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On Certainty

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 27, 2003

    A Very Useful Little Book from a Very Important Philosopher

    A compilation of loosely connected, aphoristic-like statements about the idea of certainty, taking off from G. E. Moore's famous assertion in favour of common sense, Wittgenstein here presents his thoughts, at the end of his life, concerning the question of how sure of anything we can ever be. Dealing with a fundamentally epistemological question, this little book follows the path Wittgenstein had defined for himself in the latter part of his career, concerning itself with language and how we talk about the ideas we have.<P>Some misread him very badly, which is not surprising given his penchant for cryptic brevity and his own tendency to avoid extensive explication of his ideas in favour of the brief observation or statement reflecting moments of insight. Indeed, insight seems to have been at the very core of his later philosophy . . . it's all about seeing things in a new way.<P>On the matter of certainty, his claims here, sometimes rambling and seemingly unconnected, seem to boil down to a couple of points, consistent with his general way of seeing things:<P>1) Being certain of anything, he seems to say, is a matter of what we mean in the context in which we are expressing certainty. That is, he suggests that 'certainty' the word has different meanings, depending on the application, and that we can become too readily confused if we try to apply one meaning (or use) in a place where another is required. As a corollary of this, he clearly holds that there is no basic idea of 'certainty' to which all can be reduced to, but only a range of related uses of the word in our language. This is in keeping with his larger view of the world as 'contained' in our knowledge of it, and our knowledge 'contained' in the words we use which are, themselves, a function of our language, which last is a part of our behavioural continuum, representing a rule-governed activity in which we are embedded as what he called a 'form of life'. (There are significant metaphysical implications for this but he does not touch on these, either in this book or more generally elsewhere, since he felt that to do that was often to stray out of the bounds that language made for us.)<P>2) As an outgrowth of the above, his second insight here tells us that there are some things of which we can be certain in a way that does not require what we would normally expect, i.e., evidence or proof. That is, sometimes a statement is just grounded in the rules of the game itself, i.e., in order to play in the game we must just assert the certainty . . . and believe in it. While such assertions may look the same as assertions of empirical certainty ('there is a bird outside my window') they are not (e.g., 'there is an external world,' 'there are other minds inside other human bodies,' etc.). To doubt certain things like this would be to break the rules of the game in which we are operating, in which case everything else collapses and we can no longer play.<P>In keeping with his usual approach, Wittgenstein does not present an argument for any of this or even make these claims, quite as explicitly as I have just done, in this book but, rather, confines himself to musings and observations, examples and questions. But it is to these two main points that everything he is presenting in On Certainty leads.<P>A note: some seem to have concluded from Wittgenstein's penchant for aphorisms and indirection that he was saying things quite different than he really was saying. I note some have oddly accused Wittgenstein of solipsism and this is a woeful misreading of him. His philosophical approach, in fact, put paid to the solipsist argument if read aright! Others have thought he was just playing with words or posturing as some kind of faux mystic. These are superficial and misguided readings of him. I would suggest that such ideas may arise because he was so unwilling to explicate his thoughts in the usual discursive way and, perhaps because he thought to do that would just lead one in circ

