Notes on Wittgenstein’s “On Certainty”, Part 9
251. Doesn’t this mean: I shall proceed according to this belief unconditionally, and not let anything confuse me?
252. But it isn’t just that I believe in this way that I have two hands, but that every reasonable person does.
253. At the foundation of well-founded belief lies belief that is not founded.
254. Any 'reasonable’ person behaves like this.
255. Doubting has certain characteristic manifestations, but they are only characteristic of it in particular circumstances. If someone said that he doubted the existence of his hands, kept looking at them from all sides, tried to make sure it wasn’t 'all done by mirrors’, etc., we should not be sure whether we ought to call this doubting. We might describe his way of behaving as like the behaviour of doubt, but this game would be not be ours.
256. On the other hand a language-game does change with time.
I’ll focus on §256 here. It is the “other hand” of §253: while belief is ultimately founded in some bedrock, or framework, or background, or whatever you like to call it—which may be said to represent or comprise basic beliefs, hinges, or attitudes—the language-game (and every justified/dubitable belief must be part of a language game) is not static. A.C. Grayling takes this to be an example of Wittgenstein’s relativism, which renders On Certainty useless against scepticism, presumably its intended target. It’s easy to to see what Grayling means, but I think we can look at it differently.
If the language-game is not static, does this imply that the bedrock shifts? Let’s say it does, because this is in line with other passages from On Certainty. But if the bedrock can’t be guaranteed, then it cannot act as a firm foundation for knowledge and belief. In other words, we end up with relativism, which means defeat for any attempt to fight scepticism.
For evidence of the fundamental tension between foundationalism and relativism in On Certainty, Grayling asks us to look at various pairs of conflicting passages, including §494 and §256.
494. “I cannot doubt this proposition without giving up all judgement.”
But what sort of proposition is that? (It is reminiscent of what Frege said about the law of identity.) It is certainly no empirical proposition. It does not belong to psychology. It has rather the character of a rule.
256. On the other hand a language-game does change with time.
There may be a tension, but there is no contradiction, for the simple reason that rules change. But Grayling insists that the two positions represented by §494 and §256 are “not comfortably consistent”, that the relativism “perhaps, indeed, undermines” the anti-sceptical appeal to foundations and frameworks (which I’ll refer to as a kind of “foundherentism”).
At one level, OC1 [Wittgenstein’s foundherentism] and OC2 [Wittgenstein’s relativism] can of course be so interpreted as to make them consistent. One can postulate foundations that are historically and in other ways parochial to the discourse under consideration, consisting in beliefs and principles which are basic in the OC1 sense for a given discourse, and not justified independently of it; but which are not immutable or absolute but as vulnerable to change, even if more slowly and circumstantially, as any of the ordinary beliefs comprehended in the framework. This precisely seems to be the import of Wittgenstein’s river-bed metaphor: the river-bed is only relatively stable with respect to the water flowing over it, because it is worn away with time, and shifts its course.
But a relativistic foundationalism renders OC1 superficial as a response to scepticism, because so construed it does not begin to meet the really serious problem scepticism poses, and of which Wittgenstein is perfectly aware (see e.g. 14-16).
So Grayling recognizes that while Wittgenstein can appeal to rules, he can consistently say that those rules change over time. This, however, “does not begin to meet the really serious problem scepticism poses”. This is because scepticism, as he goes on to say, casts doubt on not just any old empirical beliefs, but on the framework itself. If that can change, i.e., if the rules can change, then we are in no position to combat scepticism with an appeal to the rules.
I suspect Grayling is not quite right here, and I think it’s because of his interpretation of Wittgenstein’s “OC2” passages. Relativism, Grayling reminds us, is:
... the view that truth and knowledge are not absolute or invariable, but dependent upon viewpoint, circumstances or historical conditions. What is true for me might not be true for you.
Grayling cites the following passages as representing this relativism.
65. When language-games change, then there is a change in concepts, and with the concepts the meanings of words change.
95. The propositions describing this world-picture might be part of a kind of mythology …
97. The mythology may change back into a state of flux, the river-bed of thoughts may shift.
99. And the bank of the river consists partly of hard rock, subject to no alteration or only to an imperceptible one, partly of sand, which now in one place now in another gets washed away, or deposited.
