Austrian–British philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889–1951) played a significant—though often controversial—role in analytic philosophy. He was also influential in philosophies of language, logic, ethics, and religion, as well as aesthetics and culture.
Professor of Philosophy at the University of Hertfordshire, Daniele Moyal-Sharrock has written extensively about Ludwig Wittgenstein’s ideas, as well as philosophy in general. She is primarily known for her expertise in Wittgenstein’s last work, On Certainty.
Simply Charly: Ludwig Wittgenstein stands among the greatest philosophers of the 20th century; his influence can be felt across the board, as his ideas shaped how we think about logic, language, ethics, and many other subjects. What led you to focus your research on Wittgenstein in particular? How were you first introduced to his philosophy?
Daniele Moyal-Sharrock: Oddly enough, it was literature that prompted my interest in Wittgenstein. Literature, in the shape of F. R. Leavis—whose estimation of Wittgenstein’s “unmistakable genius” (in his Memories of Wittgenstein) intrigued me—and in the shape of a question I wanted philosophy to answer: what is the great thing about literature? Why are we drawn to it? My immediate answer was similar to Aristotle and Immanuel Kant’s: it gives us cognitive pleasure. But the problem with cognition—knowledge—is that it’s too analytic. Knowledge—justified true belief—was not what I was looking for. The kind of cognition that literature affords us is not of the order of strict justification and veridical correspondence to reality, but of a fundamental and indubitable certainty that is not susceptible of “proof.” In my research, I came across a book of Wittgenstein’s that had received very little attention: On Certainty. And this is where I found the genius that Leavis was talking about. As I like to say, I came to Wittgenstein by the back door (On Certainty being Wittgenstein’s last work), and this has shaped my view of his philosophy in a way it would not have done had I taken the front entrance.
SC: The bulk of your studies and publications focus on Wittgenstein’s later years and his post-Philosophical Investigations work. Do you feel that this stage of Wittgenstein’s career has been sorely overlooked by scholars?
DMS: When I started work on On Certainty, I realized that, with the notable exceptions of Avrum Stroll, Marie McGinn, and Crispin Wright, the book had attracted very little attention. The later works on the philosophy of psychology had not been as neglected but had still not received the attention they deserved. What became clear to me was that Wittgenstein was considered to have written two masterpieces: The Tractatus and the Philosophical Investigations—all his other writings were seen as intermediate or peripheral. Moreover, although Wittgenstein had recanted the Tractatus, the so-called New Wittgensteinians were bringing it back to center stage; hailing it as the key to all his philosophical thought. But that key opened up false doors. Wittgenstein’s philosophy was taken to promote nothing but (self-) therapy, which, in effect, consisted of philosophical abstinence and sanctioned any substantive contribution to thought. This not only wrongly reflected Wittgenstein’s philosophical development and importance but also misguided much Wittgenstein scholarship for a decade and put a catastrophic damper on interest in Wittgenstein.
SC: The notion of a “third Wittgenstein” has steadily grown in popularity throughout the past decade, yet it still meets with criticism in some circles. Why are some scholars opposed to the idea of acknowledging Wittgenstein’s post-Investigations work as a new chapter in Wittgenstein’s career, rather than a mere extension of the second Wittgenstein? What, to you, is the difference between the second and third Wittgenstein? What, in particular, makes Wittgenstein’s final works worth studying?
DMS: The idea of a third Wittgenstein was rooted in my conviction that Wittgenstein’s philosophy did not only consist of two distinct phases, each with its own masterpiece, but of three phases, each with its own masterpiece. Although the third phase was not a radical departure from the second because it was not prompted by a recantation, after Investigations, there was major different material and methodology, as well as a neglected masterpiece that needed flagging: On Certainty. I was aware of the unprecedented achievement of On Certainty and found in the various writings and lectures on the philosophy of psychology, not just more of Investigations, but also new insights and achievements. I felt there was a need to prompt others to go beyond what was beginning to sound like arrested development with Investigations, and delve further and deeper into the post-Investigations works. The late notes on certainty do not, as has been suggested, merely modify conceptions advanced in the Investigations; they directly tackle and solve one of the most persistent problems of epistemology—the nature of basic beliefs—and they dissolve the problem of skepticism. This is unprecedented, not only in Wittgenstein’s own work but philosophy as a whole. There is also much new substance to be culled from the writings, remarks, and lectures on the philosophy of psychology with respect, for example, to the unconscious, dispositions and capacities, psychological certainty, and imponderable evidence—particularly, with the important new concept of “patterns of life” (not to be confused with “form of life”) which has hardly been noticed.
