Notes on Wittgenstein’s “On Certainty”, Part 8
236. If someone said “The earth has not long been…” what would he be impugning? Do I know?
Would it have to be what is called a scientific belief? Might it not be a mystical one? Is there any absolute necessity for him to be contradicting historical facts? or even geographical ones?
237. If I say “an hour ago this table didn’t exist”, I probably mean that it was only made later on.
If I say “this mountain didn’t exist then”, I presumably mean that it was only formed later on – perhaps by a volcano.
If I say “this mountain didn’t exist an hour ago”, that is such a strange statement that it is not clear what I mean. Whether for example I mean something untrue but scientific. Perhaps you think that the statement that the mountain didn’t exist then is quite clear, however one conceives the context. But suppose someone said “This mountain didn’t exist a minute ago, but an exactly similar one did instead.” Only the accustomed context allows what is meant to come through clearly.
If meaning happens within language-games, and a philosophical question such as “does the external world exist?” can be regarded as attempting to question what lies beneath the language game, then it cannot be meaningful in the way that ordinary emprical questions of existence are meaningful, e.g., “Does Santa Claus exist?”
But does it follow that it is meaningless tout court? To the charge of meaninglessness one might reply that there is a legitimate context, that of philosophy itself—that philosophy is its own language-game. But to make the question philosophical, one has to make many assumptions at the same time: that it is a meaningful question, that we can conceive of the non-existence of the world, that the existence of the world is something amenable to proof, that the “external world” is just another thing whose existence is doubtful, like the oasis in the distance. The job of philosophy is to come up with the right questions and reject the wrong ones. How do we know this question is the right one? It is precisely before the question that Wittgenstein’s attack is felt: it is not the right question, because it takes a form of question that has an ordinary home in which a world is presupposed, and only to that extent does there appear to be a philosophical problem, i.e., we create a problem only insofar as we misuse language. It is an example of the “bewitchment of language”. It is easy to do this because (a) language allows it, and (b) we have a number of assumptions that go unquestioned. We ought not to make the leap to the question without first examining (a) and (b).
But this, of course, is an attack on all metaphysics, and even philosophy itself. If philosophy doesn’t count as its own legitimate and distinct context, or if its scope is greatly reduced, such that we cannot extend the kinds of questions we ask in ordinary life to enquire into what is beyond experience or what is transcendental, then philosophy is mostly just clarification of other language games. I think this was Wittgenstein’s view, but not all of the philosophers who accept that asking for a proof of the world’s existence is a mistake also accept that we cannot do some sort of metaphysics, or at least some sort of philosophy that goes beyond logical clarification. So how does this work? How can we reject the hyperbolic doubt without also rejecting the rest of philosophy?
Well, why can’t we begin with our world and go on to enquire about its conditions? If we were to reject hyperbolical doubt in a slightly different way, namely by revealing that it illegitimately presupposes a starting point inside your skull, shut off from an uncertain world, then maybe we are not prevented from using language to ask other questions on the basis of our worldly existence (and this is why beginning with the external world is not question-begging against scepticism). I have in mind Heidegger’s fundamental ontology, and the question “what is the meaning of being?” But I’ll say no more about that here. Even without going so far as questions of being, perhaps we can do some sort of immanent metaphysics, by examining what is presupposed in thought. We can supplement Kantian philosophy with Wittgenstein’s and Heidegger’s insights, thereby expunging the Cartesian in Kant. I am still puzzled as to why Wittgenstein rejects the transcendental—why he is satisfied to stop at description and clarification.
But maybe he doesn’t reject it. Some philosophers have argued that even in his later work (which includes On Certainty) the early Tractarian Kantianism is not at all contradicted (see Robert Hanna, Kant, Wittgenstein, and Transcendental Philosophy [PDF]). This fits with my own understanding. The big difference, to put it flippantly, is that Wittgenstein just doesn’t like to talk about it.
238. I might therefore interrogate someone who said that the earth did not exist before his birth, in order to find out which of my convictions he was at odds with. And then it might be that he was contradicting my fundamental attitudes, and if that were how it was, I should have to put up with it.
Similarly if he said he had at some time been on the moon.
“I should have to put up with it” means that there would be no more to say, because talk depends on a shared set of presuppositions. I think most of us are familiar with those moments when we suddenly realize that someone we have been talking to is starting from a different set of fundamental attitudes, as with mentally disturbed people or conspiracy theorists. We feel helpless to continue the conversation after those moments.
Incidentally, I like that Wittgenstein calls our certainties “fundamental attitudes“ here, because I find the term “hinge propositions” quite misleading. Our basic certainties are rarely formulated. Rather, they are manifest in the way we act.
As for the moon example, I explored that in part 4 and part 5. What is interesting about it is that he takes it to be a fundamental attitude that nobody has been to the moon and that going to the moon is impossible. And this is interesting not because it’s fun to see how wide of the mark Wittgenstein’s judgement was, but because it shows how the framework of fundamental certainties can shift, which is exactly what he has been saying at points throughout On Certainty. Thus his own error shows the truth of his insights. One wonders if he planted it there deliberately for the benefit of post-1969 philosophers.
