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Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote a series of interconnected remarks on the concept of certainty from April, 1950, until April 27, 1951, two days before his death. Although he did not live to edit this work, which was published in 1969, his observations constitute a remarkably coherent discussion of what is arguably the central problem of epistemology: the question of whether, in what sense, and by what methods it may be possible to attain absolute certainty in knowledge.

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The quest for certainty is a legacy of French philosopher René Descartes’s seventeenth century rationalist philosophy. Philosophers have long sought to answer arguments brought by skepticism that knowledge, let alone certain or absolutely certain knowledge, is impossible. The problem of arriving at certain knowledge is carried forward by philosopher G. E. Moore’s essays, including “A Defence of Common Sense” (1923), “Proof of an External World” (1939), and “Certainty” (1943). In these essays, Moore tries to argue that there are items of commonsense knowledge, ultimately justified by immediate sense experience, that can be known without possibility of doubt and that can thereby constitute the foundations for all other knowledge. Wittgenstein regards Moore’s treatment of certainty as among his most important contributions to philosophy, yet he seems to appreciate the essays more as a statement of ordinary ways of thinking about the nature of certainty than for the philosophical conclusions Moore attempts to derive. Without defending skepticism, Wittgenstein mounts a devastating critique of Moore’s attempt to gain certain knowledge for commonsense beliefs.

In a numbered series of reflections, Wittgenstein explores the implications and limitations of the concept of certainty. The problems of epistemology are a mainstay for most philosophers but an unusual topic for Wittgenstein. In his early masterwork, “Logisch-philosophische Abhandlung” (1921; best known by the bilingual German and English edition title of Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, 1922, 1961), Wittgenstein explicitly separates the theory of knowledge from philosophy properly understood. There he writes: “Psychology is no nearer related to philosophy, than is any other natural science./ The theory of knowledge is the philosophy of psychology.” (4.1121) Indeed, Wittgenstein does not address the traditional questions of epistemology outside On Certainty.

Psychological and Absolute Certainty

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The book begins with Wittgenstein’s admission that if we can grant Moore that we can know in holding up a hand before us that here is one hand, then everything else in Moore’s argument for a commonsense theory of knowledge follows. This single example, amplified by a few digressions into related knowledge claims, provides the primary focus for Wittgenstein’s criticism. Wittgenstein distinguishes between psychological certainty, as expressed in Moore’s confident assertion of the existence of his hand, and epistemic certainty as objectively incorrigible or incontrovertible belief. Wittgenstein maintains that psychological certainty is irrelevant to the truth of what we claim to know. We participate in systems of beliefs, in which different kinds of propositions play different kinds of roles. To declare one’s certainty in the truth of a particular selection of beliefs in such a system is to identify those judgments as being among a privileged set that are held fixed in our epistemic activity as not subject to revision. Wittgenstein explains: “Even if the most trustworthy of men assures me that he knows things are thus and so, this by itself cannot satisfy me that he does know. Only that he believes he knows. That is why Moore’s assurance that he knows . . . does not interest us. The propositions, however, which Moore retails as examples of such known truths are indeed interesting. Not because anyone knows their truth, or believes he knows them, but because they all have a similar role in the system of our empirical judgments.” (137)

Where a subjectively unshakable conviction in particular beliefs fails to guarantee their truth, Wittgenstein proposes that the attempt to establish certainty in the traditional philosophical sense requires objective criteria of absolute indubitability. Wittgenstein ultimately rejects the possibility of establishing knowledge as objectively certain in a way that would satisfy all imaginable grounds for doubt. However, he does not for this reason conclude that knowledge is impossible or even that knowledge with certainty or absolute certainty is impossible. Instead, he distinguishes between philosophical and extraphilosophical uses of the vocabulary of epistemic certainty. Moore, in holding up his hand and declaring “Here is one hand,” is trying to make a philosophical point, thereby implicitly using the vocabulary of certainty in a philosophical way, by arguing that we can build a solid epistemic superstructure that will withstand the strongest possible skepticisms on a foundation of simple beliefs that no sane person could deny. However, what Wittgenstein discovers in Moore’s use of commonsense language about belief is a distinctively nonphilosophical and therefore philosophically unproblematic way of calling attention to the special role that certain propositions play in our daily lives. Wittgenstein casts about for ordinary language contexts in which it would be sensible for someone to make such a pronouncement as Moore’s “Here is one hand” outside of a philosophy lecture. He identifies several possibilities in communicating mundane facts, such as explaining the meaning of the word “hand,” or giving notice to a visually impaired person that he or she is about to be touched. Yet none of these scenarios constitutes a situation in which objective certainty obtains with the absolute incorrigibility or incontrovertibility in the strong sense to which Moore in keeping with much of traditional epistemology aspires.

Belief Systems

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Wittgenstein describes the entire system of beliefs that a person may accept as being made up of different kinds of propositions in various categories and with varying purposes. He articulates a polarity principle as part of the philosophical grammar of epistemic terminology, whereby it makes no sense to speak of a belief as capable of doubt except by contrast with other beliefs that are certain: “If you tried to doubt everything you would not get as far as doubting anything. The game of doubting itself presupposes certainty.” (115) Within a belief system, some propositions may gain or lose credibility relative to other propositions about which are we are not prepared to entertain doubts. Beliefs that we are not prepared to doubt in a complex system of beliefs are those we designate in ordinary language-games as certain, as one of the main nonphilosophical uses of the word. This is the source of the mistaken philosophical idea that Moore among others in the history of philosophy tried to develop that we might also be able to attribute absolute certainty to special propositions in an even higher philosophical sense that would make them immune from any imaginable skepticism.

