Wittgensteinian epistemology and Cartesian skepticism
Salvatore, Nicola Claudio
This work starts from three complementary and interdependent questions: 1) How should we interpret Wittgenstein’s anti-skeptical strategy as presented in On Certainty, and especially the elusive and yet central concept of ‘hinges’? 2) Can Wittgenstein’s strategy, when properly understood and developed, provide a satisfactory response to Cartesian skepticism? 3) Does a Wittgensteinian epistemology license epistemic relativism, and if so to what extent? In Chapter 1, I present Cartesian-style skepticism and its epistemological implications along with the Dretske-Nozick’s ‘relevant alternatives’ theory, based on the rejection of the Closure principle for Knowledge which underlies the skeptical challenge. After a brief discussion of the main concerns raised against this proposal, I argue that this line is untenable and that a successful anti-skeptical proposal has to retain Closure. Having shown the shortcomings of the Dretske-Nozick proposal, I then focus my attention on G. E. Moore’s famous anti-skeptical works, namely “A Defence of Common Sense” (1925, henceforth DCS) and “Proof of an External World”, (1939, henceforth PEW). In these seminal papers, Moore famously argued that it is possible to know several ‘obvious truisms of commonsense’ such as ‘There are external objects’, I have a body’ and so on and that this knowledge can offer a direct response to skeptical worries; the aim of this strategy is then to retain both Closure and our confidence in our everyday knowledge claims. After a detailed presentation of DCS and PEW I will discuss the problems of Moore’s direct response against the skeptic, drawing on the works of distinguished commentators such as Malcolm, Clarke, Stroud and Wright. Roughly, I argue that Moore’s strategy is both unnecessary and unconvincing: unconvincing because Moore’s knowledge-claims cannot refute Cartesian skeptical arguments; unnecessary for they can ‘work’ only within our everyday ‘non-philosophical’ context, thus when no skeptical hypothesis can be sensibly raised. Even if Moore’s anti-skeptical attempts have unanimously been considered unsatisfying, for several reasons his works have nonetheless been extremely influential, to the extent that quite a few contemporary anti-skeptical proposals can be fairly described as ‘Moorean’. In Chapter 2, I present and discuss the dominant ‘Moore-Inspired’ positions, namely Pryor’s Dogmatist Reading of PEW, Neta’s interpretation of the Proof, Greco’s reliabilist account, Fara’s ‘Second Proof’, DeRose’s ‘Moorean contextualism’ and Sosa ‘Neo-Mooreanism’. I criticise these accounts in turn, in order to show that all these strategies inherit the main problems of Moore’s treatment of skepticism and also have unpalatable consequences with regard to the so-called ‘value problem for knowledge’. After having extensively criticised both Moore’s and ‘Neo-Moorean’ epistemologies, in Chapter 3 I focus my attention on Wittgenstein’s On Certainty; given the obscurity and ambiguity of this work, in this chapter I present some of the less contentious aspects of Wittgenstein’s treatment of skepticism and I emphasise the role played by ‘hinges ’ in his anti-skeptical strategy. This will give me the background to assess the different ‘Wittgensteininspired’ anti-skeptical strategies I consider in Chapter 4, namely Conant’s ‘therapeutic’ reading, Wright’s ‘rational entitlement’ account, Williams’ ‘Wittgensteinian contextualism’, McGinn’s ‘framework’ reading and Pritchard’s ‘hinge commitment’ strategy. I argue that these proposals are wanting, both as plausible interpretations of Wittgenstein’s thought and more importantly as viable anti-skeptical strategies. Moreover, I show that McGinn and Williams’ proposals can lead to a form of epistemic relativism, according to which our epistemic practices are the result of pre-rational, social commitments not subject to rational evaluation of any sort; a conclusion which is not more palatable than skepticism itself. Chapter 5 is devoted to presenting Moyal-Sharrock’s ‘non-epistemic’ reading of OC, for which ‘hinges’ such as ‘There are external objects’ or ‘I have a body’ are the expression of a pre-theoretical, animal certainty which she sees as constitutively different from knowledge. While I defend Moyal-Sharrock’s exegesis and her analogy between ‘hinges’ and 'rules of grammar’ as the most plausible interpretation of Wittgenstein’s thought, in this chapter I also criticise her ‘non-epistemic’ account; roughly, I argue that following this strategy we will be forced either to reject the Closure principle, thus inheriting the problems of the Dretske-Nozick’s line, or else to endorse skepticism. Moreover, I also consider some of the relativistic implications of Moyal-Sharrock’s account, which make her proposal vulnerable to the same objections I have raised against McGinn’s framework reading and Williams’ Wittgensteinian contextualism. In Chapter 6, I develop my own anti-skeptical proposal, which is informed by the analogy between ‘hinges’ and ‘rules of grammar’ and their peculiar status. Drawing on Wittgenstein’s reflections on grammatical rules, developed in the socalled second phase of his thought, and especially in his Philosophical Investigations, I argue that ‘hinges’ cannot be object of knowledge but are subject to an altogether different epistemic standing, namely understanding or ‘mastery of techniques’. A promising anti-skeptical implication of this account is that it will help us to dismiss Cartesian-style skepticism as the result of a logical error, based on a misleading way of representing the structure of our epistemic practices, which are not based on propositional beliefs but rather on non-propositional, normative rules. In the rest of Chapter 6, I consider a final problem that a Wittgensteinian epistemology so construed has to face in order to be considered a fully viable antiskeptical position; that is, whether Wittgenstein’s account of ‘hinges’ would lead to epistemic relativism of a kind that is generated by the proposals put forward by Williams, McGinn and Moyal-Sharrock. Chapter 7 is devoted to addressing this question in detail. Drawing on Wittgenstein’s views on mathematics, metrology and religious beliefs, I aim to show that his remarks on ‘hinges’ will help us to dissolve epistemic relativism rather than licensing it. This is so because following Wittgenstein’s remarks on the structure of reason the disagreement between epistemic communities committed to different ‘hinges’ (for instance a community which believes in oracles rather than in science) is either solvable, as different epistemic practices can be compared and assessed if they have similar aims, or is a pseudo-disagreement which stems from a misguided comparison between different practices.