I would say the principal reason some scholars have opposed the idea of a third Wittgenstein—or simply the idea of acknowledging Wittgenstein’s post-Investigations work as a new chapter in his development—is their not devoting sufficient attention to that work. This is now beginning to change—the focus is increasingly shifting to On Certainty and away, particularly from the Tractatus. This is manifested in the increasing number of publications, Ph.D. dissertations, seminars, conferences, and workshops devoted to On Certainty in recent years.
SC: You consider On Certainty to be Wittgenstein’s third masterpiece. This book, published posthumously, was compiled together from Wittgenstein’s notes as he lay dying. What role does On Certainty play in Wittgenstein’s overall legacy?
DMS: What philosophers call “basic beliefs” are beliefs that implicitly underpin all that we say or do—for example, “I exist;” “There exist people other than myself;” “The world exists and has existed for a very long time;” “Human beings have bodies, need nourishment, sleep” etc. Wittgenstein’s revolutionary insight in On Certainty is that these basic beliefs cannot, on pain of infinite regress, themselves be justified true beliefs; that is, objects of knowledge. He realizes that they are in fact animal or non-justified ways of acting which, when formulated by philosophers, look like empirical propositions. It is this misleading appearance that leads philosophers to believe that at the foundation of thought and knowledge is yet more thought and knowledge. But although they may often look like empirical conclusions, our basic certainties constitute the ungrounded, non-propositional underpinning of knowledge, not its object (e.g., we don’t know that we have a body; we act as embodied beings; we don’t know that there exist people other than ourselves; we interact with others). In situating the foundation of knowledge in animal certainties that occur as instinctive or inculcated ways of acting, rather than as yet more basic justified true beliefs, Wittgenstein found the place where justification comes to an end, and solved the regress problem of basic beliefs—a problem that philosophers have been struggling with since Plato and Aristotle. This insight also allows him to rebut the logical possibility of hyperbolic skepticism, making On Certainty a corrective, not only to G. E. Moore but also to René Descartes, David Hume, and all of epistemology. I believe these are groundbreaking achievements for philosophy—worthy of calling On Certainty Wittgenstein’s “third masterpiece.”
And if that weren’t enough, On Certainty also makes Wittgenstein the pioneer of Enactivism. Let me explain. Broadly speaking, Enactivism is the view that mentality is “rooted in engaged, embodied activity as opposed to detached forms of thought;” a view that favors “the primacy of ways of acting over ways of thinking when it comes to understanding our basic psychological and epistemic situation” (D.D. Hutto 2013, 281). This is now a burgeoning, current field within philosophy, but it was Wittgenstein who first rejected the traditional assumption that the essence of thinking is concentrated in processes of thought underlying, and separable from, its manifestations in speech and action. As I have just made clear, one of the most important contributions he made to philosophy is his insistence on our fundamentally animal nature; his insistence that at the basis of all our acting and thinking are not tacit propositions or thoughts, but simply animal behavior, that is, proposition-free action and reaction:
“The origin and the primitive form of the language game is a reaction; only from this can more complicated forms develop.
Language—I want to say—is a refinement, ‘in the beginning was the deed.” (CV 31)
This idea is strewn throughout his later philosophy, but it finds its ultimate expression and extension in On Certainty. Acting, for Wittgenstein, is everywhere—not only at the origin of thought and language for the human species and all individual human beings, but also at the origin of any human thought or utterance. This is not merely to say that we need to be alive to think—or that thinking is a form of acting—but that much (not all, but much) of what we have always regarded as thinking is, in fact, acting or behavior. Acting, however, that looks like thought because we—philosophers—have put it into words. This correction is at the root of Enactivism along with its cohorts: embodiment, embeddedness, and extensiveness: movements (all encapsulated in what is currently being called: “the e-turn”) that Wittgenstein’s work has inspired and is fostering.
SC: Wittgenstein was not afraid to critique his own earlier works: in his later life he rejected parts of the Tractatus as “dogmatic,” and even went so far as to refute some of his own arguments. As a scholar of Wittgenstein’s later years, how would you say the older Wittgenstein differs from his younger self? How did his philosophy evolve over the course of his lifetime?
DMS: After the Tractatus, Wittgenstein lost the arrogance of youth and became less dogmatic. This, I believe, was due principally to two things: economist Piero Sraffa’s famous gesture, accompanied by the question: “What is the logical form of that?” and Wittgenstein’s experience as a soldier in the Austro-Hungarian Army during WWI. Both of these humbled him and also prompted his introduction of life in his philosophy—“The stream of life” now essentially conditioning meaning, language, mind, and action. I would say that, in spite of being traversed by recantation and transformation, Wittgenstein’s philosophical journey was continuously informed by his desire to free himself, and philosophy, from “the bewitchment of language.” From the Tractatus to On Certainty, Wittgenstein looked for the differences masked by the uniformity of sentence constructions; attempted to discern the use beyond the appearance; and to make that use more perspicuous to philosophers. From his singling out of pseudo-propositions in the Tractatus to the realization in On Certainty that “not everything that has the form of an empirical proposition is one” (On Certainty, 308), Wittgenstein’s efforts to discern what is from what is not a proposition are continual and unwavering. His crusade against the proposition is one with the discernment of the grammatical (or the logical) and its separation from the metaphysical, the epistemic and the empirical.
It may be said that the single track of Wittgenstein’s philosophy is the discernment and elucidation of grammar—its nature and its limits (grammar, in the Wittgensteinian sense, being the rules or conditions for the use and understanding of the sense of our words and expressions). From the Tractatus to Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein redefined, for himself and for us, the nature of grammar; and from the Investigations to On Certainty, he redefined its extension. The second Wittgenstein realized not only that grammar is not a Begriffsschrift (a concept outlined in an 1879 book by German philosopher Gottlob Frege), which is fixed in advance of use, but also that it replaces metaphysics: what once seemed a metaphysical impossibility (for example, “A patch cannot be red and green at the same time” or “A machine cannot think”) now appears to be the expression of a rule of grammar. The third Wittgenstein further realized that contingent facts such as the world existing or my sitting here could also belong to grammar. This is a new direction; indeed, it is something even the third Wittgenstein found difficult to recognize.
SC: On Certainty grew out of Wittgenstein’s response to two papers by G. E. Moore entitled A Proof of the External World and Defence of Common Sense, both of which supported the idea of a world external to human senses. Does On Certainty support Moore’s claim or disagree with it?
DMS: In Proof of an External World, Moore’s concern was to address the reproach made by Kant to philosophy about the absence of a satisfactory proof of “the existence of things outside of us.” For Kant, it remains “a scandal to philosophy” that we must accept the existence of the external world on faith; that we have not refuted skepticism of the external world. Moore then proceeds to meet the challenge, not by proving the existence of external things—which he admits he cannot do—but by showing that the absence of such proof does not mean we do not know that things external to us exist. Moore insists that he can know things he cannot prove. Now, Wittgenstein does not question our assurance of the existence of an external world, or even the legitimacy of Moore’s assurance that, e.g., “Here is a hand.” What he does question is whether Moore is right to call this assurance “knowledge.” In Wittgenstein’s view, “knowing” does not correctly describe Moore’s assurance about something as basic as that he is now standing up and talking, or that the object he is waving is a hand. This is not to say that Wittgenstein is questioning or belittling Moore’s assurance about these things, only that he believes this assurance to be of a more fundamental nature than knowing:
“I should like to say: Moore does not know what he asserts he knows, but it stands fast for him, as also for me; regarding it as absolutely solid is part of our method of doubt and enquiry.” (On Certainty, 151)
On Certainty does not, therefore, support Moore’s epistemic claim; it argues, rather, that our most basic assurance is not epistemic but logical, or grammatical. There is, therefore, no proving the existence of the external world because our assurance of its existence is not subject to doubt, and therefore to justification; it belongs to the “substratum of all [our] enquiring and asserting” (On Certainty, 162). It underpins our questions and doubts, and it underpins knowledge.
Q: Throughout On Certainty, Wittgenstein refers to the “language-game,” a concept he first introduced in Philosophical Investigations. Could you briefly explain what this term refers to?
In reaction to the mentalist conception of meaning, which sees it unilaterally as a mental connection between words and objects, Wittgenstein affirms that the meaning of a word or sentence resides in the use we make of it. He introduces the term “language-game” to highlight the interplay, in the determination of meaning, between language and the actions into which it is woven, and to “bring into prominence the fact that the speaking of language is part of an activity, or of a form of life” (Philosophical Investigations, p.23). Like games, language is embedded in our social, cultural, and natural ways of living—that is, in our form of life. Languages cannot be abstracted from the context in which they live: “words have meaning only in the stream of life” (LW I 913). Language is a normative, social practice; any language is founded on convention (Philosophical Investigations, 355) and is embedded in the shared activities of the language users in a given community.
There is no change in Wittgenstein’s use of the expression “language-game” in On Certainty. What he does here, however, is affirm the importance of unmoving foundations for the possibility of language-games: it is essential for the possibility of having language-games that no doubt appears at certain points (On Certainty, 524); “absence of doubt belongs to the essence of the language-game (On Certainty, 370). So that, for example, when a child is learning to use the word “tree,” and we say, standing with the child in front of a tree “Lovely tree!,” ‘no doubt as to the tree’s existence comes into the language-game’ (On Certainty, 480). Wittgenstein argues that some basic certainties that we can formulate as: “This is a tree,” “The world exists,” or “Cats don’t grow on trees” are necessary, unmoving foundations of our language-games (On Certainty, 403, 411); that the whole language-game rests on this kind of certainty (On Certainty, 446), and that “one is not playing the game or is playing it wrong, if one does not recognize objects with certainty” (On Certainty, 446). So that someone who seriously doubts (that is, not just mouth doubt as philosophers do, but live in the doubt of) the existence of the world, of other minds, or the possibility of cats growing on trees, is not playing the language-game right. And here, “not playing the game right” means being mentally disturbed (On Certainty, 155, 257, 674). The other new thing that Wittgenstein does in On Certainty with respect to language-games is to explain the nature of the certainty that lies—indeed, must lie—at their foundation:
“Giving grounds, … justifying the evidence, comes to an end;—but the end is not certain propositions striking us immediately as true, i.e. it is not a kind of seeing on our part; it is our acting, which lies at the bottom of the language-game.” (On Certainty, 204)
SC: What is the importance of language to the ideas that Wittgenstein posits in On Certainty?
DMS: Rather than language, it is action that holds center stage in On Certainty. Where Wittgenstein addresses language (and thought), it is to oust them from the foundations and replace them, as we have just seen, with action. After the linguistic turn came, with Wittgenstein, the e-turn.
