Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Uncertain Skepticism in Wittgenstein’s On Certainty

In On Certainty Wittgenstein entered a new stage in his philosophical growth. Here he argues that there are always certain propositions that cannot be doubted if language is to have meaning. This development does not show a change in his descriptive method with its emphasis on ordinary language. On the contrary, he remained committed to the notion that in order to resolve philosophical problems one must look closely at what goes on. The present paper analyses Wittgenstein’s stand in On Certainty where he doe not try to refute the skeptical doubts about the existence of external world so much as he tries to sidestep them, showing that the doubts themselves do not do the work they are meant to do. The paper analyses this take on skepticism in response to one of Moore’s papers titled Proof of an External World.

In Proof of an External World, Moore tries to prove that there is a world external to our senses, by holding up his hand and saying ‘here is a hand’ . Via this proof, Moore questions the reasonableness of doubting such a claim. Wittgenstein admires Moore’s step but he also suggests, at the same time, that Moore fails because his claim that he knows that he has a hand automatically invites the question of how he knows, a question that would push Moore in the sort of skeptical debate he is trying hard to avoid.

Before beginning with the examination, it would be an interesting exercise to trace the nature and root of skepticism, historically. The whole idea of doubting the existence of a world external to us, gains a foothold from the fact that any knowledge claim can be doubted, and every attempt at justifying a knowledge claim can also be doubted. The search of a knowledge that is immune to all possible doubts, from Descartes to Moore, has always come across problems. Wittgenstein asserts that claims like ‘here is a hand’ or ‘the earth has existed for many years past’ have the form of empirical proposition but that in fact they have more in common with logical propositions. That is, these sorts of propositions may seem to say something factual about the world, and hence be open to doubt. But in real sense, they function they serve in language is to serve as a kind of framework within which empirical propositions can make sense. In other words, such propositions are taken for granted so that we can speak about the hand or the tree and hence, such propositions are not meant to be subjected to skeptical scrutiny. It is for this reason that Wittgenstein compares such propositions to a riverbed which must remain in place for the river of language to flow smoothly, and also compares it to the hinges of a door which must remain fixed for the door of language to serve any purpose. The key, therefore, is not to claim certain knowledge of propositions like ‘here is one hand’ but rather to recognize that these sorts of propositions lie beyond questions of knowledge or doubt.

It is in this context that Wittgenstein draws a distinction between two kinds of propositions: hypothetical and non-hypothetical. Hypothetical propositions are those that can describe a possible state of affairs in the world, and which can be tested, confirmed, denied, doubted, believed, or known to be true or false. Non-Hypothetical propositions, though, are similar to the empirical propositions in form, are not hypothetical in any of the above mentioned ways. The non-hypothetical propositions are meant to play a different and peculiar ‘logical role’ in a language game. Such propositions are the ‘unmoving foundations of language-games’ and they are necessarily immune to the doubt of the skeptic. What Wittgenstein does is to ask us to consider the following propositions: ‘There are physical objects’ . Now if this is seen as fundamental proposition, i.e. a proposition that constitutes part of a language game’s depth grammar and thus helps to make empirical propositions meaningful, then it cannot be doubted in a way empirical propositions may be doubted (because it is a fact that human action is intentional, goal oriented, and purposive, if it to be intelligible as human actions at all). To doubt such a fundamental proposition is to go beyond the reasons we could give for doubting propositions within a language-game. Doubt in such cases is free floating and without meaning.

Despite these strong assertions, the skeptic might argue that the analysis of linguistic meaning does not endanger the skeptical challenges for doubting the existence of fundamental propositions. One of the quick reasons is that of there being a ‘logical possibility’ to doubt anything under the sun. that is, it is always logically possible to see a basis for doubting the veracity of any proposition, however fundamental or autonomous Wittgenstein makes it to be.

Secondly, even if it were impossible to question the propositions of depth grammar, it would still be possible to doubt the veracity of any particular proposition uttered within a language-game, since it is always logically possible to be mistaken in any particular case. So, we see that if we take knowledge claim one by one, it is possible to be mistaken about any and every particular knowledge claim. No proposition in any language-game would be immune to doubt. Thus, it looks like that skepticism remains untouched by Wittgenstein’s language-game analysis of linguistic meaning, even after complete autonomy is granted to fundamental propositions.

Douglas Huff in Wittgenstein and the futility of Sceptical Doubt discusses or rather tackles a similar problem, and as a solution, points out that there are at least two reasons which exposes the absurdity of skepticism and its mission. He writes-

…first, logical possibility is not basis for doubting knowledge claims about the world, and, second, a resort to epistemic possibility is not sufficient to generate skeptical doubts.

Let us analyze both the possibilities- logical and epistemic, and see how far can the skeptic succeed in establishing that there is always a possibility for doubting even the most fundamental propositions.

Logical Possibility

Knowledge claims never really exclude the logical possibility that they are false because knowledge claims are contingent and not necessary propositions. It is thus futile to even attempt to exercise skepticism on there being a logical possibility of mistake in contingent proposition.

Secondly, logical possibility is irrelevant as a basis for doubt, for reasons inherent in the language-game analysis itself. Wittgenstein had a plan when he argued that contradictions are not false and are of no real danger to anyone especially philosophers. This said, it should not imply that we can not assert contradictory propositions in a language-game; the point is that contradiction do nothing at all in a language-game. We avoid contradictions, not because they are dangerously false, but because they are useless. As Wittgenstein himself puts it in words-

A contradiction prevents me from getting to act in the language-game.

The bottom line is that contradictions do not play any role in the language-game.

