Wittgenstein, Ludwig Josef Johann (1889–1951)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DD072-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved April 21, 2024, from

16. Epistemology

One familiar traditional philosophical problem is that of scepticism, that is, whether we can rightly claim to know such things as that physical objects exist independent of our perception, that the world was not created five minutes ago and so forth.

Wittgenstein’s most extended discussion of these issues is in On Certainty (1969). He starts from the kinds of examples invoked by G.E. Moore in his attempt to combat scepticism, such as ‘Here is a hand’ and ‘The Earth has existed for a long time before my birth’ (see Moore, G.E. §§3–4). Moore is wrong, Wittgenstein thinks, in taking it that we are plainly entitled to assert that we know these things. But Moore is right in thinking that the claims form an interesting class. It is impossible to conduct life and thought without taking some things entirely for granted, and the propositions Moore identifies are the articulated forms of things which play this role for us. They help to define our world picture and underpin the procedures by which other claims (ones that are in fact doubted and tested) can be assessed. But they cannot themselves be assessed because there is nothing relatively more certain by which we can get leverage on them. Someone who seems to doubt them is thought mad and, from a first-person point of view, when I imagine doubting such things I contemplate a situation in which I would no longer know how to reason about anything. There are close links between these themes and the idea that the workability of any language game presupposes certain very general facts of nature.

The relevance of this for the traditional question of scepticism is that it is, in its form, misconceived. The central use of ‘know’ is in connection with propositions where testing is possible. Hence one who uses it in connection with the propositions which help define our worldview (as is in fact done only in philosophy and not in ordinary life) has extended the word to a situation where procedures do not exist for assessing either the first-order claim or the claim to knowledge of it. This is not to say that the word ‘know’ is unintelligibly and wrongly used in the philosophical debate. We can sympathize with the sceptical impulse, which springs from awareness of the fact that our language games are not based on grounds which compel us to them or guarantee their continued success. But we can also sympathize with the anti-sceptical position which insists that acceptance of these central propositions underpins our being able to do any thinking at all, so that claims to doubt them are empty (see Scepticism).

Citing this article:
Heal, Jane. Epistemology. Wittgenstein, Ludwig Josef Johann (1889–1951), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DD072-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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