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 8, 2012

    BN is too short so here is the continuation of my review. The

    BN is too short so here is the continuation of my review.
    The failure (in my view) of even the best thinkers to fully grasp W’s significance is partly due to the limited attention On Certainty (0C) and his other 3rd period works have received, but even more to the inability of philosophers and others to understand how profoundly our view of philosophy, anthropology, sociology, linguistics, politics, law, morals, ethics, religion, aesthetics, literature (all of them being descriptive psychology), alters once we accept the evolutionary point of view. The dead hand of the blank slate view of behavior still rests heavily on most people, pro or amateur. Steven Pinker’s brilliant ‘The Blank Slate: the modern denial of human nature’ is highly recommended, even though he has no clue about Wittgenstein and hence of what can be regarded as the first really deep investigation into the foundations of human nature.
    To say that Searle has carried on W’s work is not to imply that it is a direct result of W study, but rather that because there is only ONE human psychology (for the same reason there is only ONE human cardiology), that anyone accurately describing behavior must be saying some variant or extension of what W said. I find most of Searle foreshadowed in W, including versions of the famous Chinese room argument against Strong AI. Incidentally if the Chinese Room interests you then you should read Victor Rodych’s xlnt ,but virtually unknown, supplement on the CR—“Searle Freed of Every Flaw”). Rodych has also written a series of superb papers on W’s philosophy of mathematics (i.e., the EP of the axiomatic Primary Language Games (PLG’s) of counting as extended into the endless LG’s of math).
    The common ideas (e.g., the subtitle of one of Pinker’s books “The Stuff of Thought: language as a window into human nature”) that language is a window on or some sort of translation of our thinking or even (Fodor) that there must be some other “Language of Thought” of which it is a translation, was rejected by W who tried to show, with hundreds of continually reanalyzed perspicacious examples of language in action, that language is the best picture we can ever get of thinking, the mind and human nature, and his whole corpus can be regarded as the development of this idea. He rejected the idea that the Bottom Up approaches of physiology, psychology and computation could reveal what his Top Down deconstructions of Language Games (LG’s) did. The difficulties he noted are to understand what is always in front of our eyes and to capture vagueness. And so, speech(i.e., oral muscle contractions, the principal way we can interact) is not a window into the mind but is the mind itself, which is expressed by acoustic blasts about past, present and future acts (i.e., our speech using the later evolved Secondary Language Games (SLG’s) of dispositions --imagining, knowing, meaning, believing, intending etc.). Some of W’s favorite topics in his later second and his third periods are the different LG’s of the Inner and the Outer-the epiphenomenality of our mental life and the impossibility of private language. The PLG’s are descriptions of our involuntary, system 1, fast thinking, true only, untestable mental states- our perceptions and memories and involuntary acts, while the evolutionarily later SLG’s are descriptions of voluntary, system 2, slow thinking, testable true or false dispositional (and often counterfactual) imagining, supposing, intending, thinking, knowing, believing etc. He recognized that ‘Nothing is Hidden’—i.e., our whole psychology and all the answers to all philosophical questions are here in our language (our life) and that the difficulty is not to find the answers but to recognize them as always here in front of us—we just have to stop trying to look deeper.
    W makes this point throughout his works in countless examples and again his whole corpus can be regarded as the effort to make this clear. After all, what exactly is the alternative? W showed over and over that standard ways of describing behavior (i.e., most of philosophy, and much of descriptive psychology, anthropology, sociology, etc) are either demonstrably false or incoherent. Once we understand W, we realize the absurdity of regarding “language philosophy” as a separate study apart from other areas of behavior, since language is just another name for the mind. And, when W says (as he does many times) that understanding behavior is in no way dependent on the progress of psychology (e.g., “The sterility and barrenness of psychology is not to be explained by calling it a young science”), he is not legislating the boundaries of science but pointing out the fact that our behavior (mostly speech) is the clearest picture possible of our psychology. FMRI, PET, TCMS, iRNA, computational analogs, AI and all the rest are fascinating and powerful ways to extend our innate axiomatic psychology, but all they can do is provide the physical basis for our behavior and extend our EP, which remains unchanged (unless genetic engineering is unleashed to change our EP—but then it won’t be us anymore). The true-only axioms of ‘’On Certainty’’ are W’s (and later Searles) “bedrock” or “background”, which we now call evolutionary psychology (EP), and which is traceable to the automated true-only reactions of bacteria, which evolved and operates by the mechanism of inclusive fitness (IF). See the recent works of Trivers and others for a popular intro to IF or Bourke’s superb “Principles of Social Evolution” for a pro intro.
    Beginning with their innate true-only, nonempirical (nontestable) responses to the world, animals extend their axiomatic understanding via deductions into further true only understandings (“theorems” as we might call them, but of course like many words, this is a complex language game even in the context of mathematics). Tyrannosaurs and mesons become as unchallengable as the existence of our two hands or our breathing. This totally changes ones view of human nature. Theory of Mind (TOM) is not a theory at all but a group of true-only Understandings of Agency (UOA a term I devised 10 years ago) which newborn animals (including flies and worms if UOA is suitably defined) have and subsequently extend greatly (in higher eukaryotes). Likewise the Theory of Evolution ceased to be a theory for any normal, rational, intelligent person before the end of the 19th century and for Darwin at least half a century earlier. One CANNOT help but incorporate T. rex and all that is relevant to it into our innate background via the inexorable workings of EP. Once one gets the logical (psychological) necessity of this it is truly stupefying that even the brightest and the best seem not to grasp this most basic fact of human life (with a tip of the hat to Kant, Searle and a few others). And incidentally the equation of logic and our axiomatic psychology is essential to understanding W and human nature (as DMS, but afaik nobody else, points out).
    So, most of our shared public experience (culture) becomes a true-only extension of our axiomatic EP and cannot be found mistaken without threatening our sanity. A corollary, nicely explained by DMS and elucidated in his own unique manner by Searle, is that the skeptical view of the world and other minds (and a mountain of other nonsense) cannot really get a foothold, as “reality” is the result of involuntary fast thinking axioms and not testable propositional attitudes.
    It became clear to me recently that the innate true-only axioms W is occupied with throughout his work, and almost exclusively in OC, are equivalent to the fast thinking or System One of Tversky and Kahneman (see