166. The difficulty is to realise the groundlessness of our believing.
256. On the other hand a language-game does change with time.
336. But what men consider reasonable or unreasonable alters.
Even if we concede that this is a kind of relativism, it still does not allow for just anything to count as true, as known, or as logically necessary, because our language-games are, and always are, rooted in our wider life and social world—and this also determines how the language-game’s rules might change in future. We cannot attain a “view from nowhere”, hence we should not belittle what objectivity we do reach, i.e., the commonality of being human and the intersubjectivity of a shared human world. The certainties manifest in our ways of life—that is as solid as it gets, or needs to be.
Wittgenstein is close to Kant here. I’m often tempted to regard it as an oversight that Kant did not actually dispense with the thing-in-itself entirely, because his crucial achievement was to establish that objectivity is possible for us at all only from a finite perspective determined by our mental constitution, that is, objectivity is made possible by subjectivity. In other words, in looking to the unbounded intellectual intuition as the standard of objectivity, philosophers had been looking in the wrong place. To see, feel, and know is to do so from a particular perspective. That this is limiting is, in hindsight, hardly worth saying—after all, we cannot see things that our eyes cannot detect, and we cannot know things outside of the conditions under which things can be known—but without the need for an absolutely certain metaphysical foundation for science, and after the death of God, we are now free to see perspective as enabling more than limiting. Without a perspective, you can’t see anything at all.
Wittgenstein is at least one step in advance of Kant, because he situates the a priori in social life and in our practices, rather than in the mind, thus breaking away from Kant’s Cartesian epistemological roots. Whereas Kant found the rules underlying objective knowledge in the pure concepts and principles of the understanding, Wittgenstein finds them in the socialized certainty of everyday life, what he sometimes calls objective certainty.
No doubt Grayling would be dissatisfied with this sort of objectivity, this “objectivity without absolutism”, to use Moyal-Sharrock’s phrase. But it seems very much in line with the distinction I keep on making, between, on the one hand, being certain; and on the other hand, defining the limits of what will always be certain. The latter would give us absolute certainties, but surely we’ve stopped looking for those? Certainty is not a guarantee from God. Or perhaps that’s exactly what the sceptic is expecting?
On Certainty still works against scepticism, even without Godly objectivity, because it shows that doubt, to be meaningful, must be part of a system of interconnected beliefs, all of which rest on basic certainties, pre-predicative actions, comportments and dispositions. Although there is no absolute guarantee that the framework will not be blown away, still, doubts must make sense within that framework.
Relativism does not entail, as Grayling thinks it does, that “what is true for me might not be true for you”, because “you” and “me” talk together and compare our beliefs in the first place only given a shared social basis, one that is normally solid. To the extent that we can think about two different people holding different beliefs, we presume a domain that contains them which counts as objective, such that the contrary beliefs of two people cannot both be true. If the lack of absolute truth is relativism, then Wittgenstein is a relativist, but this is not a chaotic, anything-goes relativism.
257. If someone said to me that he doubted whether he had a body I should take him to be a half-wit. But I shouldn’t know what it would mean to try to convince him that he had one. And if I had said something, and that had removed his doubt, I should not know how or why.
244. If someone says “I have a body”, he can be asked “Who is speaking here with this mouth?”
How could I convince such a man that he has a body? If he doubts that, I would not know what to appeal to as evidence. For all I know he could take the sight of a magpie or the discovery of seventeen potatoes in my cupboard as certain proof. His doubt puts him among the alien, the mad, the radical Other, the incommensurable. Clearly he considers the sight of his own body parts, his ability to “speak here with this mouth”, to see and feel, and his very existence in space, all to fall short of good evidence. But more fundamentally, to be a person at all is to be embodied, so that one’s own embodiment is not an issue that is amenable to doubt. If I am not a body in the world, then how can I take anything as evidence for anything at all? It is this groundlessness of doubt that we notice when we struggle to communicate with him, when we think he’s crazy.
258. I do not know how the sentence “I have a body” is to be used.
That doesn’t unconditionally apply to the proposition that I have always been on or near the surface of the earth.
