Thursday, 29 April 2021

Michael Williams on the anti-Cartesian-sceptical argument in On Certainty

While I’m not able to work much, neither for my employers nor for my discipline, I’m trying to get to grips with the sort of descriptive and interpretative work that precedes developing one's own argument. So in an informal series of three starting with last week’s account of Duncan Pritchard, this week I’ve tried to come to grips with Michael Williams. Not his fine Unnatural Doubts (which played a role in my thinking about John McDowell) but his short main account of Wittgenstein’s last work On Certainty. I've found this surprisingly difficult, independently, I think, of my current mental illness. The logic of the paper as a whole is quite elusive. Do not read further expecting interesting views from me, however. At best it reworks Williams’ paper into a slightly different expression using my 600 word child’s vocabulary (as my former co-author Gascoigne kindly put it). Akin, say, to Jon Hopkin’s Piano Versions. Come back in a week and I'll add a short assessment if the Lord provides one. (Writing this has been a bit more interesting than watching the snooker, to which my partner has therapeutically banished me.)

Michael Williams offers a reading of the anti-sceptical resources of On Certainty that, interestingly, and unlike pretty much everyone else, downplays the role of hinges. Indeed, in a video of a 2017 talk given at the College de France, one slide reads: ‘Since  Wittgenstein’s conception of hinges presupposes both an answer to Agrippan and Cartesian scepticism, it cannot be his response to either’ ( While he mentions hinges in other papers, the main thrust of his most sustained discussion of On Certainty’s (OC) anti-sceptical argument (‘Wittgenstein’s refutation of idealism’ (Williams 2004b)) has a quite distinct logic.

Williams has ‘skin in the game’ of philosophical responses to scepticism (see especially his book Unnatural Doubts (Williams 1996)). And hence it is unsurprising that he makes a standard philosophical move: finding in tales of the mighty dead his own philosophy imperfectly set out. The final step in the therapeutic and diagnostic response to scientism that he finds in Wittgenstein is to suggest that scepticism presupposes what Williams calls ‘epistemological realism’: the assumption that empirical judgements can be identified as a class and have to be based on epistemically prior judgements concerning experience. In contrast to this picture, then, hinges – the motley of certainties described in OC – help to suggest a very different conception of the sorts of things that serve as foundations for other certain judgements.

At the start of this paper, Williams offers the following summary of themes in OC.

1. There are bedrock certainties, propositions or judgments that we do not and (in some way) cannot doubt. These fundamental certainties can be thought of “framework judgments” in the following sense: by lying “apart from the route traveled by inquiry”, they constitute the framework within which practices of inquiring, justifying beliefs, arguing, asking for and giving reasons, making knowledge-claims, etc. take place.
2. While recognising bedrock certainties, Wittgenstein departs from the traditional foundationalist conception of basic beliefs. Judgments that make justification possible are themselves outside the scope of justification. At the most fundamental level, certainty is grounded in the conditions of meaning or understanding. It is not a matter of evidence, even self-evidence. This is the burden of Wittgenstein’s reluctance to think of bedrock certainties as things we know to be true.
3. In further contrast to the basic beliefs of traditional foundationalism, bedrock certainties are extremely heterogeneous. They include (among other things) elementary mathematical propositions (12 x 12 = 144) and simple recognitional judgments (“Here is one hand”); but also quite general claims about the world around us (“The Earth has existed for many years past”, “Every human being has two parents”, “There are physical objects”). (Williams 2004b: 77)

These themes, he suggests, help to constitute what he calls the ‘Framework Reading’ of OC and they seem to be a way to block Agrippan scepticism concerning the regress of justifications. He summarises Agrippan scepticism thus in ‘Why (Wittgensteinian) Contextualism Is Not Relativism’ (Williams 2007b).

Suppose that someone (call him “the claimant”) makes a claim, P, in such a way that he represents himself as knowing P to be true: a challenger can ask him how he knows. Aft er all, we might think, if someone represents himself as knowing something, rather than merely believing it, he invites the question, which therefore cannot reasonably be refused. However, if the claimant accepts the challenge, he must give his reason for believing that P, citing evidence for P or other grounds for supposing P to be true. In so doing, he enters a new claim, Q, and the question will arise as to whether Q is something that he knows (or justifiably believes). But since anything he says in support of Q may itself be challenged, requiring a further supporting claim we seem to have opened up a vicious regress of reasons for reasons for reasons, and so on without end. (Williams 2007b: 95)

Agrippan scepticism amounts to a trilemma: ‘the thought that any attempt to justify a belief must end in one of three unsatisfactory ways: a vicious regress, a brute assumption, or circular reasoning’ (ibid: ). It seems plausible to attempt to block such scepticism via self standing certainties although both the ‘Framework Reading’ of OC and Williams’ own interpretation contests the terms of the trilemma. In ‘Why Wittgenstein isn’t a foundationalist’ he suggests.