239. I believe that every human being has two human parents; but Catholics believe that Jesus only had a human mother. And other people might believe that there are human beings with no parents, and give no credence to all the contrary evidence. Catholics believe as well that in certain circumstances a wafer completely changes its nature, and at the same time that all evidence proves the contrary. And so if Moore said “I know that this is wine and not blood”, Catholics would contradict him.
240. What is the belief that all human beings have parents based on? On experience. And how can I base this sure belief on my experience? Well, I base it not only on the fact that I have known the parents of certain people but on everything that I have learnt about the sexual life of human beings and their anatomy and physiology: also on what I have heard and seen of animals. But then is that really a proof?
241. Isn’t this an hypothesis, which, as I believe, is again and again completely confirmed?
242. Mustn’t we say at every turn: “I believe this with certainty”?
243. One says “I know” when one is ready to give compelling grounds. “I know” relates to a possibility of demonstrating the truth. Whether someone knows something can come to light, assuming that he is convinced of it.
But if what he believes is of such a kind that the grounds that he can give are no surer than his assertion, then he cannot say that he knows what he believes.
I’ve emphasized the upshot of these passages in bold, and it is one of the central messages of the book. One says “I know” not only when one is ready to give compelling grounds, but also when doubt is intelligible. But when doubt has no grounds, neither does knowledge. To say “I know” in these cases, as Moore does when saying he knows that “here is a hand”, is a misuse, because, like the philosophical doubts I was discussing above, it is used in the wrong context. “I know” can mean no more in this case than “I am certain”. And when one is as certain as one can be, it is vain to search for a foundation for this certainty, because anything we come up with will be no more certain than the certain belief we are trying to found. One might almost say that certainty itself is the bedrock.
But is Wittgenstein always missing something about scepticism and foundationalism? Descartes’ project was to found these merely personal certainties in objective foundations that could not be doubted by anyone without straying outside the bounds of rational scientific discourse. That is, he wanted to find a public standard against which we could measure our beliefs. This goes back to what I was saying in Part 7 about §174, where Wittgenstein says “this certainty is my own”. There, I took Wittgenstein to be accusing philosophers of confusing the state of mind of personal certainty with public standards of knowledge. And now I am inclined to wonder if Wittgenstein had failed to notice that philosophers had not been confusing the two at all. What they had been doing was trying to found certainty with a view to constructing knowledge from the ground up on a basis that everyone could accept and which all ought to adhere to. Wittgenstein treats the sceptical legacy ahistorically, as an idle sort of questioning practised by philosophers who crave an impossible certainty for no other reason than intellectual habit. He may have had a point, with regard to those philosophers of the twentieth century who continued to agonize over sceptical questions, but he does not go far enough in his critique if he does not examine the meaning and motivation behind these thoughts in the context in which they were most powerfully stated, for example by Descartes.
On the other hand, it is precisely those beliefs that we can legitimately doubt, and which we can be said to know, that are answerable to public standards. Wittgenstein has been emphasizing again and again that doubts and beliefs form systems, and these systems are those that we can describe retrojectively as presupposing all of the hinge propositions. That is, we can talk to each other about what we know or doubt so long as we share a background of presuppositions, e.g., that each other actually exist, that I am not talking to an evil demon, that the person I am talking to uses his ears to hear and his eyes to see and not the other way around, and so on. And these certainties stop just after personal certainty; the state of mind of certainty is the direct expression of the logical rules that govern language games in social life. Wittgenstein is thus intimately tying together personal states of mind with social life in a way that is rather alien to the epistemological tradition, in which one begins behind one’s eyes and ventures into the great outdoors by perceiving and inferring from a bundle of uncertain inputs.
This means that Wittgenstein is not actually off-target. His criticisms do work against Descartes and the tradition, because he reveals that traditional foundationalist epistemology makes the mistake of confusing logical with empirical beliefs, as if, to be certain that the Earth’s orbit is governed by the equations of gravity we would first have to be certain that the Earth exists. Wittgenstein is saying that the latter proposition is not in any respect a serious desideratum in life—scientific, philosophical or otherwise.
So it is not just that Wittgenstein is emphasizing personal states of mind against Descartes’ emphasis on science and objectivity; in doing do he is revealing an underlying structure of language and life, specifically, of logical and empirical propositions. It is because traditional epistemology does not attend to this that it takes there to be a missing foundation for even those beliefs we hold that form part of the framework for all other knowledge as they stand, i.e., without any further grounding.
Another important point touched on in the above passages is the question of how we can learn from experience. There are all sorts of ways we can come to know that every human has had two parents. And this again takes us back to empirical and logical propositions. Wittgenstein is here suggesting that “Every human has had two parents” is empirical, because it is something we learn by observation and something whose veracity is further backed up with more evidence. But we cannot then entertain the sceptic when he asks “But how can you justify learning from experience itself?” This would be the fundamental logical principle that grounds all knowledge as such, which is always presupposed when we claim to know anything at all. And here again it becomes clear that saying we know this principle itself—that we can know by experience—is illegitimate, because it is the basis not only for knowledge but for doubt. After all, we can imagine evidence being presented for asexual reproduction in humans, which thus introduced a doubt about our original proposition, and this would presuppose that evidence could tell us one way or the other. I cannot properly say that I know the principle whereby I can know, because the circularity puts grounds out of the picture, and what sense is there left in the idea of knowledge without justification?
