Sunday, 25 July 2021

An ongoing conversation with Neil Pickering about likeness, metaphor and illness

Neil Pickering generously replied to some comments I’d made about his work on my blog here. I’ve replied thus. 

Dear Neil,

Many thanks for these helpful comments. May I ask three follow up questions to check I understand? You don’t need to answer them, of course. If you do, they are in bold below.

In one reply you say of Szasz and Wakefield “I think I’d say: they both think the likenesses – which must be either literal or non-existent – will do the work.  They’re both wrong, and in the same way.”

I realise that I’m not totally sure what ‘the work’ is.

I think that Wakefield thinks that dysfunction is a likeness, a qualitative feature of (perhaps) all illnesses such that combining it with harm gives a sufficient condition. So he answers the question ‘In virtue of what is this an illness?’ in part by saying ‘dysfunction’. He might equally answer the question: ‘Is it true that X is an illness?’ by saying ‘Yes it is literally true that it is an illness, in virtue of it being a harmful dysfunction’.

It doesn’t quite work the same way for Szasz. He thinks that mental illnesses are not really illness. To say they are is to deploy a metaphor as he understands metaphor which makes the claim – as you say here – false and a mere myth. He doesn’t think that likenesses do the work of establishing the illness status of mental illness. But he does think that they help do the work he wants: to show that mental illnesses aren’t illnesses.

So is ‘the work’ resolving a genuine dispute in a way that begs no questions? In other words, is it that the dialectical context of an ongoing dispute is an essential part of ‘the work’? Had there not been a dispute and had people simply given – say – Wakefield’s positive answer from Day One, would there be no work to do?

(If that’s the case, then I agree that the likeness argument would not do that work. But then I think that because nothing could ever do that work, that’s not such news to me. Nothing is non-question begging! Hence my caution about conceding ‘quacks like a duck’ once one see’s where that argument is heading! (Perhaps I should have said: quacks as a duck but likeness is Pickering-brand terminology and I wouldn’t want to tamper!))

An analogy. I assume no one disputes the chemical composition of water (roughly!) and there’s even a broad enough consensus to treat it almost as essentialists do (roughly!). So the answer to the question ‘In virtue of what is the substance in this bottle water?’ is generally: ‘In virtue of it having the same chemical structure as all water does’. Chemical composition serves a function as a likeness. But it doesn’t do ‘work’ in the sense of being deployed in an ongoing dispute about categorisation. That conversation is over.

(As some sort of Wittgensteinian, I do not believe in Putnam’s magical theory in which the world individuates itself after we offer a single baptism, our meaning carried away by fairies or storks or whatever. But I do think that we have more or less adopted chemical composition as a criterion of being water.)

So a basic question: is the water example a ‘likeness argument’ on the Pickering view of likeness?

Second, do you think it a metaphor?

I think I can imagine that the very idea that a fluid has a ‘structure’, as captured in school chemistry, might have started by requiring some sort of metaphor. Fluids? Structures? I was brought up by radical sociologists of science – eg Simon Schaffer of Leviathon and the Air-pump – so I know these things take ‘work’. But by now it is hard to think that - once we have a grasp of the sort of thing we mean by the phrase ‘chemical structure’ then - water’s having a structure of H2O is a metaphor. What’s left of the literal if we think that?

So on my initial reading of your position, likenesses are not just accepted criteria – such as the water case – but have to be in active disputes. Second, you have an alternative positive suggestion, given that likenesses cannot do ‘the work’, turning on metaphors.

It was that that gave me the three-fold contrast.

  • Szasz uses likenesses to try to argue that mental illnesses cannot be illnesses. (He’s bound to fail according to your very strict requirement.) He then uses his reading of metaphor to explain what the ‘wrong’ (for him) view of mental illness as illness amounts to (a mere metaphor, a myth, a falsehood). 
  • Wakefield uses likenesses to try to argue that mental illnesses are literally illnesses. (He’s bound to fail according to your very strict requirement.) He – thinks he - has no need of metaphors because he takes dysfunctions to be partial criteria, akin to chemical composition. It’s all very literal. 
  • And – and obviously I’m worried about typing this – I took you to be saying that yoking ‘illness’ to ‘mental illness’ took a kind of imaginative miscategorising, positively described as metaphor. Not literally true but not false either.

