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Wittgenstein, Relativism, and the Strong Thesis in Sociology
Brian Sayers Philosophy of the Social Sciences 1987 17: 133 DOI: 10.1177/004839318701700201 The online version of this article can be found at: http://pos.sagepub.com/content/17/2/133.citation
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Wittgenstein, Relativism, and Strong Thesis in Sociology*
BRIAN SAYERS , Philosophy , Queen’s University
It is well known that Wittgenstein was very critical of what he termed ’the vast stream of European and American civilization in which all of us stand’ .1 More often than not its culture dismayed him, even tormented him with those philosophical problems which were symptomatic of its decay.2His professional colleagues were scant comfort to him also. He characterized many of their discussions as ’chatter’, on one occasion likened a large gathering of them together as akin to‘an influenza zone’,3 and contended that ’many others today [were] merely &dquo;gassing&dquo;’4 in
their philosophical efforts. Consequently, while it is clear that Wittgenstein still ’stood’ in this culture, and while he shared many of its values and participated in many of its practices, it seems fair to characterize his attitude as severely critical, bordering at times on hostility and contempt. If this is an accurate appraisal of his position, then it will be reasonable to assume (as I do in this paper) that Wittgenstein seeks to explore and criticize basic elements of a culture which he considered substantially alien to 5 himself.5
however, that when he actually proceeds
to do this an ironic the devotes great bulk of his later
Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Remarks , ed. Rush Rhees, Chicago 1975, foreword.
2 Cf. Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations , tr. G. E. M. Anscombe, Oxford 1974, p. viii (’darkness of this time’); Ludwig Wittgenstein, Lectures and Conversations on Aesthetics , Psychology, and Religious Belief , Berkeley and Los Angeles 1953, p. 28; Alan Janik and Stephen Toulmin, Wittgenstein’s Vienna , New York 1973, , Chicago 1982, chaps. 6, 7, 8; Brian McGuiness (ed.), Wittgenstein and His Times , Oxford 1978, pp. 32, 72; p. 188; Norman Malcolm, Ludwig Wittgenstein : A Memoir Ludwig Wittgenstein, Culture and Value, ed. G. H. von Wright, tr. Peter Winch, Chicago 1980, p. 10; Ludwig Wittgenstein, Remarks on the Foundation of Mathematics, tr. G. E. M. Anscombe, Oxford 1967, Part I, App. 11, No. 4. 3 Malcolm, Ludwig Wittgenstein : A Memoir, p. 99. 4 Janik and Toulmin, Wittgenstein’s Vienna , p. 192 (letter to Ficker). 5 Usually he adopts a piecemeal approach and so seldom tackles such a large issue entire. Instead he attacks particular beliefs in a painstaking and patient manner. Cf. Wittgen, pp. 6, 10, 34, 80. stein, Culture and Value
writings to showing how beliefs, arguments, and practices can be properly evaluated only within a larger social context than usually considered. He calls this context ’language-games’, and ’form of life’. However, on his own analysis, many of the beliefs of a language-game or form of life turn out to be ’constitutive’, ’basic’, ’fundamental’, ’bedrock’, or ’groundless’, and as such cannot be challengedThus it seems that his disgust with mainstream civilization leads him into considerations whose conclusions rule out any acceptable basis for his disgust; apparent
However, Wittgenstein is not brought up short. One can imagine him
reaching these conclusions and giving up the whole endeavour in disgust (or even despair). But, he does not do this. Instead he seems to embrace this result and takes the (apparently) logical next step as well. That is, he seems to advocate what we may view as a kind of outright relativismlikely closest to what has been called cultural relativism.’In short, Wittgenstein apparently accepts the relativistic notion that he has no legitimate grounds from which to launch external criticisms against this
alien culture. This sort of idea is not new, of course, and consequently it has been rather thoroughly discussed within philosophical circles. However, more recently a refurbished version of such relativism has been promoted within the arena of the sociology of knowledge and has fostered fresh repercussions and debate there. It is in this context that I think Wittgenstein’s position can be seen more clearly, and where his solution to his own problem can be appreciated by sociologists.
THE ’STRONG THESIS’ IN SOCIOLOGY
As nineteenth-century ethnocentrism eroded, and as the Enlightenment project of supplying rational foundations for all human action continued to founder,8 social scientists such as Boas and Herskovits led a re-appraisal of how we should best understand other cultures.9 If it was no longer legitimate to arrange cultures in some sort of hierarchy (whites at the top, of course), and if we were to adopt a more ’even-handed’ appraisal of the world’s cultural groups (they were just as rational as we, although markedly different) then the problem of vantage point arose. How
Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations , 226, 654; Ludwig Wittgenstein, On Certainty ed. G. E. M. Anscombe and G. H. von Wright, New York 1972, 341, 358, , , p. 16. 359, 559; Wittgenstein, Culture and Value An often despised thesis—and justifiably so. However, I suggest that Wittgenstein’s
version is quite unique, and not easily assimilated to any of the usual versions such as those cited by Joseph Margolis in ’The Nature and Strategies of Relativism’, Mind , 92 ,
1983, 548-67. 8 See Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue , Notre Dame 1981, esp. chaps. 4 and 5. 9 Some of the more basic issues of this development in the sociology of science are treated in B. Barber, Science and the Social Order , New York 1952; and Robert , New York 1957. Merton, Social Theory and Social Structure
should we, from our cultural perspective, learn reliably about such cultures, how should we locate a position from which to avoid ethnocen-
trism in our attempts to understand the diverse ways in which human societies arrange themselves? It is within this milieu that some sociologists have adopted a programme which they frankly acknowledge as relativistic. It is referred to sometimes as the ’strong thesis’. (As a result, in the literature the terms ’relativist’ and ’strong thesis’ are used almost interchangeably, and I shall use them so as well.) It suggests an approach which it claims is the most adequate perspective from which to consider the plethora of human forms of knowledge. Its thesis is that there is no distinction to be made between the genuinely rational on the one hand, and what is accepted as rational within a given culture (or sub-culture), on the other hand. What is considered rational by a given culture, including ours, may be regarded from within that culture as rational in some ultimate sense, but this is merely an ethnocentric elitism. These norms of rationality are just as culturally derived as are those norms of African pygmies which we, in our culture, usually consider irrational. Consequently, both ’rational’ and ’irrational’ beliefs stand in need of a sociological explanation. As
proponents put it,
For the relativist there is no sense attached to the idea that some standards or beliefs are really rational as distinct from merely locally accepted as such. Because he thinks that there are no context-free or super-cultural norms of rationality he does not see rationally and irrationally held beliefs as making up two distinct and qualitatively different classes of things. They do not fall into two different natural kinds which make different sorts of appeal to the human mind, or stand in a different relationship to reality, or depend for their credibility on different patterns of social organization. Hence the relativist conclusion that they are to be explained in the same way.10
This egalitarianism among standards and beliefs is termed the ‘equivalence postulate’ within the literature. But, this is not merely to invoke perspective. The point is not that people see things differently, or that we believe what we do solely because of our background. Rather, we regard our beliefs as rational or true because of the reasons for them. We do give coherent accounts, we do adduce evidence, we do give reasons as distinct from causes. We do trace our chains of justification backwards until they reach standards of rationality. However, the strong thesis claims that these standards of rationality cannot be known to possess an ultimate character. Instead, they may be merely local standards akin to what Wittgenstein calls language-games or a form of life. And so, at this contact point, the
Barry Barnes and David Bloor, ’Relativism, Rationalism and the Sociology of Knowledge’, in M. Hollis and S. Lukes (eds.), Rationality and Relativism , Boston 1982, pp.
controversy in sociology
theses, and his thoughts in
a fresh viewing of Wittgenstein’s help clarify issues in the dispute.
THE ATTACK ON THE STRONG THESIS
So far, opponents of this position have sought to demonstrate its inadequacies by showing either (a) that there exist universals which allow a ’bridge’ to be constructed between any two cultures, thus revealing an underlying ultimate standard of rationality after all, or (b) the strong thesis is self-referentially incoherent and so may be dismissed as empty words. The first approach may be further broken down into (i) the claim that there exist universals of a conceptual nature, such as basic logical operations (law of non-contradiction), the making of binary distinctions (yes-no), and the like, or (ii) the insistence that the empirical realm provides examples of universally held beliefs or practices, such as common perceptions (all people are pushed around by reality in pretty much the same way), or character traits (bodily adornment). Gellner characterizes the strategy quite aptly:
A spectre haunts human thought: relativism. If truth has many faces, then not one of them deserves trust or respect. Happily, there is a remedy: human universals. They are the holy water with which the spectre can be exorcised. But, of course, before we can use human universals to dispel the threat of cognitive anarchy, which would otherwise engulf us, we first must find them. And so, the new hunt for the Holy Grail is on.ll
Thus, the almost irresistible threat of relativism is to be broken on the immovable object of human universals. I suggest, however, that the project has promised far more than it has delivered. First, with regard to conceptual universals, they turn out to be all form and no content. They suffer the same fate that befell candidates for universal innate knowledge-when they were truly universal they were trivial, and when significant they were not universal. As Hesse puts it when referring to these alleged necessary logical truths, ’Whenever they are necessary they will be found to be empty, whenever they are informative about the content of another language they will be found to be contingent’ .12 In short, if one stretches the concept of rationality to include such items as the mere employment of binary distinctions, then these universals do exist. Whether they can perform the ’bridgehead’ work required of them is quite another matter, however. The mere employment of a common logical canon seems quite compatible with complete divergence between cultures on any other belief. And it is the more basic among these ’other’ beliefs that are really
Gellner, ’Relativism and Universals’, in Hollis and Lukes (eds.), Rationality and Relativism , p. 181. 12 Mary Hesse, Revolutions and Reconstructions in the Philosophy of Science, Indianapolis 1980, p. 39.
issue when standards of rationality are being discussed. When the spectre of relativism is raised we are not worrying about whether other people accept demands of internal consistency upon their belief system. Instead we are worrying over whether they count a belief as falsified when we would. We do not wonder if others see that modus ponens ’follows’; we wonder whether they feel compelled to offer justifications when we would consider them appropriate. These considerations seem to be untouched by so-called conceptual universals. Second, empirical universals may or may not exist, and the strong thesis be unaffected. Contrary to the assumptions of the search for them, the existence of such universals is simply irrelevant to the issue. The Holy Grail is not holy after all. The point is a simple but often overlooked one. That is, to do the anti-relativist work claimed for them, these universals cannot be merely contingent; they must be universals of necessity. If they were contingent, it would be legitimate for the strong thesis to grant their existence and simply exclaim what an amazing coincidence it was that humans happen to agree on x, or do x always, or have developed similarly x ability. But, if they could have developed otherwise, or if a genuinely alien group might exist which did not develop x, then there is no nonhistorical, non-cultural standard of rationality after all. Even if the human race were entirely homogenous, rather than culturally diverse, the point would remain the same. All our trains of justification would stop at some principle or alleged matter of fact which would itself have only local credibility (even if the locale was the whole human race). And so, if these universals are merely universal, then their adoption/use must be contingent. If they are contingent then they may be considered a product of social life, and if they are a product of social life then they are subject to the strong thesis. Are they contingent? It is on this point that some of the best work has been done by Wittgenstein himself. It is clear that he acknowledges that there are universals. He emphasizes ’our natural history’,13 ’the common behaviour of mankind’,14 ’our real need’,15 and ’the natural law which our inferring apparently follows’ .16 So, Wittgenstein has no problem in accepting the existence of human universals. And, since he seems to accept a kind of relativism, it should not be surprising that he finds these universals to be contingent. This latter point, at least, seems accurate.17 Consider the universal practice of judging moral intent:
13 Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations , 415. 14 Ibid., 216. 15 Ibid., 108. 16 Wittgenstein, On Certainty , 135. 17 Here is a partial list of passages where Wittgenstein analyzes the contingency of human
universals: Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations , 83-85, 90, 130, 131, 157, 207, 234, 257, 282, 528, 554, and Part II, pp. 182, 183, 213; Wittgenstein, On Certainty , 67,
A law is given for human beings, and a jurisprudent may well be capable of drawing consequences for any case that ordinarly comes his way; thus the law evidently has its use, makes sense. Nevertheless, its validity presupposes all sorts of things, and if the being that he is to judge is quite deviant from ordinary human beings, then e.g. the decision whether he has done a deed with evil intent will become not difficult but (simply) impossible.18
The point here is a relativistic one. In the face of diversity, changing concepts, or alien situations, our ability to make universal judgements fails and relativism seems required. What the ’facts’ are is irrelevant since they are contingent. If one can invent other cases this point is readily revealed. Consequently, Wittgenstein invents his alien tribes and bizarre individuals precisely, it seems, to cast off the parameters supposedly imposed by universal ’facts’.
If the formation of concepts can be explained by facts of nature, should we not be interested, not in grammar, but rather in that nature which is the basis of grammar? Our interest certainly includes the correspondence between concepts and very general facts of nature. (Such facts as mostly do not strike us because of their generality.) But our interest does not fall back upon these possible causes of the formation of concepts, we are not doing natural science; nor yet natural history-since we can also invent fictitious natural history for our purposes. 19
am not saying: if such-and-such facts were different people would have different concepts (in the sense of a hypothesis). But if anyone believes that certain concepts are absolutely the correct ones, and that having different ones would mean not realizing something that we realize-then let him imagine certain very general facts of human nature to be different from what we are used to, and formation of concepts different from the usual ones will become intelligible to him. 20
what Wittgenstein’s analysis comes to. His ability to deviant ’universals’ reveals that no concepts are ’absolutely the imagine correct ones’. As a consequence, he shows that the existence of empirical universals causes no problems for the strong thesis. And so, we are left with the charge that the strong thesis is selfreferentially incoherent; that it is self-refuting. Putnam, for instance, insists that,
we can see
If there is such a thing as rationality at all-and we commit ourselves to believing in some notion of rationality by engaging in the activities of speaking and 92,102, 106, 117, 286; Wittgenstein, , Philosophical Remarks 55, 58, 66, 67, 72, 145,186; Ludwig Wittgenstein, Zettel, Berkeley 1967, 34, 43, 103, 148, 161, 253, 340, 371, 372, 380, 383, 396, 527, and esp. 103, 183, 235, 393, 528, 557, 566-68, 624. 18 Wittgenstein, Zettel, 350. 19 Ibid., 69. 20 Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations , p. 230.
arguing-then it is self-refuting to argue for the position that it is identical with or properly contained in what the institutionalized norms of the culture determine
to be instances of it. For
probably correct, by
such argument can be certified to be correct, norms alone.21
Putnam is here assuming that a thesis which denies our possession of any ultimate norms of rationality is tantamount to the claim that one culture’s norms are as good as any other’s, and that, accordingly, it will be correct to characterize the strong thesis as identifying rationality with a culture’s ‘institutionalized norms’ of rationality. (Apparently, Putnam is unwilling to allow that ’some notion of rationality’ might be what I call a ’local’ one. He assumes that such a notion must be an overarching one.22) Later I shall reject this characterization, but for now the cited passage is a good enough example of the self-refuting charge. I suggest, however, that the charge of self-refutation is cheap, and is a mere dialectical trick. And I wish to make the counter-charge that these sorts of arguments essentially misconstrue the issue and wind up casting more aspersions on themselves than on their targets. To illustrate, consider the following presentation of the strong thesis: Imagine two tribes quite different from one another. Both are primitive (i.e., not as sophisticated as we are about comparative anthropology). Each tribe regards the other as foolish and irrational for holding the beliefs that it does. Each tribe forms these judgements on the basis of assumptions, practices, and particular inferences which the other tribe does not share. Each tribe justifies its own beliefs and practices by utilizing those norms and standards which it accepts and which the other tribe does not. It is clear to us-and could become clear to them-that these norms and standards have local credibility only. Now, however, imagine that one of the first two tribes eventually conquers all other tribes in such a way that there is no significant cultural diversity at all. There is one homogenous human race. In this scenario the strong thesis is not self-refuted. We can see that it could be the case that the apparently universal standards of rationality were merely local. This ’relativistic’ world is clearly imaginable without contradiction. But, an opponent might ask, what of the claim that the issue is not whether different standards exist, but rather whether there is not just one standard that is right in some sense? (Perhaps this is Putnam’s complaint lodged above.) At this juncture it can be seen that the anti21 Hilary Putnam, Reason , Truth and History , Cambridge 1981, p. 111. 22 Putnam is quite correct to point out that should we attempt—in the usual way—to justify relativism, we would be in a ludicrous position. One cannot establish the truth of relativism absolutely, as it were. However, this admission does nothing to diminish the coherent possibility that even while there may be complete consensus on what is rational, this consensus may not possess any ultimate character or be some ultimate ’notion of rationality’ . We may not have the ability to show that some kind of relativism obtains; it may, nonetheless, be the case for all that.
