Ora Et Labora
Post Separator Icon

uncertain notes on certainty, re: wittgenstein

On Certainty, a sinuous, monotonous, and indeed, somewhat uncertain collection of notes assembled towards the end of Wittgenstein’s life, centers around the question of whether we can truly be said to have knowledge, or certainty, of the external world around us. Specifically, what does it mean (or does it mean anything?) to say, when confronted by a tall, woody perennial in the garden, “I know that this is a tree.” We must ask, says Wittgenstein, whether it makes any sense to doubt it, and if so, on what conditions the doubt of such a statement would be reasonable.

Wittgenstein spends very little time on what it means to perceive, but focuses instead on the structure of statements about certainty, knowledge, and perception. I am reminded of D.B. Hart’s statement in The Experience of God that the postmoderns attempted to reduce all ontology to a mere examination of the grammar of predication; this is certainly what Wittgenstein does as he attempts to position statements of certainty in the various “language-games” (as he calls linguistic contexts) in which they are used. For example, in the context of philosophy, it might make sense to say “I know that this is a tree,” as Wittgenstein does here, as an illustration in a discussion of epistemology. In another context (or without context), it might mean something entirely different, or in fact nothing at all.

Wittgenstein concludes that certainty is not so much impossible, as irrelevant. To say “I know” is to describe an internal state of affairs in the mind: it carries with it no capacity for proof. In fact, it hardly even carries with it a reliable claim about the state of one’s mind, plagued as we are by a penchant for insouciantly shallow self-analysis. “What is the proof that I know something? Most certainly not my saying I know it” (487). Nevertheless, statements of knowledge are inevitable, and while to philosophers epistemology might be logically prior to any given statement of knowledge, Wittgenstein notes that this isn’t at all consistent with life. He gives the example of a child learning the meaning of words: the child will learn to identify the aforementioned tree as a “tree” far before the question of whether he “knows” that it’s a tree ever presents itself.

Statements such as “I know that this is a tree” – these make sense in a particular language game, in a particular context; a context in which it can be reasonably said that I have no grounds to doubt my own eyesight, and my own knowledge of what is referred to as a “tree” or a “hand” or whatever it is that I claim knowledge of. Our ability to make claims about knowledge in this way are fundamental, he concludes, beyond rational justification or falsifiability. When investigating any truth claim, we must ask, on what grounds do we hold the truth claim? On what grounds can I, holding up my hand in front of my face, say that I believe this is a hand? “And here one would still have to say what are complelling grounds … ‘I know that this is a hand’ – And what is a hand? – ‘Well, this, for example’” (266-268). Here we see that these sorts of claims are fundamental, tautological in their structure, not so much certain or uncertain as beyond the reach of the language-game of the epistemologists. They have meaning in their structure, in their place in a particular sort of conversation, but outside of that, seem to have hardly any meaning at all.

Post Separator Icon