Epistemic Possibility

A modern skeptic might argue that skepticism is more a matter of epistemic possibility than logical possibility. Doubt based on epistemic possibility is a doubt that rests on the possibility that some causal connection might have occurred somewhere in the world, which places the veracity of the knowledge claim in question. For instance, I cannot claim to know that I will my friend day after tomorrow because it is possible that I’ll meet with an accident, or that she’ll have to leave the country in emergency, or I’ll totally forget about it due to my pre-occupations. In other words, for al I know, I’ll not be able to meet up with her the day after tomorrow. On these lines, the skeptic claims that epistemic possibilities lead to skeptical doubt.

Though this looks like a fairly good ground, still there is a limit to the role, epistemic possibility can play in doubting a knowledge claim. For instance, the skeptic who this epistemic possibility must not know the true state of affairs because raising a doubt with prior knowledge is not to raise a doubt, it is something else. Secondly, the person invoking the epistemic possibility must be able to introduce reasons as to why we should take this epistemic possibility seriously, e.g., meeting with accidents, forgetting, my friend going abroad on a short notice, et cetera.

We see then that Wittgenstein’s language-game is such a knitted theory that makes it impossible for the skeptic to doubt with out cessation. Doubt has a meaning only relative to the internal criteria within a language-game. That is, wherever doubt is expressed there must exist, reasons within the language-game to sanction its relevance. In any case, skepticism can summarily be dismissed.

On Certainty presents Wittgenstein’s third great idea, ‘a remarkable discovery connected with the concept of a language-game’. By a language-game Wittgenstein meant a slice of human activity, such as giving orders, reporting an event, forming and testing a hypothesis, play-acting, solving mathematics and so on. But in On Certainty his descriptive focus results in a new insight: that every such game rests on a foundation/ground that is certain. The book’s main idea is that certainty is to be identified with what is foundational, i.e., with the ground (s) that underlie and support a language game. In other words, this point also amounts to saying that certain epistemic concepts such as knowing, doubting, believing, justifying, truth, falsity, etc have their use or uses within language-games but are inapplicable to what is foundational. As a matter of fact, they ‘come to an end’ in language-game. Wittgenstein writes:

Giving grounds, however, justifying the evidence, comes to an end…it is our ‘acting’ which lies at the bottom of the language-game.

Wittgenstein’s trilogy- Tractatus, Philosophical Investigations, and On Certainty, holds that philosophical perplexity arises because we do not understand the ‘logic of our language’. When he says ‘logic of our language’ he is actually operating at two levels- describing how language actually works and describing, via language, how the world is. If we get clear about language, we can then see the world rightly. Wittgenstein is not merely speaking about the differences in the uses of such terms as ‘belief’, ‘know’, ‘certain’, ‘doubt’ etc, but also about that which those words normally denote, that is, about belief, knowledge, justification, etc. These are the features we find in everyday human life; that is, people believe, doubt, justify and provide evidences for or against various claims. It is these features of human activity that primarily interests Wittgenstein. Language is important because it is the medium of giving us an accurate picture of what goes on.

So we see that when Wittgenstein asserts that to avoid complexity, we should understand the ‘logic of our language’, he meant that each word in everyday language has a restricted range of application. The everyday activities are circumscribed by rule-governed boundaries, and it is these boundaries that determine when an activity makes sense. If words are stretched beyond their normal limits they cease to make sense. Thus, words can be used either correctly or incorrectly. To say that they are used correctly means that they confirm to the way in which the native speakers use them in the language-game.

Thus, Wittgenstein’s On Certainty arrive at profound insights both about language and human activity. For instance, doubting is something which is tackled very carefully in On Certainty. Wittgenstein asserts that doubting is an everyday practice that has its limits; where the limits are defined by rules that govern what actually takes place in the language-game. He writes-

If you tried to doubt everything you would not get as far as doubting anything. The game of doubting itself presupposes certainty.

…A doubt without an end is not even a doubt.

And when Wittgenstein says that doubting has certain characteristic manifestations but ‘only in particular circumstances’ he calls to attention the limited nature of the practice of doubting. When he gives the example of one who claims to doubt the existence of his hands, he is making the point that such extreme behavior is not a case of doubt at all. Whatever game that person is playing, it is definitely not playing the game of doubting. His point is that philosophers like Moore are playing a similar game, thus misdescribing the nature of doubt. Their game is senseless. The reason of such a game being senseless is gives as follows in the form of an analogy.

It would be as if someone were looking for some object in a room; he opens a drawer and doesn’t see it there; then he closes it again, waits, and opens it once more to see if perhaps it isn’t there now, and keeps on like that. He has not learned to looked for things…he has not learned ‘the’ game that we are trying to teach him.

Thus Wittgenstein hints that the skeptic who doubts obsessively is like the person who actually endlessly opens and closes a drawer. Moore, to some extent, belonged to this category and that is one reason why his attempt to rebut skepticism failed. Through On Certainty Wittgenstein proved that there actually is no position that has to be rebutted. We also see that behind Wittgenstein’s belief that ‘here is one hand’ is an odd proposition (either to assert to doubt), there lies his insistence on the importance of context. The very idea of doubting the existence of external world is a immensely philosophical activity. A philosopher can doubt away, but it is practically impossible to live out this sort of skepticism. In essence, skepticism only has a foothold when we abstract it from the activity of everyday life. According to Wittgenstein, a proposition has no meaning unless it is placed within a particular context. ‘Here is a hand’ by itself means nothing, though those words might have meaning in the context of, say, a parent teaching the child to speak. Once we give propositions a particular context, the doubt cast by a skeptic lacks the kind of generality needed to doubt the existence of external world. Only by removing language from all possible contexts, and hence rendering language useless, can skepticism function.

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