relativist seems as bad off as he initially claimed the relativist to be. Consider the following competing claims: Relativist ’We have culturally relative criteria of [rationality] in terms of which we can make relative evaluations of belief systems including other parts of our own’ . Anti-Relativist ’We have some absolute criteria of [rationality] in terms of which we can make absolute evaluations of belief systems including other parts of our own’ .23 Given these two choices the burden of proof certainly seems to fall upon the latter. How can one make absolute evaluations of one’s own belief system seems to require bootstrapping at the very least. Apparently, then, the anti-relativist must presuppose the truth of his own position in order to reach his conclusions. And so, in the sociology of knowledge, the debate has reached this apparent impasse. Each side charges the other with a fatal sort of impropriety. The anti-relativist charges the relativist with a selfdefeating programme, while the relativist contends that his opponent either begs the question against him, or else cannot indicate how bootstrapping is to be avoided.
Wittgenstein, however, who offers a way out of this impasse, and along the way sheds considerable light on our past epistemological failings ; both in philosophy and in the social sciences. For, in fact, he does offer a solution; a solution which-contrary to initial appearances-does not require relativism, but does reject absolutism (or what I have been calling anti-relativism). As we have noted, his position seems to demand utter tolerance towards genuinely different positions, yet it is well known that he is not anywhere near as tolerant as his thoughts on language-games and form of life seem to require.
A. No Nominal Relativism
The first thing to note about Wittgenstein’s solution is the sharp distinction he makes between what might be called internal, as opposed to external, deviance. Some relativist claims, which might initially appear to be warranted by their alleged status in a language-game, will be rejected by Wittgenstein because they do not form part of a coherent
All testing, all already within
confirmation and disconfirmation of a hypothesis takes place a system. And this sytem is not a more or less arbitrary and
Hesse, Revolutions and Reconstructions ,
doubtful point of departure for all our arguments: no, it belongs to the essence of what we call an argument. The system is not so much the point of departure, as the element in which arguments have their life.24
For instance, an apparent belief-deviant from Wittgenstein’s-will not be tolerated, even as a candidate for acceptance, until its ’application’ is clear, until we see ’what things look like round about it’ .25 Furthermore, a deviant belief must often meet special criteria even within a coherent system. Some must, for example, be basic, control beliefs, which actually guide one’s life. They must have practical consequences. ’But he has what you might call an unshakeable belief. It will show, not by reasoning or by appeal to ordinary grounds for belief, but rather by regulating for in all his life’ .26 Here Wittgenstein is talking about belief in an afterlife (a belief which he does not hold). Merely saying that such a belief is ’bedrock’ in a different form of life is not enough. We could always look and see (a) whether this conflicts with other beliefs in other languagegames in which this person participates, or (b) whether in fact this belief actually does play the central role that is claimed for it. Furthermore, a distinction needs to be made between different kinds of alienness. Some differences are not radical enough to support any sort of relativism. (As an anonymous reviewer of an earlier draft of this paper noted, ’It does not follow from the fact that we cannot understand a Trekkian alien life-form, that an old Viennese gentleman cannot understand a Liverpool punk-rocker’ .27) As long as there exists a fund of shared beliefs and assumptions, no one is entitled to invoke the sort of relativism we are
In this way, beliefs which
fundamental (and hence
untouchable) to a language-game or form of life, do properly come under attack. Should such a belief fail to meet these (and other) criteria, it would be considered an internal deviance only. It would not satisfy the
requirements of a genuinely deviant external system and so Wittgenstein would not be bound to afford the tolerance that his analysis might otherwise require.
Wittgenstein’s Sceptical Solution However, Wittgenstein seems to be somewhat dogmatic and authoritarian even when confronted with the possibility of a legitimate systematic
24 Wittgenstein, On Certainty, 105. , 520. 25 Wittgenstem, Zettel , 272, 274; Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations , p. 54. 26 Wittgenstein, Lectures and Conversations 27 This thought raises the possibility that in his talk of ’Our natural history’, ’the common behaviour of mankind’, and ’our real need’, Wittgenstein may be claiming that there is in fact a human-wide ’form of life’ which would, after all, offer some hope of the rational bridgehead between cultures. So far, I conclude that the bulk of Wittgenstein’s writings rules out such an interpretation, but I frankly admit that it is not an unattractive
alternative. For instance, he would allow that if his ideas were considered by you as subverting your basic bedrock beliefs, then it would be quite alright for you to respond with the dismissal, ’Rubbish’ 28 Even more significant is the following intolerant passage.