For traditionally minded theorists, the Agrippan Trilemma appears to define the space of theoretical options, foundationalism and the coherence theory. But in the picture Wittgenstein is suggesting, which to some extent he shares with Sellars, both foundationalism and the coherence theory, go wrong. Foundationalists think that if there is to be non-inferential entitlement to particular propositions, there must be a free-standing stratum of basic knowledge on which all other knowledge rests. The semantic inter-dependence of basic and non-basic judgements entails that there is no such stratum. The coherence theory, recognizing semantic inter-dependence, concludes that no epistemic entitlements are genuinely non-inferential. But semantic inter-dependence is compatible with justificational asymmetries. (Williams 2007a: 55)

Williams argues, however – in ‘Wittgenstein’s refutation of idealism’ – that the early sections of OC are concerned not with Agrippan but Cartesian scepticism. It is in response to this that  Wittgenstein looks at Moore’s response which, Williams plausibly suggests, fails because it attempts to answer general sceptical doubt with an instance of the very kind of knowledge they call into question.

The Cartesian sceptic asks whether we know that there are any physical objects at all... Moore wants to assure the sceptic that there are physical objects. He does so by insisting that he (Moore) knows that two such things exist, rather as I might assure a friend that he has not missed the last train to the city, since I know that there are at least two evening departures. But the sceptic isn’t seeking reassurance and, in any case, Moore is in no special position to give it. Moore has misunderstood the kind of response that scepticism demands. (Williams 2004b: 78)

Thus Moore’s response is no help in responding to sceptical doubts because it trades in instances of the general class of knowledge that the sceptic calls into question. But philosophical scepticism requires some sort of argument or justification. Is sceptical doubt coherent? Indeed, Williams initially stresses a stronger question: does it even make sense?

The sceptic thinks that he has found reason to question whether we know anything whatsoever about the external world. If his reasons for doubting are coherent, his doubts cannot be met by presenting particular examples of the kind of knowledge that is in question generally. But do his doubts really do make sense? (ibid: 79)

In what follows throughout the paper, Williams tries to investigate what motivates the sceptic. So, for example, he investigates the idea that philosophy might introduce a new context in which the sorts of doubt that would normally make no sense in everyday circumstances might come to make sense. But this is not because Williams agrees that it might, on Wittgenstein’s behalf or on his own.

But do his doubts really do make sense? Wittgenstein never wavers in his conviction that they do not: the sceptic’s doubts are wholly illusory. This is another reason why they cannot be met with a proof. If the scruples of the sceptic or idealist are incoherent, then so are the reassurances of the realist. No proof is possible because there is nothing to prove. (ibid: 79)

Despite the failure of Moore’s response to scepticism, Wittgenstein clearly thought that it was interesting and relevant to an investigation of knowledge, doubt, certainty and scepticism and Williams follows him in this. In the first section – what he calls the ‘problem phase’ – Williams considers the ordinary role of claims to know and doubt and of knowledge itself and doubt itself.

While Moore’s proof is deeply misconceived, it has considerable diagnostic interest. By reflecting on it, we can discern a number of important features of the logic of “doubt” and “know”. We can also find clues to a deeper diagnosis of sceptical worries. Wittgenstein makes a number of interconnected suggestions… The first is that ordinary doubts are essentially linked to the possibility of their being resolved… (ibid: 79)

In the ordinary setting, raising a doubt presupposes the possibility of a resolution. To raise a doubt requires some grounds. In this respect, claims to knowledge and doubt are symmetric. Both are moves within a game of asking for and giving reasons and hence we might say, following Sellars and McDowell (although Williams does not put it this way himself) knowledge and doubt are standings or statuses in the space of reasons. 

Wittgenstein’s second point is that Moore’s proof is not just ineffective: it involves a misuse of the expression “I know”… The things Moore assures us he knows are not ordinarily the objects of knowledge-claims. Indeed, they are not ordinarily expressed in claims of any kind. Rather, knowledge and certainty are shown in practice, in the way I act. (ibid: 79)

Williams suggests that Moore’s response to the sceptic itself relies on a false picture of knowledge which likens it to a state of mind, the sort of state over which one has authority, rather than a standing in the space of reasons. Further, context influences what one can claim to know. Williams quotes Wittgenstein:

I know that a sick man is lying here? Nonsense! I am sitting at his bedside, I am looking attentively into his face.—So I don’t know, then, that there is a sick man lying here? Neither the question nor the assertion makes sense. (Wittgenstein 1969 §10 quoted in Williams 2004b: 80)

In this particular context, the assertion that one knows and equally questioning it both misfire. In general, Williams is suspicious of too quickly inferring from a failure of an assertion to an underlying factual state ( at 13-14 and 17-18 minutes). So, for example, while it may make no sense in some particular context to announce that one knows something, one still might know it, he suggests. In this, he is more cautious of inference from the fact that an assertion would make no sense in context to a conclusion that there is no knowledge in play than, say, Danièle Moyal-Sharrock (Moyal Sharrock 2004). Further, he devotes much of his paper ‘Wittgenstein, truth and certainty’ to a discussion of Wittgenstein’s own reluctance to treat certainties such as this, or ‘hinges’, as knowledge or even as truths (Williams 2004a).