Wittgenstein’s sensitivity to the importance of language also involves great care in being conscious of what goes on with language in many circumstances: he reminds us that “philosophical problems arise when language goes on holiday” (Philosophical Investigations, 38), and constantly warns us against the “bewitchment” of language (Philosophical Investigations, 109). In fact, it could be said that from his first work (Tractatus) to the last (On Certainty), Wittgenstein crusaded against the face-value of language. Why is this a philosopher’s crusade? Because the attempt to demarcate the merely contingent from the necessary is a philosopher’s task, and Wittgenstein realized that this task was obstructed—not by any metaphysical obstacle, but by the very nature of language, which allows us to use the same sentence in different capacities. This economy comes with a disadvantage: sentences do not wear their status on their sleeve; the status of words or sentences is not visible from their form. Hence, the very same sentence can, depending on use, constitute an empirical proposition or a rule of grammar, and philosophers often fail to discern the difference in status behind the uniform appearance: “not everything that has the form of an empirical proposition is one,” Wittgenstein writes in On Certainty. What I have called the doppelgänger of a hinge—Wittgenstein’s metaphor for a foundational certainty (On Certainty, 341)—is a sentence made up of the same words as a hinge, but which does not function as a hinge. To mistake a hinge certainty for an empirical proposition simply because both can, in different circumstances, be formulated by the same string of words (e.g., “I am here”) is to envisage the possibility of doubt and skepticism where there can, in fact, be none. Wittgenstein’s continuing crusade was to remind us of the misleading uniformity of language, and to denounce its ravages on philosophy.
SC: According to Wittgenstein’s friend and fellow philosopher Georg Henrik von Wright, Wittgenstein felt that his ideas had been misunderstood, and once said that he felt as though “he were writing for people who would think in a different way, breathe a different air of life, from that of present-day men.” More than six decades after his death, have we come any closer to truly understanding Wittgenstein? Did even Wittgenstein truly understand himself?
DMS: Wittgenstein has been widely misunderstood. I think the reason for this is that understanding Wittgenstein requires more than a strictly intellectual penetration of his ideas; it demands a conversion. Not a religious conversion or a conversion to the Wittgenstein tribe, but a long weaning off traditional ways of thinking about what the human mind is and how it works; how it is connected to action and to language. This process requires a long, sustained, and deliberate withdrawal from the assumption that the brain is the intellectual head of the body, and the mind is either synonymous with, or substantively derived from, the brain. It takes exceptional effort to recover from such habits of thought and start viewing the brain as a crucial, but merely mechanical enabler of the mind. To have a mind is to have and exercise a set of capacities for thinking, reasoning, remembering, willing, intending, lying, expecting, etc. The brain is no more the intellectual source of these activities than it is the digestive source of digestion. Of course, we need the brain to think, and to digest; but the brain no more thinks than it digests. These assumptions are extraordinarily difficult to get rid of. Look up “brain” in the dictionary, and you will find some variant of “the seat of thought, memory and emotion” (Collins, Reverso). The Cambridge Online Dictionary defines it as “the organ inside the head that controls thought, memory, feelings, and activity.” That seems anodyne enough but look again. The mind is similarly reified; Merriam-Webster defines it as “the part of a person that thinks, reasons, feels, and remembers.” As British philosopher Peter Hacker has tried to make clear, we are beguiled by the mereological fallacy of attributing to a part of the body a function or activity that only a person is capable of performing. It is the person who thinks, reasons, feels, and remembers, not her brain or her mind. Mistakes like these are not of mere terminological import; they determine the direction of scientific research. Neuropsychologists who believe that the brain produces, manages, directs, and activates our thoughts, memories, and feelings are going to look for representations, concepts, propositions, etc. in the brain. In fact, they have been on a “search for the engram”—a (hypothetical) codified memory trace in the brain—since the 1920s; and a tiny number of them are now only beginning to realize that it is a search that is “doomed to failure,” as stated by cognitive psychologist Fergus Craik, who has done groundbreaking work on levels of processing in memory.
Still, we have come closer to understanding Wittgenstein. Of course, a great number of philosophers have contributed to this enhanced understanding; but I would particularly salute Peter Hacker and Avrum Stroll, who have followed Norman Malcolm and G. H. von Wright in paving the way that we are today extending.
SC: In your studies of Wittgenstein, which resources do you find useful for research? Are there any other Wittgenstein scholars whose works you would recommend?
