Hinge Propositions and Their Epistemic Importance

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Hinge Propositions and Their Epistemic Importance

Postby Sam26 » Fri Sep 04, 2009 3:31 pm UTC

This is my feeble attempt at understanding what Wittgenstein is trying to communicate in On Certainty, and my attempt to develop a rudimentary theory based on his remarks. I am sure that Wittgenstein would not approve of my attempt to develop a theory from his notes; however, I will risk his disdain for the time being.

I want to say at the outset that if you have no background in Wittgenstein you will find the following a bit confusing; and even if you do have some background in Wittgenstein's method of doing philosophy you may find what I am saying a bit difficult to follow.

According to Wittgenstein justification comes to an end (OC, para 192), and I want to say that we come to a foundation; and that foundation is built on propositions of a certain type, propositions that are not justified, and neither are they doubted. However, before I defend this position I want to say some things about Wittgenstein’s response to Moore’s use of the word “know,” and also Wittgenstein’s response to the skeptic and their use of the word “doubt,” because understanding the relationship between these two words is part of the solution to apprehending the kind of propositions that form the foundation of our epistemic system.

One use of the word "know" is in trying to alleviate doubt or even to eliminate "doubt" as we participate in our everyday language-games, that is, one is trying to demonstrate that the proposition "I know X" - is indeed justified; which then would supposedly give good reasons for others to concur. Hence, if you agree, you too will acknowledge that "I know X." It is in this sense, that I too want to agree with Moore when he states categorically, “I know this is a hand,” and I think Wittgenstein is sympathetic to Moore's attempt. "If you do know that here is one hand, we'll grant you all the rest (OC, para 1)." In other words, if Moore is correct in his knowledge, then we will accept Moore’s attempt to refute the skeptic by pointing out, what is to most, a common sense belief.

I think all of us to want to agree with Moore in his attempt at refuting the skeptic. After all, if we don't know Moore's propositions, then what do we know? However, there is a problem here, and it is a very subtle one. The problem is that some find it difficult to see the connection between the use of the word "know" and the use of the word "doubt" within our language-games; and there is an important logical link between the two.

My argument is that when Moore uses the word "know" as he does ("I know this is a hand.") he is implicitly acknowledging that the idealist's doubt is plausible. This of course is based on the assumption that there is a logical connection between the use of the word "know," and the use of the word "doubt" as it is spelled out in On Certainty. Therefore, Moore provides a kind of justification for the use of the word "doubt" by the skeptic, which then becomes fuel for the skeptic’s argument. You open the door to the skeptic when you make a claim to know something, because the skeptic will reply that you do not know what you claim to know. Therefore, the argument continues between Moore and the skeptic.

Of course one might say that no matter what is claimed, and no matter how strong your argument is, the skeptic will still find a way in. So what do you mean that Moore has opened the door? Has Moore opened the proverbial door in a way that other arguments do not? Yes, Moore is making a claim to knowledge that is suspect, and it does not accomplish what he thinks it accomplishes, because one cannot claim to know what Moore claims to know. Furthermore, if one makes a claim to knowledge using Moore’s propositions, then one is attempting to negate the doubt of the skeptic, or at least demonstrate that the doubt is not justified. Moore's claim to knowledge is just as senseless as the skeptics claim to doubt, and it is here that we arrive at rock-bottom.

Wittgenstein would say (I believe), that neither Moore nor the skeptic are correct in their use of the words "know" and "doubt." Neither "know" nor "doubt" makes sense when talking about these kinds of propositions. In other words, what does it mean to say that “I know this is my hand” or to say “I doubt this is my hand?” According to Wittgenstein, “… I did not get my picture of the world by satisfying myself of its correctness; nor do I have it because I am satisfied of its correctness. No: it is the inherited background against which I distinguish between true and false (para. 94). It may be for example that all enquiry on our part is set so as to exempt certain propositions from doubt, if they are ever formulated. They lie apart from the route traveled by enquiry (para. 88).”

I will refer to these kinds of propositions from here on out as hinge propositions. However, I am not sure that they are propositions in the strict sense of the word; therefore, the need to set them apart from other propositions.

