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Ludwig Wittgenstein’s On Certainty, and how G.E. Moore Fails to Respond to the Skeptics (Part 2)

March 20th, 2008

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” Day to day life demonstrates that common-sense propositions must be known in some way, as evidenced by the fact that we say things to others like “move that table over here” or “open the window” (7). In light of this, the nature of being mistaken about a statement like, “I am certain that these are words on this paper” is unclear (17, 24, 32). What it would be like to find out that “here is not a hand” is peculiar and seemingly indescribable by language. This is because the language-games people use, those ingrained deeply in their practices and beliefs, depend on affirming such propositions in order for them to make any sense (to be explained shortly).

Furthermore, as Wittgenstein asserts several times, the notion of doubt presupposes certainty (115 and elsewhere). In order for one to doubt anything, one must first have certainty about what he doubts, be certain that he, in fact, doubts it, and so on. This relates closely to the foundation of (the human expression of) logic in language, as implied in Tractatus. In Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein delves into the nature of language games, which later play an important role in On Certainty. Section 7 of Investigations states, “I shall call it the whole, consisting of the language and the actions into which it is woven, the language-game. ”

Wittgenstein explores how a child learns and the relationship between its learning and language in section 6 of the Investigations. A child learns what words mean by ostensive action; for example, one might instruct, “that is a chair; that is a car; that is red; etc. ” In all this, however, there is a necessity for an understanding of ostensive definition itself. A child, to learn that “this is called ‘car’,” must first comprehend that names can be assigned to things. Later, in section 31, Wittgenstein uses an example of teaching someone how to play chess. When he points to a piece and says, “this is the king; it can move like this,…” the phrase “this is called the ‘king’” is only a definition if the student knows what a game is, what a piece in a game is, etc.

The point of the exploration of language games is, in short, that understanding requires some background of trust – some kind of sureness. Continuing in On Certainty with the case of the child, Wittgenstein says, “the child learns by believing the adult. Doubt comes after belief” (160). A child could never learn anything if he constantly questioned existence, for if that were to happen, he could never learn the definitions of things ostensively, just as if a person were to question the game or the pieces of chess, he would never learn that “this is called “the king” and it moves like so. ”

The process of learning language is one of action (or reaction) first, then epistemological reflection at a later time once a system of beliefs is formed and it becomes gradually understood where doubt can be reasonable (538). For example, a child initially listens to verbal and written instructions, responding trustingly and candidly to what others say. When a child realizes that people have the capability to lie, however, he then has a reasonable basis for sometimes doubting the truth of what someone says. The system of belief he develops is essential to forming these kinds of curiosities and doubts. If he did not understand that other human beings like himself existed and behaved autonomously and with similar capabilities, he could not even begin to comprehend the notion of doubting the truth of their words. Moreover, even when he believed and spoke candidly, he would not have been able to do so had he questioned the existence of other human beings, and he would have not been able to understand the existence of other human beings if he questioned the existence of a world external to him.

Language is inextricably embedded into our lives. Without it, we would be unable to learn, and without learning, we would be unable to doubt. Further, it is the common understanding and foundations of language that allow human beings to communicate. Incidentally, by no means is the plain use of signs universally indicative of meaning (another basic idea explored in Tractatus that blocks a potential route for skepticism). A person who interprets and acts upon the mathematical directive “halve” by multiplying by three hundred is not casting doubt upon halving, but is merely out of sync with the rules and norms of a language-game.

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