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.