244. If someone says “I have a body”, he can be asked “Who is speaking here with this mouth?”
245. To whom does anyone say that he knows something? To himself, or to someone else. If he says it to himself, how is it distinguished from the assertion that he is sure that things are like that? There is no subjective sureness that I know something. The certainty is subjective, but not the knowledge. So if I say “I know that I have two hands”, and that is not supposed to express just my subjective certainty, I must be able to satisfy myself that I am right. But I can’t do that, for my having two hands is not less certain before I have looked at them than afterwards. But I could say: “That I have two hands is an irreversible belief.” That would express the fact that I am not ready to let anything count as a disproof of this proposition.
246. “Here I have arrived at a foundation of all my beliefs.” “This position I will hold!” But isn’t that, precisely, only because I am completely convinced of it? – What is 'being completely convinced’ like?
247. What would it be like to doubt now whether I have two hands? Why can’t I imagine it at all? What would I believe if I didn’t believe that? So far I have no system at all within which this doubt might exist.
248. I have arrived at the rock bottom of my convictions.
And one might almost say that these foundation-walls are carried by the whole house.
249. One gives oneself a false picture of doubt.
These passages do not present anything very new, but the sentences in bold are to me the most interesting. Recall Wittgenstein’s notion of a system of interdependent beliefs into which new ones must fit. Parts of the system are learned by personal experience or by being taught, and others are “swallowed down as a consequence”, which is what he’s also getting at above in §248 (OC §143, see Part 6 here). Among those beliefs we develop through learning many are more or less amenable to doubt, and some might have to make way upon the arrival of new facts which cast doubt on them. But some doubts, though we can entertain them, just cannot be made to fit, because certain of our empirical, learned beliefs are too strong. An example here would be that Napoleon did not exist. I can imagine reforming my world-picture to accommodate that, without too much else changing.
His metaphor of foundation-walls being carried by the whole house is close to my earlier use of Stephen Jay Gould’s spandrels. Wittgenstein’s metaphor is stronger, though, because for him it is not only that there are by-products or side-effects that accompany what is centrally supportive; rather it is that the main foundational supports themselves are carried by the whole structure. This is because (a) the supports exist only for the whole house, so if it weren’t for the house there would be no support, i.e., the supports depend on the house; and (b) if we see the foundation-walls as part of a framework and structure, they really would collapse were the rest of the structure to be dismantled. They are not only supportive but also integrated in a network of interlocking members contributing various opposing tensions and compressions, all of which are in some sort of balance.
But further, there are some doubts that we can barely entertain at all, and that is because they conflict with the swallowed-down fundamental attitudes which hold together the system of empirical beliefs (or, to use an alternative metaphor, which accrete around our empirical knowledge). Such, I think, would be the doubt that I have two hands, or, in relation to Napoleon, the doubt that we can know anything of the past.
But notice that Wittgenstein says “So far”. The moon example is helpful here. Wittgenstein presents the impossibility of travelling to the moon as almost equally as certain as that he has two hands, but it is obvious now that had he lived long enough he would have been able to reform his world-picture to accommodate the new fact.
We cannot know which propositions might be cast into doubt in the future, and even their status as logical certainties is no guarantee of their eternal certainty. We cannot ask more of certainties than that they are certain; we cannot ask if they are absolute. That would be to run up against the limits of our world.
But to get back to his point: “one gives oneself a false picture of doubt” when one forgets that doubts and certainties form a system. This is what happens when one asks “how do I really know I have two hands”, because one cannot see how that doubt could be made to fit with everything else, on which basis we ask questions of that form in the first place.
250. My having two hands is, in normal circumstances, as certain as anything that I could produce in evidence for it.
That is why I am not in a position to take the sight of my hand as evidence for it.
To be in a position to take the sight of my hand as evidence that I have one is for there to be room for doubt about it. But I wonder: I am surely in a position to take the visually apparent absence of my hand as evidence that I do not have a hand. I might wake up in hospital, feel a phantom hand but then look at the end of my arm and see nothing, which might convince me that my hand was truly gone. Or I might awake in hospital after an accident, in some doubt about whether I still had a right hand, in which case I would be in a position to take the sight of it as evidence.
This must be why he says “in normal circumstances”. But even so, the sight of my hand would normally fit perfectly with my beliefs, so can we not say that the sight of it, along with a million other sensations and experiences, over and over again confirm the belief? This might be to stretch the meaning of confirmation—and by implication, “evidence”—too far. These continually confirmed beliefs are the kind that together form the background against which we know, on the basis of which we can ask about evidence, learn things and know things.
- 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