The nature of pragmatism and its possible future pt. 2: Wittgenstein and epistemology

by Dave Maier

BoncompagniIf you’re a philosophical pragmatist, you spend a lot of your time checking out various philosophical tools. You’re also not so keen on (or: kind of obsessed about overcoming) the modern/Cartesian philosophical consensus concerning the conceptual dualism of subject and object. Taken together, this means that you are looking in particular at 1) tools to help you 2) combat the Cartesians. Nowadays that means trying to decide what we can take from various, equally anti-Cartesian (or at least so advertised) but not-explicitly-pragmatist traditions, like phenomenology, hermeneutics, German idealism, and post-analytic philosophy. Even if we manage to avoid reducing the alternate tradition to one big argument for the truth of pragmatism, the trick then is to find the sweet spot between appropriating clever and well-intended but ultimately not very useful gadgets, on the one hand, and simply abandoning pragmatism entirely (even if on pragmatist grounds) and signing up for the whole rival package.

And then there’s Wittgenstein, whose thought is particularly difficult to coordinate with anything else, due to his abnormally strong (and peculiar) philosophical personality, as well as the obscurity and multiple reasonably valid interpretations of his various mostly incomplete writings. We certainly don’t simply want to say: oh look, Wittgenstein is a pragmatist; but on the other hand it is difficult to see how his thought can be used for pragmatist ends outside the explicitly Wittgensteinian context. Most pragmatists don’t want to bother, and most Wittgensteinians tend to resent the effort.

Richard Rorty is one famous exception; but his views on the matter are all over the place and we will have to leave that interpretive project for another time. Today I want to deal with one particular area of seeming coincidence: the apparent flirtation with pragmatist epistemology to be found in Wittgenstein’s final notebooks, published in book form as On Certainty. In fact if you go looking in the literature for pragmatism in Wittgenstein, this is most likely what you will find most of, from the entry on “Wittgenstein and Pragmatism” in the recently published Companion to Wittgenstein (ed. H-J. Glock and John Hyman; article authors Gregory Bakhurst and Cheryl Misak), to entire books, e.g. Wittgenstein and Pragmatism: On Certainty in the Light of Peirce and James by Anna Boncompagni. In fact both have been so recently published that I have only had a chance to glance at them, so my apologies to all authors in advance. In any case I only have a few quick remarks for now.

One of the most obvious senses in which pragmatists and Wittgenstein are anti-Cartesians is that both reject the classical Cartesian skeptical problematic, in which the skeptic demands justification for each of our empirical beliefs, given that, as he points out, their falsity is consistent with the sensory evidence for them (that is, our sensory impressions cannot entail, or even provide conclusive evidence for, the truth of our beliefs). Naturally the skeptical conclusion is intolerable (because, uh, we know things); but most philosophers, after centuries of relatively inconclusive discussion (and two millennia before that, for the ancient versions of skepticism), have concluded that since we have no choice but to believe, with appropriate reservations anyway, the deliverances of our senses, there is no point in further indulging the skeptic’s epistemologically apocalyptic fantasies (evil demons! brains in vats!).

The founder of pragmatism, C. S. Peirce, famously addressed the skeptical problem by turning the tables: rather than submitting to the skeptical demand that our beliefs be justified, he argues instead that it is doubt that must be justified, and by more than the theoretical handwaving supplied by Cartesians. What actual difference to practice, he asked, would it make to doubt the existence of the “external world”, or (in the Humean context) that the sun will rise tomorrow as always? Sans any convincing answer to this question, Peirce claims, we may dismiss such quibbles as merely “paper doubt.” This resembles, and indeed is to some extent the source of, the lack of interest in skepticism I mentioned above; but rather than simply using it as an excuse to move on, Peirce developed an entire philosophical system (indeed, several such systems, overlapping and replacing each other, guaranteeing employment for Peirce scholars in perpetuity) based on this idea.

The locus classicus of this view is Peirce’s article “The Fixation of Belief” (1877). Briefly, as Bakhurst and Misak note Wittgenstein also says (below), Peirce “holds that the revision of belief makes sense only against a background that is not called into question […] and that doubt must be properly motivated and purposeful” [Glock 736]. That background need not be indubitable, essentially or otherwise, as the skeptic’s traditional dogmatist opponent maintains. The moment experience goes against them, Peirce declares, he stands ready, as a “contrite fallibilist,” to “dump the whole cartload.” The point is that no merely theoretical consideration such as the Cartesian skeptic provides can justify such dumping, let alone demand it, especially given that we (now at least) have a perfectly good alternative theoretical account of inquiry in pragmatism.

OncertaintySkip forward several decades to the early twentieth century, and across the pond to Cambridge, where Wittgenstein’s colleague G. E. Moore takes another, if somewhat similar, tack. Peirce’s account tries to render skeptical doubt idle; but in “Proof of an External World” and “A Defence of Common Sense,” Moore, making a virtue out of his characteristic simplicity, simply brushes it aside. He states flat out that he is surer that, for example, he has two hands (and thus that there are at least two objects outside his mind) than of any philosophical argument, however rigorous, purporting to render such things only unreasonably believed. Game over!

It’s no surprise that Wittgenstein found this anti-skeptical response fascinating but was also characteristically unable to leave it at that. On Certainty documents his musings on the matter. Keep in mind that this publication is simply a notebook of daily ruminations, and far from undergoing the obsessive editing and reworking subjected by its author to earlier work, and even some from the same later period, merely breaks off not long (= two days) before Wittgenstein died on April 29, 1951. Even in these few pages, though, there are quite a few fascinating ideas, both for Wittgenstein interpreters and philosophers generally. For now let’s look just at Wittgenstein’s idea of “hinge propositions” and its possible implications for pragmatist epistemology.

OC §§136-8 reads:

When Moore says he knows such and such, he is really enumerating a lot of empirical propositions which we affirm without special testing; propositions, that is, which have a peculiar logical role in the system of our empirical propositions. […] [These] propositions […] are indeed interesting [n]ot because anyone knows their truth, or believes he knows them, but because they all have a similar role in the system of our empirical judgments. We don’t, for example, arrive at any of them as a result of investigation. There are e.g. historical investigations and investigations into the shape and also the age of the earth, but not into whether the earth has existed during the last hundred years.

The role played by those propositions, as before, is that, like the hinges of a door (OC §341) they stand fast as the background against which inquiry (i.e. into other, as yet unknown propositions) takes place. Like Peirce, Wittgenstein thus rejects the Cartesian demand that (as Michael Williams will later put it) our empirical beliefs about an “external” world be justified “as a totality” (i.e. qua empirical). Wittgenstein himself notes the appeal of pragmatism in a notoriously cryptic remark (OC §422), but let’s ignore that and press on.

Which propositions are these, which are “exempt from doubt” (§341 again) and how can we identify them as such among all the rest of our beliefs? What common property makes them “stand fast” in this way? What makes this line of questioning tricky, and what keeps Wittgenstein going around in circles throughout these notes, is that there are a number of distinct layers here no matter how you slice it, and each layer can seem to have a correspondingly distinct sort of epistemological status, e.g.:

— analytic propositions;
— the axioms of mathematics, and the theorems or other statements derived from them;
— “regulative ideas’, such as those to be found in Kant, perhaps;
— other mainly semantic rules falling short of strict analyticity;
— “obvious” empirical truths such as those Moore cites;
— whatever propositions are “held fast” by a group of inquirers for the purposes of their inquiry;
or even, possibly idiosyncratically, by a particular person at a particular time.

This is made trickier still by Wittgenstein’s insistence that these boundaries are somewhat porous and unstable. This is the clear intent of the image of the riverbank, as in OC §§95-99, in which, while we distinguish at any one time between the “water” and the “bank,” the riverbank itself can shift over time and is thus fluid in its own way.

In my view, a minority one to be sure, what properly characterizes Wittgenstein’s “hinge” propositions – those propositions “exempt from doubt” and thus making inquiry conceptually possible – is surprisingly simple. It is obscured by Peirce’s unfortunate formulation of our properly anti-skeptical attitude as “fallibilism,” in which no empirical beliefs, given their corrigibility in principle, are held with probability 1. Following Isaac Levi, my teacher at Columbia, I prefer “infallibilism,” which states simply that a proposition is believed only if it is held without doubt. As even some Peirce interpreters concede (e.g. Christopher Hookway), fallibililsm gives back to skepticism with one hand what it takes away with the other. If, as Moore famously pointed out, “I believe it but it isn’t true” makes no sense, neither does “I believe it but it might not be true.” Instead, I say: only if you believe it – that is, regard it as true, without doubt – do you believe it. With this in place, Wittgensteinian hinges are easily seen simply as: beliefs tout court.

Wittgenstein says somewhere that an important methodological principle, in science as well as philosophy, is that if you are running into conceptual problems, then redescribe what you know in another way – one in which the problems do not arise. (As I recall, this is why he admired Hertz, whom he took to have done this.) Here, once we see what attitude we must take toward our beliefs in inquiry, i.e. that they “stand fast” in this way (and then see how that allows us simply to see them as “believed” at all), we no longer need the context provided by the traditional skeptical question, but can instead move on to an account of how beliefs are attributed, and thus how they are individuated with respect to their content, in the first place.

This means, crucially, moving from the implicitly Cartesian picture of a subject representing an “external” world with his “internal” mental states (beliefs), and wondering how they can be accurate, to a picture with no room for this question. We move, that is, from a dualistic picture of internal mind and external world to a triangular picture of subject, world, and interpreter. My regular readers, should such there be, will recognize this as the traditional ending for my philosophical posts: a teaser for a subsequent examination of Donald Davidson’s views.