- Series: Harper Perennial Modern Thought
- Paperback: 194 pages
- Publisher: Harper & Row (September 6, 1972)
- Language: English, German
- ISBN-10: 9780061316869
- ISBN-13: 978-0061316869
- ASIN: 0061316865
- Product Dimensions: 5 x 0.5 x 8 inches
- Shipping Weight: 5.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 32 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #54,405 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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On Certainty (Harper Perennial Modern Thought) (English and German Edition) (German)
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"The seventh volume of the Wittgenstein corpus, which contains notes written at the end of his life.... Provides a straightforward guide to the thought of this most complex of philosophers." -- "Bookseller""The volume is full of thought-provoking insights which will prove a stimulus both to further study and to scholarly disagreement." -- Alan R. White, "Philosophical Books""All students of philosophy will want to read it. What it contains is his notes on knowledge and doubt, written in the last year and a half of his life, mainly in answer to G. E. Moore's articles on these subjects." -- "British Book News"
About the Author
Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) was born in Austria and studied at Cambridge under Bertrand Russell. He volunteered to serve in the Austrian army at the outbreak of World War I, and in 1918 was captured and sent to a prison camp in Italy, where he finished his masterpiece, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, one of the most important philosophical works of all time. After the war Wittgenstein eventually returned to Cambridge to teach.
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LW is said to be difficult to access and understand. I can believe it. But I also suspect this is one of his more readable books, so for someone who is interested in how LW practices philosophy, it should be a good "beginner" primary text. (N.B. The book is relatively short -- the printed edition is twice as long as it would otherwise be because of the inclusion of the original German text.)
Two themes stood out this time, maybe the two themes that I've always thought were most important.
1) Distinguishing "grammatical" propositions from empirical ones
It's hard to talk about this briefly, but, roughly, "grammatical propositions", for Wittgenstein, are statements about how we speak. Elsewhere and here, he remarks on our commonly mistaking the one for the other. For example, he remarks on the physicist Eddington having "discovered" that tables (and other physical objects) aren't really solid, given that they are mostly made up of the space within and between atoms. He says that Eddington is actually proposing a change in the way that we speak, changing how we use the word "solid", rather than simply reporting an empirical observation. The line is blurry -- certainly empirical observations are relevant to the proposed change in the way we speak. Nevertheless, it is a powerful distinction. Wittgenstein is interested in correcting our tendency to be misled by such statements into some sort of false mysterious profundity, as here, in the kinds of skepticism and idealism under examination in his time.
But the distinction may also be useful in more common circumstances -- what about the statement "Life begins at conception (or quickening or birth or . . . )"? Is that statement empirical, or is it more a recommendation about how we should use the word "life"? If the latter, how does that change the debate about the rightness or wrongness of abortion rights? Both sides try to lend their argument more weight by treating such a statement as an empirical one, a "fact". Likewise G.W. Bush saying that "The US doesn't torture." Did that function for him as a factual statement, or a decision about how we are going to use the word "torture"?
2) The "natural history" of human beings
On Certainty responds to Wittgenstein's reading of Moore's "common sense" papers, particularly "Proof of an External World" and "A Defense of Common Sense". Moore in turn was responding to Kant's declaration of a "scandal to philosophy" that we can't (in quasi-ordinary words) prove the existence of a world outside our minds. Moore believed he could provide such a proof. But it's really the picture behind the felt need to provide such a proof that is bothersome and important. It calls up a picture of human beings creating "knowledge" in their minds by observing and reasoning about a world "outside their minds". Wittgenstein's arguments tend toward a less intellectualized and more natural relationship between human beings and the world, something more akin to what gets called "coping" by later writers (e.g., Heidegger).
We don't need to "know" or "prove" the existence of an external world, since we live in the world. In fact, the very attempt to prove its existence makes its existence questionable, now that these propositions (e.g., "There is a world external to my mind") are articulated. The compulsion to ask, now that we've articulated them, whether we know them or knew them before we articulated them, seems already to be a mistake. Such propositions weren't there before articulating them, and what they try to express didn't function as "knowledge" per se. Our situation is much more akin, as Wittgenstein says (jokes?), to a squirrel's apparent knowledge that winter will come and so he'd better store nuts against it -- squirrels don't infer that winter will come from past winters coming. Nor we do we, as Moore tries to do, establish the existence of a "world external to our minds" by inferring its existence from some more primitive facts that we know to be true.