However, connected with his repudiation of intrinsic credibility, and perhaps even more striking, is the fact that, in sharp contrast to traditional foundationalists, Wittgenstein is deeply reluctant to think of basic certainties as examples of basic knowledge. Thus:
§32 It’s not a matter of Moore’s knowing that there’s a hand there, but rather we should not understand him if he were to say ‘Of course I may be wrong about this’. We should ask ‘What is it like to make such a mistake as that?’—e.g. what’s it like to discover that it was a mistake?
§58 If ‘I know etc.’ is conceived as a grammatical proposition, of course the ‘I’ cannot be important. And it properly means There is no such thing as doubt in this case’ or ‘The expression “I do not know” makes no sense in this case’. And of course it follows from this that ‘I know’ makes no sense either.
With regard to basic certainties, claims to knowledge are nonsensical. The concept of knowledge does not apply. (Williams 2004a: 255-6)

Further, later in that paper, Williams appears to agree with Wittgenstein’s view:

My commonsense and scientific framework determines what counts as evidence for what, thus what it is to give (or possess) grounds. But if practices of justification necessarily take place against a background of unchallenged (and even unchallengeable) commonsense and scientific certainties, it seems to follow that those certainties themselves are beyond justification. But if they cannot be justified, they cannot be known, or not known. The concept of knowledge gets no purchase here, just as Wittgenstein says. (ibid: 257)

But later still it becomes clear that Williams’ view is nuanced.

I am sympathetic to what Wittgenstein is trying to do here. But lacking further development, the argument I have just given is less than fully satisfying. It may be that the judgements that belong to our ‘frame of reference’ are not what we ordinarily think of as assumptions, and so the sceptic should not call them such. But it is hard to shake the feeling that, on a deeper level, the sceptic is more right than wrong. The source of this feeling is not hard to identify. Many of our common-sense certainties appear to be empirical propositions. That is to say, whether they are true or false depends on what the facts are, not on what we believe. But such certainties cannot be supported by evidence or argument: the element in which arguments have their life cannot itself be argued for. To be sure, in one way our bedrock certainties are justified: we are fully entitled to hold on to them. But in another way, they are not. We do not and, in the nature of the case, cannot have reasons to suppose that they are true. This is the sense of ‘justified’ that seems to be uppermost in Wittgenstein’s mind when he expresses reluctance to count basic certainties as items of knowledge. We seem to be left with substantial empirical commitments that cannot be justified. (ibid: 258)

More recently, in ‘Wittgenstein and Skepticism: Illusory Doubts’, Williams suggests that one can know hinge propositions and stresses some textual support in OC for this view, too (Williams 2018).

It is widely assumed that “hinge” propositions, because they structure our epistemic practices, are not even candidates for being known to be true. If this is what Wittgenstein intends, he faces what Duncan Pritchard identifies as a “core problem”: that “from a skeptical view it is hard to see just what is so anti-skeptical about the claim that the structure of rational evaluation has at its core arational commitments. Isn’t that just what the radical skeptic claims?”25 However, it is far from clear that this is Wittgenstein’s view. The “hinge” remark (OC 341) begins “That is to say . . .” and glosses Wittgenstein’s previous observation (OC 340): “We know, with the same certainty with which we believe any mathematical proposition, how the letters A and B are pronounced, what the colour of human blood is called, that human beings have blood and call it ‘blood.’” Apparently, Wittgenstein doesn’t hesitate to treat hinge propositions as known.
That said, Wittgenstein often seems to take the opposite view. Is he of two minds? However, when Wittgenstein declines to say that everyday certainties are things he knows, it is almost invariably to distance himself from Moore’s use of “I know” to combat skepticism. “I know,” Wittgenstein observes, may be taken to express “comfortable certainty, not the certainty that is still struggling” (OC §357). This use of “I know” is unexceptionable in everyday contexts. But in a discussion of skepticism it is pointless, if not actively dangerous: remember Moore’s mistake. (Williams 2018: 496-7)

Overall, there is reason to hold that, in what is in effect an unedited collection of final notes, Wittgenstein does not have a settled view of hinges but that Williams takes them to be both true and knowable, though typically claims to know them of the sort Moore attempts are nonsensical. Hence their identification is not a matter of avowing all one’s commitments as Moore implies but rather looking to what is shown as fixed by inquiry.

How are such axial points discovered? Surely, the answer must be that we can come to see that they are presupposed—logically implied by the particular ways in which we do and do not ask questions. By ‘logically’ I do not necessarily mean ‘formally’. Rather, they may be held fast by what Robert Brandom calls ‘material-inferential connections’. Still, it is hard to see how such propositions could lack truth-value. They are presupposed in the sense that a commitment to their truth is implicit in our practices of inquiry and justification. This seems to be part of what Wittgenstein is getting at when he introduces the idea of a ‘hinge’ proposition. (Williams 2004a: 259)

So, returning from the detour on Williams’ view as to whether hinges can be true and known, I can summarise the main thrust of the ‘problem phase’ section of Williams’ ‘Wittgenstein’s refutation of idealism’. The key idea is that the sceptic’s doubt – and thus their claim to doubt – makes no sense because it lacks the right context of reasons for possible error and potential reassurances.

Wittgenstein’s initial remarks on the scope of ordinary doubt might give the impression that only the legitimacy of the sceptic’s “doubts” is in question. This is not so. At issue is their intelligibility. It is not just that we do not doubt the things that Moore would like to say he knows: the question is whether we understand what it would be to doubt them. This is where the point that doubts too need grounds comes back into play… Just as entering a doubt implies the possibility of saying what mistake might have been made, so entering a knowledge-claim implies the possibility of saying how one knows. This will often mean being able give appropriate grounds or evidence. Thus an expression of doubt, implying the possibility of a mistake, can be met with an explanation of how one knows, an explanation that will show that no mistake was in fact made. The symmetry in the intelligibility requirements for doubting and knowledge-claiming—the need to be able to say what mistake might have been made or how one knows—makes plain why the (in principle) possibility of resolving doubts (by explaining how one knows) is built into the language-game as one of its essential features). (Williams 2004b: 81)

This the first section of Williams’ account of Wittgenstein’s anti-Cartesian scepticism concern the idea that sceptical doubt makes no sense and that this fact is illustrated, rather than countered, by Moore’s counter claims to knowledge. But Williams does not think that this is the end of Wittgenstein’s account. For this reason, he criticises the ‘Framework Reading’ for offering a too direct, too blunt response to scepticism. A diagnostic and theoretical treatment is also called for.

These important passages throw into relief what I regard as so misleading about the Framework Reading: it makes Wittgenstein’s response to scepticism too direct. As a result, it loses sight of an essential point: that comments on the logic of ordinary doubting and knowledge-claiming will cut no ice if we are in the grip of the illusion that there is a special kind of philosophical doubt, purporting to call epistemic ordinary procedures into question… Marie McGinn claims that Wittgenstein’s key insight is that, because Moorean judgments do not embed in epistemic contexts, we do not stand in an “epistemic relation” to such judgments. Accordingly, Moore’s insistence that he knows such things to be true and the sceptic’s attempt to doubt them both misfire. But no such conclusion is yet available. The most that has been shown is that such judgments are not ordinarily treated as either supportable by evidence or open to question. (ibid: 83)

Moyal-Sharrock takes this to suggest that Williams is more sympathetic to philosophical scepticism than, on her account, Wittgenstein (or she) is. She says:

Williams attempts to rally Wittgenstein to this account of the sceptical situation. I believe, however, that both philosophers’ accounts are irreconcilable. Williams takes scepticism seriously; Wittgenstein does not. Williams believes the sceptic’s doubt is real and profound; Wittgenstein does not. Williams believes that the sceptic’s sin is that he generalizes what should remain a context-bound doubt; Wittgenstein believes so-called sceptical doubt is not doubt at all – in the study, or out…
[O]n Williams’s reading of Wittgenstein, although sceptical doubt has no bearing on ordinary doubt, it is a legitimate manifestation of doubt, and we are entitled to its examination. (Moyal Sharrock 2004: 158-60)

But I do not think that that is fair. It is rather that Williams wishes to pre-empt a sceptical response that while the kind of doubts raised by the sceptic are not normally regarded as relevant, the sceptic has, nevertheless, revealed an embarrassing lacuna in everyday thinking. Hence Williams suggests the need for a second and diagnostic phase.

Wittgenstein conspicuously declines to offer a quick-and-dirty refutation. He does not argue (as we might have expected) that, since the possibility of resolving doubts belongs to our language-game as one of its essential features, sceptical or philosophical doubt is an obvious non-starter. Instead, he suggests that we ask what a sceptical doubt would amount to, warning us not to assume that we already know. His intent is clear: the peculiar character of philosophical doubt is a not a refutation of scepticism, but it is an invitation to pursue a diagnostic inquiry. If a doubt about existence only works in a language-game, and if the game of philosophical reflection is distinct from that of ordinary doubting, we are entitled to ask how the philosophical game is to be carried on. (ibid: 84)

This passage channels an early section in OC where Wittgenstein says:

The idealist’s question would be something like: “What right have I not to doubt the existence of my hands?” (And to that the answer can’t be: I know that they exist.) But someone who asks such a question is overlooking the fact that a doubt about existence only works in a language-game. Hence, that we should first have to ask: what would such a doubt be like?, and don’t understand this straight off. (§24)

Given that Wittgenstein ties doubting to a language game the sceptic may claim to have such a game in mind, a specific philosophical or epistemological context. Hence Wittgenstein both suggests the necessity of offering them a chance to sketch this but also cautions against assuming that such a doubt will make sense. This has echoes of the ‘Resolute Reading’s’ approach to nonsense elsewhere in Wittgenstein’s oevre. Whereas traditional Wittgensteinians were happy to assert baldly that certain utterances were nonsense and hence to rule them out, ‘Resolute Readers’ are critical of the idea of essentially nonsensical senses. Nonsense is merely the lack of sense. No use has been given to a combination of linguistic symbols, for example. And hence the diagnosis of nonsense requires offering an opportunity for those who think they have made sense to explain the rules of their game.

In the diagnostic phase of, Williams mainly offers a distinct response to Cartesian scepticism entering on the idea of the existence of physical objects, the very claim Moore takes to defend in his Proof. Williams claims, of particular note, that that there are physical objects is not a hinge proposition.

It’s not a matter of Moore’s knowing that there’s a hand there, but rather we should not understand him if he were to say “Of course I may be wrong about this”. We should ask “What is it like to make such a mistake as that?”—e.g. what’s it like to discover that it was a mistake. (Wittgesntein 1969 §32)
It is not as though we have some general-purpose concept of “making a mistake” such that, in any circumstances whatsoever, and without any particular error-possibility in mind, we can intelligibly say “Maybe you are making a mistake”. So once more, what is the language-game of philosophical doubt? The absolutely crucial feature of philosophical doubt has already been identified. It involves taking seriously the possibility that no physical objects exist. If there is a genuine possibility here, we can see why the idealist wants to know what right I have not to doubt the existence of my hands. We can also see why this doubt, once entered, may turn out to be irresolvable. I cannot resolve it Moore’s way, by examples. But it is not obvious what other way, if any, is available to me. (Williams 2004b: 85)

Here Williams identifies the specific confrontation of Moore and the sceptic and hence the latter’s idea that there is a kind of universal doubt available as a result of philosophical reflection. It concerns the specific idea of doubt that ‘external’ or physical objects exist at all. Hence also Wittgenstein’s use of both ‘sceptic’ and ‘idealist’ to characterise this supposed position.