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  • Posted September 3, 2012

    On Certainty was not published until 1969, 18 years after Wittge

    On Certainty was not published until 1969, 18 years after Wittgenstein’s death and has only recently begun to draw serious attention. I cannot recall a single reference to it in all of Searle and one see’s whole books on W with barely a mention. There are however xlnt books on it by Stroll, Svensson, McGinn and others and parts of many other books and articles, but hands down the best is that of Daniele Moyal-Sharrock (DMS) whose 2004 volume “Understanding Wittgenstein’s On Certainty” is mandatory for every educated person, and perhaps the best starting point for understanding W, psychology, philosophy and life.

    Wittgenstein (W) is for me easily the most brilliant thinker on human behavior of all time and this is his last work and crowning achievement. It belongs to his third and final period, yet it is not only his most basic work (since it shows that all behavior is an extension of innate true-only axioms), but the foundation for all description of animal behavior, revealing how the mind works and indeed must work. The “must” is entailed by the fact that all brains share a common ancestry and common genes and so there is only one basic way they work, that this necessarily has an axiomatic structure, that all higher animals share the same evolved psychology based on inclusive fitness, and in humans this is extended into a personality based on throat muscle contractions (language) that evolved to manipulate others (with variations that can be regarded as trivial). This book, and arguably all of W’s work and all discussion of behavior is a development or variation on this idea.

    In the course of many years reading extensively in W, other philosophers, and psychology, it has become clear that what he laid out in his final period (and throughout his earlier work in a less clear way) are the foundations of what is now known as evolutionary psychology (EP), or if you prefer, psychology, cognitive linguistics, intentionality, higher order thought or just animal behavior. Sadly, nobody seems to realize that his works are a vast and unique textbook of descriptive psychology that is as relevant and unique now as the day it was written. He is almost universally ignored by psychology and other behavioral sciences and humanities, and even those few in philosophy who have more or less understood him have not carried the analysis to its logical (psychological) conclusion. His heir apparent, John Searle, refers to him periodically and his work can be seen as a straightforward extension of W’s, but he does not really get that this is what he is doing. I eventually came to understand much of W by regarding his corpus as the pioneering effort in EP, and by starting from his 3rd period works and reading backwards to the proto-Tractatus. It has been extremely revealing to alternate W with the writings of hundreds of other philosophers and evolutionary psychologists (as I regard all psychologists and in fact all behavioral scientists, cognitive linguists and others).

