Wittgenstein and Scepticism

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Moore, as is well known, himself offers an example of such a proposition, held or uttered under certain circumstances-'Here is a hand' uttered when one supposes that one holds up one's hand in bright daylight and with one's visual and mental capacities functioning normally. Pryor's key claim on behalf of Moore is that for propositions such. An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page.

If the problem persists, please try again in a little while. No cover image. Read preview. Synopsis Wittgenstein is arguably the greatest philosopher of the last hundred years and scepticism is one of the central problems that modern philosophy faces. This collection is the first to be devoted to an examination of how that great philosopher's work bears on this fundamental philosophical problem. Wittgenstein's reaction to scepticism is complex, articulating both a sense that sceptical problems are ultimately unreal and a sense that scepticism teaches us something about the fundamental character of the human predicament.

The essays, specially written for this collection by distinguished philosophers and commentators on Wittgenstein, explore that reaction, addressing, in particular, scepticism about the existence of the external world and of other minds. In doing so, it explores issues not only in theory of knowledge but also in metaphysics, the philosophy of mind, language, perception and literature, as well as raising questions about the nature of philosophy itself. Several of the papers address the work of Stanley Cavell, perhaps the most influential commentator on the work of Wittgenstein, and Cavell replies in the final pieces to four of those papers.

This collection is essential reading for students and scholars of Wittgenstein and anyone interested in the debate surrounding scepticism. Excerpt This chapter will look sympathetically but not uncritically at Moorean responses to certain versions of epistemological scepticism about the external world, with a view to making them over into a more recognisably pragmatist response to such scepticism. Read preview Overview. In particular, it is a constitutive feature of such a practice that we accord authority over their own mental states to our interlocutors, bar special conditions such as slips of the tongue, insincerity and self-deception.

For instance, in order to set up a pain-detecting machine, we would need to individuate a brain state which were correlated to being in pain. Nor is the matter certain and beyond doubt because we have conclusively ascertained its truth.

Rather, its being beyond doubt is a constitutive feature of our practice of going about acquiring evidence in favor of specific attributions regarding the actual age of the Earth. Were we to give that hinge up, then no matter what kind of evidence we thought we had collected in favor of this or that specific age-attribution, it would simply lose its status of evidence, as its existence would then be compatible with its having been created just a short time ago.

So, there are propositions which, as we have seen, play a normative role with respect to some of our language games and epistemic practices. It is useful to consider another example of what, in context, would be a hinge, for Wittgenstein, viz. But also, and more importantly, to determine what would count as normal conditions of perception and of human functioning. When no semantic evaluation is possible, then talk of a proposition would be out of place. First and foremost, the fact that we seem perfectly able to entertain hinges in thought, and let them play the role of suppositions, in order to consider, for instance, what does follow from them — e.

Surely, purely empirical propositions are still characterized by bipolarity. So, also linguistic items endowed with a use and hence a meaning, but failing at bipolarity could rightly be regarded as propositions. Indeed, at least since the discussion of family-resemblance concepts in PI 65—71, which is only superficially just about the concept of game, but which is in fact concerned with discarding the idea that had had a key role in the Tractatus , viz.

PI 65, 89— , Wittgenstein had already abandoned a unitary view of propositions.

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What we regard as propositions need not share a common essence, such as their bipolarity, but just a complicated network of family resemblances. This, however, would be almost just a terminological remark, unless something more substantial depended on it. However, there are passages in OC which suggest a much more contentious idea — particularly the ones around OC 95— For Wittgenstein there seems to be saying that a sentence, which is used to express an empirical proposition, is actually removed from doubt, in context, and thus has a normative role as well.


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Hinges, on this view, seem to be Janus-faced. While their actual role is normative, they remain propositions with empirical import, as they convey a certain description of reality, which is not any longer subject to verification and control, yet is a description all the same. And there are circumstances — either synchronically or diachronically — which, at least in some cases, could demote these propositions from their rule-like role to let them play their perhaps original merely descriptive function.

We therefore face a multiplicity of views, regarding hinges. According to a first reading, the same string of graphemes could express either an empirical proposition, or a rule or nothing at all. As a consequence, the same sentence — a string of graphemes belonging to some natural language — could express either an empirical proposition, or a rule. But it is equally a consequence of holding that meaning is use that the very same proposition OC 98 could still be a description yet play, in context, a normative role. In particular, it has to be stressed that the import of this third reading is that the very same proposition could play either a merely empirical role, or actually, while retaining its descriptive content , a normative one.

For one can draw the distinction at the level of function or role , rather than at the level of content, by taking into account the actual use of the proposition at issue, and by considering whether it is exempt from doubt. What it means, rather, is that hinges are propositions, which tell us something about objects and states of affairs OC , while not being subject to the same kind of verification and control ordinary empirical propositions are subject to. So, despite their descriptive content, their role and function is, or has become similar to that of a norm or a rule.

