Wittgenstein and Moyal-Sharrock on Hinge Certainties

Term Paper, 2014

16 Pages, Grade: 1,0



1. Introduction

2. Wittgenstein’s Hinges in On Certainty
Wittgenstein on Hinges
Wittgenstein on Doubt
Wittgenstein on Certainty
Wittgenstein on Foundation
Wittgenstein on Acting

3. Moyal-Sharrock’s Interpretation of Hinges

4. Annalisa Coliva on Hinges

5. Conclusion

6. References


Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

1. Introduction

Wittgenstein’s use of the word “hinge” for intrinsic certainties, which are forming an unconscious, unjustified foundation of our acting, has spurred an intense discussion in contemporary epistemology. In the build-up of secondary literature about Wittgenstein’s late collection of reflections that his literary executors published under the title On Certainty, Danièle Moyal-Sharrock plays an important role with her book “Understanding Wittgenstein’s On Certainty” (2005) and a number of other publications.

In her book, she has placed particular weight on the concept of hinges, ascribing to them eight particular properties and vigorously denying them the status of being propositions. Other epistemologists have responded and articulated deviating views.

The debate is still going on and this paper attempts to explain, first and foremost, what Wittgenstein wrote about hinges and the concepts interrelated to them, such as doubt, certainty, foundation, and acting. Then I’ll summarize, and partly criticize Moyal-Sharrock’s position. I shall argue that her accentuation of the nonpropositionality of hinges is a bit exaggerated, a point of view that is also confirmed by some counter-arguments by Annalisa Coliva, who suggests a conciliatory resolution of the conflict. Finally, Moyal-Sharrock gets the last word, though not entirely convincing.

2. Wittgenstein’s Hinges in On Certainty

In his struggle to deal with the skeptical challenge, Wittgenstein has introduced a new and revolutionary concept into epistemology: the concept of hinge propositions, which are unconsciously forming the bedrock of our convictions, and, indirectly, of our acting. In On Certainty, he provides numerous hints at this concept, but, unfortunately, not in a very organized, didactic composition, but rather in a collection of more or less enigmatic aphorisms scattered over the whole text. In order to shed light upon the mystery of hinge propositions, I’ll try to arrange Wittgenstein’s pertinent aphorisms into some logical order by regrouping them according to the criteria of hinges, doubt, certainty, foundation, and action.

Wittgenstein on Hinges

The term “hinge” is explicitly used in only three of the 676 paragraphs of On Certainty:

KH. Mayer Page 3 of 16 March 16, 2014

OC 341: That is to say, the questions that we raise and our doubts depend on the fact that some propositions are exempt from doubt, are as it were like hinges on which those turn.

OC 343: 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.

OC 655: The mathematical proposition has, as it were officially, been given the stamp of incontestability. I. e.: "Dispute about other things; this is immovable - it is a hinge on which your dispute can turn."

When I try to formulate in my own words what Wittgenstein is saying in these three paragraphs, it boils down to the following:

-We are using some propositions that are exempt from doubt. They can be metaphorically compared to the hinges of a door, because they provide a firmly established basis upon which metaphorically “the door can turn”, and from which we can search for answers to our questions and our doubts.
- Those propositions are not at all to be mistaken for mere assumptions, which we use because we cannot thoroughly investigate everything. They are in fact necessary foundations of our reasoning.
-Mathematical propositions are generally seen as being incontestable and immovable. Other things can be disputed, but we can firmly rely on mathematical propositions to settle the dispute (if the dispute can at all be settled by means of mathematics).

If that were all Wittgenstein has to say about hinges, one could hardly consider that concept to have heavily influenced epistemology. But is that really all he says about hinges? Yes and no - he does not use the word hinge any further, but in his use of the concepts of doubt, certainty, foundation, and action we find the same basic ideas reiterated, and deepened, several times.

Wittgenstein on Doubt

In several paragraphs, Wittgenstein shows that endless doubting is meaningless, and that reasonable doubt must rest on a set of convictions that are certain beyond doubt:

OC 115: If you tried to doubt everything you would not get as far as doubting anything. The game of doubting itself presupposes certainty.

OC 354: Doubting and non-doubting behavior. There is the first only if there is the second. KH. Mayer Page 4 of 16 March 16, 2014

OC 450: A doubt that doubted everything would not be a doubt.

OC 519: Doubt itself rests only on what is beyond doubt.

OC 625: A doubt without an end is not even a doubt.

All those aphorisms express more or less the same line of thought: If we casted doubt on every possible reason for an argument we could never justify anything, nor could we meaningfully doubt anything. To doubt a proposition, we must stand on firm ground, from which we can then utter a reasonable doubt.

In the following paragraphs, Wittgenstein gets more specific about different situations of doubting:

OC 372. Only in certain cases is it possible to make an investigation "is that really a hand?" (or "my hand"). For "I doubt whether that is really my (or a) hand" makes no sense without some more precise determination. One cannot tell from these words alone whether any doubt at all is meant - nor what kind of doubt.

