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Review: “On Certainty” by Ludwig Wittgenstein

January 8, 2013

As the title suggests, On Certainty is a sustained meditation on the philosophical problems surrounding concepts such as “certainty”, “knowledge” and “belief”. Unlike Philosophical Investigations, which Wittgenstein spent several years obsessively polishing and refining (though it was never actually finished), On Certainty is first-draft material jotted down over the last eighteen months of his life. As such it is both fascinating and frustrating to read. Fascinating because of the insights it contains and also because it provides a “behind the scenes” glimpse of one of the 20th Century’s greatest philosophers at work. Frustrating because it endlessly circles around the same basic problem, namely that it seems inappropriate to say “I know” in connection with certain propositions (eg, “I have two hands”, “My name is so-and-so”, etc) and yet it seems equally inappropriate to say that I don’t know the truth of such statements. Again and again the same difficulties occur to him, and again and again he turns towards the same (or similar) solutions.

Ludwig Wittgenstein

Ludwig Wittgenstein

Exasperating though this can be, the journey is still compelling. It vividly illustrates the immense difficulty involved in accurately describing the use of terms like “I know”, and the surprisingly subtle and varied role they play in our lives. Nietzsche once commented that writing should always be “a conquest of oneself” and here we see Wittgenstein engaged in just such a struggle as he fights the temptation to be misled by our ordinary forms of expression. His refusal to give himself an easy time – to let himself off the hook – cannot help but produce admiration.

All this is not to suggest that he simply goes round in circles without getting anywhere. Make no mistake: On Certainty contains important observations about what it is to know something; the grounds (and sometimes the groundlessness) of certainty; the link between knowledge and behaviour; and the very nature of inductive reasoning itself. It is both profound and quietly unsettling as Wittgenstein strips knowledge of its metaphysical pretensions and centres it firmly in the life of the human animal.

Finally, I have to say that for me the book is a strangely poignant experience. After the first 36 pages the entries are dated (beginning at 23 September 1950) and as I read on I couldn’t help ticking off the days he had left to live. The final entry, on 27 April 1951, was written just two days before he died. Here’s the very last section, which illustrates both the originality of his thought and the elegance of his prose:

“But even if in such cases I can’t be mistaken, isn’t it possible that I am drugged?” If I am and if the drug has taken away my consciousness, then I am not now really talking and thinking. I cannot seriously suppose that I am at this moment dreaming. Someone who, dreaming, says “I am dreaming”, even if he speaks audibly in doing so, is no more right than if he said in his dream “it is raining”, while it was in fact raining. Even if his dream were actually connected with the noise of the rain.

On Certainty §676

  1. Yes! Agree very much with the poignancy. Also, compared to other texts, even his manuscripts of students’ notes, you feel a great deal of emotion at points. It reads very much like a diary. I remember one distinct paragraph where he expresses his frustration with Moore with vehemence; you can almost feel him wringing the man’s neck!

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