Tuesday, 11 May 2021

Danièle Moyal-Sharrock on Understanding Wittgenstein’s On Certainty

Back in 2009, I wrote a very brief outline of Danièle Moyal-Sharrock’s 2007 book Understanding Wittgenstein’s On Certainty (Moyal-Sharrock 2007). I think my summary (though very inadequate) wasn’t false. So today I want to offer some sort of assessment in the light of other things I’ve read about Wittgenstein’s On Certainty (OC) more recently.

According to Moyal-Sharrock, Wittgenstein held bipolarity to be a necessary condition for propositions... 

(Bipolarity: every proposition must be capable of being true and capable of being false. It is more restrictive than bivalence: every proposition is either true or false. Thus only something that could be true and could be false counts as a proposition. So, in the context of the later Wittgenstein as usually described (the second Wittgenstein for Moyal-Sharrock), grammatical prescriptions, which set out conditions for playing particular language games (there is no such thing as reddish green; pink is lighter than red; 2 + 2 = 4), cannot be false and thus do not count as propositions. To put it that way is to mislead, however, – sorry! – because neither are they true. At this point, some commentators are happier to say that they are true in a minimal or surd manner.) 

... The expression of a hinge - in a hinge like context, not an empirical doppelgänger - cannot be false. And so it cannot be a proposition. And hence, in a technical sense, it is nonsense (which is not to say anything value-laden about it!). Nevertheless, even in such a context, a rational speaker must be able to appreciate the semantic relations of the whole to its parts and those parts to other genuine propositions with sense. All this is in her book.

Assuming that knowledge is limited to contents expressible as propositions (or, perhaps, contents that simply are propositions) then this non-propositional reading of hinges quickly and directly rules out their being known. Moore does not know the thingy he tries to express in his claim which, were one to overhear it in a crowded bar, one might have taken to concern whether he has a hand - in the non-medical context in which that seemed so sure that it was also proof against scepticism - because there isn’t anything ‘there’ in logical space to be known. He no more knows it than he knows that iggle wiggle piggle.

Now tautologies are not propositions either. And they too are related via semantic decomposition and recomposition to empirical, bipolarity-possessing propositions. And yet, someone who knows the truth of a tautology does not thereby know any worldly content. Suppose they know that a particular tautology is true. Apply Dummett’s worry about modest theories of meaning (that there is more to knowing a truth than knowing that it is true and knowledge of meaning requires the former). Can they know, not only that it is true, but its truth? Well perhaps in this derivative sense. They may know enough of the compositional structure of the tautology to know why it is a tautology. In a first year logic exam, this knowledge might be tested. So perhaps this does serve as an analogy for combining the idea that hinges are nonsensical and the idea that a rational speaker must grasp their relations to related bi-polar propositions.

Still, it would be an odd analogy (the fault is mine, not Moyal-Sharrock’s but I’m searching for a way to understand her view). Clicking the final pieces of the tautology into place stops it saying anything specific about the world (even if a competent self conscious speaker can explain how the structure yields the tautology). By contrast, Moore’s utterance looks still to have a location in logical space. It looks to link Moore and his hand, presupposing some English words, in a way that also provides a competent speaker the wherewithal to recognise that a doppelgänger sentence is not using any of the words ambiguously or as metaphor or merely in secondary sense. A doppelgänger is, indeed, a doppelgänger of the hinge itself. (Just to be clear: I am warming up to the idea that we know the content of a hinge - thus that it has a content - by taking our ability to construct the right, relevant doppelgänger as one indication. Our selection of the doppelgänger implies we know where, in logical space, to look.)

(This makes me wonder what the non-proposition ‘thingy’ (I’d write ‘content’ but it cannot be that; let ‘thingy’ stand in) of the hinge is, for Moyal-Sharrock. It must be something like the use of the sentence in that context. Used in the doppelgänger context, it is a different thing: a successful bi-polar proposition. So it cannot be just the sentence or character string. The words are not sufficient for the thingy. It must be the sentence in use. But given that it is supposed to fail of a use in the hinge context, my phrase “the use of the sentence in that context” must nevertheless be wrong. So of what is the doppelgänger a doppelgänger? Surely, again not the mere sentence or character string, since a synonymous doppelgänger using different words would also be a doppelgänger. (So the very words are not even necessary for the hinge: synonymous ones would do for both hinge and doppelgänger.) It is as though we need to postulate more than the sentence or character string but less than a proposition: a sort of nonsensical sense to serve as the basic vehicle from which doppelgängers can then be constructed. But that seems utter rubbish! This is, I fear, the consequence of starting to use the idea of nonsense as a technical notion.)

To return to the analogy with tautology. It seems much odder to say of the hinge - than the tautology - that it does not gesture at a particular bit of logical space. Its content has not been cancelled out in the way that that of a tautology has.

I have the impression that Moyal-Sharrock has provided a move in the history of ideas - in this case the specifics of Wittgenstein’s use of ‘proposition’ - rather than a contribution to epistemology (even in the meta-tradition of ending it). Once the notion of nonsense has become merely technical - such that we can say what the connection is between hinges, related empirical propositions and doppelgängers - it no longer provides illumination for why Moore’s claim to know his ‘hinge’ fails. I think that we do at least seem to know / understand what it is - what logical possibility - Moore thinks he knows: namely that ‘this’ (ie that that) is (was) a hand. So the content seems specified: that that was his hand. We might sniffily say that this is technically nonsense – well not that sniffily as ‘nonsense’ is not a value term – but we no longer have a grasp of why this isn’t a content that might be known.

Given this, then the failure of Moore to know it falls back from the stark idea that there is nothing to know to the more modest idea that there is a (quasi- or non-Wittgensteinian-propositional) content but that it is just that he doesn’t know it. His attitude is different. Perhaps he lacks the right justification? He might have a different attitude to it, one of animal certainty, and perhaps that it is a task of OC to describe.

And I think that this does seem to be a plausible reading of some of what Moyal-Sharrock says. Surely over strongly, she claims that Wittgenstein subscribes to a JTB analysis of knowledge (nothing she cites warrants this, though she does cite context specific connections to justification) and then suggests that certainties are not justified. One does not offer a reason for them. I can imagine that one could draw a distinction between knowledge and certainty this way. But if so it would be premised on a philosophical analysis of knowledge - which isn’t Wittgenstein’s usual mode - and the idea that knowledge works only that way (ie that the analysis is a good reduction). Perhaps: that there is always an explicit justification for any knowledge claim. But it seems to me to be equally plausible to say that while knowledge is a standing in the space of reasons, not every knowledge claim is advanced on the basis of a reason and in some cases offering a reason if challenged would be sketching an almost entire world picture. What is the justification for denying the chronology of young earth creationism? Well it’s not any one compelling factoid. But still, I think we know that the Earth is more than 6,000 years old.

Overall, I don't think that the non-propositional, ‘nonsensical’ reading of hinges works as a free standing response to any epistemological worries we may have.  

Moyal-Sharrock, D (2007) Understanding Wittgenstein’s On Certainty, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan