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Critical Review - Ludwig Wittgenstein's 'On Certainty'

Questions about knowledge have plagued philosophical inquiry for centuries.
Stretching across the span of time, we can see philosophers wrestling with
questions about knowledge, justification, beliefs, and doubt. Near the beginning
of the twentieth century, a shift in epistemic thinking occurred, perhaps seen
most evidently in G.E. Moore's 'Proof of an External World', in which Moore
attempts to refute the skeptic using what may be called a common sense
understanding of knowledge. In the mid-twentieth century, we find Ludwig
Wittgenstein commenting on Moore's argument. 'On Certainty' is perhaps at first
a jumbled-up compendium of comments and thoughts with no clear direction or goal
except to explore Moore's ideas. However, upon a closer reading, we can find
clear themes and insightful ideas which serve to shed light on his later
thinking. The question might be raised, why precisely should we study
Wittgenstein? What insights can he shed on the world that can help us with
today's problems? This is a perfectly fine question; indeed, the problems of the
1950s might not exist today, or at least not to a similar extent as they did
then. However, the questions about knowledge that philosophers have been
attempting to tackle remain, perhaps fleshed out more than ever. With the
previously failed philosophies of logical positivism and, to a lesser extent,
logical atomism, we may find ourselves needing more direction. Indeed, in the
last thirty years, a resurgence of work in epistemology has developed in a
variety of fields. Perhaps the most relevant of those fields today are those of
feminist epistemologies. And while it certainly does no justice to these
disciplines to say that Wittgenstein was working with them and for them or that
he started on their work well before they even began, perhaps the most important
aspect of Wittgenstein's work to put forward is its powerful ability to allow
those who don't understand these different epistemologies to gain some sort of
window into how those fields work and what they are attempting to accomplish. 

First it might be beneficial to frame this discussion more properly. The
projects which I am considering when it comes to feminist epistemology are those
which seek to characterize our communal and scientific practices. Much of the
movement in today's social and political climates seem deeply tied to
fundamental miscommunications on all sides of what is going on. While these
finer points certainly belong in a fundamentally different sort of venue than
this, it does not seem to be much of a mystery that this is the case in general.
Discussions of racism and sexism are frequently tinged with claims relating to
personal experience, and the veracity of such claims are brought into question
because of it. The classical Millian marketplace of ideas, the value-neutral
arena in which competing theories fight for our support, seems to pervade how
many people today think and believe we should operate in the political or
scientific sphere. The task of many feminist epistemologists has been to rework
this arena, to mold it and shape it into something where more than a certain
majority's beliefs hold the most sway. In essence, they seek to change the
dialogue and rules which govern our practices, and the clashes we see are in
some way related to that project making its way into the mainstream. Out of the
ensuing fray arises a question: how do we convince people that their beliefs are
wrong, that they don't know what they think they know? In short, how do we make
them doubt? 

Over the course of Wittgenstein's notes in 'On Certainty' he attempts to make
explicit what it is that can and can't be doubted. Further questions
Wittgenstein seeks to answer are what is it that we accept when we believe
certain things, and why is it that we seem to doubt certain things and not
others. To Wittgenstein, we may readily accept that we have not been far from
the surface of the Earth or that others with bodies and behaviors like mine have
brains much like mine, though I have never seen it, because there isn't good
reason to doubt it. To him, the act of doubting comes after the believing, once
one has had some sort of relevant experience which appears to contradict the
thing that was believed. Our principles of justification can only carry us so
far in our endeavor to ground our beliefs. However, Wittgenstein is quite
explicit on a certain point: our believing does not bottom out. The difficulty,
he says, is in realizing that our beliefs are groundless. We learn facts, and we
understand and believe them. Indeed, we say that we know things primarily
because we are aware of its use. This use is, in particular, with respect to the
kinds of language games we play. Our linguistic practices in our communities,
our use of words in these groups, is what we bevy ourselves with against doubt,
until an experience comes along which casts a shadow over our beliefs. To use
what might be a more explanatory example, it isn't the case that arrows point in
a certain direction because that is what arrows do. Instead, following the
arrowhead is what we do when we see an arrow - it is built into our practices to
do so. Wittgenstein is certain to point out that our beliefs and practices
aren't isolated propositions or immutable to change by other propositions.
Indeed, as he puts it, light dawns gradually over the whole: we accept a variety
of beliefs, all supporting and justifying each other in tandem.  The question is
to be raised then, just how far such axioms and connections go.  We should ask
the question, to what extent is my participation in a language game guiding my
knowledge and beliefs? Wittgenstein says that our communities frame these
things; and these communities are brought together by scientific and educational
practices. It is here that the intimate ties between the feminist project and
Wittgenstein's thoughts comes out. To put Wittgenstein's point in a feminist
example, certain individuals do not see misogyny not because it isn't there, but
because what they're seeing they do not take to be misogyny. Indeed, their
practices and beliefs are framed in such a way that misogyny may seem as normal
behavior. Put another way, they do not know about misogyny because they do not
understand the use of the word. There are no rules in the language game of these
individuals to allow them to recognize or understand the meanings of those who
inform them that their practices are wrong, that their behavior is incorrect;
they are speaking a different language. The power of Wittgenstein's work here is
in its ability to separate such a loaded question, what do we know, from the
messy array of other questions that might follow. Wittgenstein offers a
tentative but surefooted exploration to the edges of our knowledge and our
language. Explaining this kind of journey to those who disagree with us on
fundamentally important topics might be what paves the way to reconciling the

In summary, Wittgenstein's employment of meaning as use and the rules of a
language game as governing our knowledge and beliefs shines a bright spotlight
in an area which once may have been a dark corner for some people. To avoid
charges of anachronism, I will restate that it may be wholly incorrect to
attribute to Wittgenstein the honor of having laid the bedrock for the work of
feminist thought on the topics of ignorance and knowledge. Indeed, it needn't be
the case that Wittgenstein intended to do so at all when he was responding to
Moore. But what he has provided is a way in which we can discuss certain topics
which currently are so successful in dividing us in our daily lives.
Wittgenstein's 'On Certainty' provides a way of speaking which, while perhaps
foreign to most people, can be better known with just a bit of teaching. All it
might take is a bit of proper instruction on how we use our words. 


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