We cannot see the use of the proposition that I have a body, because to deny it is meaningless madness, i.e., not even wrong. But one can imagine a reasonable denial of the proposition that I have always been on or near the surface of the earth, especially now that people have been into space. There are degrees of certainty, and there are both logical and empirical certainties, and even though we can see how the empirical certainty could be doubted, we are no less certain of it. Or are we, in fact, less certain of empirical certainties than we are of logical certainties? After all, logical certainties are also objective certainties, which seem impregnable to all doubt and surely therefore stronger. I’m not sure it matters, because more importantly what we have here are different kinds of certainty: one, the logical, which is basic and indubitable, and the other, the empirical, in which there are degrees of certainty corresponding to such things as variations in the strength of evidence.
259. Someone who doubted whether the earth had existed for 100 years might have a scientific, or on the other hand philosophical, doubt.
And this is the same distinction, between meaningful empirical doubts that lie within a framework, and the philosophical doubts that mean to cast doubt on the framework itself. Again, even though the framework is not guaranteed to remain solid throughout and absolute certainty is impossible, this is not to give in to scepticism, because we need not feel insecure given the solid basis of the human form of life, rather than an infinite intellectual intuition. Truth is not relative, but neither is it absolute (or is the absolute not as absolute as we thought?!). Of course, one is always left thinking that this solid basis is only relatively solid, so it’s a rather weakened sort of solid-enough. But once again, this seemingly natural reaction—which is perhaps more likely a historical, ideological artifact—is the central, or underlying mistake in philosophy, of seeking the absolute.
260. I would like to reserve the expression “I know” for the cases in which it is used in normal linguistic exchange.
Here’s how I think this should be read. One of Wittgenstein’s overarching points is that doubting everything is not real doubt, that real doubt is always part of a system in which some things stand fast. It would be much easier to see that this is the case if “I know” were only ever used of propositions whose conditions of falsehood we can imagine discovering in experience (which is ruled out by hyperbolic scepticism), such that it became obviously meaningless in sentences such as, “I know I have a body”. As things stand, “I know I have a body” is formally meaningful. It is the kind of thing we say when we’re doing philosophy, or talking in a philosophical vein.
Some see passages like §260 as prescribing a pure, confusion-free way of speaking for all humanity, especially philosophers—but that is not what he is getting at. His concern is not to make us stop speaking in certain ways, but just to help philosophers pay attention to those ways. In paying attention like this, we will, for example, cease to take phrases such as “I know that I have a body” as representing a kind of knowledge that should concern epistemologists, and hence we will cease to take seriously sceptical doubts, e.g., “you do not know that you have a body”.
Of course, Wittgenstein actually agrees with the sceptic to the extent that it cannot be meaningfully said in philosophy that I know I have a body—and this is why he criticizes Moore—but we all know that the hyperbolic sceptic means to do much more than than correct a misleading usage.
261. I cannot at present imagine a reasonable doubt as to the existence of the earth during the last 100 years.
262. I can imagine a man who had grown up in quite special circumstances and been taught that the earth came into being 50 years ago, and therefore believed this. We might instruct him: the earth has long… etc.—We should be trying to give him our picture of the world.
This would happen through a kind of persuasion.
What does he mean by “persuasion”? Maybe this will help:
612. I said I would 'combat’ the other man,—but wouldn’t I give him reasons? Certainly; but how far do they go? At the end of reasons comes persuasion. (Think what happens when missionaries convert natives.)
That makes it clearer. Wittgenstein is opposing persuasion to justification or argument. We are often—I would say probably most often—persuaded of something by other things besides the bare argument as given by the one who is trying to convince you. This does not make us irrational, I don’t think, because arguments never, in ordinary life, stand on their own. That is, we muster a great many other concepts, beliefs and memories when we assess an argument. And as the neuroscientist Antonio Damasio has argued, we depend on emotions, on emotionally rooted inclinations and motivations, to be rational at all. Wittgenstein uses the word “persuasion” to emphasize that the effort to make someone believe a proposition, and on the other side the effort to weigh up a proposition, are to some degree independent of the immediate reasons given, even of all of the reasons one could consciously think of in support of it. Persuasion depends on much that is not clear in thought, partly, I suppose, because otherwise we would hardly be able to make any decisions at all.