Is that - roughly - right?

You kindly suggest that you see some virtue in my final thought. That’s linked – as I’m sure you know – to Travis’ account of rule following in his book Thought’s Footing. He connects it to a distinction between ‘prior’ and ‘novel’ understanding which is, in effect, the distinction between a descriptive thought that one can have in advance of events turning out as they do and a singular thought, in the presence of particular events, as they come to pass. Travis stresses the gap between what it is possible to think before events come about and what it is possible to think only once they have. That gap in the metaphysics of thought (Russell, Frege) is the gap that so entertains us, quasi-Wittgensteinians. So one might say that every application of every rule – every descriptive word to a particular case entertained under a singular thought – was metaphorical. That’s quite pokey!

But if we step back from that brink then where do we draw the line?

And I wanted – teasingly – to try to do to you what you did to Bill Fulford who was doing this to everyone else: recontextualize and point out a question being begged. You ask: from whose perspective can we highlight likenesses in active disputes? Since they will always presuppose a perspective, but in an area of active disagreement, then they cannot be used to resolve the disagreement. Claims about likenesses beg questions.

In this case, I wanted to ask, from whose perspective do we draw the distinction between imaginative metaphorical mis-categorisations, which extend the use of words, and literal categorisations as just more mundane applications of a word to cases to which it literally applies? I wanted to imply that your hunch that mental illness was an interesting metaphor was no better grounded than Wakefield’s hunch that it is a literal and mundane application of the baseline criterion of dysfunction. That wasn’t to hand him victory, of course, but just to say that you are – as Zaphod Beeblebrox was famously described – ‘just this guy’ or rather just another guy in the debate, not as it were, above the debate. (Putting it like that sounds awful, sorry! It wasn’t a moral accusation.)

Of course, in doing this, I was putting myself above the debate. Oh how shallow I always am! Sorry.


Wednesday, 14 July 2021

No doubt diminishing returns on hinges and sceptism

Gloria asked me: “Is the broad claim here this, i.e. that a framework of hinge-knowledge precludes our having to deal with the challenge to knowledge claims stemming from phenomenal indiscernibility? In effect, that this framework becomes a sort of transcendental condition that sculpts the space of epistemic possibilities in such a way that the very move to raise the spectre of phenomenal indiscernibility now becomes illegitimate?”

One way that hinges might be used to block scepticism is this. One concedes the MP version of closure and hence one looks vulnerable to a MT version which argues from the fact that we don’t know we’re not BIV (or any other relevant phenomenological indiscernible) to the fact that we don’t know some ordinary knowledge claim. But then while one concedes that we don’t know that not-BIV, we are committed to not-BIV as a hinge. Hinges are not knowledge claims but commitments of a different sort which lie outside closure. So not knowing not-BIV is no threat to ordinary knowledge. Pritchard argues this. He accepts that we are committed to hinges but not as either knowledge or as knowledge-apt belief (ie reason responsive belief). Hinges are commitments but not the sort of propositional attitude that can come under closure. Wright gives a pragmatic acceptance version of hinges according to which it is reasonable to act as though they are correct. It’s a rational bet.

Even if this were coherent - and frankly Pritchard doesn’t tell us enough while Wright gives us an obviously inadequate picture - it would still leave open the following possibility. While we realise that we have always a-rationally accepted hinges in the past, now we want to know whether it is reasonable to believe we’re not-BIVs. Now that that question has been raised in a philosophy class, we want to run the closure argument either way. What’s to reassure us that the propositional content that we’re not-BIV is held for good enough reason? 

I see no hope this way.

You ask - reasonably enough - whether a knowledge-based version of hinges (according to which they are conceptually structured, are the objects of attitudes and, even more, are known) provides a reason to rule out sceptical ringer arguments. Frankly, I’m not sure. I didn’t try to sell you my idea of hinges - as bits of knowledge held in place by holistic considerations and serving as the framework for the explicit asking for reasons - as an answer to scepticism. I’m proceeding by elimination. 

