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

March 20th, 2008


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Beginning with Descartes, traditional forms of epistemology have attempted to create a foundation of knowledge that can not be doubted. The skeptical tradition, employing and developing Cartesian doubt among other variations of it, has sought to undermine the possibility certainty about the external world and, more generally, all knowledge. The philosopher G. E. Moore attempted to respond to skepticism by directly demonstrating his certain knowledge of the external world. As a response to skepticism and to Moore’s attempted refutation of it, Wittgenstein essentially argues that while there is no valid means to actually answer the skeptic, the skeptic’s claims are nonsensical in the first place. The skeptic can only have functional claims when the propositions they doubt are removed from all possible contexts, rendering them meaningless and requiring an invocation of logic external to language and human understanding. Fundamentally, Wittgenstein replaces the response to skepticism’s “you cannot know” by Moore’s “I do know” with what ultimately reduces to, “I do not need to ‘know’. ”

Skepticism and logical possibilityWhile skepticism takes many different forms, the primary form of skepticism under consideration can be described by single, general argument. This skepticism’s basic premise is that we are unable to logically disprove possible states of affairs in the world that would undermine our claims to knowledge about reality (“skeptical possibilities”). Generally, arguments for skepticism take the form of a modus ponens argument, such as,

  1. If I can not distinguish between dreaming and being awake, then I can not be sure I have a body.
  2. I can not distinguish between dreaming and being awake.
  3. Therefore, I can not be sure that I have a body.

Support for the second premise derives from the possibility that, for any empirical proposition we form at a point in time, events could follow that would provide evidence to falsify that belief. If this is true, no empirical proposition is verifiable and thus none are certain.

Wittgenstein does not disagree with this, to an extent; he grants that such subsequent falsifying events are indeed always a possibility. For example, one may have very good reasons for believing his old friend is standing in front of him, but it is imaginable for that person to suddenly start behaving as though he was not that old friend after all (613). [1] However, Wittgenstein challenges the notion that such events transpiring would undermine the relevant prior empirical beliefs about the situation. In other words, he argues that such possibilities do not undermine “knowledge,” in the meaningful sense of the word, but merely fail to satisfy the conditions of a notion of logic removed from practitioners of logic (human beings).

On Doubt

In the second paragraph of On Certainty, Wittgenstein elucidates the role of doubt, almost spelling out immediately what will become his objection against skepticism: “from its seeming to me – or to everyone – to be so, it doesn’t follow that it is so. What we can ask is whether it can make sense to doubt it [emphasis added]” (2). Though the skeptics are correct in questioning the assertion of seeming or “common-sense” empirical fact, such doubts fail to (meaningfully) endorse their assertion that all knowledge can be undermined.

Primarily, the skeptics make the error of conceiving logic as an empirical statement – as something independent of the agent in question – that is subject to the possibility of falsification. The Tractatus, though earlier in Wittgenstein’s philosophical development, is particularly illustrative of this problem with skepticism: “Propositions cannot represent logical form: it is mirrored in them. What finds reflection in language, language cannot represent. ”[2] Moreover, we cannot sensibly falsify (or take any other action standing outside of) logic, since we can not describe what a non-logical world would look like. [3] Yet this is precisely what skepticism demands.

Skepticism, by externalizing logic, thus encounters serious error when it casts extreme doubts upon common-sense propositions, which are necessary for establishing language (and hence the use of logic). When someone says, “There are trees,” he is presupposing the existence of objects. This is not to imply an epistemological assertion that there are objects in a specific sense of the word, but it simply reveals the absurdity of saying “objects do not exist. ” If one holds that to be true, he runs into the intractable problem of explaining of what it is that one is speaking when one says “there are trees.

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