So if it is nonsense both to question, with the sceptic, or to assert, with Moore, whether or that there physical objects, what status does the proposition have. Williams suggests that it functions as a description of the system of representation (to which Wittgenstein often gives the description ‘logic’).

Wittgenstein does not elaborate, but the main drift of his thought is clear. We do not have a general-purpose concept of “object” that swings free of our ability to refer to objects in the course of playing particular language-games. Rather, our understanding of “objects” is implicit in our mastery of singular reference:. In other words, “objects” are what singular terms pick out. Central to our mastery of singular reference are practices of identification and re-identification: we know what an object is when we know what does and does not count as the same object. These practices of identification and reidentification sort “objects” into broad logical categories… This is why no such proposition as “There are physical objects” can be formulated. At most it could mean “We talk about tables, chairs, dogs, cats, etc.”. This is not at all what the realist intends to assert or the idealist to deny. (ibid: 86)

This passage has echoes of a theme in both McGinn’s and Moyal-Sharrock’s interpretations. They both argue that hinge propositions are connected to language mastery. For example McGinn argues:

Thus, my certainty regarding, say, the judgement ‘This is a hand’ is to be seen as a pre-epistemic attitude that is in part constitutive of my practical ability to speak the language. the judgement that this is a hand is not a piece of knowledge – a true, justified belief, based on evidence – but an authoritative expression of my established mastery of English. (McGinn 1989: 144)

And Moyal-Sharrock argues that it is a theme of the ‘third Wittgenstein’ that apparent empirical claims really serve as grammatical stipulations (Moyal-Sharrock 2004). While there is some commonality here, Williams disagrees that this really is an instance of a hinge.

We have identified the proximate source of the illusion of the doubt behind everyday doubt. The idealist or sceptic wants to treat “There are physical objects” as an empirical or factual statement. He wants to treat is as a hypothesis. It is neither. However, this is not because, as the Framework Reading has it, that it is a “framework judgment”, lying apart from the route traveled by inquiry, beyond evidence and justification, and non- factual because neither true nor false. “There are physical objects” is neither true nor false because it is nonsense. And it is nonsense because “physical object” is not the concept of a kind of object, like “unicorn” or “planet”. “Physical object” is a piece of logical or semantic vocabulary, thus unsuitable for formulating the empirical hypothesis the sceptic or idealist would like to express…
Is “There are physical objects” is a hinge proposition, only more general than hinges specific to history or physics because common to all such inquiries? No. “There are physical objects” is not a hinge proposition: it is nonsense. (Williams 2004b: 86-7)

Thus Williams agrees with McGinn’s and Moyal-Sharrock’s claims that some of the things said by sceptics and by philosophical responses to them (eg Moore’s) are nonsensical. But he disagrees in so far as he thinks that this instance is nonsense but not a hinge and that genuine hinges are not non-sensical but true and knowable.

It is important to take note of the special character of this diagnosis. Not all propositions that lie apart from the route travelled by inquiry do so for the same reason. To see this, consider another proposition much discussed by Wittgenstein in the later sets of notes: “The earth has existed of many years past”. No one who doubted this proposition could engage in historical investigation or seek historical understanding. The same goes for the proposition that not all historical records are the product of fraud or deception. All our discursive practices involve such (typically tacit) commitments. They constitute the “riverbed” along which inquiry flows (§§95-99), the axis around which inquiry moves (§152), or the hinges on which it turns (§§341-3). (ibid: 87)

Genuine hinges are, according to Williams, related to Moore’s ‘Defence of common sense’ rather than his ‘Proof of the external world’.

We learn to think by learning to talk; and we learn to talk by being trained to make particular judgments about things around us. It is therefore inconceivable that there should be discursive beings who had not mastered “physical-object” talk. For more specialized kinds of talk, this is not so. Wittgenstein writes:
[W]hat goes into someone’s knowing…history, say? He must know what it means to say: the earth has already existed for such and such a length of time. For not any intelligent adult must know that….§85
….Men have believed that they could make rain. Why should not a king be brought up in the belief that the world began with him?…§92
A definite conception of historical time belongs to what we take as common sense. But not everything that belongs to common sense is a precondition of the very possibility of rational thought. This confirms what I have claimed. Wittgenstein’s response to idealism, the problem addressed in Moore’s “Proof”, must be distinguished from his discussion of Moore’s “Defence”, which raises very different issues. (ibid: 87-8)

So far, then, Williams has stressed that doubt and knowledge are symmetric, both calling for justificatory reasons. Doubt, no less than a knowledge claim, requires motivation and hence a merely logically possible doubt need not be an actual doubt. Further, he has suggested that Cartesian scepticism treats a logical description of our linguistic practices as an empirical hypothesis and hence sceptical doubt, and Moorean defence, both fail to make sense.

