Sunday, 31 May 2015

Wittgenstein on Doubt

Ludwig Wittgenstein’s case against scepticism (or at least against "global" scepticism) is simple. We can't doubt without exempting some things from doubt. As Wittgenstein himself puts it in his On Certainty (##341-4.)

The questions that we raise and our doubts depend on the fact that some propositions are exempt from doubt, are as it were like hinges on which those [doubts] turn.

That is to say, it belongs to the logic of our scientific investigations that certain things are in deed not doubted…

“My life consists in my being content to accept many things.” 

To put this at its simplest. 

Say that you're doubting a person’s thesis in geology. You wouldn't, thereby, doubt the meanings of your own words or the words of the person who's offering his geological thesis. That would be semantic doubt; not geological doubt.

Similarly, you wouldn't doubt that the geologist were a person rather than a zombie or a machine. That would be a doubt about other minds; not a doubt about, again, geology.

Even if the other doubts aren't philosophical, they still needn't be geological doubts. 

For example, you may doubt the geologist’s honesty or why he's saying what he's saying. (You may doubt that you put your underpants on. If you did, then perhaps you wouldn't pay attention.) Thus these doubts must be "properly ignored" (as the philosopher David Lewis once put it).

What's at the heart of these "exemptions" is the "context" in which the doubt (or the exemption of doubt) takes place. As Wittgenstein (again) puts it:

“Without that context, the doubt itself makes no sense: ‘The game of doubting itself presupposes certainty’; ‘A doubt without an end is not even a doubt.’” (76, On Certainty, #115; #625.)

If one doubts everything, then there's no sense in doubting anything. Doubt occurs in the context of non-doubt. 

According to Descartes, one thing one can't doubt is that one is doubting. (Or one can't doubt the meanings of one’s words or that one’s words mean the same today as they did yesterday.) Even psychologically speaking one needs a context for one’s doubt.

The Things We Cannot Doubt

The important point to make about Wittgenstein’s position is not that, as Timothy Chappell puts it, 

“there is some special class of privileged propositions that we simply can’t doubt” (76). 

This isn’t a Cartesian or "foundationalist" position. The propositions we mustn't doubt could be of (just about) any kind. The general point is that there must be some propositions (of whatever kind) which we mustn't doubt in order to get the ball rolling (at it were). We can't start ex nihilo - as Descartes ostensibly did. We must bounce off certain propositions which we don't doubt. We can't, then, doubt literally everything - again, as Descartes supposedly did.

What we choose not to doubt (indeed what we also choose to doubt) will depend on our context. That will determine the nature of our doubts (or our lack of doubt vis-à-vis particular propositions or possibilities). 

Timothy Chappell gives some very basic, and non-philosophical, examples of this. He writes:

“… in each context, there is a very great deal that is not in doubt: the existence of the chessboard, the reliability of the atlas, the possibility of generally getting shopping sums right. This background makes it possible to have doubts, and possible (in principle) to resolve them. Where there is no such background, says Wittgenstein, the doubt itself makes no sense.” (77)

We can create a table of what we can't doubt; and what we can doubt:

1a) The existence of the chessboard. 
1b) The sincerity of our chess opponent’s naivety.

2a) The (general) reliability of the atlas. 
2b) Whether or not the atlas is up-to-date.

3a) The possibility of (generally) getting our shopping sums right. 
3b) That one’s hangover (today) is affecting one’s arithmetical judgement.

To put the above another way. One couldn't doubt the sincerity of our chess opponent’s naivety if before that we actually doubted the existence of the chessboard. We wouldn't doubt whether or not our atlas was up-to-date if we had already doubted its general reliability. We wouldn't doubt our arithmetical skills during a hangover if we had already doubted our skills in all contexts.

Not only that: we can only resolve our lesser doubts if we simply disregard the more global (or extreme) doubts which might have proceeded them. That is, I can go ahead and win my chess opponent only if I simply disregard the possibility of the chessboard simply not existing in the first place.

Wittgenstein also seems to say that total (or global) doubt simply “makes no sense” because there needs to be a reason to doubt. If one doubts everything, then there can be no reason to doubt – unless the act of doubting (everything) is itself the reason to doubt! Perhaps the sceptic would concede that senseless (according to Wittgenstein) position!

Descartes’ Fallacy?

Chappell then offers us a logical argument against Descartes’ global or total doubt. He argues that it rests on a fallacious argument. He writes:

“Descartes – you could say – begins his philosophy by arguing that since any of our beliefs might be false, therefore all of our beliefs might be false. But this is a fallacious argument. (Compare: ‘Any of these strangers might be the Scarlet Pimpernel; therefore every one of these strangers might be the Scarlet Pimpernel.’) What is true of any belief is not necessarily true of every belief. So – the claim would be – Descartes’ system rests on a fallacy (the ‘any/all fallacy’, as it is sometimes called.)” (77)

In fact Chappell's argument does seem to follow. That is, “if any of our beliefs might be false, therefore all of our beliefs might be false” (77). He isn't saying that all are false if one is false; but that all of them may be false if one is (found to be) false. On the other hand, perhaps that doesn’t logically follow. 

