28 February 2012

Notes on Wittgenstein’s “On Certainty”, Part 7

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

174. I act with complete certainty. But this certainty is my own.

Certainty is not a public standard that we must try to live up to or test our beliefs against. Rather, it is a personal state of mind. In seeking proofs of the external world’s existence, some philosophers confuse public standards for acceptability or justification with certainty, the mental state, and are left thinking that without the proofs they crave, we cannot be certain of anything. But in fact, you cannot by argument (which is, even when rehearsed privately, primarily part of public discourse) make yourself any more certain that this is a hand than you already are. You are already certain of it, and completely so (if you are sane), and no further grounds will make this certainty any more secure.

But Wittgenstein’s emphasis of complete is at first puzzling. I think it is meant to indicate that certainty is confirmed by action, and that this is not a matter of degree, because certainty is complete or it is not certainty at all. We could think of an action as the completion or guarantee of one’s certainty; the lives of the philosophers belie their purported doubts.

175. “I know it” I say to someone else; and here there is a justification. But there is none for my belief.

I take this to mean that my belief justifies my saying that “I know it,” but my belief itself might not be justified. But this doesn’t look right. How can a belief be any justification for the claim to know? After all…

13. ... from his utterance “I know . . . ” it does not follow that he does know it.

14. That he does know takes some shewing.

15. It needs to be shewn that no mistake was possible. Giving the assurance ‘I know’ doesn’t suffice. For it is after all only an assurance that I can’t be making a mistake, and it needs to be objectively established that I am not making a mistake about that.

Is Wittgenstein contradicting himself? As well as 13, he would surely also agree with the following:

... from his utterance “I believe . . . ” it does not follow that he knows it.

I think this seeming contradiction can be straightened out. The act of stating that “I know it” is justified by, and can only be justified by, the holding of a belief, whether or not the belief is true. This reminds me of Trotsky’s common-sense answer to the accusation that Marxists hold that “the end justifies the means”: if any means are to be justified at all, then they must be justified by an end, and only those means which contribute to that end are justified. Applied to this case, we might rephrase this as follows: If any speech acts of the form “I know…” are to be justified at all, then they must be justified by beliefs, and only those speech acts or statements which express those beliefs are justified, in the sense of having an honest reason to be stated.

Second, Wittgenstein said early on that very often, “I know” means no more than “I am certain”, the stating of which is based on the certain belief. Note that in 175 he is referring to those bedrock beliefs that themselves have no ground, which is why he can say that they have no justification. But given those beliefs, one can say “I know” with good reason, even though this is still not a guarantee of knowledge.

NOTE: In the last five minutes, with the help of Moyal-Sharrock, I have realized that all of the above is a wild goose-chase (though quite an interesting one) based on a confusion. When Wittgenstein says in 175 that “here there is a justification” what he means is that this is where justification is appropriate, not that “I know it” is automatically justified. The meaning of 175 as a whole is that saying “I know” must be justified, whereas believing need not be.

That this is Wittgenstein’s position is confirmed in 550, which Moyal-Sharrock quotes alongside 175:

550. If someone believes something, we needn’t always be able to answer the question 'why he believes it’; but if he knows something, then the question “how does he know?” must be capable of being answered.

Moving on…

176. Instead of “I know it” one may say in some cases “That’s how it is — rely upon it.” In some cases, however “I learned it years and years ago”; and sometimes: “I am sure it is so.”

Or, again, “I am certain of it”.

177. What I know, I believe.

178. The wrong use made by Moore of the proposition “I know…” lies in his regarding it as an utterance as little subject to doubt as “I am in pain”. And since from “I know it is so” there follows “It is so”, then the latter can’t be doubted either.

Once again Wittgenstein’s going over old ground here, to see what crops up. Recall:

1. If you do know that here is one hand, we’ll grant you all the rest.

Moore ought not to have thought it necessary to know that “here is a hand”. Wittgenstein is saying that his subjective certainty was enough.

179. It would be correct to say: “I believe…” has subjective truth; but “I know…” not.

180. Or again “I believe…” is an 'expression’, but not “I know…”.

181. Suppose Moore had said “I swear…” instead of “I know…”.

179 is surprising, because I had not expected to see the term “subjective truth”. After agonizing over this for a while I’ve decided to go with the most obvious interpretation: he is saying that the truth of “I believe…” just lies in the fact that I do believe, and it is “subjective” because it is true of me, of my own mental state. In contrast, saying that “I know” is no guarantee that I do. This, in my opinion, is a bad use of “subjective”, but never mind.