Hinges cannot be just animal certainties - as Stroll and Malcolm suggest - because they are / would be blankly external to our epistemic practices. (And the fact that we don’t check the checking of apples looks to be a problem if this animal fact is external to our epistemic practices. It looks like an oversight.)

Hinges cannot be extra-conceptual quasi conceptual entities as Moyal Sharrock suggests because there’s no conceptual space for that. (Here I add in a premises about the resolute reading of LW.)

They cannot be what Pritchard and Wright say.

So they must be conceptual. But if so and if not the non-epistemic attitudes of Pritchard and Wright, they must be contributions to our epistemic standing. I can only think they are known. That’s the argument from elimination.

OK so now you raise the standard sceptical argument from indiscernability / sceptical ringers. What could I invoke? Austin? McDowell? I need a way to suggest a difference between an actual possibility of being misled and a merely idling philosophical one. If there’s an actual possibility I should have addressed about the apples then I don’t know they were apples even if they were and I was lucky. But if it is idle talk of what might have been in the Matrix or a dream then I do know. 

One thing: LW’s worry that Moore cannot achieve very much by saying ‘I know’ is neither here nor there. Sincerity isn’t enough. About a third of OC goes after the wrong target by worrying about what isn’t achieved in the ‘I know’. ‘I know’ expresses objective certainty about the content of a knowledge claim but it does not, just by saying, achieve or guarantee it. This doesn’t imply that knowledge isn’t factive. It just implies that saying ‘I know’ isn’t factive. It seems remarkable that LW made such heavy weather of that.

Might that be enough? Knowledge is a genuine state achieved by ruling out real possibilities of error but, as Austin says, ‘enough is enough’. Better to focus on ‘he knows’ than ‘I know’ but also to realise that even that always leaves space in the game for the question: ‘Do you really know that he knows?’. ‘If he knows X then X, after all. Do you know X?’ But that question idles unless we can give it point.

Friday, 9 July 2021

Postscript to Some notes on having a nervous breakdown

Shortly after my previous meagre effort at autoethnography, I started a phased return to work. My managers have been very generous in not pushing me to return quickly and so I started working towards a full return after a lengthy 8 weeks. Any such return, akin to returning from annual leave, carries the additional initial stress of returning to unanswered emails. I was relieved to find only 2,000 but that was still a little daunting. Strangely, however, it was not tackling them but being sympathetically asked about my health in the third week that prompted a full-on return of anxiety reactions. The thought of my anxiety illness, and its impediment to my possible continued working, itself had become a prompt for the anxiety reaction. The dragon ate itself. I stopped the attempt at working and two days later felt perfectly fine.

I spent the next two weeks trying to build stamina for working by writing and submitting a couple of philosophy papers. Those two weeks fitted the hope that I’d had four months before of what sickness leave might be. I realised, for example, what I ought to think about Wittgenstein’s On Certainty for the first time in 30 years. (Quite often, in philosophy, it does not seem that one has had an idea or made a choice but, rather, one spots the action at a distance of previous embedded convictions. Hence one simply sees what one ought to think or to have thought all along. One experiences ‘the because’.)

I returned to a second attempt at a phased return a little before starting a fourth mood altering drug: Venlafaxine. Two days into taking it I woke feeling madness again: a slippage from direct contact with the world of facts and feelings. It was immediately obvious on waking that I wasn’t the same, sane person. (‘Oh God, Lois, I've gone mad again!’) But then the next day the clouds cleared and I felt sane and almost quite happy for a week before new side effects started: exhaustion prompted by a tiny run and lasting 10 days and the physical illness of jetlag: no appetite, tiredness, nausea, temperature dysregulation and the sense of a body as lumpen rather than a source of agency. Still, I’m not mad. I’ve been able to think philosophy and even be imaginative.