Persuasion, then, is best thought of as a kind of showing. Part of this showing might be the giving of reasons and the setting out of an argument, but (1) your justifications may come to an end before reaching a foundation that is shared, and (2) you are trying to make your picture snap into place for the other, to fit as neatly as it does for you—and there are ways aside from giving reasons to do this.
This isn’t very clear, so let’s look at the examples.
Jack presumes that the Earth existed for millions of years before his birth, and Jill thinks that the Earth was created 50 years ago, and has been imparted with a mythology to explain any contrary evidence. How would Jack persuade Jill that he is right and she is wrong? His reasons would not be enough, because they already fit into her picture of the world. He would persuade her, if at all, by the force of his reasons, taken together, and by his confidence. On top of that, Jack and Jill, as two humans sharing the human form of life—even though they are from very different cultures—would share some certainties that would make more sense in the light of Jack’s hypothesis. The same goes for Jill’s attempts to persuade Jack that he is wrong, although I am obviously committed to Jack’s view, Jill’s hypothesis being merely a sceptical invention for illustrative purposes.
The example of missionaries in §612 is a good one. Missionaries have an internally coherent worldview developed and strengthened over many centuries, concerning issues that had not even come up for the “natives”. But the sheer weight of doctrine underlying and surrounding everything the missionary says is persuasive, owing to missionary zeal (there’s the confidence I mentioned), internal coherence, and perhaps the beauty of the picture as a whole. Here perhaps we see two, not just language-games, but forms of life (I’m deliberately using the term rather loosely, such that I can talk about the human form of life, and more local forms of life such as that of Christian Europe, etc.). Many reasons—justifications—that the missionary gives to the natives come to an end in a framework and a social practice that is not shared, thus there is nothing but internal justification in what the missionary says. And yet, even without a common framework to appeal to—one rich enough to ground his or her extraordinary doctrinal assertions—the missionaries can still succeed. This is because, in the wider human form of life, the natives can pick up the missionary’s set of beliefs, which is like a polished gemstone floating in the air. They can admire it, turn it around and view it from many angles, see what it feels like, and be seduced by it.
156. In order to make a mistake, a man must already judge in conformity with mankind.
This suggests that Wittgenstein does see human life as a whole as a significant form of life, over and above particular, perhaps isolated, cultures. This would support my reading of the missionary example, where we have not only an encounter between two forms of life with different worldviews, one of which prevails without anything except internal, one-sided justifications; but we also have a shared human form of life in which there are minimal commonalities across distant cultures that allow this to happen in the first place, and which may also include justificatory argument as a component of the persuasion. For example, the natives may have their own religion, one that, as is common in hunter-gathers’ spiritual beliefs, attempts to make sense of death using the notion of an afterlife. This would be a shared foundation on which the missionary could justify the Christian version of the afterlife. It should be noted, though, that the belief in an afterlife is far from being a universal and eternal foundation for humanity, even though it has been at times substantially shared by different cultures. Examples of much more basic and universal features of the human form of life are language, facial expression, and music, all of which played a part in the work of the missionaries.
Wittgenstein, then, is not simply a sociological relativist, but is also something of an anthropological or even naturalistic universalist.
Incidentally, I might have been a bit soft on missionaries. Maybe it’s more accurate to say that sometimes the missionaries forced the natives to believe. And this is a fruitful line of enquiry, which would take us into the realm of Foucault, postcolonialism, and critical theory. For now though, whether the persuasion is one of force, or is more in the manner of showing, is not crucially important. What matters is that persuasion is beyond justification.
NOTE: I should take another look at why this does not imply that persuasion is beyond reason—why non-justificatory persuasion is not irrational—even if it is beyond reasons.
263. The schoolboy believes his teachers and his schoolbooks.
Does he mean this to contrast with the situation above? Or is he elaborating on the same thing? I think it must be the latter, as supported by the following two passages from earlier in the book:
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.
I think Wittgenstein is re-introducing belief at §263 to see how it fits with his notion of persuasion. If the missionary has been successful, the native, like the schoolboy who “believes his teachers and his schoolbooks”, believes his minister and his Bible. Instilling belief is precisely the aim of the missionary, after all.
264. I could imagine Moore being captured by a wild tribe, and their expressing the suspicion that he has come from somewhere between the earth and the moon. Moore tells them that he knows etc. but he can’t give them the grounds for his certainty, because they have fantastic ideas of human ability to fly and know nothing about physics. This would be an occasion for making that statement.