DMS: Many colleagues and students have told me that they find the BWS Recent Books page on the British Wittgenstein Society (BWS) website a quick and ready resource tool. It displays (with links to the publishers) all Wittgenstein-related book publications since 2001. Also, the Wittgenstein Archives at the University of Bergen (WAB) have recently made available on open access a selection of papers from the annual International Wittgenstein Symposia (IWS) in Kirchberg am Wechsel, Austria. In my own research, I have found the Proceedings of the Kirchberg Symposia consistently full of gems. Of course, the journal Philosophical Investigations is an invaluable research tool, alongside Wittgenstein-Studien and the more recent Nordic Wittgenstein Review, which has online open access. The BWS Wittgenstein Annotated Bibliography stores hundreds of articles by Wittgenstein scholars, and is being regularly augmented. It is still far from the “Comprehensive” Bibliography it aims to be, but we are working on getting the funds required for this. The Annotated Bibliography can be accessed via the BWS website or directly through the web. And of course, as of autumn 2014, thanks to the recent initiative of the partnership between Trinity College Cambridge, the University of Bergen and the Stanhill Foundation, a new Nachlass facsimile of Wittgenstein originals will be made freely available online. This is a wonderful initiative that will democratically benefit all scholars and students of Wittgenstein.
The Wittgenstein scholars I have found indispensable in my own work and would highly recommend, besides Peter Hacker and Avrum Stroll, are John V. Canfield, H-J. Glock, Michel ter Hark, Dan Hutto, Jose Medina, and Stanley Cavell.
SC: In addition to your multiple articles, reviews, and books regarding Wittgenstein, you are the president of the British Wittgenstein Society (BSW). What sort of work does the Society do? Are there any upcoming events you’d like our readers to be made aware of?
The British Wittgenstein Society aims to be a focal point for research and exchange of ideas among Wittgenstein scholars and students throughout the world; but its mission is also to reach out to non-Wittgensteinians and engage them in a constructive debate on Wittgenstein’s contribution to philosophy and other fields. I founded the Society in reaction to the decline of Wittgenstein’s reputation in the UK, particularly London universities. One of the reasons for this, as I noted earlier, was the emergence of the “New Wittgenstein” rendering of Wittgenstein as a quietist philosopher who urges us to rid ourselves of false philosophical pictures and put nothing in their place. This is in blatant contradiction to Wittgenstein’s reminders of the fundamental importance for us to command “a clear view” of the use of our words; our need to disperse the fog, so as to make our accounts into more “perspicuous presentations” (Philosophical Investigations, 5, 122) and put other things in the place of false pictures. Also, the non-reductionist, anti-physicalist nature of his philosophy vied with the growth of an empirically-based or “cog sci philosophy,” which takes philosophy to be continuous with science and reduces the human to neurons and electrons. Wittgenstein is certainly not averse to science, and indeed thinks philosophy can give a new direction to scientific investigation (RPP I, 950), but although he is perfectly aware that our life (inner and outer) is dependent on molecules, he fundamentally rejects the notion that it is determined by, or reducible to, molecules. This, as you can guess, did not make him popular in cog-sci circles. I am, however, pleased to report that Enactivism is gaining ground in Cog Sci.
I founded the BWS to help ensure that Wittgenstein’s work has the impact on our civilization that it deserves to have. Disciplines other than philosophy have discovered and used Wittgenstein: he has contributed to reshaping thought in cognitive psychology, psychiatry, the sciences of education, sociology, anthropology, primatology, linguistics, mathematics, and aesthetics. The BWS has been successful in calling renewed attention to Wittgenstein’s importance worldwide, not least in inspiring societies such as the Nordic Wittgenstein Society (NWS), the Chinese Wittgenstein (CWS) and the Indian Wittgenstein Society into existence. It now has, I might add, more than 400 registered members worldwide. But most importantly, in bringing together, at its annual conferences, philosophers opposed to, as well as philosophers inspired by, Wittgenstein, the BWS has contributed to reawakening the spirit of a philosopher whose work was not aimed at stopping us doing philosophy, but at helping us do it better.