(This, sadly, undermines a theory I’d had that male libido is an expression of Kantian reflective judgement: a concept-less seeking of conceptual form. The ‘ability to judge an object in reference to the free lawfulness of the imagination’ in which there is ‘a subjective harmony of the imagination with the understanding without an objective harmony’ [Kant 1987: 91-92] I can currently manage Kantian reflective judgement. But the other…)

Waking up in the morning is now even more of a struggle than it has always been. Exhaustion always encourages anxiety, perhaps mediated by the thought that I would not be ‘up’ to managing challenges that arise. So, via its side effects, the drug also causes the very symptom I’m taking it to relieve. While it produces a kind of wooziness, it is the nauseous wooziness of jetlag rather than the wooziness of a too early but somehow justified G&T before lunch with an elderly aunt. On a bad day, it also makes me simply physically sick. I don’t even feel immune to anxiety: just a slight reduction in its hold on me.

I’d always hoped that medication would be a good thing. I had thoughts of soma in Brave New World. But it seems a Faustian pact. If I take a drug that makes me feel like this, a little less human, a little less alive, fundamentally physically sick, perhaps I can carry on working. But is that right?

Thursday, 8 July 2021

Avrum Stroll’s book Moore and Wittgenstein on Certainty

I’ve been re-reading Avrum Stroll’s book Moore and Wittgenstein on Certainty (Stroll 1994). Stroll’s book subscribes to a non-propositional reading of hinges and so is related to Dani√®le Moyal-Sharrock’s 2007 Understanding Wittgenstein’s On Certainty (Moyal-Sharrock 2007). But unlike the latter, Stroll does not give a very technical analysis of the non-propositional nature of the hinges. It does not follow, for example, from their not possessing bipolarity though they look like propositions. Hence he avoids Moyal-Sharrock’s bit where she says it and the bit where she takes it back. (By this I mean that she uses the non-propositional nature of the hinges to say they are not possible objects of knowledge - or any other attitude - while at the same time arguing that they can be transformed into relevant meaning-related doppelg√§ngers. So they are not mere nonsense strings - cf Conant - but still they cannot be known. They are a significant form of none-sense.) Rather, Stroll argues that Wittgenstein moves from a quasi-propositional view to an animal and instinctual view as On Certainty goes by.

Stroll also stresses the idea that scepticism is self-defeating.

Wittgenstein’s foundationalism, even in its absolutist form, thus differs from those of the tradition in being striated. These two features—the world and the community—thus stand fast in different ways, that is, in having somewhat different presuppositional relationships to the language game. Taken together they are what philosophers have called the external world. Both aspects exhibit a kind of objectivity—an intruding presence—that impinges upon human beings and to which in diverse ways they must conform. Neither aspect is open to obsessive doubt or to revision. Wittgenstein’s “solution” to the problem of the existence of the external world is that no sensible question can be raised with respect to either of these aspects. Their existence is presupposed in any formulation of the problem. Therefore to question their existence, as the sceptic presumably wishes to do, is self-defeating. In even trying to formulate its challenge scepticism initiates the process of its own destruction. (Stroll 1994: 181)

One reason for this is the role that language plays in articulating any sceptical doubt:

But even the form the sceptic’s challenge takes—the linguistic format to which it must conform so that another can understand it—presupposes the existence of the community and its linguistic practices. The sceptic’s doubts are thus self-defeating. (ibid: 180)

So the anti-sceptical argument floats at least partly free of the exact nature of the hinges. Scepticism is defeated via a claim of being self-stultifying rather than the specific nature of the hinges. It is not, for example, that their non-propositionality is used to block closure or directly to deny the sense of what scepticism proposes.

So what is the role of hinges? One hint comes from an earlier summary of the link between hinges and scepticism. Their role in characterising Wittgenstein’s foundationalism is what they contribute to defeating scepticism.