Is that enough to block scepticism? It is still not, according to Williams. The problem is that the sceptic may remain unconvinced that what they have said is nonsensical. They may insist that it makes sense to them.

Why is it an inadequate answer to the idealist and the realist to say that “There are physical objects” is nonsense? In saying that it is not nonsense “to them”, Wittgenstein is not saying that it is not nonsense. Nor is he conceding that the idealist and realist have given it a sense: not a clear sense, anyway. The point is rather that these philosophers— all of us when we are in the grip of sceptical anxieties--will not recognise that it is nonsense. They (or we) think that “There are physical objects” can be understood as an empirical hypothesis. They (we) suffer from an illusion of meaning, the source of which remains to be exposed. (ibid: 88)

As I have already suggested this thought resembles a change of tack in Wittgensteinian philosophy that has arisen with the resolute reading of nonsense. This is not, in fact, Williams’ approach to scepticism. In Unnatural Doubts, he distinguishes between two anti-sceptical approaches therapeutic and theoretical diagnoses. There, Williams does not claim in propria persona that the sceptical hypothesis makes no sense. So he does not say that scepticism makes no sense either. That may count in his favour (since scepticism seems to make sense). But, unlike philosophers such as Donald Davidson, he does not let the sceptical argument go through and then offer a distinct argument for reassurance. Once it does then it seems merely dogmatic to attempt to deny it. Instead, Williams aims to show that scepticism depends on a theoretical view of knowledge which is neither obligatory nor natural.

He claims that the sceptical argument depends on what seemed merely an accidental feature of Descartes’ method of doubt: treating our knowledge of the external world as a single type of knowledge, sharing a common style of justification (via (our knowledge of) our experience). But the idea that there is such a class as ‘our knowledge of the external world’ is not a natural idea and this category is theoretical and artificial. So once we realise that the sceptic relies on this assumption – for example in the way normal ways of justifying our claim that we are not now dreaming are ruled out because we need to prove we are not dreaming independently of anything else we know about the world – it is equally possible to reject both it and the scepticism it leads to. Further, the very fact it leads to scepticism (which is obvious rubbish) counts against it.

But that is not how things proceed in the next section of ‘Wittgenstein’s refutation of idealism’. Here he takes as the key analogy knowledge of mathematical truths.

To learn to calculate at all, hence to learn what calculating is, we must be trained to accept certain calculations as (normally) unquestionable. Someone who was in doubt as to whether 12 x 12 = 144 would not have learned to calculate. He would not know what calculating is and would not understand arithmetical statements. As Wittgenstein explains in some later remarks:
The truth of my statements is the test of my understanding of these statements. (§80)
That is to say: if I make certain false statements, it becomes uncertain whether I understand them. (§81)
And although there is no rule for distinguishing those cases in which error is impossible from those in which it isn’t, this is not a lack: “The rule is not needed” (§46). (Williams 2004b: 89)

(Williams adds a footnote that connects back to the question of whether – contra Moyal-Sharrock – hinges are true and can be known.

Notice that this argument depends on a straightforward attribution of truth to Moorean judgments. At the same time, Wittgenstein is tempted to deny that propositions belonging to the “background” to inquiry are properly thought of as true or false. To go into this issue would take me too far afield. Let me just say what I take to be the source of Wittgenstein’s hesitation: he is torn between a deflationary view of truth (in the form of a redundancy theory) and an epistemic account (the true/false as what we can confirm/disconfirm). What these two approaches to truth have something in common is that on neither can we explain why certain proposition “stand fast” by saying that they “correspond to reality”. (ibid: fn6))

Elsewhere he summarises this thought thus:

‘…it is not true that a mistake merely gets more and more improbable as we pass from the planet to my own hand. No: at some point it has already ceased to be conceivable. Where doubt is impossible, we find certainty.’ (§54)
The traditional conception of a basic belief involves the idea of encapsulated knowledge: things that we can believe without our needing to believe anything else, potential first items of knowledge from which a more elaborate structure of justified belief can be built up. By contrast, Wittgenstein holds that while some beliefs do and must ‘stand fast’, they do so in virtue of their place in a larger, inferentially articulated system of beliefs…
In sum, in taking judgement (or belief) for granted, the sceptic arrives on the scene too late. Without judgements that are unproblematic, there are no judgements at all. And, because meaning is a matter of use, such unproblematic judgements must be unproblematically true. (Williams 2004a: 252-5)

In the final pages of ‘Wittgenstein’s refutation of idealism’, Williams ascribes to Wittgenstein the Williamsian diagnosis of presupposing epistemological realism.

The reason why sceptic and idealist think that “There as physical objects” is a hypothesis is that they are convinced that experiential knowledge—knowledge of coloured patches or “sense-data”—is epistemologically prior to knowledge of physical objects. In fact, in their view, experiential knowledge is epistemologically basic: knowledge of sense-data is distinctive in its immediacy, certainty immunity from error. In reporting on our sense-data, we can perhaps make verbal slips, but we cannot make mistakes. With this doctrine in place, judgments about physical objects look to be inferential. (Williams 2004b: 90)

But he goes further to make a suggestion that links back to the error he also ascribes to Moore which is to treat knowledge as a mental state.

