anti-epistemological. Foundationalism in epistemology is the theory that knowledge is founded on (in other words, justification ends with) basic self-evident axiomatic beliefs, and Wittgenstein is very clearly opposed to this. And at the bottom of our language games is not knowledge at all, but practice. Epistemology, then, is a bit of a non-starter.

145. One wants to say “All my experiences show that it is so”. But how do they do that? For that proposition to which they point itself belongs to a particular interpretation of them. “That I regard this proposition as certainly true also characterizes my interpretation of experience.”

This reiterates what I was saying in reference to §§ 129-131 in part 5. We shouldn’t think of our experiences on one side, providing lessons that we can apply to a new proposition that appears from the other side. Rather, this new proposition already has a relation to our framework of beliefs, as if its fate – whether it is believed or doubted – is almost sealed before we consider it.

146. We form the picture of the earth as a ball floating free in space and not altering essentially in a hundred years. I said “We form the picture etc.” and this picture now helps us in the judgment of various situations. I may indeed calculate the dimensions of a bridge, sometimes calculate that here things are more in favour of a bridge than a ferry, etc.etc., – but somewhere I must begin with an assumption or a decision.

147. The picture of the earth as a ball is a good picture, it proves itself everywhere, it is also a simple picture – in short, we work with it without doubting it.

148. Why do I not satisfy myself that I have two feet when I want to get up from a chair? There is no why. I simply don’t. This is how I act.

His use of picture here might be taken as evidence that he is also, like me, thinking in aesthetic terms. I don’t want to stress this too much, because Wittgenstein was probably not consciously thinking in these terms, and he had used the idea of a picture before, in the Tractatus, where I don’t think it had any aesthetic implications – but I’m free to see what I can do with the aesthetic aspect, which Wittgenstein may not have been fully aware of.

What is the relationship between “somewhere I must begin with an assumption or a decision” and “This is how I act”? Is an assumption or decision the basis of an act, a kind of act, or manifest in an act? Or is it all three? The terms assumption (not presumption or presupposition) and decision are quite positive, suggesting deliberation, and this suggests that they are meant to have a status similar to that of action, which is also often deliberate or willed. We do not need to establish a base from which to make a decision or to do something; decisions and actions merely imply what might be thought of for convenience as basic beliefs. The command “Don’t think – look!” is very crucial here: this is not a theoretical project, but a looser and more anthropological one. As I see it this is a direct attack on the analytical tradition, because it urges us not to analyze (break down into basic constituents which can be isolated) but to holistically describe.

149. My judgments themselves characterize the way I judge, characterize the nature of judgment.

150. How does someone judge which is his right and which his left hand? How do I know that my judgment will agree with someone else’s? How do I know that this colour is blue? If I don’t trust myself here, why should I trust anyone else’s judgment? Is there a why? Must I not begin to trust somewhere? That is to say: somewhere I must begin with not-doubting; and that is not, so to speak, hasty but excusable: it is part of judging.

§149 repeats the thoughts of §124 and §140. In §150, when we read “Must I not begin to trust somewhere?” we are prompted to ask, “but where?” And this again points to the difficulty of demarcating the empirical and the logical – of setting out or fencing off the field of untouchable beliefs.

151. I should like to say: Moore does not know what he asserts he knows, but it stands fast for him, as also for me; regarding it as absolutely solid is part of our method of doubt and enquiry.

152. I do not explicitly learn the propositions that stand fast for me. I can discover them subsequently like the axis around which a body rotates. This axis is not fixed in the sense that anything holds it fast, but the movement around it determines its immobility.

153. No one ever taught me that my hands don’t disappear when I am not paying attention to them. Nor can I be said to presuppose the truth of this proposition in my assertions etc., (as if they rested on it) while it only gets sense from the rest of our procedure of asserting.

§152 is a very nice, very useful metaphor, similar to the hinge and also to my own use of spandrels. Come to think of it, though, spandrels are metaphorically inferior to Wittgenstein’s in that they do not suggest movement. Where I find them helpful is in getting away from the thought of a foundation, bedrock or even framework, whose fastness we satisfy ourselves of before building our knowledge on or around it. Spandrels suggest, very usefully I think, that what we presuppose is merely implied by our empirical beliefs, that rather than foundational “hinge propositions” there are beliefs, or rather nonpropositional attitudes, which are by-products of those empirical facts we learn in life by judging.