Some examples of hinge propositions are as follows:

1) I live on the earth.
2) I am a person.
3) My name is Bill Smith.
4) This is a tree.
5) 2 X 2=4

Wittgenst ein points out that the difficulty here lies in understanding the groundlessness of our believing (para. 166). And herein lies part of the difficulty, because it is problematical to form a clear picture of these kind of propositions; and I am wondering whether Wittgenstein had a clear picture of what he wanted to say about such propositions. For instance, "...One would not think that it is one of the indubitable truths. (Here there is still a big gap in my thinking. And I doubt whether it will be filled now.) It is so difficult to find the beginning. Or, better: it is difficult to begin at the beginning. And not try to go further back (para. 470, 471)." This interpretation that Wittgenstein did not have a clear idea of hinge propositions may seem strange, since he had so much to say about them. However, Wittgenstein has always been pushing the limits of language, or trying to show us the limits of language by using his philosophical method.

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Re: Hinge Propositions and Their Epistemic Importance

Postby Qaanol » Fri Sep 04, 2009 7:44 pm UTC

"By writing, I implicitly assume we agree on word meanings, else the writing is in vain. I write that it is fallacious to assume we agree on word meanings."
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Re: Hinge Propositions and Their Epistemic Importance

Postby Sam26 » Fri Sep 04, 2009 7:46 pm UTC

Qaanol wrote:"By writing, I implicitly assume we agree on word meanings, else the writing is in vain. I write that it is fallacious to assume we agree on word meanings."

I don't have any idea what your trying to tell me. Maybe you could explain it further.

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Re: Hinge Propositions and Their Epistemic Importance

Postby diotimajsh » Sat Sep 05, 2009 7:27 am UTC

Confusing indeed. It doesn't help that, in On Certainty, Wittgenstein presents ideas for consideration without telling us whether he's really trying to support them himself, and much of the time it seems he doesn't really commit one way or another. My suspicion is that Wittgenstein doesn't give us enough replies to his own questions in OC to develop a coherent theory from it all; I don't think it is unreasonable to suppose that Wittgenstein himself was unclear about hinge propositions, considering how speculative and raw the entire work is.

Still, as for Wittgeinstein on Moore, I'm inclined to agree with you that Wittgenstein would want to dismiss "knowing" and "doubting" in the skeptical (philosophical) sense as misuses of language. But, the way that he treats them and tries to respond to them himself suggests that he does think they are meaningful terms. Honestly, I think he's going back and forth on the matter.

He often makes the point that speaking of doubt and certainty in philosophical ways seems wrong/improper--but he never seems to take a conclusive stance. Nearly every time he considers a philosophical example, he tries to reframe it in a more ordinary context so that it 'makes sense', but then he doesn't follow up with a definitive, "Okay guys, these are the only ways we can use words like 'doubt' and 'know'." For example, par 423:
Wittgensteni wrote:423. Then why don't I simply say with Moore "I know that I am in England?" Saying this is meaningful in particular circumstances, which I can imagine. But when I utter the sentence outside these circumstances, as an example to show that I can know truths of this kind with certainty, then it at once strikes me as fishy. - Ought it to?
Note his unresolved question at the end.

You're probably right that hinge propositions aren't real propositions for Wittgenstein. As he says,
Wittgenstein wrote:204. Giving grounds, however, justifying the evidence, comes to an end; - but the end is not certain propositions' striking us immediately as true, i.e. it is not a kind of seeing on our part; it is our acting, which lies at the bottom of the language-game.

205. If the true is what is grounded, then the ground is not true, not yet false.
So, fundamental grounds--that which lies beyond doubt, I suppose?--have no truth value, and thus they are not propositions.
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Re: Hinge Propositions and Their Epistemic Importance

Postby Masily box » Sun Sep 06, 2009 5:05 am UTC

Oh me yarm yes, a topic on Wittgenstein! I heartily approve.

I should, however, admit that I haven't actually read On Certainty, nor have I completely read (let alone understood!) all of PI and the Blue/Brown Books. With that caveat (which means, basically, that I have no idea if I'm addressing anything close to the right question), here's my take on what you're saying:

You want to take the statement that "explanations must come to an end somewhere" to mean that our system of communication is built on foundations... propositions like the basic postulates of Euclidean geometry that we don't doubt; we simply work with them. This seems true enough, but I think the point is actually that the foundations of our language aren't propositions at all--they're behaviors. This is, I think, TLP's meaning in "signs cannot contain their means of representation; they show them forth" (or whatever).

Let's imagine a very simple language-game: I am presented with a visual stimulus, and I respond by saying a word (any word).

