Written over the last 18 months of his life and inspired by his interest in G. E. Moore's defense of common sense, this much discussed volume collects Wittgenstein's reflections on knowledge and certainty, on what it is to know a proposition for sure.
On Certainty was a rather enjoyable read despite the fact that it contained 676 numbered paragraphs of somewhat repetitive analysis. But if one is as fascinated by philosophy as I am, then it’s no bother. Some would say Wittgenstein is a philosopher’s philosopher because he spends much of his effort debunking traditional philosophy. Here is what I can tease out of this text:
All things that we are certain of, including science, are part of a world-view. World-views are based on language and language games (meaning the “rules” we create for language, in order to understand each other.) All the things that we consider to be “certain” or sure (i.e. True), are actually premises for our language games. In other words, you can point to every fact we are so sure of, “The world is spherical,” or “This is my hand,” and they always end up pointing back to what are assumptions of the language game. Things we believe are so because we defined them in our language game as so. He would say that nothing is ever truly objective because there is always some lower level “fact” that points to another “fact” that points to a “fact” that points back to language. It points back to an assertion, something we are taught. Facts are really socially constructed in our worldview. Certainty is constructed meaning, not objective meaning.
Certainty has no ground. If you say, “I know the earth is round,” how is that different from “I am of unshakeable conviction that the earth is round.” What “I know” really means is that you are convinced of some set of rules you have been taught. LW would say that in the end every “I know” is merely a statement of your relation to an accepted world view, not a factual ground. All our grounds are merely hardened propositions accepted by each of us in order to be welcomed into a taught world-view.
There is no ground beneath her feet.
He compares the world views of different societies as well to further communicate his point. In some tribal society, it may be the shaman who causes rain, not a meteorological phenomenon. Are they demonstrably wrong? Perhaps…but what if…cause and effect were actually wrong. Scientific evidence is all based on cause and effect being true, but it’s impossible to objectively demonstrate cause and effect. Even if something happens a billion times repeatedly…that is not objective proof that it will always happen that way. Or that it happens for the reason we thought it did. The future cannot be predicted. Science can suddenly alter its worldview and then suddenly the facts that were our ground, no longer are. There is no objective ground. No certainty.
Some writers claim that LW actually debunks skepticism because he claims skepticism’s questions (such as “Is this all a dream?”) don’t fit into the language game of a given world view so they are not coherent questions. For a question to be coherent, it must fit into the language game. But I don’t see that. He actually seems like the ultimate skeptic, to me. You just need to reword the questions and ask things like, “If we can’t be certain of anything, because in the end language only points to itself, then how can we be certain we aren’t all just in a dream?”
So how can we?