Wittgenstein, as a foundationalist, also asserts that nothing could be more certain than that which stands fast for us, but in On Certainty his discussion makes no reference to the regress difficulty. Given his form of foundationalism the regress problem does not arise. It arises for traditionalists because they assume that the question, How do you know that that which stands fast for us is certain? is always applicable. And they assume that because they think that the foundation and what rests on it belong to the same category. But for Wittgenstein’s form of foundationalism the question is not applicable and, in fact, embodies a category mistake. One cannot sensibly ask of that which is certain whether it is known (or not known) or true (or false); for what is meant by certitude is not susceptible to such ascriptions. The sceptical question thus need not be answered. (ibid: 148)

Stroll proposes that Wittgenstein is a foundationalist albeit of a novel kind because the foundation for knowledge is not itself known. In other words, he offers an account which aims clearly to separate knowledge and certainty.

As we have seen throughout this work, he rejects the idea that what is foundational is susceptible to proof, the adducing of evidence, truth or falsity, justification or non-justification. Whatever is so susceptible belongs to the language game and thus to a different category of human activity from das Fundament. Wittgenstein’s genius consisted in constructing an account of human knowledge whose foundations, whose supporting presuppositions, were in no ways like knowledge. Knowledge belongs to the language game, and certitude does not. The base and the mansion resting on it are completely different. This is what Wittgenstein means when he says that knowledge and certainty belong to different categories. (ibid: 145)

The picture is complicated by the fact that On Certainty contains two views of hinges.

As I have indicated in earlier chapters, there are two different accounts of F [das Fundament] in On Certainty. One of these—the earlier—is propositional in character. It clearly derives from Wittgenstein’s response to Moore, who thinks of certainty in propositional terms. As I stated earlier, when Wittgenstein speaks of hinge propositions as immune to justification, proof, and so on, we are dealing with the earlier account. The second account is completely different. It begins to develop gradually as the text was being written and comes to dominate it as it closes. On this view, there are several candidates for F, and all of them are non-intellectual. Among these are acting, being trained in communal practices, instinct, and so on. (ibid: 146)

The transition from the one to the other is hinted at by the fact that even on the former view, where hinges are called ‘hinge propositions’, their actual nature is qualified.

[W]hat Wittgenstein is calling hinge propositions are not ordinary propositions at all. Such concepts as being true or false, known or not known, justified or unjustified do not apply to them, and these are usually taken to be the defining features of propositions. (ibid:146)

This picture is more like Moyal-Sharrock’s. Such hinges are technically non-propositional despite looking conceptually articulated, the sorts of items that it would seem understandable for Moore to claim might be known. The connection between the first and second view of hinges stems from the origins of the hinges even of the quasi-propositional picture.

These propositions are not the products of intellection, reflection, trial and error, or experimentation; rather, they are aborbed by each of us in the course of our daily lives. The notion of absorption is intertwined with Wittgenstein’s denial that ratiocination is the ground that supports the epistemic structure. This notion plays a major role in his account of the community. We acquire communal practices, such as being a native speaker, by absorption rather than by explicit learning. As Wittgenstein puts it elsewhere, we inherit our picture of the world. This is another way of saying that we absorb the foundations that make the language game possible. (ibid: 155)

Stroll suggests, however, that even this half way house encourages a misreading of the nature of the certainty on which our epistemic practices rest.

Why did Wittgenstein eventually discard the propositional account in favor of one that is not propositional? I believe the answer is that he recognized that if one thinks of certitude in propositional terms—as Descartes and Moore did—the tendency to think of such propositions as being known would be irresistible. And this is the inference he wished to resist. (ibid: 155)

Hence the move to construe certainty as something primitive, instinctual, animal, practical rather than theoretical or perceptual, and inherited. Thus On Certainty contains both an initial quasi-propositional view of hinges – albeit one where they are not known or justified and hence not really propositions – and also a more radical animal and practical certainty.

