Showing Certainty: An Essay on Wittgenstein's Response to Scepticism

Abstract

Coping with everyday life limits the extent of one’s scepticism. It is practically impossible to doubt the existence of the things with which one is immediately engaged and interacting. To doubt that, say, a door exists, is to step back from merely using the door (opening it) and to reflect on it in a detached, theoretical way. It is impossible to simultaneously act and live immersed in situation S while doubting that one is in S. Sceptical doubts—such as ‘Is this really a door?’, ‘Am I really walking?’ — require a reflective withdrawal in thought from the situation at hand. Maintaining sceptical doubt while coping with everyday life requires a split consciousness, a bad faith, with one part of consciousness doubting the existing of things that the other part takes forgranted. For this reason, a sustained lived sceptical doubt is sometimes thought to be impossible. In this article, I examine Wittgenstein's response to scepticism in "On Certainty". I argue that one of his responses is "the response based on action", which is (as other Wittgenstein interpreters have noted) a characteristically pragmatist response. I then evaluate the quality of this pragmatist response to scepticism, noting that actions just as much as representations are susceptible to mis-interpretation. It is argued that despite the insights contained in it, Wittgenstein's contextualism about meaning is inadequate to rescue the Wittgensteinian response to scepticism.

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