An occasion, that is, for making the statement, “I know I have always been on or near the surface of the earth” (§258). It is a circumstance in which it would be meaningful to use “I know” in this way, because a big chunk of the bedrock of Moore’s interlocutors is different from his. Doubt is in this case real, therefore one can meaningfully say “I know …”
Before I go further I want to clarify something. I’ve been talking about the meaningful use of “I know”, as opposed to Moore’s use in the “Here is a hand” argument, which I’ve previously referred to as the “tempting misuse”. This is only a shorthand, convenient way of referring to something that is a bit more complicated. The tempting misuse is not really a misuse at all; it is how we happen to talk in certain circumstances. We want to demonstrate our certainty by a forceful assurance that our opinion is not merely a personal, subjective matter. We want to give a guarantee for something that cannot be guaranteed. It’s a misleading and untrustworthy way of speaking, but it’s very common. But what makes Wittgenstein label it as a misuse is not that it really means “I am certain”, or “I can assure you”. What makes it a misuse, from Wittgenstein’s point of view, is that one is giving an assurance of something that is beyond doubt, e.g., that we exist. But it is not this way of talking which is problematic, but the context in which unreal doubts are taken as real doubts.
Wittgenstein does not unambiguously term it a misuse to say “I know that this is a hand”, etc. Back at §59 he said…
59. “I know” is here a logical insight.
It might help to see things in terms of primary and secondary sense, as explored by Oswald Hanfling. Hanfling quotes Wittgenstein from the Philosophical Investigations:
Given the two ideas ‘fat’ and ‘lean’, would you be rather inclined to say that Wednesday was fat and and Tuesday lean, or the other way round? (I am inclined to the former.) . . . Now I say nothing about the causes of this phenomenon. They might be associations from my childhood. But that is a hypothesis. Whatever the explanation,—the inclination is there.
Asked ‘What do you really mean here by ‘‘fat’’ and ‘‘lean’’?’—I could
only explain the meanings in the usual way. I could not point to the
examples of Tuesday and Wednesday.
Here one might speak of a ‘primary’ and ‘secondary’ sense of a word.
It is only if the word has the primary sense for you that you can use it in
the secondary one.
In the same way, we might say that “I know …” has its primary sense in “I know the capital of France”, “I don’t know what colour her eyes are”, or even, waking up from a serious accident, “I don’t know if I have two hands”, and has its secondary sense in the “tempting misuse”. From this point of view, it is not a misuse at all but an ordinary and meaningful use.
For the purposes of On Certainty we can refer to it loosely as a misuse, but it must be borne in mind that we are not condemning a way of speaking, that we are not saying it is meaningless. What we are saying is that the “misuse” does not mean what we are tempted to take it to mean in philosophy, when we are not paying attention to how we are using words. So the misuse is not the ordinary use but Moore’s philosophical use, which means that my label, “the tempting misuse”, is just fine, so long as it’s carefully applied.
265. But what does it say, beyond “I have never been to such and such a place, and have compelling grounds to believe that”?
266. And here one would still have to say what are compelling grounds.
267. “I don’t merely have the visual impression of a tree: I know that it is a tree”.
268. “I know that this is a hand.”—And what is a hand?—“Well, this, for example”.
Here he is reiterating that “I know …” doesn’t do the anti-sceptical work that Moore thinks it does. “If you do know that here is one hand, we’ll grant you all the rest.”
Moore’s attack is ultimately circular:
M: Here is a hand.
W: But do you know that?
M: Yes, I know that this is a hand.
W: And what is a hand?
M: Well, this, for example.
M: This, here; here is a hand!
269. Am I more certain that I have never been on the moon than that I have never been in Bulgaria? Why am I so sure? Well, I know that I have never been anywhere in the neighbourhood—for example I have never been in the Balkans.
270. “I have compelling grounds for my certitude.” These grounds make the certitude objective.
271. What is a telling ground for something is not anything I decide.
272. I know = I am familiar with it as a certainty.
273. But when does one say of something that it is certain?
For there can be dispute whether something is certain; I mean, when something is objectively certain.
There are countless general empirical propositions that count as certain for us.