That your hands don’t disappear when you’re not looking at them is part of the rules, but you don’t learn that rule as such. I’ve emphasized what seems to me another clear indication that he is not talking about presuppositional foundational propositions, even though he is using the language of propositions and presuppositions – as I am myself – to attempt to make this clear, by working backwards from the terms in which the misuses, e.g., Moore’s hinge propositions, can first be attacked.

As an aside I should make a note here of some of my recent thoughts and doubts about On Certainty. What is still not clear to me is to what extent Wittgenstein is talking about the world that underlies language. On the one hand, he is known for making a point of not doing this, but on the other hand he does seem to want to convey a sense of what it is that manifests itself in certainty, basic belief and, at its most artificial, “hinge propositions”. And this touches on another problem, which is his relativism: is he talking only of the language-games that vary and in themselves shift, or is he exploring our form of life? Anyway, I think it’s safe to say that if he is touching on Being, which lies prior to language, then it is really only to say it’s there, that it shows itself. “Look!”

154. There are cases such that, if someone gives signs of doubt where we do not doubt, we cannot confidently understand his signs as signs of doubt. I.e.: if we are to understand his signs of doubt as such, he may give them only in particular cases and may not give them in others.

If we cannot understand someone’s doubt then it may well be that his doubt is meaningless (indeed, signs that cannot be understood have no meaning almost by definition) and hardly qualifies as a doubt at all. The deficiency of judgment lies not with us but with the professed doubter, i.e., he thinks he’s doubting but really he’s not. Are there exceptions to this? What of the first person who doubted that the Sun revolved around the Earth? We would now say that this was a meaningful doubt. It might have been meaningless to uneducated peasant farmers who never questioned the matter either way, but equally, the notion that the Sun did “revolve around” or “orbit” the Earth would have been meaningless to them also, because they did not picture the heavens in terms of an astronomical model into which these concepts could fit. So the question could only come up once such a model had been posited, supplying a context in which – for astronomers – the doubt did make sense. A meaningful doubt could not spring up in isolation.

But imagine that every astronomer had been killed, and all the copies of all the works of astronomy destroyed, in a fire at the World Astronomical Convention of 15-whatever – but that the lone doubter Nicolaus survived, having been unable to make it that day. Would this suddenly render his doubt meaningless? Well, I think this is an artificial question that has no definitive or useful yes-or-no answer. It doesn’t matter whether we say yes or no, but only that we see that the meaning of the doubt derived from communal activities and language-games.

But it would be difficult to deny that his doubt still had meaning. To see this problem more clearly, let’s take a real example. Egyptian hieroglyphics had meaning even long after the death of the ancient Egyptian civilization, and before they were deciphered with the help of the Rosetta Stone. We knew that they remained meaningful, even though we did not know what that meaning was. To ask if the meaning had been lost or was somehow contained in the stone is ambiguous, because both of these uses of “meaning” are legitimate. It is not a contradiction to say that it had meaning and also that the meaning had been lost, because there is a subtle equivocation in it that doesn’t need to be spelled out to us. The crucial point is that meaning is always at least originally contextual – and always, I might add, commensurable. Whether or not we ought to say that meaning has been lost with the loss of this context is not very important.

155. In certain circumstance a man cannot make a mistake. (“Can” is here used logically, and the proposition does not mean that a man cannot say anything false in those circumstances.) If Moore were to pronounce the opposite of those propositions which he declares certain, we should not just not share his opinion: we should regard him as demented.

156. In order to make a mistake, a man must already judge in conformity with mankind.

157. Suppose a man could not remember whether he had always had five fingers or two hands? Should we understand him? Could we be sure of understanding him?

158. Can I be making a mistake, for example, in thinking that the words of which this sentence is composed are English words whose meaning I know?

These cover similar ground to §138, which I looked at in part 5. As I said there, mistakes are mistakes at all only in a context of correct judgments. It is against this background that mistakes show up as irregularities. And this “background” includes the hinges around which correct (or at least “in conformity with mankind”) empirical beliefs move – such as Moore’s certainties. In denying these certainties I am not mistaken, unless you can describe a sudden lapse of my sanity or ability to use English as a mistake.

So much is clear enough, I think, but the question remains as to why we cannot be mistaken about these beliefs, and this is what Wittgenstein returns to again and again, because he sees that it’s fundamental: what is it that lies at the bottom of the language game, what is presupposed, and how do we come to have a worldview into which statements must fit? As far as I can tell so far, his only answer is that we do have a worldview, rooted in our activity, and in our form of life.

