16 March 2007

Thesis On Certainty, Part 4

C.f., Thesis On Certainty, Part 3, which has links back to Part 2 and the beginning. In this section we enounter Wittgenstein's quite funny description of the madman-philosopher; and we finish our initial exposition of what we call Moore's metaphysical presupposition, which really is just a rehash of Husserl's criticisms of philosophy in the Crisis, and Derrida's criticism of Husserl in La Voix et le Phénomène. Those two heavily influenced this piece, and Derrida seems particularly to have been influenced by Wittgenstein. We wonder if Derrida wrote ever about Wittgenstein?

[The Metaphorical Jump.]

And of course this is put poorly, since it would seem as if Wittgenstein were trying to connect language to a mental state of knowledge or a mental state of certainty: but this connection can hardly be said to exist—and even the mental state, if there is such a thing, is unimportant. Put one way, to think that to knowledge and certainty there exists a corresponding mental state would be to think “that different people had to correspond to the word ‘I’ and the name ‘Ludwig,’ because the concepts are different.”[i] Even though Wittgenstein’s notions of knowledge and belief are (to some extent) discrete, it would fail to be fruitful to try to prescribe to one and the other discrete mental states, since the differences between the two are not given by the words themselves. And this is to get back to our point above. There is not one transcendental meaning—or a state that corresponds to a transcendental meaning—which by itself secures certainty or knowledge. Rather, just as there are contexts that call for the first-person personal pronoun or for one’s name, there are contexts that call for certainty or for knowledge. And this point is even deeper, since suggested by it is the importance of logic or grammar in deciding which is called for in a given context.

Of course, within the context of Moore’s argument his proposition poses no problem. The problem that arises has to do with the aim of philosophy and the intention of Moore. Moore takes “I know I have two hands” to be a proposition about things in the external world; but what the proposition means to us, as we suggested above, is something of a mystery. For Moore, the sense of his proposition is assured—he can simply say he knows something—by his knowing something; but the proposition fails to bear sense for others. (And this is not to suggest that Moore can say something that means something only to himself. And even if this is granted, then it may be inferred that the sense of Moore’s proposition is unclear even to himself.) Such usage occurs in other areas of discourse, but its occurrence in philosophy is frequent. Bluntly put, philosophic usage has a way of expressing something, which is perfectly clear and certain to its author, but what it expresses often fails to make sense to others. The sense of many philosophic propositions—like “I know I have two hands”—is unclear; and this fact goes unnoticed often precisely because they are employed in philosophic discourse. We don’t think this criticism would obtain against other disciplines that employ specialized usage. For example, medical usage seems “translatable” into normal usage, just as mathematical usage can be translated from numerals to words and letters. Philosophic usage is often not translatable simply because what it expresses is quite literally nonsense.

To clarify, later in On Certainty Wittgenstein describes again the asymmetry between a purely philosophic usage of “I know…” and what we’d like to call a “normal usage.” Imagine,

I am sitting with a philosopher in the garden; he says again and again “I know that that’s a tree,” pointing to a tree that is near us. Someone else arrives and hears this, and I tell him: “This fellow isn’t insane. We are only doing philosophy.”[ii]

This situation makes a striking picture, which surely recurs in an analogous form throughout philosophy classes. Discussing a topic like certain knowledge makes for strange conversation. Again, this isn’t to prescribe a normal usage. But there is a usage that has proven its worth in practice, which we shall call normal. Saying, “I know that that’s a tree,” occurs usefully in life. One may see a tall shrub and say, “I know that that’s a tree,” and he would be wrong. Seeing an obstruction laying across the road, a driver could say to his passenger, “That’s no shadow. I know that that’s a tree.” These specific utterances aren’t implicitly better or more worthy. But their worth is proved by their successful execution. Insanity is something like the constant lack over time of success in one’s utterances. If someone were sitting in the garden looking at a tree while repeating, “I know that that’s a tree,” one would be tempted to count him as insane. Such an utterance violates countless interwoven nuances of our language. These nuances aren’t prescribed by anyone, but they are stronger than any transcendent a priori categories of the understanding. Within the free play of meanings, certain conventions are transmitted and codified by no one, but they restrict the usage of everyone. And for the most part, saying that such an utterance lacks an appropriate context from which it derives its sense sums up the wrongness of it. But this proposition is so strange that it is even difficult to say how it’s wrong. Even if the proposition were true, it would be very hard to think of a situation in which it makes sense to say it. Wittgenstein gives an example of a patient who goes to the doctor, showing him his hand while saying, “This is a hand, not…; I’ve injured it, etc, etc.”[iii] Are we to say that such an utterance makes sense? Even though the proposition that “This is a hand, not…” is true, is it a piece of information? Doubtless, we would say that the utterance is absurd and superfluous. It has no use in this context. It would be like saying “Hello, how are you?” in the middle of a conversation. Moore’s primary mistake is to ignore the role of context in his usage. He has been seduced by philosophy into thinking that a proposition like “I know I have two hands” actually makes sense in the context in which he utters it. Bearing out further the asymmetry between philosophic and normal usage, Wittgenstein says that when we can imagine a situation in which an utterance—the types of utterance which Moore says he knows—might normally be used, by turning an utterance such as “I know I have two hands” into a “move in one of our language-games,” “it loses everything that is philosophically astonishing.”[iv] Philosophy can be seen to make for itself its own work when it uses utterances outside of a meaning-conferring context.

To think that language need not be employed in a normal way—as a “move in one of our language-games,” a move which we will elucidate shortly—as Moore seems to do, would be to allow for utterances to have a transcendent sense of meaning that attaches somehow to the utterance itself. Moore’s proof contains this presupposition, which surely went unnoticed by him. Nevertheless, it seems clear that the meaning of “I know I have two hands” must be assumed as pre-given and predetermined because Moore assumes his utterance is obviously, trivially true and makes sense. Moore has committed himself to the notion that language bears meaning apart from human intercourse and the life of the present. Such a commitment suggests a meaningful substratum that lies further back from lived experience, which sounds prima facie like Platonic formalism.

Wittgenstein’s explicit criticism is that Moore tries to refute the claim that one cannot know things about the world with the claim that he can know them; and the way in which Moore makes this claim is by saying things like “I know I have two hands.”[v] The problem with skepticism—and the realism that Moore attempts to prove in order to refute skepticism—is that the meaning of both the skeptic and the realist seems to hang in mid-air. The problems attendant to this topic seem epistemological, but they are grammatical. The connections between epistemology and grammar have confused our clear understanding of the problems of philosophy. By drawing out these connections, our hope is that we can influence the desires of philosophers. In On Certainty, the primary desire that Wittgenstein can be seen to defeat is the desire for a fully grounded knowledge. This aim seems paradoxical: Wittgenstein tries both to point out the groundlessness of our knowledge, and to point out that our knowledge is objective. Wittgenstein accomplishes at the same time these two counter-running projects by transforming the meaning of objectivity. This meaning-transformation shows as nonsensical the metaphysical notion of objectivity based on an absolute grounding of knowledge.

[i] On Certainty, §42.
[ii] On Certainty, §467.
[iii] On Certainty, §460.
[iv] On Certainty, §622.
[v] On Certainty, §521.