Here again is Wittgenstein’s important notion of objective certainty. Let’s look at this more closely…
I am coming around to thinking that Wittgenstein’s main concern is to bridge the gap between personal conviction and the shared commitment to playing by the rules, something that stands fast for all of us. It can’t be knowledge he’s after, so what’s left?
I can be certain that the man was dead when I found him, or I can be certain that I am writing in English right now. Wittgenstein distinguishes these kinds of certainty, and he is interested in the latter sort, the sort that we want to express, when questioned, with an assurance such as, “I know that I am writing in English right now.” Wittgenstein recognizes that while this is not grounded knowledge, it expresses the certainty that lies in our action and life, which is the framework for language-games. He simply cannot be content to claim that personal certainty is foundational, even though “animal” certainty is also expressed in personal assurances and convictions.
Although he recognizes that it’s an artificial and misleading context, Wittgenstein tries many ways to find an alternative to “I do know it,” such as (paraphrasing) “it stands fast for me and for others”.
Now, recall that Wittgenstein is very interested (I would say most interested) in examining groundless, logical-grammatical, certain beliefs; and that he is examining cases where we want to express our certainty in, or commitment to, these beliefs, as in Moore’s “I know that …” Well, there are of course other kinds of beliefs that we can be certain of, and Wittgenstein’s own belief that it’s impossible to go to the moon might have been one of them. He would have understood what it would mean to doubt that conviction, e.g., he could have been shown how the laws of physics did not preclude a moon-landing.
We then have, roughly, two kinds of beliefs and two corresponding kinds of certainties. Some beliefs are “never called in question, perhaps not even ever formulated” (§87), in other words “swallowed down as a consequence” (§143). What Wittgenstein calls the “logical insight” in which we appeal to the foundation by (mis)using “I know that …” is an insight into something shared, and this is the objective certainty that he is looking for. This is what he is talking about here:
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?
However, in §270 and §273 he does not use “objective certainty” in this way at all. He does not mean the foundational, ungrounded kind of certainty. The only way out of this difficulty that I can see is to say that he is talking about two kinds of objective certainty. After all, certainty can vary independently of objectivity and subjectivity. A proposition can be objective (shared, widely agreed on, publicly established) while being either empirical or logical. In §270 and §273 he’s talking about the certainty of empirical beliefs, thus objective certainty in this case is something close to knowledge. His big move is to say that certainty can be more than merely personal, and yet have no grounds, and here objective certainty must describe an animal certainty, and our form of life.
We therefore have two kinds of objective certainty:
- OC 0: Ungrounded animal certainty associated through our life and activity with the logical-grammatical rules of our language games. E.g., “This is my hand”, “I can talk”.
- OC 1: Shared certainty in empirical propositions that we can nevertheless doubt meaningfully, because they rest on grounds or justifications. E.g., “Napoleon became Emperor of France in the early 19th century”, or “There are mountains on the Isle of Skye”.
274. One such [general empirical proposition that counts as certain for us] is that if someone’s arm is cut off it will not grow again. Another, if someone’s head is cut off he is dead and will never live again.
Experience can be said to teach us these propositions. However, it does not teach us them in isolation: rather, it teaches us a host of interdependent propositions. If they were isolated I might perhaps doubt them, for I have no experience relating to them.
Wittgenstein is repeatedly coming back to examine the role of experience in certainty. Experience is more like compound interest than simple interest. The bigger your set of interdependent propositions, the easier it is to learn even more, to quickly assimilate new propositions into your picture of the world.
275. If experience is the ground of our certainty, then naturally it is past experience.
And it isn’t for example just my experience, but other’s people’s, that I get knowledge from.
Now one might say that it is experience again that leads us to give credence to others. But what experience makes me believe that the anatomy and physiology books don’t contain what is false? Though it is true that this trust is backed up by my own experience.
276. We believe, so to speak, that this great building exists, and then we see, now here, now there, one or another small corner of it.
Keep in mind that Wittgenstein is still here looking at OC 1.
277. “I can’t help believing…”
278. “I am comfortable that that is how things are.”
279. It is quite sure that motor cars don’t grow out of the earth. [...]
Wittgenstein is looking at certainty from different angles, partly by looking at what we say. For example, “I can’t help believing …” shows how one’s background beliefs compel one to believe certain things, otherwise the structural integrity of one’s belief superstructure would be compromised.
