A Reading of Wittgenstein’s “On Certainty”
This course wil be taught on-line
- Firstly, we will describe the position of On Certainty in Wittgenstein’s oeuvre and understand its character as a late work;
- This will be followed by a close reading of previously established passages that make it possible to characterize different moments in the course of the argument put forward in the book;
- We will then try to establish the descriptive nature of the text. Borrowing the notion of a descriptive metaphysics from Strawson, we will organize some central moments;
- This descriptive nature of the text will be opposed to the notion of epistemological foundationalism criticized at several points during the text;
- Finally, we will present a reading of On Certainty that focuses on dependence upon certain beliefs.
The course will consist in an attempt to read Wittgenstein’s On Certainty in a way that is both coherent and relevant to the illumination of religious beliefs. We will begin with an introduction to the notion of a descriptive metaphysics. This notion will allow us to make sense of the structure of Wittgenstein’s text, since the text does not introduce the reader to a unified theory but rather to a collection of remarks that deal with topics pertaining to epistemology and metaphysics. We will organize our close reading of the text into three different areas of interest: (i) credulity and foundationalism; (ii) the recurring figure of the child in the text; and (iii) the notion of dependency upon a world.
I – The notion of credulity is first exemplified in the remarks by Moore. Famously, Wittgenstein’s worry is how quickly the sense of credulity about some of our belief slips into an epistemological assumption about its credibility. Read in this way, we will consider Wittgenstein’s set of remarks on this issue as an attempt to discern both a philosophical and metaphysical tendency to theorize, as well as the difficulty of describing credulity in a way that does not reduce it to any sort of functionalism.
II – Next, we will consider the recurring figure of the child in the text. Wittgenstein, at various stages of this work, attempts to capture the process of learning in action. The imagined child reveals a deep dependency on what is learned, without nevertheless considering a foundational theory for its knowledge. The child that emerges from Wittgenstein’s passages needs justifications for its knowledge without, however, needing an accreditation for its justifications.
III – Finally, we will consider the notion of dependency upon a world. At this stage of our course, we will bring in a useful comparison to another text, alluded to by Wittgenstein especially at the very end of On Certainty – namely, Descartes’s Meditations on First Philosophy. We will argue that Wittgenstein’s treatment of foundationalism (considered in the previous two sections) aims at replacing the notion of a First Philosophy that is metaphysical in nature, as is Descartes’s, with one that is descriptive. We will consider On Certainty’s last paragraph about dreaming as an explicit statement about human dependency on a particular experienced world. Lastly, we will consider some passages on the nature of religious belief as an example of this Wittgensteinian first philosophy.
We may summarize our proposal as follows:
This proposal is adequate to the area of this course of studies, since it sheds light on several important connections between metaphysics, epistemology and religious belief. Further, it will put forward a unified reading of a seminal text, by a seminal author, for philosophical culture in the twentieth century. Participants will be able to address topics that are vital to this area of studies in a structured way that brings out several topics in the history of metaphysics and epistemology. Finally, the course represents an opportunity to consider, with a high degree of hermeneutical scrutiny, a text that shaped much of contemporary epistemology.
- Ludwig Wittgenstein. “On Certainty.” G. E. M. Anscombe and G. H. von Wright, editors. London: Wiley-Blackwell, 1991.
- René Descartes. “Meditations on First Philosophy.” Second Edition. Edited and Translated by John Cottingham. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017.
- Peter Strawson. “Individuals: an Essay in Descriptive Metaphysics.” London and New York: Routledge, 1959.
It is suggested that students previously read Ludwig Wittgenstein’s “On Certainty” before the start of the course.
Alberto Arruda was recently awarded his PhD for a dissertation on Wittgenstein. He is currently member of the FCT-funded project “Epistemology of Religious Belief: Wittgenstein, Grammar and the Contemporary World.” As a PhD student, Alberto Arruda was a member of a previous FCT-funded project on Wittgenstein’s “Philosophical Investigations.” His main areas of research are in moral philosophy, philosophy of action, and political philosophy. He also studied at the University of Chicago in the context of the Virtue Seminar (2017).