    The failure (in my view) of even the best thinkers to fully grasp W’s significance is partly due to the limited attention On Certainty (0C) and his other 3rd period works have received, but even more to the inability of philosophers and others to understand how profoundly our view of philosophy, anthropology, sociology, linguistics, politics, law, morals, ethics, religion, aesthetics, literature and all of animal behavior (all of them being descriptive psychology), alters once we accept the evolutionary point of view. The dead hand of the blank slate view of behavior still rests heavily on most people, pro or amateur. Steven Pinker’s brilliant ‘The Blank Slate: the modern denial of human nature’ is highly recommended, even though he has no clue about Wittgenstein and hence of what can be regarded as the first really deep investigation into the foundations of human nature.

    To say that Searle has carried on W’s work is not to imply that it is a direct result of W study, but rather that because there is only ONE human psychology (for the same reason there is only ONE human cardiology), that anyone accurately describing behavior must be saying some variant or extension of what W said. I find most of Searle foreshadowed in W, including versions of the famous Chinese room argument against Strong AI. Incidentally if the Chinese Room interests you then you should read Victor Rodych’s xlnt ,but virtually unknown, supplement on the CR—“Searle Freed of Every Flaw”). Rodych has also written a series of superb papers on W’s philosophy of mathematics (i.e., the EP of the Primary Language Games (PLG’s) of counting as extended later in evolution into the Secondary LG’s of math).

    The common ideas (e.g., the subtitle of one of Pinker’s books “The Stuff of Thought: language as a window into human nature”) that language is a window on or some sort of translation of our thinking or even (Fodor) that there must be some other “Language of Thought” of which it is a translation, was rejected by W who tried to show with hundreds of examples, that language is the best picture we can ever get of thinking, the mind and human nature, and his whole corpus can be regarded as the development of this idea. And so, speech(i.e., oral muscle contractions, the principal way we can interact) is not a window into the mind but is the mind itself, which is expressed by acoustic blasts about past, present and future acts (i.e., our speech using the later evolved Secondary Language Games (SLG’s) of dispositions --imagining, knowing, meaning, believing, intending etc.). Some of W’s favorite topics in his later second and his third periods are the different LG’s of the Inner and the Outer-the epiphenomenality of our mental life and the impossibility of private language. The PLG’s are descriptions of our involuntary, system 1, fast thinking, true only, untestable mental states- our perceptions and memories, while the evolutionarily later SLG’s are descriptions of voluntary, system 2, slow thinking, testable true or false dispositional (and often counterfactual) imagining, supposing, intending, thinking, knowing, believing etc. He recognized that ‘Nothing is Hidden’—i.e., our whole psychology and all the answers to all philosophical questions are here in our language (our life) and that the difficulty is not to find the answers but to recognize them as always here in front of us—we just have to stop trying to look deeper.

    W makes this point in countless examples and again his whole corpus can be regarded as the effort to make this clear. After all, what exactly is the alternative? W showed over and over that standard ways of describing behavior (i.e., most of philosophy, and much of descriptive psychology, anthropology, sociology, etc) are either demonstrably false or incoherent. Once we understand W, we realize the absurdity of regarding “language philosophy” as a separate study apart from other areas of behavior, since language is just another name for the mind. And, when W says (as he does many times) that understanding behavior is in no way dependent on the progress of psychology (e.g., “The sterility and barrenness of psychology is not to be explained by calling it a young science”), he is not legislating the boundaries of science but pointing out the fact that our behavior (mostly speech) is the clearest picture possible of our psychology. FMRI, PET, TCMS, iRNA, computational analogs, AI and all the rest are fascinating and powerful ways to extend our innate axiomatic psychology, but all they can do is provide the physical basis for our behavior and extensions of our EP, which remains unchanged (unless genetic engineering is unleashed—but then it won’t be us anymore). The true-only axiom

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 17, 2009

    No text was provided for this review.

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