Note how he switches from “I can’t help believing…” and “I am comfortable”, to “It is quite sure …” This distinction, between an individual subject of certainty and a shared certainty, is quite familiar. We say “I am certain”, relating a mental state, and we say “It is certain”, describing some sort of established social consensus. And we do the same with knowledge: we talk of knowledge as an individual capacity or achievement, and also sometimes as a body of truths belonging to our culture. This surely relates to the distinction between subjective and objective certainty. Is it the case—often but not always—that when one is personally certain, it is because “it is certain”? In other words, I am very often certain of things because I was born in and have grown into the surrounding certainties of society with its bodies of knowledge and its ideologies. As I develop I pick up or take part in these certainties through learning, training, and just living with others.
The topic of ideology and prejudice is interesting with respect to On Certainty. I have seen some people in online discussions interpreting Wittgenstein as implying that we have no way to judge between competing ideologies, and that the way that people happen to talk in the culture in which we happen to grow up is the way that we must talk if we want to make any sense, i.e., that to be meaningful we have to fit in. I suspect this Wittgenstein-as-conservative interpretation is wrong. Let’s see…
The river bed shifts, but not at the same rate all the way across. The scaffolding falls apart over here, reconfigures itself over there, while other parts remain steady. This is not just something that happens to us, as if the bars of the scaffolding imprison us and determine us completely. While there is always an ungrounded foundation somewhere, there are always other places where the foundation can be chipped away and moved. That black people are inferior to white people was an OC 1 certainty for people in Europe in the 19th and early 20th centuries, but it was still possible to challenge it.
What about OC 0 certainties? Can we conceive of any of our most basic hinges coming to be regarded as immoral, quaint, misguided, and historically specific? Isn’t this ruled out by Wittgenstein?
Well, I’m not sure. I think there are some common beliefs that come close to counting as OC 0 certainties, but which I can imagine being overturned—partly because I myself am inclined not to believe them. For example, it seems to be a basic certainty that “I have a mind”, but maybe this is not true. Maybe there is no object, whether physical like the brain or social like a bank account, that we can distinguish from the rest of the world. Maybe mind is an activity performed by humans, a set of high-level practices that do not cohere into an object in any legitimate sense.
On the other hand, can we be so sure that it is common to believe in an object called “mind”? Maybe when we ordinarily talk of “the mind” we are not putting forth or supporting an ontological hypothesis. Here are some examples:
“I’ve got a lot of thoughts going through my mind”
“He has a keen mind”
“To my mind, ...”
“It’s at the back of my mind”
“Keep your mind on your work”
Language and the way we think have a tendency to reification and nominalization. We think better with concrete nouns. We would rather talk about things than about processes and practices. This suggests that it might be wrong to interpret these ordinary ways of speaking as presupposing a thing called a “mind”. It might be just an artifact of language.
But if Jack says “I’ve got a lot of thoughts going through my mind” and a philosopher asks him as if he is presupposing the existence of a thing called a “mind”, then he might answer yes, even if in fact his way of speaking did not presuppose it—people project meanings back on to their utterances that cannot always be said to have somehow been “there” originally. But still, he does answer yes, or even “yes, of course”, indicating that the proposition is certain (and objectively so, if we can assume for now that jack is typical).
How to sort this out? Well, if I can doubt the existence of minds so easily—and I’m hardly alone—then it can’t be a hinge proposition that there exist minds. I think it must indeed follow that OC 0 certainties are impregnable to attack from within, but they can be attacked from without, as Wittgenstein’s missionary example showed. Now that’s interesting. But for now I’ll leave it and move on…
279. It is quite sure that motor cars don’t grow out of the earth. We feel that if someone could believe the contrary he could believe everything that we say is untrue, and could question everything that we hold to be sure.
But how does this one belief hang together with all the rest? We should like to say that someone who could believe that does not accept our whole system of verification.
This system is something that a human being acquires by means of observation and instruction. I intentionally do not say “learns”.
Why does he intentionally not say “learns”? I think it is because he is thinking of learning is something explicit or deliberate, something we are aware of; whereas the acquisition that he is talking about here is something we absorb—or that absorbs us—as we go along. This is a holistic conception of belief and knowledge in which it is not just one damned fact after another, but an entire system of mutually supportive propositions—and a system not only of propositions, but as he says here, a “system of verification”.