His first reaction consisted in asserting that what he was calling hinge propositions are not propositions in any traditional sense of that term and, in particular, that they are not mental – a “kind of seeing, as it were.” Neither are they straightforwardly empirical—though they look as if they are. Even the idea that they are “grammatical rules” was seen to over-intellectualize the point he was trying to make. Instead he began to conceive of certainty as a mode of acting. The idea that acting lies at the bottom of the language game (instead of any system of propositions) is a new and radical conception of certainty. Certainty stems from one’s immersion in a human community in which rote training and the inculcation of habits create the substratum upon which the language game rests. This non-propositional conception of certitude thus sharply separates Wittgenstein from the tradition. (ibid: 155)

[T]his second account of certainty takes many different forms depending upon the particular contrast Wittgenstein wishes to highlight. There are three such main forms: (1) that certainty is something primitive, instinctual, or animal, (2) that it is acting, and (3) that it derives from rote training in communal practices. In all of these the major contrast with his former view is that what stands fast is the product of reasoning or intellection. Insofar as propositions or even pseudo-propositions or grammatical rules are conceived of as the products of rational activity, the new view stands in opposition to any such account…
These three strands—instinct, acting, and training—are different. If they were to be analyzed further, which Wittgenstein, of course, never had time to do, they might well turn out (as I believe) to be in tension with one another. But I think that Wittgenstein meant them to be part of a single complex idea that he wishes to contrast with the propositional account. It is thus possible to find an interpretation that welds them into a single (admittedly complex) conception of that which stands fast. On this interpretation, what Wittgenstein takes to be foundational is a picture of the world we all inherit as members of a human community. We have been trained from birth in ways of acting that are nonreflective to accept a picture of the world that is ruthlessly realistic: that there is an earth, persons on it, objects in our environment, and so forth… This picture is manifested in action. When we open a door our lives show that we are certain. Certainty is thus not a matter of reflection about the door but a way of acting with respect to it. All animals, including humans, inherit their picture of the world, and like other animals much of our inheritance derives from early training – “something must be taught us as a foundation” (OC 449). (ibid: 157-8)

Stroll’s account of the second view of hinges is thus akin to Malcolm’s ‘Wittgenstein: The relation of language to instinctive behaviour’ (Malcolm 1982). Malcolm plays up some key paragraphs from On Certainty.

If the shopkeeper wanted to investigate each of his apples without any reason, in order to play safe, why doesn’t he have to investigate the investigation? And can one speak here of belief (I mean belief as in religious belief, not conjecture)? Here all psychological terms merely lead us away from the main thing (OC 459)
In order to have ‘absolute certainty’ must not the shopkeeper try to determine not only that these things are apples, but also that what he is doing is trying to find out whether they are apples, and in addition that he is really counting them? And if the shopkeeper doesn’t do this, is this because he ‘believes’, or ‘knows’, or is ‘certain’, or is ‘convinced’, or ‘assumes’, or ‘has no doubt’, that these are apples and that he is counting them? No. All psychological terms, says Wittgenstein, lead us away from ‘the main thing’ (die Hauptsache). (Malcolm 1982: 19)

Am I not getting closer and closer to saying that in the end logic cannot be described? You must look at the practice of language, then you will see it (OC 501).
Logic cannot be described! I take this to mean that it is not appropriate for Wittgenstein to say either that he ‘knows’, or ‘believes’, or is ‘certain’, or is ‘convinced’, or ‘assumes’, or ‘does not doubt’, that his name is L. W., or that this is called a ‘hand’, or that the law of induction is true. None of these terms are correct. What does it mean to say: ‘You must look at the practice of language, then you will see it’? What do you see? Well, you see the unhesitating behaviour with which a person signs his name at the end of a letter or gives his name to a bank clerk; or uses the word ‘hand’ in statements; or makes inductive inferences; or does calculations; and so on. What you see is this unhesitating way of acting. This is the ‘logic’ of language that cannot be described with psychological words. It is too ‘primitive’, too ‘instinctive’, for that. It is behaviour that is like the squirrel’s gathering nuts or the cat’s watching a mouse hole. This is why Wittgenstein says it is something animal (OC 359). (ibid: 19-20)

Stroll characterises the animal and instinctual nature of certainty as standing in contrast to any view of hinge propositions, pseudo-propositions or grammatical rules as the products of rational activity. Certainty stands outside rational activity, the space of concepts or reasons. As Malcolm says, it is like the squirrel’s gathering nuts or the cat’s watching a mouse hole.