I actually think that in OC there are passages which could support each of these views. Yet, these three readings would somehow be compatible if we took seriously the idea that meaning is use. To reiterate, it is use that determines whether a string of graphemes is meaningful, and hence a sentence of a natural language. It is again use that establishes whether that sentence expresses an empirical proposition or a rule.

Finally, it is use that determines whether a given proposition, with its descriptive content, is actually removed from doubt, in context, and thus plays a normative role with respect to our epistemic practices.

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The focus of On Certainty , notwithstanding the deceptive appearance suggested by the title, 12 are hinges and the characterization of their role within our epistemic practices. In particular, acceptance is a genus that comes in two species. For instance, one could assume epistemically that Pisces are sensitive, or that black cats bring bad luck. But one could also assume that the butler is the culprit, having no evidence for it whether or not one will eventually be able to collect that evidence.

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On Wittgenstein’s Response to Scepticism: The Opening of On Certainty | SpringerLink

These are all norms and their acceptance is most often tacit or even implicit and shown in behavior that conforms to the norm. Now, pointing out that we have been trained to act that way would show the genealogy or the etiology of both our eventual acceptance and of the fact that we would recognize its content as a norm or, mutatis mutandis , as a hinge.

To reiterate: the training may well be the cause of our behavior but it is only when we can somehow grasp the content of the norms we abide by that we can be said to accept them and that they can play the role of certainties for which it makes no sense to raise doubts. I take it that the more interesting strategy against skepticism proposed in OC consists, rather, in deploying a certain analogy.

Just as it would be a categorial mistake to call rules into doubt, similarly it is a categorial mistake to call into question those hinges that, while having a descriptive content, are hinges precisely because they play a rule-like role with respect to our epistemic practices. In fact, the passages on which that kind of reading is based have arguably been misunderstood. Nowhere does the use of that term suggest the idea that Wittgenstein might mean a non evidential kind of warrant, i. So, the picture that emerges from these key passages is that there are propositions which play a normative role with respect to our scientific but also more mundane, empirical investigations.

For this would, at once, betray a misunderstanding of their status and would deprive one of the means to actually raise sensible — that is empirically grounded — doubts. For to raise that kind of doubt, those very hinges must be in place.

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This, I take it, is a novel and potentially fruitful idea which has at least the merit of being incompatible with skepticism and of providing a diagnosis of what is wrong with it. Namely, those propositions that are presupposed by all inquiry, at least in the area at issue. Actually, in chapter three of the book, I have maintained that Wittgenstein also made the stronger claim that since skeptical doubts are unmotivated, for the reasons just sketched, they are actually not meaningful. They are pieces of nonsense which, however, retain an appearance of sense because we project it onto them from ordinary contexts of doubt.

Now, I think, as I have stressed in the book, that this claim is much more contentious and difficult to defend, in my view, and for this reason less fruitful. Yet, it is undoubtedly another avenue of potential development for an anti-skeptical strategy; one which would require one to be prepared to embrace a strong version of the idea that meaning is use.

The idea behind the non propositional reading is that, properly speaking, only what meets the requirement of bipolarity and is therefore a proposition, can actually be said. But hinges do not, nor can they play such a role, for they fail at bipolarity. If and when they are uttered, they are only spoken heuristically, to remind someone of their status and role. By the time of OC, through the development along the years of the notion of grammar and of grammatical proposition, I think it lost much of its importance and theoretical significance.

But later, they had become effable in the form of grammatical propositions. To take that dichotomy seriously is what would force one to hold that hinges qua hinges are only shown in action. But Moyal-Sharrock herself — the chief holder of this view — wants hinges to be effable at least when they serve the heuristic purpose of reminding a philosopher of their proper role, or of teaching someone the rules that govern our linguistic and epistemic practices.

Yet, when they are spoken in order to serve these latter purposes, they are actually presented as hinges and not as something else, I take it. I claim, in keeping with what I have argued in the book, that the interpretation of hinges that makes sense of this latter possibility, which I think, with Moyal-Sharrock, is indisputable, is the propositional reading of hinges. For that interpretation helps us retain several crucial aspects.


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First, it allows us to maintain that hinges have a descriptive content and yet it allows us to focus on the normative role they play, in context. In this sense, it plays a different, normative role, yet it retains a descriptive content. Namely the language game of teaching someone our linguistic norms and our norms of evidential significance; and the language game of doing proper philosophy with Wittgenstein, by reminding those who had gone astray of some grammatical facts.

After all, the very idea of a language game is introduced in the Philosophical Investigations in connection with the conditions and preconditions for this kind of teaching PI 7 and paragraphs around it.

Wittgenstein on scepticism

So, hinges are effable as such within some language games, though not in ones which serve a merely descriptive purpose. In that chapter the reader will find a discussion of the relevant passages concerning each of these uses. Contrary to what Morawetz , ; Pritchard , and Williams a , b , maintain.