I take it that OC may (try to) do two independent things differentially well or badly. It may give a philosophico-anthopological description of knowledge claims and a background of certainty such that rival epistemological accounts of every day knowledge may be tested or supported. And it may provide a response to forms of scepticism. The latter, and perhaps the connection between the two, is suggested by the way it begins with Moore. Still, there are a number of responses to OC out there and I’ll start (in this post) with Duncan Pritchard’s in his Epistemic Angst (Pritchard 2016). (Next week I’ll look to Daniele Moyal Sharrock and also to Michael Williams.) Embarrassingly I’m not even going to try to follow his fascinating – if you go for that sort of thing – discussion of variants on the closure argument to generalise scepticism. I’m just going to try to think about the conclusion, baldly. (I’m not thinking well at the moment.)
But to get to that I just want to outline how I think, at least, scepticism is supposed to get off the ground. I’m doing this for me, I hasten to add. Epistemologists would be distressed by my Noddy guide.
Closure spreads the infection of scepticism from the ringer to nearly everything else.
Pritchard on closure based arguments and On Certainty.
There’s much going on in Pritchard’s book but one strand concerns the attempt to find a way to address what seem to be three incompatible claims.
The Inconsistent Radical Skeptical Triad
(I) One is unable to know the denials of radical skeptical hypotheses.
(II) The closure principle.
(III) One has widespread everyday knowledge. (ibid: **)
And one main way he attempts to do this is to find a reading of the closure principle which holds true but which does not govern the denials of radical sceptical hypotheses such as to imply a lack of everyday knowledge. I am going to ignore the subtlety of that in order baldly to present the destination. In this, I am following the pornographer publisher of Anais Nin who told her to drop all the plot details and just focus on the hard grinding action.
But it is worth noting in passing that in late C20 American epistemology, one approach was to deny closure to insulate sceptical philosophical language games infecting everyday knowledge claims. Another was to keep closure but to argue that changes in context ruled out its assumed implications for the everyday.
So let’s jump ahead. In On Certainty, it seems that Wittgenstein deploys the metaphor of hinges as necessary fixed points about which empirical inquiry turns.
The questions that we raise and our doubts depend upon the fact that some propositions are exempt from doubt, are as it were like hinges on which those turn. That is to say, it belongs to the logic of our scientific investigations that certain things are in deed not doubted. But it isn’t that the situation is like this: We just can’t investigate everything, and for that reason we are forced to rest content with assumption. If I want the door to turn, the hinges must stay put. (OC §§341– 43)
Again playing fast and loose with themes about which there are opposing views from different interpretations of OC, one approach to these hinges is to distinguish them from knowledge claims. A refrain in OC is LW saying that particular claims to know, just as much as claims to doubt, fail in some way. Assuming that the failures of speech acts infect the knowledge status claimed (an assumption Michael Williams challenges) and it may be that what the sceptic targets and what epistemologists defend are not suitable for knowledge status. And that may suggest that they can fall out of the range of the closure argument: from a failure to know the falsity of a sceptical ringer to the failure of empirical knowledge in general.
A comment along the way. Although this is Pritchard’s way with hinges, it seems to miss a more basic point. The Cartesian sceptic’s argument gets off the ground with a ringer. Closure comes in to show why this is significant for nearly all our other beliefs. But OC seems more directly to challenge the cogency of the sceptic’s argument about ringers. If the sceptic is wrong about these, then there’s not the same need to worry about closure. This may need a bit of assessment depending on exactly how hinges resist sceptical doubt but it is odd that Pritchard seems just to ignore it.
One way of thinking about why hinges are not proper candidates for knowledge or doubt is that they are not genuine propositions and hence not the right objects of attitudes (see Moyal Sharrock but also Malcolm and McGinn). One cannot be committed to something that fails to set out a way things might be. But I’m not going to write about the non-propositional view of hinges because Pritchard rejects it. His main objection to the non-propositional view seems to be that, even if it is textually the best fit with OC and even if it has some plausibility - via the idea that hinges are action-related, practical behavioural rather than thought-like - it is still easy to generate a proposition from its account of hinges. So it is hard to maintain that hinges are fully not propositions when there are propositional readings of them. Further, in the context of his worries about closure, once there is a proposition for each hinge, it looks as though the closure argument can start.
Pritchard suggests a propositional but non-belief reading of hinges and an interpretation of the closure principle that simply does not apply to them. Hence, all three elements of his sceptical triad can hold true: they are not actually incompatible, after all.
The foregoing suggests a highly context-sensitive account of hinge commitments, and one might be tempted on this basis to regard one’s hinge commitments as being entirely context-bound. But this would be an unduly quick way of reading Wittgenstein’s remarks on hinge propositions. For closer inspection of this apparently heterogeneous class of hinge commitments reveals that they all in effect codify, for that particular person, the entirely general hinge commitment that one is not radically and fundamentally mistaken in one’s beliefs. Call this commitment the über hinge commitment, and call the proposition endorsed by the über hinge commitment the über hinge proposition. (ibid: **)
Pritchard points out - around p100 - that (the modus ponens version of) closure cannot imply the über hinge. Knowing I’m in Kendal does not imply that I’m generally right across the board. So - (via modus tollens)- not knowing the über hinge doesn’t threaten my knowing I’m in Kendal (and every other empirical claim). While I may not know I’m a stable genius, still I might know that fact. Still, that’s not what the sceptic targeted. The ringer is a specific, but knowledge-undermining claim, such as that I’m a BIV. And here a modus ponens closure argument does seem to work. If I know I’m in Kendal then I know I’m not a BIV. (So if I don’t know the latter, I don’t know the former.)
We do not normally encounter radical skeptical hypotheses in ordinary life, and yet we can be easily made aware of their incompatibility with our everyday beliefs. These hypotheses are thus ripe for the kind ofcompetent deduction at issue in closureRK- style inferences. The result of these inferences is plausibly a kind of propositional attitude toward the entailed proposition, whereby we recognize that we are committed to regarding it as false. But if this propositional attitude is not one of belief, as maintained above, then what kind of propositional attitude is it? (Ibid: **)
For the propositional attitude that results from such deductions in these cases, while superficially similar to belief, cannot be a genuine (knowledge- apt) believing, but is instead a mere codification of the prior über hinge commitment, a commitment that is not acquired via any rational process, much less the result of a specific rational process like a particular competent deduction. Rather than this being a counterexample to the closureRK principle, such cases of deductions involving one’s hinge commitments are instead better characterized as instances where the closureRK principle is simply inapplicable. (Ibid: **)
a commitment that is not acquired via any rational process, much less the result of a specific rational processlike a particular competent deduction. (ibid: **)