The key virtue of this account is that it is clear how certainty can be non-propositional and non-conceptual. It is shared with creatures who lack language and conceptual abilities. At the same time, as Anscombe stresses, animal behaviour can have a kind of unity and purposiveness. In fact, contra Wittgenstein and Malcolm’s comments, psychological concepts do find their application in a cat stalking a mouse.

But despite that qualification, the main problem is that it lies too far from the epistemic practices it is supposed to ground. Stroll himself says:

We have been trained from birth in ways of acting that are nonreflective to accept a picture of the world that is ruthlessly realistic: that there is an earth, persons on it, objects in our environment, and so forth… This picture is manifested in action. When we open a door our lives show that we are certain. Certainty is thus not a matter of reflection about the door but a way of acting with respect to it. All animals, including humans, inherit their picture of the world... (ibid: 157-8 italics added)

There is here a mismatch between the merely animal and accepting a picture of the world, moreover one that is realistic. The latter requires the conceptual abilities that the former rules out. So Stroll’s own account is inconsistent. He links acceptance of the picture with action. One manifests acceptance through activity. But while acting as though one has a picture of the world might characterise merely animal behaviour, it is not sufficient for rational agents, who are also able to form conceptually articulated judgements about the world. They actually do have a conception of the world. Further, some hinges, such as the famous ‘here is a hand’, seem to be direct codifications of aspects of conceptual mastery (cf McGinn and, to an extent, Coliva). Hence the attempt to distinguish the animal from the conceptual seems misguided. Others, such as that the world has existed for a long time, seem clearly to be beyond mere animal possibilities of expression or manifestation.

Stroll’s account – and Malcolm’s too – stands in need of a key bit of augmentation. While certainty might be more a matter of action than perception and such action might have something in common with purposive animal action, still what is the connection between rational animal activity and the possession of concepts? And in so far as certainty for such agents can be conceptually articulated, into what chunks does it divide and what is our attitude to them?

My hunch is that, whether or not Stroll is right that Wittgenstein moved from a quasi-propositional to a non-propositional animal view of certainty, such a move is a misstep. I think we can retain some key features of his (Wittgenstein’s on Stroll’s reading) picture without embracing that move. So hinges are held without specific arguments for them but as part of a conceptually structured inherited world picture. One aspect of them so holding is the certainty of action in accord with them. That is, there are behavioural manifestations of holding a hinge. But the behavioural manifestations of rational agents are expressions of tacit conceptual mastery, not brutely extra-conceptual animal certainty. And because they are held as a kind of tacit background for enquiry, we would usually have no idea what an attempt to state first person knowledge of them was meant to be doing (cf Conant).

The main violence this view does to Wittgenstein’s text is to play down the distinction between knowledge and certainty. Knowledge is certain, too (cf McDowell and Travis). But not all elements that are known form part of the foreground of epistemic practices. In other words, Wittgenstein overplayed the idea knowledge is a game of explicitly asking for and offering reasons. (Nor is doubt symmetric with all knowledge.) The capacity to acquire knowledge may require sensitivity to reasons (such as defeaters) but sometimes we get knowledge almost for free ie. for the cost of entry into the game at all.


Coliva A. (2010) Moore and Wittgenstein. Scepticism, Certainty and Common Sense (London/Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan) 

Conant, J. 1998, ‘Wittgenstein on meaning and use’, Philosophical Investigations 21, 222–50. 

Malcolm, N. (1982) ‘Wittgenstein: The relation of language to instinctive behaviour’ Philosophical Investigations, 5: 3-22 

McDowell, J. (1995b) ‘Knowledge and the Internal’, Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 55, 877–93. Reprinted in Meaning, Knowledge and Reality, 395–413.

McGinn, M. (1989) Sense and Certainty. A Dissolution of Scepticism, Oxford, Blackwell. 

Moyal-Sharrock D. (2004) Understanding Wittgenstein’s On Certainty (London/ Basingstoke: Palgrave McMillian). 

Stroll, A. (1994) Moore and Wittgenstein on Certainty, New York, Oxford University Press.

Travis, C. (2005) ‘A sense of occasion’