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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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Posted September 17, 2009
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