Monday 2 March 2009

Moyal-Sharrock on On Certainty

I’ve begun to look at Danièle Moyal-Sharrock’s Understanding Wittgenstein’s On Certainty (Moyal-Sharrock, D (2007) Understanding Wittgenstein’s On Certainty, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan) which fits both my proposed project with Richard Gipps and Gloria Ayob on nonsense and psychotic thought and my proposed book with Neil Gascoigne on tacit knowledge. So far, I am just aiming to get a feeling for it.

It was suggested to me by one of Moyal-Sharrock’s PhD students at Hertfordshire who said that it was an interesting counter to McDowell. I think that the contrast she had in mind was between McDowell’s commitment to the connection between mind and world being always within the realm of concepts and Moyal-Sharrock’s emphasis on a non-propositional bedrock of animal certainty / certainties.

The broad outline – for anyone who hasn’t read On Certainty – is that, in one of his last two works (there is some excitement in reading the dated notes that form the book if one is aware of the date of his death and the limited time he has), Wittgenstein responds to Moore’s anti-sceptical proof of the external world. Moore’s proof starts with his assertion that he knows that this is a hand (which is a worldly object and hence the first step to disprove the evil genie / brain in a vat hypothesis). Wittgenstein counters that Moore knows no such thing. There is a contrast between claims that are candidates for knowledge or doubt, for which reasons can be given, and the background of certainty / certainties which is presupposed by such language games. Moore’s claim illicitly straddles these two categories. The certainty belongs to the background. That this is a hand is one of the things we take for granted. But for that reason, it is not a candidate for knowledge and thus not something known.

The main difficulty in giving a simple interpretation of On Certainty is familiarly Wittgensteinian. What one wants to say is somehow undermined. So whilst it seems straightforward to say that the ‘language game’ of giving and asking for reasons presupposes a background which is simply taken for granted, that doubt and knowledge presupposes certainty which is animal, Wittgenstein also describes the objects of that attitude, the certainties so held. In part this is because he starts with Moore who articulates just such a ‘content’ or ‘object’ in ‘this is a hand’. These include: ‘There are lots of objects in the world’, ‘The world has existed for quite a long time’, ‘There are some chairs and tables in this room’, ‘This is one hand and this is another’. The awkwardness now is characterising these contents correctly without falling into trap of suggesting what I want to call an epistemic relation to them rather than a pre-epistemic relation. Once they have been articulated or carved out into sentence shaped chunks they look the sort of thing one believes albeit with great certainty.

From a first quick scan, Moyal-Sharrock’s main innovation seems to be to think about this very point against a background of Wittgenstein’s views on propositions. These have essentially two poles. So only something that can be true and can be false counts as a proposition. But since Moore-type propositions could not be false, they cannot really be propositions. In fact, she argues, they cannot be said – cannot be said as true, that is – either as they would have no use. So the certainties articulated as hinge- or Moore propositions are not really propositions. They are non-propositional. (The same form of words can form a kind of doppelganger of such certainties and can take on propositional form; but that has no consequence for the expression of certainties in genuine propositions.)

But I’m not sure that this is really an anti-McDowellian view. It seems so if one thinks of one’s access to the world as mediated by strange non-propositional but proposition-like entities. That would be a different matter. But the idea that there is a necessary background, which is not itself a set of propositional attitudes, presupposed by propositionally or conceptually structured attitudes does not seem to run counter to the idea that experience is always conceptually structured. So the question I need to address is just what is the status in Moyal-Sharrock’s account of these apparently propositionally or conceptually structured ‘objects’ of an attitude of certainty: ‘There are lots of objects in the world’, ‘The world has existed for quite a long time’, ‘There are some chairs and tables in this room’, ‘This is one hand and this is another’.

See this later entry for a view of a central theme in the book.