159. As children we learn facts; e.g., that every human being has a brain, and we take them on trust. I believe that there is an island, Australia, of such-and-such a shape, and so on and so on; I believe that I had great-grandparents, that the people who gave themselves out as my parents really were my parents, etc. This belief may never have been expressed; even the thought that it was so, never thought.

160. The child learns by believing the adult. Doubt comes after belief.

161. I learned an enormous amount and accepted it on human authority, and then I found some things confirmed or disconfirmed by my own experience.

Descartes began with doubt in an effort to find the rock-solid foundation, from where he would build the whole world up again. But this is not how we go about things in life. In life, we need grounds for doubt, and these are provided by a whole world of certainty, which we construct as we go along. What is interesting here is that it is not only those special groundless indubitable beliefs which form this world, but also many empirical beliefs that can easily be overturned once we come to realize that they are not indubitable. Ah, but is this not exactly what Descartes did? Well, his trouble was that he took it too far. He did not come to see that his beliefs (that he had a body and that there were people outside in the distance) were amenable to doubt – as we do in life when presented with evidence that might indicate otherwise – but simply found that doubting them was thinkable.

162. In general I take as true what is found in text-books, of geography for example. Why? I say: All these facts have been confirmed a hundred times over. But how do I know that? What is my evidence for it? I have a world-picture. Is it true or false? Above all it is the substratum of all my enquiring and asserting. The propositions describing it are not all equally subject to testing.

You’ve got a world-picture. You don’t know it, you just have it. I get that. But I find the last sentence here puzzling. If my world-picture is the substratum for asserting, then how can there be propositions describing it? It ought to be beyond propositions, because it lies underneath all proposition-making. Well, perhaps the sense of “describe” is something more akin to “delineate”, which would make it plausible that he means the facts that constitute the world-picture. But it is not only these facts that he learns, but consequent spandrel beliefs that delineate the picture as well. This interpretation seems to solve the problem in a satisfying enough way, so I’ll stick with it for the time being.

163. Does anyone ever test whether this table remains in existence when no one is paying attention to it? We check the story of Napoleon, but not whether all the reports about him are based on sense-deception, forgery and the like. For whenever we test anything, we are already presupposing something that is not tested. Now am I to say that the experiment which perhaps I make in order to test the truth of a proposition presupposes the truth of the proposition that the apparatus I believe I see is really there (and the like)?

164. Doesn’t testing come to an end?

§163 picks up from the last line of §162, looking at the facts which are not subject to testing. Testing does come to an end. It has a ground. All attempts at establishing knowledge presuppose facts, a world-picture.

165. One child might say to another: “I know that the earth is already hundreds of years old” and that would mean: I have learnt it.

166. The difficulty is to realize the groundlessness of our believing.

Once again, beliefs that have no ground cannot be known. But the child’s belief does not appear to me to be such a belief. Wittgenstein seems to be suggesting that when the child says “I know that the earth is already hundreds of years old”, it’s a misuse of language in the same way as Moore’s statements are. Just as Moore could mean no more than “I am certain, I cannot be wrong”, the child means “I have learnt it”, and the two amount to the same thing. But after accepting for so long that such uses of “I know” are misuses, now I’m tempted to depart from this. Such uses as the child’s are part of the way we talk, and in common situations such as the child’s they are perfectly legitimate.

Actually, Moore’s statements and the child’s don’t look equivalent to me at all: the child learnt about the age of the earth, but did Moore learn that he had two hands? Well now…maybe he did, as a baby, gradually learn about his own body and about counting. Even if we accept this, we can still see the difference here, which is that the child learned the age of the earth from a book or from someone else, and not directly. This is turning out to be confusing. There’s nothing for it but to say that the child’s belief is not groundless: its ground is “I read it in a book”. This is about logical (Moore) versus empirical (the child), and the latter can become part of the river bed.

Aside from these confusions of mine, it is fundamental that we realize the “groundlessness of our believing”, which we always come to at some point, at the end of the chain of whys. But in itself I don’t know if this is an attack on the foundationalist search for the self-evident axioms of knowledge, because such axioms would, even on a foundationalist account, be groundless – unless his point is that the groundless beliefs we come need not be not self-evident, as axioms are meant to be: rather, they are the nodes in our network of beliefs.

167. It is clear that our empirical propositions do not all have the same status, since one can lay down such a proposition and turn it from an empirical proposition into a norm of description. Think of chemical investigations. Lavoisier makes experiments with substances in his laboratory and now he concludes that this and that takes place when there is burning. He does not say that it might happen otherwise another time. He has got hold of a definite world-picture – not of course one that he invented: he learned it as a child. I say world-picture and not hypothesis, because it is the matter-of-course foundation for his research and as such also goes unmentioned.