“I believe …” is an expression of my mental state. Myself and this mental state are what the statement refers to, which is otherwise, and perhaps primarily, shown in what I do. “I know,” on the other hand, wants to say more than this, to assure you, and would be more honestly rendered as “I swear”, but just as a statement about my mental state would be more accurately rendered as “I am certain.”

182. The more primitive idea is that the earth never had a beginning. No child has reason to ask himself how long the earth has existed, because all change takes place on it. If what is called the earth really came into existence at some time — which is hard enough to picture — then one naturally assumes the beginning as having been an inconceivably long time ago.

183. “It is certain that after the battle of Austerlitz Napoleon… Well, in that case it’s surely also certain that the earth existed then.”

That the Earth had a beginning is now widely known, but it might not always have been so, and certainly as children we don’t consider this possibility. But even though doubt can be correctly introduced — because the Earth has not always existed — there is little that is shaken up by this in our ordinary conversation. We must be talking astronomy or religion to be affected by this revelation. Other language-games are compatible with it and can go on as normal, because all that is important in them is, say, that the Earth now exists and has existed for a long time.

184. “It is certain that we didn’t arrive on this planet from another one a hundred years ago.” Well, it’s as certain as such things are.

185. It would strike me as ridiculous to want to doubt the existence of Napoleon; but if someone doubted the existence of the earth 150 years ago, perhaps I should be more willing to listen, for now he is doubting our whole system of evidence. It does not strike me as if this system were more certain than a certainty within it.

186. “I might suppose that Napoleon never existed and is a fable, but not that the earth did not exist 150 years ago.”

187. “Do you know that the earth existed then?” – “Of course I know that. I have it from someone who certainly knows all about it.”

188. It strikes me as if someone who doubts the existence of the earth at that time is impugning the nature of all historical evidence. And I cannot say of this latter that it is definitely correct.

189. At some point one has to pass from explanation to mere description.

190. What we call historical evidence points to the existence of the earth a long time before my birth; – the opposite hypothesis has nothing on its side.

Although our historical evidence might be wrong, that there are things that we take as historical evidence, that we know the kinds of things that count as such, is the basis of our system here. Part of this basis is that the Earth has existed for much longer than 150 years, and that for a person to conquer Europe presumes an Earth on which this happened. There is, relatively speaking, some sense in doubting the existence of Napoleon, because we can think of what kind of thing — of the form of historical evidence — that would expose the story of Napoleon as a fable. The existence of Napoleon remains — just about — an empirical proposition, whereas the existence of the Earth when Napoleon lived is logical.

191. Well, if everything speaks for an hypothesis and nothing against it – is it then certainly true? One may designate it as such. — But does it certainly agree with reality, with the facts? — With this question you are already going round in a circle.

192. To be sure there is justification; but justification comes to an end.

The question “But does it certainly agree with reality?” takes us round in a circle because for a hypothesis to certainly agree with reality just is for a hypothesis to be such that everything speaks for it and nothing against it. You’ve reached rock bottom already.

193. What does this mean: the truth of a proposition is certain?

194. With the word “certain” we express complete conviction, the total absence of doubt, and thereby we seek to convince other people. That is subjective certainty.
But when is something objectively certain? When a mistake is not possible. But what kind of possibility is that? Mustn’t mistake be logically excluded?

Our subjective certainty attains to objective certainty, and often reaches it, in that these indubitable beliefs are part of the shared logic of our language-games. Individuals, of course, while appealing to the bedrock, might get it wrong and mistake an empirical proposition for a logical one, as Wittgenstein himself did in saying that the laws of physics made travel to the moon impossible.

195. If I believe that I am sitting in my room when I am not, then I shall not be said to have made a mistake. But what is the essential difference between this case and a mistake?

196. Sure evidence is what we accept as sure, it is evidence that we go by in acting surely, acting without any doubt.
What we call “a mistake” plays a quite special part in our language games, and so too does what we regard as certain evidence.

As I think I’ve already said in this series, a mistake is a mistake only within a context of things we’re certain of. Mistakes have the character of sticking out against a secure and consistent background, and doubting the background itself has nothing to show up against, and therefore must be treated as special — for example, as a misuse of language indulged in by philosophers.

197. It would be nonsense to say that we regard something as sure evidence because it is certainly true.

198. Rather, we must first determine the role of deciding for or against a proposition.

199. The reason why the use of the expression “true or false” has something misleading about it is that it is like saying “it tallies with the facts or it doesn’t”, and the very thing that is in question is what “tallying” is here.

200. Really “The proposition is either true or false” only means that it must be possible to decide for or against it. But this does not say what the ground for such a decision is like.