Someone puts a chair in front of me, and I say "chair". Someone holds up a hand (perhaps my own hand?) and I say "hand". And so on.
You might be tempted to translate my moves in the language game to the English word "hand," or perhaps to English sentences like "I see a hand" or "This is a hand," etc... When you do that, it brings in the specter of philosophical doubt: do I know that it's true that "this is a hand"? But that's beside the point, and translating from our language-game into English is misleading you. In the game, my move (saying "hand") doesn't have any meaning; it's simply a hand. Someone could show me a hand and I could respoind "pink" or "Romulan" and I'd still be making a move in the game. (Apparently this language game doesn't have a lot of rules.) Hopefully now we see why translating my move "hand" into an English sentence is misleading: let's do it for my alternate move "Romulan". If we translate that, as above, into "This is a Romulan" and ask "but do I really know that this is a Romulan?" we see what a silly question that is. I looked at a hand and said "Romulan"... of course I don't know that anything is a Romulan: it's a hand! But if you see how silly it is to "doubt" one of my moves, "Romulan," hopefully you see how silly it is to "doubt" my other move, "hand". I make a move in the game; I behave in a certain way--there's nothing to doubt about that. Basically, this is a game in which my moves are meaningless, so "doubt" has no place in it. But you can see even here how the basis of the language game is a behavior rather than any sort of proposition.

Now, let's consider a very similar (and almost equally inane) language game: lots of people play the game above, and they try to coordinate so that their responses to the stimuli are the same. The important point to keep in mind here is that the moves in this language game are still essentially meaningless. It's still just as erroneous to translate a move into the English sentence "This is a _______". Note that I said that the moves here are essentially meaningless. We actually have something that looks a little bit like meaning in the fact that the players attempt to "agree" with their moves. That means that we can now do a little bit more with those moves. In the first game, I would make a move like "hand" or "Romulan" and that would be the end of the story. (Keep in mind that "move in a language game" and "proposition" mean basically the same thing.) In the new game, however, we can take my move "hand" and compare it with everybody else's move in response to the same stimulus. We can say either "it matches with the move everybody else made" or "it doesn't match"... that is, we can assign a sort of truth-value to the move (proposition), where a move is "true" if it agrees with the move that everybody else made. So there is a sort of degenerate meaning here: move-agreement. Note that it still doesn't make sense to take my move "hand" and try to doubt it. What would "doubting" my move even be? You can, however, doubt the degenerate truth-value of my move... that is, you can hear my move, and suspect that it won't agree with everyone else's move. (Suppose you hear my move before you find out what move everyone else made.)

Note, again, that the basis for the language game (and for the degenerate truth value we assign to it) lies not in any proposition (move) of the game, but in the behavior of its participants--whatever responses they all agreed on. Do you follow? "Meaning" is determind by the behavior in the language game, not by the "content" of its propositions. You can doubt whether a given move (proposition) will work in a given language game, but it doesn't make sense to say "I doubt the foundations, the behaviors, underlying this language game." What would it mean to say "I doubt the rules of chess"??? (You might doubt that someone was playing by the right rules, or that someone had explained the rules correctly, or that the rules contain no contradictions, but to say "I doubt the rules themselves" is strictly senseless.)

Maybe you see where I'm going with all this.

Now seems like a good time for a change of scenery. Let's leave language-games behind, and instead talk about Plato and the Allegory of the Cave. Now, as I understand Plato and Wittgenstein, they are diametrically opposed: if Plato is right, Wittgenstein could not be more wrong, and vice-versa. So I'm using Plato's metaphor to argue exactly the OPPOSITE point of what he was saying... he would consider me trapped in the Cave, fighting violently against enlightenment. Just to be clear about which side I'm on, so you don't recognize the forms of expression from Plato and think that I'm using it to say exactly what I don't mean.

Now, Plato's formulation of the cave is this: there are people chained up in a cave, facing its back wall, with light shining in from behind them. They can't see anything but the shadows on the back wall, not even themselves or their neighbors. But they can talk to their neighbors, and they watch shadow-puppet plays on the back wall. They talk about the shadows they see, and give the shadows names. They see a shadow of a hand, and they call it "hand," etc etc etc. Now, Plato says, they would use the word "hand" thinking it referred to the shadow they saw, without ever realizing that it actually referred to the thing that was casting the shadow. They would never intuit the true nature of reality, and would always be using the word "hand" wrong.

