Wittgenstein and External World Skepticism

07Mar08

Like Heidegger, Wittgenstein wants to show that scepticism about the external world does not make sense. How does he go about this?

It is important to note that Wittgenstein is unusual among philosophers in having presented two significantly different philosophies (referred to as ‘early’ (Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, the only book published in his lifetime) and ‘late’ Wittgenstein).One of the most radical characteristics of “later” Wittgenstein is his view of the task of philosophy. The “conventional” view of philosophy, accepted by almost every Western philosopher since Plato, is that the philosopher’s task was to solve a number of seemingly intractable problems using logical analysis (for example, the problem of “free will”, the relationship between “mind” and “matter”, what is “the good” or “the beautiful” and so on). However, Wittgenstein argued in Philosophical Investigations that these “problems” were in fact pseudo-problems that arose from the philosophical misuse of language. We run into confusion when we try to make language do something that it cannot. Some questions/problems simply do not have an answer – and as such they are not truly questions. The true task for philosophy is not to create grand metaphysical systems, but to identify and defuse linguistic confusion “to show the fly the way out of the fly bottle”. Philosophy therefore has a therapeutic aim.

In his early work, Wittgenstein thought that language was supposed to mirror reality. Anything that did not could be regarded as nonsense (E.g. ‘Is there a God?’). He later came to revise this view and argued that language should be best understood within particular contexts of meaning (language games). This gives rise to the dictum “the meaning of language is in its use”.Language games can take many forms: descriptions, stories, jokes, riddles, guesses, translations, etc. Wittgenstein thought that scepticism about the external world was a game of the type that required clarification in order to make it disappear as a problem. All language games, Wittgenstein argued, presuppose a relationship to the world that is not best characterised as a “belief” and therefore not subject to scepticism.‘Knowledge’ of the external world is not something that one is ever taught, or finds out, or proves. It is more like a background against which we come to know other things.For Wittgenstein, the expression of doubt about the external world presupposes that there is something problematic about a situation, but we cannot take the world itself as an object of concern ‘Doubt’ about the external world is never more than hypothetical and as such cannot really be called ‘doubt’ at all.

“The game of doubting itself presupposes certainty.” (On Certainty 315)    

“It would be as if someone were looking for some object in a room; he opens a drawer and doesn’t see it there; then he closes it again, waits, and opens it once more to see if perhaps it isn’t there now, and keeps on like that. He has not learned to look for things… He has not learned the game that we are trying to teach him.” (On Certainty 315)

“[…] the questions that we raise and our doubts depend upon the fact that some propositions are exempt from doubt, are as it were like hinges on which those turn. That is to say, it belongs to the logic of our scientific investigations that certain things are in deed not doubted. But it isn’t that the situation is like this: We just can’t investigate everything, and for that reason we are forced to rest content with assumption. If I want the door to turn, the hinges must stay put.” (On Certainty 341-3)

“A doubt without an end is not even a doubt.” (On Certainty 625)

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One Response to “Wittgenstein and External World Skepticism”

  1. 1 Kuo-Jen Wang

    Hi,
    May I ask, then, Wittgenstein is against skepticism, right?
    Really do hope that you can clarify this question for me.
    Thank you very much.
    KJ Wang


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