What we believe depends on what we learn. We all believe that it isn’t possible to get to the moon [unaided by machine]; but there might be people who believe that that is possible and that it sometimes happens. We say: these people do not know a lot that we know. And let them never be so sure of their belief-they are wrong and we know it. If we compare our system of knowledge with theirs, then theirs is evidently the poorer one by far. 29
seems that Wittgenstein has some sort of solution for his ironic result. He does not grant equal status to other belief systems-he does not accept the equivalence postulate of the strong thesis. Let us examine his solution. First, it is commonplace to report that Wittgenstein regards some philosophical problems as ’idle’, as pseudo-problems. Hence, in such cases, dissolution rather than solution is called for. Not an answer, but treatment is appropriate for the propounder of the problem. However, this much-abused element in Wittgenstein can seriously mislead us as to what he really intends by it. I suggest that, in this case, his so-called dissolution is really a solution-an answer-after all. Following Hume (as Kripke notes), we can distinguish between a ’straight’ and a ’sceptical’ solution to a problem. In the context of this paper, a ’straight’ solution would be one which accepted the burden of proof and was able to show that relativism, the strong thesis, was unwarranted. Either an argument revealed that it was fatally flawed, or else the non-relativist position was seen to be adequately supported after all. A ’sceptical’ solution would begin, on the contrary, by conceding that the relativist’s negative claims are unanswerable. Nevertheless, we need not abandon our ordinary non-relativist beliefs because they do not need the justification which the relativist points out we do not have. Employing this distinction then, Wittgenstein’s sceptical solution to his ironic result would be to show that we do not need the rationalist bridgehead in order to escape the arbitrariness, the ’anything goes’ implications, usually associated with relativism. What he argues is that the lack of some ultimate standard of rationality holds no terrors for us after all. It is a mere bogeyman. Wittgenstein terms it a ’craving’, and comes close to suggesting that it is pathological. We do not need the generality-the ultimacy-we crave. 30
28 Wittgenstein, On Certainty , 257, 498. 29 Ibid., 286. 30 More specifically, he terms it a ’craving for generality’. Cf. Wittgenstein, Remarks on the Foundation , of Mathematics Part II, p. 74; Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investiga, New York 1965, pp. 25, 45. tions, 89, 91; Ludwig Wittgenstein, Blue and Brown Books
Imagine such a ’craver’ as the following: Person X notices that I look sad and asks me, ’Why the long face?’ I respond, ’I have been thinking about life’. He then asks, ’Yes, but why so sad?’ I could recognize this as a legitimate desire for a more ultimate explanation and try to provide one. Suppose, however, that in response to his first question, ’Why the long face?’, I respond, ’My wife and children were just killed in a car accident’. If person X now asks, ’Yes, but why so sad?’, I would not normally recognize this as a legitimate request for a more ultimate explanation. My inability to provide anything more ultimate than our culturally normal responses (and my participation in that culture) will not make me suddenly reflective, or puzzled, or dubious about my belief and practices. The same point can be made when considering more explicitly our standards of rationality. Wittgenstein’s sceptical solution takes the form of showing that they are ’in order’. There is no problem in living rationally even without the longed-for ultimate standards.