Meaningful doubt can only be uttered when there is actually an open question with alternative possible answers. In the case of G. E. Moore’s hand, this ambiguity is just not existing, there is - under normal circumstances - only one answer to the question “is this my hand?” That my hand belongs to myself is a hinge certainty that cannot meaningfully be doubted.

OC 391. Imagine a language-game "When I call you, come in through the door." In any ordinary case, a doubt whether there really is a door there will be impossible.

That doors can be opened and closed and that one can pass through them is a hinge - we use them without prior consideration. An assertion “this is a door which one can open to pass through” would, under most circumstances, sound kind of weird and out of place.

OC 454. There are cases where doubt is unreasonable, but others where it seems logically impossible. And there seems to be no clear boundary between them.

In those paragraphs, Wittgenstein is not only addressing the skeptical doubt, the doubt beyond reason - doubt that makes no sense, or is logically impossible. He also shows that doubting is impossible if it refers to our basic beliefs, our hinge certainties.

Wittgenstein on Certainty

Wittgenstein shows in several examples that certainty is different from knowledge (in its philosophical definition of justified true belief). “I know” does not indicate knowledge, but rather subjective certainty:

OC 272: I know = I am familiar with it as a certainty.

OC 357: One might say: "'I know' expresses comfortable certainty, not the certainty that is still struggling." At least that I shall act with a certainty that knows no doubt, in accordance with my belief.

OC 194: With the word "certain" we express complete conviction, the total absence of doubt, and thereby we seek to convince other people. That is subjective certainty.

Speaking of objective certainty requires grounds to be given. They can be empirical or, even better, logical grounds:

OC 270: "I have compelling grounds for my certitude." These grounds make the certitude objective.

OC 273: But when does one say of something that it is certain? For there can be dispute whether something is certain; I mean, when something is objectively certain. There are countless general empirical propositions that count as certain for us.

There is also a third type of certainty, which does not require grounds and for which the question of true or false is not relevant - the certainty that is intrinsic in our hinges and appears in our acting.

OC 7: My life shows that I know or am certain that there is a chair over there, or a door, and so on. - I tell a friend e. g. "Take that chair over there", "Shut the door", etc. etc.

OC 47: This is how one calculates. Calculating is this. What we learn at school, for example. Forget this transcendent certainty, which is connected with your concept of spirit.

Hinge certainties can just be expressed in our everyday acting or in the way how we do simple calculations. We don’t have to think about them, nor do we ever have doubts about them. Often we are not even aware of them: “I act with complete certainty. But this certainty is my own.” (OC 174)

OC 404: I want to say: it's not that on some points men know the truth with perfect certainty. No: perfect certainty is only a matter of their attitude.

Many of the hinges, on which our certainty depends, are shared by all people, but

others can be individually different, depending on the cultural, educational, and intellectual background of the agents involved. Religious people may have unconsciously derived hinges from their religious dogmas, scientifically oriented people will base some part of their acting on scientific hinges - none of them will be aware of the detailed structure of their hinges as those are not known or justified. As Moyal-Sharrock expresses it, “they are as much the basis of our false beliefs as of our justified true ones” (2013, 2 f).

OC 415: And in fact, isn't the use of the word "know" as a preeminently philosophical word altogether wrong? If "know" has this interest, why not "being certain"? Apparently because it would be too subjective. But isn't "know" just as subjective? Isn't one misled simply by the grammatical peculiarity that "p" follows from "I know p"? "I believe I know" would not need to express a lesser degree of certainty. - True, but one isn't trying to express even the greatest subjective certainty, but rather that certain propositions seem to underlie all questions and all thinking.

In this aphorism, Wittgenstein is turning back and forth the subtle peculiarities of knowing and being certain. Knowing has a philosophical connotation, it is usually defined as justified true belief. But “I know p” does not necessarily indicate justified true belief, if no grounds are given (cf. OC 13). It only indicates subjective certainty and does not signify more than “I believe I know”. Wittgenstein arrives at the conclusion that the point of this consideration is not to express subjective certainty; the point is that certain propositions, that is to say hinge propositions, seem to underlie all questions and all thinking.

As we shall see, Moyal-Sharrock calls the enacted type of certainty discussed in the paragraphs above nonepistemic. It is not the result of reasoning, nor is it empirical in a scientific sense. It is the certainty of our world-picture, which “is the inherited background against which I distinguish between true and false” (OC 94).

Wittgenstein on Foundation

As we have seen, reasonable doubt needs a foundation from which to doubt. In the following paragraphs, Wittgenstein gives thought to the foundations of belief, conviction, and foundation: “At the foundation of well-founded belief lies belief that is not founded.” (OC 253) and “Something must be taught us as a foundation.” (OC 449)


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Wittgenstein and Moyal-Sharrock on Hinge Certainties
University of Vienna  (Institut für Philosophie)
Wittgensteins Philosophische Untersuchungen
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ISBN (Book)
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Wittgenstein, Moyal-Sharrock, Hinge Propositions, Coliva
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Dkfm., BA Karl-Heinz Mayer (Author), 2014, Wittgenstein and Moyal-Sharrock on Hinge Certainties, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/273347


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