Wittgenstein would argue exactly the opposite. He'd say: look, whenever the cavedwellers used the word "hand," they were referring to a particular (type of) shadow on the wall. If they ever saw the thing that was casting that shadow, they probably wouldn't recognize it, probably wouldn't call it "hand". Thus, the word "hand" really refers to the shadow; the shadow is the meaning of the word "hand". They aren't misusing the word "hand"; it just has a meaning different from what we'd expect. If they ever saw the thing that casts the "hand", they might come up with their own word for it ("projector of hand") or they might even adapt their language game so that "hand" referred both to the shadow and the caster. But to say "they're misusing the word 'hand'" is simply to misunderstand the language game that they're playing in the first place. Again, think back to my above language games, and realize that the meaning of "hand" was determined by the way the cavedwellers responded to and referred to the shadows they saw.

So let's get back to the question of doubt. Imagine a cavedweller, who saw a "hand" (a shadow), and said "I doubt that this is a hand." What could he mean? 1) Perhaps he means he has forgotten how his neighbors use the word "hand"... an everyday situation, but not what we would call philosophical skepticism. 2) Perhaps he means something along the lines of "I doubt the rules of chess." That kind of statement is just as senseless as it was before, and it's that kind of statement that Wittgenstein spends so much effort trying to discredit. The cavedwellers use "hand" to refer to the shadow; it's simply what they do; doubt has no place here.

3) Perhaps the doubting cavedweller means, "Hey guys, maybe we're chained up in a cave, and 'hands' are actually projections of something more interesting out there that we don't really understand." (Maybe everything that I think is reality is actually a demon forcing me to hallucinate.) That kind of statement is what philosophical skeptics mean when they say, "I doubt that this is a hand."

Wittgenstein's response is: OK, you think that there are things out there that we don't know of, and you want to explore those things. But you express it as if you're telling us that we're playing our language game wrong. You say, "Things aren't really what they seem," as if to tell us that we're moving chesspieces around on a chessboard, but not according to the proper rules of chess. But our language game works fine for us--we're fine with letting "hand" refer to the shadow on the wall. Moreover, you can't manage to show us anything about this world outside of the cave you want to explore; you can't provide us with any evidence for it; you can't teach us to play a language game relevent to it; you can't even teach us anything new about our current language game. So your skepticism is entirely useless to me. In fact, since you can't even express it in a language-game I understand except by making a claim like (2), I'm perfectly happy to call your skepticism senseless.

The last part is a tricky step... we all agree that "I doubt the rules of chess" (equivalent to doubt 2) is senseless. Doubt 3 might be equivalent to "I doubt that you're playing chess according to the same rules as the people who invented the game. But those rules are secret, or have been lost; if only we could find them somewhere..." Now, if our skeptic could ever find those rules somewhere, or could even guess what they might be (in science, we'd call this "coming up with a testable hypothesis"), then his doubt could be translated into our language game, and we'd say it had a meaning. But until then it's as useless (senseless) as doubt (2). That is, Wittgenstein's final answer is: OK, I'm agnostic as to whether everything I talk about is the back wall of a cave I'm stuck in, but that doesn't cause me any trouble at all when it comes to the things I talk about.

Another quick change of scenery: I'm Descartes, and I'm worried that a demon tricks me every time I do 2+2, so I erroneously think that 2+2=4. Well, the demon's trickery is part of the machinery (part of the foundational behavior) behind my language game, so within that language game, 2+2=4 is unassailably certain. If the demon's trickery stops--if the machinery breaks down--and I start getting inconsistent answers, then I have a reason to worry and a reason to doubt. But within my language game, "I doubt that 2+2=4" has no sense; unless my language-game breaks down, I have nothing to worry about.

Hopefully, at least, this clears up the notion that the foundations of the language game don't lie in any proposition or move within the language game. Think back to my first two language games. The second one didn't rely on arbitarily assigning the value "true" to a move like "hand." So, if I understand you and Wittgenstein rightly, there are no such things as "hinge propositions". The foundation of language game 2 lay in the fact that everyone used the same word to respond to a stimulus, which was not a proposition at all, but a behavior.

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Re: Hinge Propositions and Their Epistemic Importance

Postby Sam26 » Fri Oct 14, 2011 11:16 pm UTC

Sorry I didn't keep up with the discussion, but I decided to create a blog that summarizes the Tractatus and gives an indepth analysis of On Certainty.


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