Wittgenstein captures the relation between the fixed and fluid propositions in an entire system of beliefs in one of his characteristically vivid metaphors, when he writes in 343: “If I want the door to turn, the hinges must stay put.” The unquestioned, and in that sense objectively certain, propositions in a belief system are the hinges in Wittgenstein’s analogy, and the propositions about which we may be prepared to consider doubts are the swinging door. However, if we work hard enough at it, we can always loosen and even remove the hinges.

Wittgenstein remarks on the origin of this privileging of certain beliefs in belief systems as inculcated from childhood and unconsciously adopted in many cases by individuals as part of their social acculturation. The justification for ordinary language-game attributions of certainty in Wittgenstein’s pragmatic theory of meaning as applied here to the theory of knowledge is that as a result of our upbringing or involvement in a particular form of life, we simply act in such ways as to reflect the role of certain propositions as the fixed and stable part of a partly inherited belief system relative to which the truth of other propositions can intelligibly be questioned, doubted, or denied. The crucial point that Wittgenstein emphasizes is that even objective certainty does not go beyond this distinction between beliefs that are held fast in a system of beliefs so that others can be doubted, and in particular that there is no skeptic-proof philosophical sense of certainty in which absolutely certain knowledge can be attained or against which a higher standard knowledge can be measured.

An Answer to Skeptics

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On Certainty attracted a wide philosophical audience. It was received as a sequel to Wittgenstein’s Philosophische Untersuchungen/Philosophical Investigations (1953, bilingual German and English edition) and Remarks on the Foundations of Mathematics, (1956, bilingual German and English edition), and as an unconventional contribution to epistemology in its own right. Wittgenstein’s remarks on knowledge are extraordinarily rich in their variety of valuable observations about the nature and conditions of belief, certainty, and doubt.

Avrum Stroll, in his Moore and Wittgenstein on Certainty (1994), says of the “small but growing coterie of scholars” who have written book-length studies of Wittgenstein’s text (to say nothing of the scores of articles in anthologies and essays in professional philosophical journals) that “they have . . . come to realize that there is more to On Certainty than merely a commentary on Moore.” He adds: “They now realize that it contains a novel approach to the problem of certitude and to the sceptical challenges that any defender of certitude must face.” Wittgenstein’s treatment of the philosophical grammar of epistemic vocabulary in ordinary language-games in which knowledge and certainty are legitimately attributed to beliefs, by contrast with problematic uses of the same terminology by philosophers, continues to inspire Wittgenstein scholars to consider, interpret, and apply his penetrating investigations of the concept of certainty.


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Additional Reading

Fann, K. T., ed. Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Man and His Philosophy. New York: Dell, 1967. A collection of articles by friends, students, and scholars of Ludwig Wittgenstein. Included are articles on Wittgenstein as a person, a teacher, and a philosopher, and treatments of various aspects of Wittgenstein’s philosophical work.

Hacker, P. M. S. Wittgenstein. New York: Routledge, 1999. An excellent biographical introduction to the thoughts of the philosopher, clearly presented and requiring no special background. Bibliography.

Hacker, P. M. S. Wittgenstein’s Place in Twentieth-Century Analytic Philosophy. Oxford: Blackwell, 1996. A monumental work by a leading authority of Wittgenstein. This book thoroughly treats philosophical history before, during, and after the time of Wittgenstein.

Hallett, Garth L. Essentialism: A Wittgensteinian Critique. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1991. Strictly speaking, this book is an application of Wittgenstein’s later thought rather than an introduction to it, but Hallett is so faithful to Wittgenstein’s philosophy that the book is in fact a good guide to a correct understanding of it.

Hodges, Michael, and John Lachs. Thinking in the Ruins: Wittgenstein and Santayana on Contingency. Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 2000. A comparison of the two quite different philosophers.

Janik, Allan, and Stephen Toulmin. Wittgenstein’s Vienna. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1973. An illustrated survey showing the many connections between Wittgenstein’s philosophical development and twentieth century movements in architecture, literature, music, psychoanalysis, and other fields, in the setting of late nineteenth century Viennese culture.

McGinn, Marie. Wittgenstein and the “Philosophical Investigations.” New York: Routledge, 1997. A very useful and well-written introductory guide to Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations.

Malcolm, Norman. Ludwig Wittgenstein: A Memoir. 2d ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1984. This book, written by Wittgenstein’s most prominent American philosophical student, is a gem. Malcolm allows the reader to see the force of Wittgenstein’s personality as well as his particular way of practicing philosophy. The second edition includes numerous letters that Wittgenstein wrote to Malcolm.

Monk, Ray. Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius. New York: Free Press, 1990. This is the definitive biography of Wittgenstein. It is thorough and detailed, examining Wittgenstein’s private life as well as his philosophy.

Pitcher, George, ed. Wittgenstein: The “Philosophical Investigations.” Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1966. Although many of the articles in this collection are rather technical, the book’s first article is a general account of the historical context of Wittgenstein’s philosophy. This is followed by several articles that are book reviews of his Philosophical Investigations.

Sluga, Hans, and David G. Stern, eds. The Cambridge Companion to Wittgenstein. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1996. Some of the articles in this collection are rather narrowly focused, but the first two contain general introductions to Wittgenstein’s life, his work, and his critical approach to philosophy.

Stroll, Avrum. Moore and Wittgenstein on Certainty. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994. This volume looks at the relationship between these two philosophers, particularly Wittgenstein’s critical stance on G. E. Moore’s views on certainty based on common sense.

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