In my confusion I may have anticipated Wittgenstein. As we discovered before, empirical propositions do not all have the same status, that is, they are not all equally amenable to doubt or to testing. I won’t say more at this point until I see where this is going; I think of Wittgenstein, in writing On Certainty, as repeatedly wandering over a rocky seaside landscape, lifting up the same rocks to see what he missed before. My strategy of point-by-point exegesis has its limitations, though it should be borne in mind that these are just notes. Perhaps I’ll write a paper once I’m done.

168. But now, what part is played by the presupposition that a substance A always reacts to a substance B in the same way, given the same circumstances? Or is that part of the definition of a substance?

169. One might think that there were propositions declaring that chemistry is possible. And these would be propositions of a natural science. For what should they be supported by, if not by experience?

170. I believe what people transmit to me in a certain manner. In this way I believe geographical, chemical, historical facts etc. That is how I learn the sciences. Of course learning is based on believing. If you have learnt that Mont Blanc is 4000 metres high, if you have looked it up on the map, you say you know it. And can it now be said: we accord credence in this way because it has proved to pay?

In these passages Wittgenstein seems to be continuing in his investigation of the context of certainty, and the extent to which experience and learning contribute to it, and how they come to be fitted in to it. Our everyday certainty is not only a primordial, pre-predicative knowing-how, but includes many empirical propositions as well, which we learn as we go along. They are a kind of initiation into society, without which we fail to be reasonable. At the same time, they are a ghostly confirmation of our most basic knowing-how.

A good example is the moon landings, which I spoke about back in part 4 . That man has been to the moon is one of those things (a knowing-that, i.e., a proposition) that we learn, like the geographical, chemical and historical facts that Wittgenstein mentions. Those who do not believe this – the conspiracy theorists – are strikingly alien to us, and communication becomes difficult because of this. If they doubt that, then who knows what else they might doubt? The basis of our conversation seems to crumble, because they might disbelieve almost anything that my statements presuppose. In rejecting the certainties which make up our shared background, these people exclude themselves from society – only not quite as much as one who said “I don’t believe that other people exist”, or, holding up his hand, “I don’t believe that here is a hand”.

171. A principle ground for Moore to assume that he never was on the moon is that no one ever was on the moon or could come there; and this we believe on grounds of what we learn.

In Wittgenstein’s day this belief, that no one could go to the moon, had a similar status to the current belief that man has been to the moon, though I would say (with 20/20 hindsight) that the former was much more doubtable than the latter is now. In the early 20th century there were eminent visionaries looking forward to a forthcoming age of space travel, and there were people working on rocket technology, partly, I think, with this prospect in mind. Perhaps Wittgenstein, who as an aeronautical engineer by training was surely not wholly ignorant in these matters, looked on these people as cranks, in the same way that we now look on the conspiracy theorists. Well, now we know better, and he was wrong. Moreover, we probably have much better reason to reject the conspiracies than he did to reject the possibility of space travel. But who knows, the conspiracy theorists could turn out to be right after all. At least, this is a possibility. Crucially though, while admitting the possibility, the moon landings remain utterly certain and secure for most of us (though, as an empirical learned fact, never absolutely indubitable).

172. Perhaps someone says “There must be some basic principle on which we accord credence”, but what can such a principle accomplish? Is it more than a natural law of 'taking for true’?

Such a general principle could not be a rule that we explicitly invoke – for how could we come to learn the rule itself? – but only a descriptive “natural law”, describing how we go about learning.

173. Is it maybe in my power what I believe? or what I unshakeably believe? I believe that there is a chair over there. Can’t I be wrong? But, can I believe that I am wrong? Or can I so much as bring it under consideration? – And mightn’t I also hold fast to my belief whatever I learned later on?! But is my belief then grounded?

Could Descartes really have authentically doubted that he was sitting by the fire in his dressing gown? We are invited to answer negatively. But can we find the ground for the belief? If it turned out that he had been dreaming, and he woke up in bed wearing nothing but a nightshirt, is the former belief only then revealed to have been groundless? To be sure, certainty is certain, and some things are indubitable, but that is no guarantee that they will not be overturned. There are no grounds, or justification, that could supply anything more secure.

The upshot is that it is not in my power what I believe. Even if I think, as Descartes did, that hyperbolic doubt is a useful method, what I would be doing is something very different from the ordinary practice of doubting. Thus I lose sight of real certainty.

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

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