I’m tempted to object to 200. The proposition that Cyrus the Great had dates for breakfast on the day he died is either true or false (isn’t it?), though it will probably never be possible to decide for or against it. On the other hand, we do know what kind of evidence might let us decide, though even given that evidence we could surely never be confident enough to decide on the truth of the proposition.

Let’s carry on and see what comes up. The next bit picks up on the last sentence of 200.

201. Suppose someone were to ask: “Is it really right for us to rely on the evidence of our memory (or our senses) as we do?”

202. Moore’s certain propositions almost declare that we have a right to rely upon this evidence.

Well, why not? What else should we expect?

203. [Everything that we regard as evidence indicates that the earth already existed long before my birth. The contrary hypothesis has nothing to confirm it at all.
If everything speaks for an hypothesis and nothing against it, is it objectively certain? One can call it that. But does it necessarily agree with the world of facts? At the very best it shows us what “agreement” means. We find it difficult to imagine it to be false, but also difficult to make use of.]*{crossed-out in MS}*
What does this agreement consist in, if not in the fact that what is evidence in these language games speaks for our proposition? (Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus)

I think Wittgenstein is trying to suggest that these questions and doubts always seek some independent axiom to measure a hypothesis against, that certainty must be justified on the basis of something trascendent, something beyond language and outside our everyday activities. He is saying that this is a fruitless search. This is nicely expressed in the following very important passage:

204. Giving grounds, however, justifying the evidence, comes to an end; — but the end is not certain propositions’ striking us immediately as true, i.e. it is not a kind of seeing on our part; it is our acting, which lies at the bottom of the language-game.

205. If the true is what is grounded, then the ground is not true, nor yet false.

206. If someone asked us “but is that true?“ we might say “yes” to him; and if he demanded grounds we might say “I can’t give you any grounds, but if you learn more you too will think the same.”
If this didn’t come about, that would mean that he couldn’t for example learn history.

207. “Strange coincidence, that every man whose skull has been opened had a brain!”

“If you learn more you too will think the same.” If you learn more about history you will see that Napoleon existed. If you open a few skulls you will see, not a strange coincidence, but the truth of the proposition that everyone has a brain.

If my interlocutor cannot see this, then we will have difficulty communicating. We must tacitly agree to a whole network of background certainties before we can make any sense to each other. To put this differently, in talking to each other we are already accepting and relying on this network, which is why, aside from among certain kinds of philosophers, people do not question the existence of the world 150 years ago, or even whether Napoleon existed. But occasionally, a crackpot or a genius comes along, and we find it difficult to talk to them, because their questioning of the bedrock is alien to conventional ways of talking. The crackpot might tell us that the moon landings were a hoax, and the genius might tell us that the Earth is actually revolving around the Sun.

208. I have a telephone conversation with New York. My friend tells me that his young trees have buds of such and such a kind. I am now convinced that his tree is. . . . Am I also convinced that the earth exists?

209. The existence of the earth is rather part of the whole picture which forms the starting-point of belief for me.

210. Does my telephone call to New York strengthen my conviction that the earth exists?
Much seems to be fixed, and it is removed from the traffic. It is also so to speak shunted onto an unused siding.

Old ground again, but this is a very nice metaphor. Compare it with this from 143:

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.

So there are at least three characteristics of these indubitable quasi-propositions which indicate that they are special. First, questioning them just doesn’t arise. Second, unlike many empirical propositions, repeated exposure to facts which presume the truth of these propositions does not strengthen one’s certainty about them. Third, they form a picture into which we must fit everything else.

211. Now it gives our way of looking at things, and our researches, their form. Perhaps it was once disputed. But perhaps, for unthinkable ages, it has belonged to the scaffolding of our thoughts. (Every human being has parents.)

Here again is the relativism of Wittgenstein’s view. There is scaffolding all right, but it is never fixed for all time just what is part of the scaffolding, and what is part of the supported structure within it. This is the same as the river bed metaphor.

In a previous post in this series I was tempted to say sure, but there must be some certainties that we can fence off for all time, as part of some super-scaffolding. “Every human had parents” would be one such proposition. But I think the key is that these super-indubitable certainties have no essential character such that they form a definite group with definite properties. We cannot demarcate this realm. Philosophy will have made progress (call me crazy but I believe that philosophical progress is possible) when it stops trying to do so.

212. In certain circumstances, for example, we regard a calculation as sufficiently checked. What gives us a right to do so? Experience? May that not have deceived us? Somewhere we must be finished with justification, and then there remains the proposition that this is how we calculate.

Yet more old ground, or so it seems. I covered this in parts two and five. Aside from anything else, experience does not give us grounds for relying on experience itself. Where is he going with all this?