That is the problem. If one thinks of knowledge as a mental state, thus as subjective, while recognising that “know” is factive, one will suppose that a subjective or inner state can ensure that certain facts really do obtain. But how can a subjective state guarantee objective facts? It cannot. Thus one is led to the view that the only facts that can be known, or “immediately” known, are themselves subjective: facts about other mental states.

This is the ground of epistemological realism: treating knowledge as falling into theoretical tractable kinds with risky empirical knowledge of the world based on safer knowledge of experiential states. It turns out on Williams’ reading that either Wittgenstein is Williams’ father or, more likely, Williams is Wittgenstein’s.


McGinn, M. (1989) Sense and Certainty, Oxford: Blackwell

G.E.Moore, ‘Proof of an External World’ and ‘A Defence of Common Sense’, both in Moore, G. E. 1970. Philosophical Papers, 3rd edn. London: Allen and Unwin.

Moyal-Sharrock, D. (2004) Understanding Wittgenstein's on Certainty. Palgrave-Macmillan

Williams, M. (1996) Unnatural doubts, Princeton: Princeton University Press

Williams, M. (2004a) ‘Wittgenstein, truth and certainty’ In Max Kölbel & Bernhard Weiss (eds.) Wittgenstein's Lasting Significance. Routledge.

Williams, M. (2004b) ‘Wittgenstein's refutation of idealism’ In Denis McManus (ed.) Wittgenstein and Scepticism. Routledge.

Williams, M. (2007a) ‘Why Wittgenstein isn’t a foundationalist’ in Moyal-Sharrock, Daniele & Brenner, William H. (eds.) (2007) Readings on Wittgenstein's On Certainty. Palgrave-Macmillan.

Williams, M. (2007b) ‘Why (Wittgensteinian) Contextualism Is Not Relativism’ Episteme, 4(1), 93-114.

Williams, M. (2017) ‘Hinges as knowledge (Wittgenstein on Knowledge and Certainty)’

Wittgenstein, L. (1969) On Certainty, Oxford: Blackwell

Tuesday, 20 April 2021

Duncan Pritchard’s take on On Certainty

I’ve been chatting to a UCLan UG philosophy student (‘Olly’!) about hinge propositions in Wittgenstein’s On Certainty (OC). I’ve got a basic familiarity with OC and deploy some slogans when summarising it, but it occurs to me that these may be largely false. And hence, having time (while mad and ill), I think I ought to sit down in my study and, just this once, try to check my reading of it. 

The sort of thing I tend to say is that OC is radical because LW separates the game of giving and asking for reasons, of knowledge and doubt, from certainty. A framework of both animal and inherited certainty is the condition of possibility of knowledge claims and also of claims to doubt since doubts, too, take work and a context to make them reasonable. (On this, I like to remind myself that claiming that one didn’t know one’s suspiciously suddenly dead partner’s bank balance will not get waved through as it might in an epistemology class. One can be assumed to have picked up knowledge - rubbing off on one like an infectious disease - unless there is good reason why not.)
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. 