280. After he has seen this and this and heard that and that, he is not in a position to doubt whether…
281. I, L.W., believe, am sure, that my friend hasn’t sawdust in his body or in his head, even though I have no direct evidence of my senses to the contrary. I am sure, by reason of what has been said to me, of what I have read, and of my experience. To have doubts about it would seem to me madness – of course, this is also in agreement with other people; but I agree with them.
282. I cannot say that I have good grounds for the opinion that cats do not grow on trees or that I had a father and a mother.
If someone has doubts about it – how is that supposed to have come about? By his never, from the beginning, having believed that he had parents? But then, is that conceivable, unless he has been taught it?
283. For how can a child immediately doubt what it is taught? That could mean only that he was incapable of learning certain language games.
I’ll just address §283 for now, because the other passages seem to me to be merely fleshing out what has gone before. A child may doubt what it is taught, but not immediately. That is, the child must first learn something that could act as a context for possible doubt. It must at least have learned how to go about talking in the relevant language-game. To immediately doubt in one’s first algebra lesson that if \(2x = 10\) then \(x = 5\) can only be an appeal for help in learning how to do algebra; without the familiarity of algebraic rules, it cannot be a genuine doubt, because it is only given those rules that one can say that an algebraic proposition or inference is true or false (or perhaps rather correct and incorrect). In other words, algebraic correctness and incorrectness is relative to the rules of algebra, so without those rules it is meaningless to cast doubt on algebraic expressions or inferences.
Next he begins to examine the nature of belief:
284. People have killed animals since the earliest times, used the fur, bones etc.etc. for various purposes; they have counted definitely on finding similar parts in any similar beast.
They have always learnt from experience; and we can see from their actions that they believe certain things definitely, whether they express this belief or not. By this I naturally do not want to say that men should behave like this, but only that they do behave like this.
285. If someone is looking for something and perhaps roots around in a certain place, he shows that he believes that what he is looking for is there.
286. What we believe depends on what we learn. We all believe that it isn’t possible to get to the moon; but there might be people who believe that that is possible and that it sometimes happens. We say: these people do not know a lot that we know. And, let them be never so sure of their belief—they are wrong and we know it.
If we compare our system of knowledge with theirs then theirs is evidently the poorer one by far.
I always have trouble deciding how I should think about belief. Are beliefs propositions held to be true, or are they dispositions that might sometimes be expressed in such propositions? Can it really be true that I hold an identifiable belief that my toes are not made of chocolate? This seems absurd, not least because I would then have to hold an infinite number of beliefs. Perhaps this is an artificial problem, generated by my temptation to think of a belief as a mental object. Wittgenstein urges us to avoid this by saying that how we act shows what we believe. This seems to imply, not only a form of behaviourism, but also that identifying beliefs is a way of classifying a person’s behaviour, of seeing how it fits into the context. Putting this another way, a belief is not only a tendency or disposition of the person whose behaviour is in question, but is also relative to those who observe that behaviour—who are involved in the situation or who for whatever reason care about the person’s behaviour—because we might identify a belief that the person is not aware of and which, if asked, they might not identify themselves.
For example, we might say “she believes that the sofa is not a hologram” when we observe Jill sitting down on the sofa, because we might be conducting an experiment to assess the ability of humans to detect holograms in domestic situations. But if Jill has never heard of holograms and has no doubt that the sofa is real, she cannot be said to have such a belief as an isolated mental state. From this perspective, beliefs are not simply a matter of what an individual thinks or of how an individual might later describe her behaviour. And does it also follow that beliefs are not even simply a matter of how an individual behaves? Actually, I think we can say that beliefs are tendencies, dispositions, attitudes, and so on—so long as we remember that these are not features merely of atomic individuals, but of people acting socially. That way, what I have been calling here the relativity of belief, is already presumed.
- 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
- A. C. Grayling, “Wittgenstein on Scepticism and Certainty” Online here
- Oswald Hanfling, Wittgenstein and the Human Form of Life, 2002, Routledge
- Antonio Damasio, Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason and the Human Brain, 2008, Random House