213. Our 'empirical propositions’ do not form a homogeneous mass.

214. What prevents me from supposing that this table either vanishes or alters its shape and colour when on one is observing it, and then when someone looks at it again changes back to its old condition? — “But who is going to suppose such a thing?” — one would feel like saying.

215. Here we see that the idea of 'agreement with reality’ does not have any clear application.

215 is especially interesting, because it’s quite counter-intuitive yet follows as a natural conclusion of his whole approach. How does it follow? Because in the end there is no agreement with reality beyond the various roles that propositions have in our language-games, such as those that are “swallowed down as a consequence” of empirical facts. We do not get to idly guess which of these might, independently of their roles, actually agree with reality. “Agreement with reality” cannot be anything but a cover for “agreement with our picture”. One might object that some individuals do manage to question received wisdom, conventional certainties and so on, and in the process transform our world-picture; but this itself happens in a context in which doubt has appeared against a background, even though the background has shifted somewhat. New facts force a reconfiguration of parts of the scaffolding, and who is to say that the new picture comes closer to mirroring something external to it?

But this is not quite clear, so let’s take an example. Can we not say that our astronomical models agree with reality better than they used to, now that we know that the Earth goes around the Sun rather than the other way round? It almost seems perverse to deny it. What would Wittgenstein say?

Would he just say that we had a world picture that worked for us back then, but when certain facts came to be amenable to a different interpretation, which was further supported by new evidence, our world picture changed to accommodate this — and that the question of an independent reality can be set aside? The notion of reality might be part of this world picture, but to appeal to a reality beyond the world picture is spurious. This seems very close to Kant’s impossibility of knowing the thing-in-itself, and deserving of the label “linguistic idealism”—or at the very least “correlationism”.

While this might commit the error of framing Wittgenstein’s philosophy in terms of mistaken paradigms — of internal versus external, appearance versus reality, culture and mind versus the objective world described by physics — I think it does in part capture his view. There can be no metaphysical knowledge. I have to admit that I find this unsatisfying, but I accept that this might be a problem of my own that I have to deal with — one that I have in common with many, and for which Wittgenstein in his later philosophy is trying to find a diagnosis or cure.

216. The proposition “It is written”.

Maybe he puts this here as an example of the way in which we make reality with our words. But I’m not sure.

217. If someone supposed that all our calculations were uncertain and that we could rely on none of them (justifying himself by saying that mistakes are always possible) perhaps we would say he was crazy. But can we say he is in error? Does he not just react differently? We rely on calculations, he doesn’t; we are sure, he isn’t.

This reminds me of the familiar thesis of madness as non-conformity. In conforming to shared conventions, and agreeing on a world picture, we want to claim transcendent truth as an anchor in an uncertain world. But, crassly put, it’s all relative. However, this is not the same as saying that anything goes!

218. Can I believe for one moment that I have ever been in the stratosphere? No. So do I know the contrary, like Moore?

219. There cannot be any doubt about it for me as a reasonable person.—That’s it.—

220. The reasonable man does not have certain doubts.

221. Can I be in doubt at will?

222. I cannot possibly doubt that I was never in the stratosphere. Does that make me know it? Does it make it true?

223. For mightn’t I be crazy and not doubting what I absolutely ought to doubt?

224. “I know that it never happened, for if it had happened I could not possibly have forgotten it.”
But, supposing it did happen, then it just would have been the case that you had forgotten it. And how do you know that you could not possibly have forgotten it? Isn’t that just from earlier experience?

225. What I hold fast to is not one proposition but a nest of propositions.

226. Can I give the supposition that I have ever been on the moon any serious consideration at all?

227. “Is that something that one can forget?!”

228. “In such circumstances, people do not say 'Perhaps we’ve all forgotten’, and the like, but rather they assume that…”

229. Our talk gets its meaning from the rest of our proceedings.

Among this barrage of questions, most of which seem to repeat earlier sections of the book, what I find interesting here is the idea that it is simply no use taking a proposition out of its ordinary home and putting it under the microscope, because we do not hold fast to the proposition that “I have never been in the stratosphere” alone. But this is precisely what a philosopher does who asks, in the manner of Wittgenstein in 224, how we can really know it. It is no use doing this because meaning does not happen in discrete words, statements or minds, in isolation from the context in which a world picture is operative. Meaning is lost when this is done. I am inclined, in my melodramatic way, to say that such philosophy is a philistine desecration of language and meaning. (If we’re talking about the greatest of those philosophers who are associated with extreme scepticism, such as Descartes and Hume, this is actually grossly unfair and historically ignorant, but I won’t go into all that right now).