If anyone should think he has solved the problem of life and feels like telling himself that everything is quite easy now, he can see that he is wrong just by recalling that there was a time when this ’solution’ had not been discovered; but it must have been possible to live then too, and the solution which has now been discovered seems fortuitous in relation to how things were then.... If there were a solution to the problem of [norms of rationality], we should only need to caution ourselves that there was a time when [it] had not been solved (and even at that time people must have known how to live and think).31
In this passage, Wittgenstein seems to be making merely a psychological point, but there is more to it than that. Actually, his insight is a conceptual one. While he would not deny that other orders are possible (this is part of the truth of the strong thesis), he insists that this should not and actually does not weaken at all the inevitable grip of our own belief system. (But, ’inevitable grip’ does not mean ’unable to accept internal criticism’.) I think that there is a parallel in Wittgenstein’s own thinking between the compelling force of one’s form of life and the priority of one’s mother tongue. The fact that others speak German does not somehow undercut my warrant for seeing the world (so to speak) in
English. But still, could not we be drastically mistaken after all? Could not our accepted norms of rationality turn out to be markedly inferior? Does not Wittgenstein himself assert, ’They are wrong and we know it’? Here is
My name is L. W. And if someone were to dispute it, I should straightway make connexions with innumerable things which make it certain. &dquo;But I can still imagine someone making all these connexions and none of them corresponding to reality. Why shouldn’t I be in a similar case?&dquo; If I imagine such a
, Wittgenstein, Culture and Value
person I also
imagine a reality, a world that surrounds him; and I imagine him thinking (and speaking) in contradiction to this world.... Now one can offer counter-examples to all this, which show that human beings have held this and that to be certain which later, according to our opinion, proved false. But the argument is worthless. To say: in the end we can only adduce such grounds as we hold to be grounds, it is to say nothing at all. That to my mind someone else has been wrong is no ground for assuming that I am wrong now.-But isn’t it a ground for assuming that I might be wrong? It is no ground for any unsureness in my judgment, or my actions.32
The point in all this is that uncertainty is allowed or required when there is reason for doubt. But, since one language-game cannot combat another, and since doubt makes sense for anyone only within his language-games, then the occasion for doubt does not arise from the mere existence of some alternative system. It is not mere prejudice or bias that, when the occasion arises, we evaluate an alien practice (or challenge) in our own terms. This is a conceptual requirement. That is why Wittgenstein says, ’Certainly we must interpret the gestures of an alien tribe on the analogy of ours’.33 In other words, we have no ability to use concepts and standards which are not ours. The only ability I have to consider whether or not someone else’s belief and behaviour are rational, are my own (our own) norms of rationality. I can broaden my concepts but I cannot eliminate them; I can subject them to criticism, but only by proceeding from rational procedures which I already hold, and the concepts which I use to describe or evaluate other standards or beliefs must be my concepts. I may attempt to appreciate some deviant norms but can do that only by employing my own. And so now we are in a position to sift the wheat from the chaff regarding the ’relativism’ of both Wittgenstein and the strong thesis. Let me summarize: 1. The strong thesis cannot be directly refuted or proven false. 2. The non-relativist or absolutist position cannot be established since it must presuppose its own truth to succeed. 3. However, we need not despair over this, since Wittgenstein has shown that we do not need the foundation of ultimate norms of rationality in order for our system of beliefs and practices to be in
Furthermore, the hope that we could ever have more than the certainty provided by our own language-games and form of life involves
It presupposes that we could somehow step outside our network and judge it from a God’s-eye or no-eye view. Instead, although our most basic beliefs are social products, we are in them. They are subject to internal criticism and even revision but this does not mean that they cannot be perfectly in order.
On Certainty , 595, 596, 599, 606. Lectures and Conversations , p. 3.
Consequently, while avoiding dogmatic attitudes associated with a discredited absolutism, we are not required to place our own beliefs in doubt nor adopt a generalized tolerance toward other beliefsystems.
specifically, however, there is a lesson for the sociology of knowlin edge all this. There is a ’truth’ to the strong thesis: we do not possess objective or ultimate standards of rationality. There is also a truth to the non-relativist critique of the strong thesis: we cannot act and believe as we do without having some grounding for our confidence in our own standards of rationality. Yet, the point to be gleaned from Wittgenstein is that the entire debate has been misconstrued. The dichotomy between absolutism and relativism is a false one. Wittgenstein’s position between them reveals that. While language-games and form of life seem to rule out justified firmness in one’s judgements, quite the reverse is true. Nothing else but (something like) language-games and form of life could provide grounding. To point out that there are other orders and other beliefs that also seem equally grounded, is, therefore, ’worthless’. It is like pointing out that we are finite humans. And so, while absolutism seeks to find a non-human vantage point, relativism laments the inescapable human condition. Both misconstrue what the human situation is and for that reason need to adopt Wittgenstein’s solution.34 That we exempt some beliefs from doubt, that we ground our other beliefs on these, that we use them as the context in which we argue or disagree on other matters, and that they are products of a particular social environment which varies from group to group, is no reason to adopt relativism or seek to overcome it. This is the lesson to be learned from Wittgenstein.
34 One could put it this way: Both absolutism and relativism face the issue of intellectual authority, of impartiality, of a rational forum in which there are rules and procedures to which humans must submit in order to be rational. Both apparently assume that to meet this demand one must possess a source of rationality which was invariant. There must be a single, unchanging, bmding system of intellectual procedures and ideas or else we have, after all, nothing more than a free-for-all. Neither sees that one could be part of a rational forum in spite of the lack of such an ultimate bridgehead. It is Wittgenstein’s contribution to show that this dilemma is a false one.