I think that there are three steps.
Step one. Knowledge is incompatible with luck (roughly!)
There is more to knowledge than true belief. Consider this case:
In a pub quiz, I am asked for the first name of a familiar looking person in a picture. I say “John as in Jedward” and get it right. My partner says: “Wow I’m impressed! How did you know it wasn’t his twin Edward” and I reply: “I didn’t know he had a twin”. Did I know who it was?
Intuitively, I did not know it was John even though my belief was true because it was based in a knowledge-undermining way on luck. Had I been shown a picture of Edward, I would also have said “John” and got the answer wrong. So the truth of my belief depended on my good luck to be shown the right picture. I could not tell the difference between John and Edward, and hence I did not actually know the picture was of John. The same applies to rolling a fair dice and saying that it will not come up six. This may turn out to be true. But it still depends on luck. One cannot know that a fair dice will not come up six. Nor can one know that a 100 sided dice will not come up 100. Despite the increasingly good odds that make this a good bet, it would still be a matter of luck. So knowledge is true believe without the intervention of luck. It is this that is the basis of scepticism.
Step two. The ringer.
The sceptic does not aim to undermine knowledge by showing that what we think we know is actually false. Rather, they target the no-luck condition of knowledge. For Cartesian versions of scepticism, they do this by postulating a ‘ringer’ which we cannot tell apart from the veridical case. Eg that we might be a brain in a vat (BIV in what follows). (A ringer is a horse substituted for another of similar appearance in order to defraud the bookies. This word originated in the US horse-racing fraternity at the end of the 19th century.) 
With a well chosen ringer, no empirical evidence can rule it in or out. So if the BIV ringer is possible, even if our belief in the everyday external world turns out to be true (whether or not we could know that), it fails to be knowledge because it is true merely by good luck. Like the case of the dice coming up 6, the sceptic does not even have to claim that the ringer is likely. It just has to be possible and also impossible for us to rule it out. So if I can’t tell the difference between being an embodied human in the empirical world and being a BIV then I cannot know the former. Even if the former is true, my belief in it isn’t knowledge. And this is because of something like a no-luck condition which is undermined.
So the sceptic has got as far as arguing that we cannot know that we are not a brain in a vat. 
Step three: closure.
Here’s where I will demonstrate my crass ignorance of the literature on closure. But starting naively, closure is based on a syllogism. If P, and If P then Q, Then  Q. There’s a modus ponens and a modus tollens reading of the inference. Staring with two empirical claims: If I am in Kendal, then I am on Earth. If I am not on Earth then I am not in Kendal. 
Relevant here is the way that closure has been used in epistemology applied not just to P and Q but knowledge of P and Q or beliefs concerning them or rational entitlement to such beliefs. (One says that knowledge is closed under known entailment.) Suppose I know that P. It might seem that if I know P and if P implies Q then I should be able to know Q. This will fail, of course, if there is some impediment to me knowing the implication. And hence we need to refine the statement of a closure principle to include saying I also need to know the implication. And sadly, that’s just the start of the refinements. (See Pritchard’s book for one set of developments.)
Things get more relevant to scepticism when closure isn’t applied within a set of everyday empirical claims but from one or more of those to sceptical ringers and vice versa. If I am in Kendal, I am not a BIV. If I know I am in Kendal then I (am able to) know I am not a BIV. But if I cannot know that I am not a BIV, then I cannot know I am in Kendal. Applied to the sceptical ringer, then if I cannot know that the sceptical ringer is false then I cannot know any of the empirical claims that would imply that I am not a BIV. Etc. 
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. 
(Note though that while this is the right thing for him to say dialectically at this point in his book, in fact, 20 pages later, he will provide a way to having a proposition in play while blocking a closure based argument to scepticism. This is his own position.)
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 development of his own account puts some weight than on the idea, not found in OC of an ‘über hinge’. Having described a variety of types of hinge varying in the range of application from the personal to the universal he comments:
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.)
How does Pritchard block this? Around p101-103, if I follow, he just seems to set about constructing what a non-belief propositional attitude towards the negation of BIV would like like and pray that it solves his problem.
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: **)
He suggests that it is a commitment and hence is not mere agnosticism towards the possibility of BIV. He also argues that the fact that it may seem like a belief to a subject who holds it is no guide to it actually being (cf mistaking a piece of wishful thinking for a rationally held belief). Perhaps this is a legitimate activity: constructing a propositional attitude to suit a philosophical purpose. It is a pity, however, that so little of its functional role is described.
Now whatever exactly this commitment to not-BIV is, we might still worry that it will still support closure. Pritchard says not because:
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: **)
So the über hinge reappears. My commitment to not-BIV is itself a codification of part of that. It’s like a deduction, perhaps, or a local application of that wider commitment. Given the über hinge then not-BIV. 
But it would now be question begging if he relied on the earlier argument about why the über hinge doesn’t link to closure (because he has just invented this über hinge notion and has provided us with no independent argument to accept it). So let’s see why we cannot infer knowledge of not-BIV from knowledge that we are in Kendal? Well, it’s already in the above quote. It turns on this claim that a hinge is:
a commitment that is not acquired via any rational process, much less the result of a specific rational processlike a particular competent deduction. (ibid: **)
What should we make of this?
First, we could disagree with him. Again, if I remember accurately (and I may not), Michael Williams suggests that I can know that I’m not-BIV via what looks like a rational process. Since nothing speaks for being a BIV because being a BIV is not a possibility – it is akin to a fairy tale - then excluding it seems (to me) to be rational. McDowell suggests that I can know that I am n to a BIV because I can see the roofs of Kendal around me. This is fallible, but in the good disjunct, I do have knowledge that I’m in Kendal and hence not a BIV. (I have knowledge because I can see the very roofs. If I can see them - really them! - then there is no luck involved in my knowing them to be there. The roofs themselves inform/justify me.)
But suppose we grant Pritchard that not being a BIV is presupposed by inquiry rather than earned by it (and this seems a better fit with much of OC), why isn’t there still a problem when I come to reflect on my knowledge when urged on by the sceptic? I realise that being in Kendal implies not being a BIV. So if I cannot know not-BIV, surely this should worry me? While it is true in general that we did not first satisfy ourselves of not-BIV before the sceptic arrived, if the sceptic points out that not only did we not bother to try to know this but actually we couldn’t know it, why isn’t that a problem? I come easily to realise that I were a BIV then I could not be in Kendal which is precisely what I now wish to know. 
Pritchard correctly points out that I do not believe not-BIV via an inference from believing I am in Kendal, or suchlike. I just don’t believe BIV. I have an a-rational commitment to not-BIV. Given that I did not derive not-BIV from empirical beliefs, I would still hold not-BIV if I had a whole set of other (false) empirical beliefs. Holding not-BIV is not dependent on any inference. Let’s grant all that before the sceptic arrives.
But now the sceptic raises a question of whether my belief in not-BIV is well supported. Do I have reason to hold it true? Do I have reason to think I can know it? Given that BIV implies not-Kendal, why does this not worry me?
Pritchard may reply that I should not worry because I don’t believe not-BIV, I just hold it. This seems to me akin to saying: “Don’t worry, while you have no rational grounds to hold it, you do wish it were true; it does flatter your vanity to hold it! You voted BREXIT similarly! And that all went well didn’t it?!” In this context, the idea that I was lax before I met the sceptic is no help to me. I want to take the content, the thought - not-BIV - and hold it up to scrutiny precisely as Descartes suggested, once in a life time, we should all. I may not have believed it before, I may not have considered it at all, but now I wish to believe it for rational reasons, to know it with no debt to luck.
Thus to be told that I have an a-rational commitment to not-BIV (of a form whose precise nature has not yet been sketched) seems to me to be no response to the sceptic except to concede everything important to her.