230. We are asking ourselves: what do we do with a statement “I know...”? For it is not a question of mental processes or mental states.
And that is how one must decide whether something is knowledge or not.

My bolding emphasizes what I think is the key point here, which nicely concludes the foregoing comments. What we do is our activity in communities, and our talk therein. Elsewhere, of course, he expressed the thought differently, often presented as meaning is use. For example, from the Blue and Brown books: “The use of the word in practice is its meaning.”

As Giles Fraser put it, “meaning doesn’t come in chunks”.

231. If someone doubted whether the earth had existed a hundred years ago, I should not understand, for this reason: I would not know what such a person would still allow to be counted as evidence and what not.

As I was saying in a previous post regarding the moon landings, a person virtually disqualifies himself from discourse by doubting that which is part of the world picture. If he doubts that, then what else might he doubt? It is very much akin to the feeling we get when we realize we are talking to someone who is mentally ill, or even just slightly crazy. The rug has been pulled away, and we cannot be sure how anything we say will be understood. Ungrounded doubt destroys meaning.

232. “We could doubt every single one of these facts, but we could not doubt them all.”
Wouldn’t it be more correct to say: “we do not doubt them all“.
Our not doubting them all is simply our manner of judging, and therefore of acting.

Remember that judging and acting go together, as determined by context.

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

See my discussion about this here

233. If a child asked me whether the earth was already there before my birth, I should answer him that the earth did not begin only with my birth, but that it existed long, long before. And I should have the feeling of saying something funny. Rather as if a child had asked if such and such a mountain were higher than a tall house that it had seen. In answering the question I should have to be imparting a picture of the world to the person who asked it.
If I do answer the question with certainty, what gives me this certainty?

Note that he is “imparting a picture” rather than “informing someone of an empirical fact”. This is an example of a child’s socialization, its training in how to go about things in the community, which is another way of saying how to be understood and to understand others. Or in still other words, how to play the language-games.

It has “the feeling of saying something funny” to us adults because we take it all for granted already. This fits nicely with the idea that in learning what things mean, or how to follow rules, we are not becoming more and more convinced of the meaning or the rule. Rather, we are becoming skilled at doing something. When I taught saxophone it had “the feeling of saying something funny” when I tried to explain how to position the fingers, because this had already become second nature, to the extent that I did not know what I was doing with my fingers at all.

There might be something to be said for the taking on of the role, by philosophers, of the innocent child or the novice. But one can take this too far, and, like the child, keep on asking “Why?” until there is no more to be said in reply except “Just because”.

But “what gives me this certainty”?

234. I believe that I have forebears, and that every human being has them. I believe that there are various cities, and, quite generally, in the main facts of geography and history. I believe that the earth is a body on whose surface we move and that it no more suddenly disappears or the like than any other solid body: this table, this house, this tree, etc. If I wanted to doubt the existence of the earth long before my birth, I should have to doubt all sorts of things that stand fast for me.

This is part of the answer. The things that stand fast for me form a network and one cannot easily remove its elements. This is one way of describing what certainty means.

235. And that something stands fast for me is not grounded in my stupidity or credulity.

An interesting comment. One often hears amateur philosophers, and likely some professionals too, dismissing everyday certainty as a convenient fiction. Tables aren’t really solid, we don’t really see objects, we don’t really know of other minds. Apparently, we merely depend on such notions to get us through the day, being helpless naked apes forever bound to think of the world in certain evolved ways. And for some, only those who question these certainties prove themselves to have the intelligence to rise above the herd. I personally find such views obnoxious, and a good sign of a shallow thinker. Wittgenstein, I think, would agree. Here he is saying that it is not that we are too stupid or credulous to doubt mere appearance. In fact, it is the doubters who have been blinded by the quirks of language.

In everyday life doing and saying everyday things we are better grounded than at any other time. We are doing and saying what makes sense.

This is not to say, of course, that what people do and say always makes sense. But Schopenhauer explains this well, though in different terms from Wittgenstein (WWR vol.2 p.214):

The usual weakness and imperfection of the intellect, as shown in the want of judgement, narrow-mindedness, perversity, and folly of the great majority, would also be quite inexplicable if the intellect were not something secondary, adventitious, and merely instrumental … That which is actually original in human consciousness, namely willing, goes on all the time with perfect success…

When we are at our most basic, we rarely go wrong. Our everyday certainties are not illusory.


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

Daniele Moyal-Sharrock, 2004, Understanding Wittgenstein’s “On Certainty”, Palgrave Macmillan

Schopenhauer, trans. Payne, The World as Will And Representation, Dover

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