One belief (or “any” belief) being false doesn't entail every belief being false; or even their possibly being false. Though doesn’t it leave open that possibility? 

The analogy with the Scarlet Pimpernel doesn't work because, by definition, only one person can be this person. There's nothing strange about saying that every (or all) our beliefs may be false - or even that they are all false. Not all our beliefs need to be numerically identical; though there can only be one other person who is numerically identical with the Scarlet Pimpernel. 

So saying that

“any of these strangers might be the Scarlet Pimpernel; therefore every one of these strangers might be the Scarlet Pimpernel” 

isn't the same as the Cartesian example at all. Two beliefs may both be false; though they needn't be identical beliefs. However, if there were two people who were the Scarlet Pimpernel, then they'd need to be identical – indeed numerically identical.

The Language Game of Scepticism

Wittgenstein brings in his notion of language games to make sense of global doubt. Again, his argument against doubt is simple. That argument is that philosophical (or sceptical) doubts simply doesn't arise in any of our language games (outside philosophy!). Therefore we should ignore them! Chappell writes:

“The trouble with crazy sceptical hypotheses, according to Wittgenstein, is that they don’t crop up in any of the various language games that make up the texture of ordinary life in the world. That is why it doesn’t make sense to discuss them.” (78)

This means that “crazy sceptical hypotheses” don’t have any context. If they have no context (outside philosophy!), then “it doesn’t make sense to discuss them”. However, the septic (or philosopher) may reply:

So what! I don’t care if scepticism has "no context" or if there's no sceptical "language game". What I'm saying may still be legitimate and even true! In any case, why can’t scepticism (or philosophy generally) itself be a language game?

After all, philosophy is a language game (if we insist on using Wittgenstein's words) which has been played for over two thousand years. And scepticism itself has been an important and influential language game in our culture generally. What better example of a language game could you have?

Moreover, does scepticism only exist in the language game of philosophy? What about the many conspiracy theories that are so much a part of culture in the U.K and the U.S? These theories can be deemed to be sceptical in nature – after all, they distrust the truths of the “Establishment” or the “status quo”; just as the philosophical sceptics (in part) did.

In addition, shouldn’t a Wittgensteinian say that the very fact that that “crazy sceptical hypotheses” have been discussed at all means that they must have been discussed in one (or various) language games? Every discourse - crazy or sane - needs its own language game. Wasn’t that one of Wittgenstein’s points about language games?

Despite saying all that, Chappell states that 

“the sceptic isn’t playing any legitimate language game in his discourse, and so is talking nonsense” (78). 

Again, who says that the sceptic isn’t playing a language game? And who says that if the sceptic is playing a language game, then his language game isn't "legitimate"? Is it because it's not the language game (or language) of the ordinary man speaking "ordinary language"? The sceptic may again say:

So what! Why should I care about ordinary language or the ordinary man?

So I’m not sure why - or how - Wittgenstein excluded scepticism from all language games or denied that it's a legitimate language game. Chappell too appears to agree with this position against Wittgenstein’s chauvinism against the sceptical language game. He writes:

“… since the sceptic’s discourse makes sense, it must be part of a Wittgensteinian language game – a particular form of human linguistic activity with its own rules – called the ‘scepticism game’.” (78)

Perhaps Wittgenstein might have replied:

But that’s where you're wrong! The sceptic’s discourse doesn't make sense. It's meaningless. It's meaningless precisely because it's not ordinary language. (It doesn't use accepted terms in the way that we use them in everyday life.) Therefore the sceptic’s discourse doesn't make sense. It's nonsense.

It's certainly true that sceptical “linguistic activity” does indeed have “its own rules”. Indeed it can hardly not do. And because it does have its own rules, then it must also be a bona fide language game. However, it just happened to be a language game that Wittgenstein didn't like. (Just as William P. Alston – in his paper 'Yes, Virginia, There Is a Real World' - likes religious language games; though he doesn't like the language games of "relativism" or "scientism".) If we truly believe in Wittgensteinian language games (that is, in their existence and autonomy), then we simply can't pick and choose which ones we accept and which ones we reject. If it's a “human linguistic activity with its own rules”, then it's a language game. (That's whether or not we like it or agree with its beliefs or theories.) Indeed, according to the theory of language games, it's irrelevant if you or I (who belong to other language games) agree or disagree with other language games (to which we don’t belong). After all, all language games - almost by definition - are autonomous and thus beyond the criticisms of other language games. That is the truly relativistic aspect of Wittgensteinian languages games; despite the fact that Wittgenstein himself and many others mightn't have liked the relativist language game itself.

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