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APRIL 2, 2014

Revolutionary Insight: Daniele Moyal-Sharrock Explains Why On


Certainty is Ludwig Wittgensteins Neglected Masterpiece

Daniele Moyal-Sharrock
AustrianBritish philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889 1951) played a significant
though often controversial role in analytic philosophy. He was also influential in
philosophies of language, logic, ethics and religion, as well as aesthetics and culture.
Professor of Philosophy at University of Hertfordshire, Daniele Moyal-Sharrock has written
extensively about Ludwig Wittgensteins ideas, as well as philosophy in general. She is
primarily known for her expertise in Wittgenstein's last work, On Certainty.
Q: Ludwig Wittgenstein stands among the greatest philosophers of the 20th century; his
influence can be felt across the board, as his ideas shaped how we think about logic,
language, ethics, and many other subjects. What led you to focus your research on
Wittgenstein in particular? How were you first introduced to his philosophy?
A: Oddly enough, it was literature that prompted my interest in Wittgenstein. Literature, in the shape
of F. R. Leavis whose estimation of Wittgenstein's unmistakable genius (in his Memories of
Wittgenstein) intrigued me and in the shape of a question I wanted philosophy to answer: what is the

great thing about literature? Why are we drawn to it? My immediate answer was similar to Aristotle
and Immanuel Kant's: it gives us cognitive pleasure. But the problem with cognition knowledge is
that it's too analytic. Knowledge justified true belief was not what I was looking for. The kind of
cognition that literature affords us is not of the order of strict justification and veridical
correspondence to reality, but of a fundamental and indubitable certainty that is not susceptible of
proof. In my research, I came across a book of Wittgenstein's that had received very little attention:
On Certainty. And this is where I found the genius that Leavis was talking about. As I like to say, I
came to Wittgenstein by the back door (On Certainty being Wittgenstein's last work), and this has
shaped my view of his philosophy in a way it would not have done had I taken the front entrance.

Q: The bulk of your studies and publications focus on Wittgensteins later years and his
post-Philosophical Investigations work. Do you feel that this stage of Wittgensteins
career has been sorely overlooked by scholars?
A: When I started work on On Certainty, I realized that, with the notable exceptions of Avrum Stroll,
Marie McGinn, and Crispin Wright, the book had attracted very little attention. The later works on the
philosophy of psychology had not been as neglected, but had still not received the attention they
deserved. What became clear to me, was that Wittgenstein was considered to have written two
masterpieces: The Tractatus and the Philosophical Investigations all his other writings were seen as
intermediate or peripheral. Moreover, although Wittgenstein had recanted the Tractatus, the so-called
New Wittgensteinians were bringing it back to center stage; hailing it as the key to all his
philosophical thought. But that key opened up false doors. Wittgenstein's philosophy was taken to
promote nothing but (self-) therapy, which, in effect, consisted of philosophical abstinence and
sanctioned any substantive contribution to thought. This not only wrongly reflected Wittgenstein's
philosophical development and importance, but also misguided much Wittgenstein scholarship for a
decade and put a catastrophic damper on interest in Wittgenstein.

Q: The notion of a third Wittgenstein has steadily grown in popularity throughout the
past decade, yet it still meets with criticism in some circles. Why are some scholars
opposed to the idea of acknowledging Wittgensteins post-Investigations work as a new
chapter in Wittgensteins career, rather than a mere extension of the second
Wittgenstein? What, to you, is the difference between the second and third
Wittgenstein? What in particular makes Wittgensteins final works worth studying?
A: The idea of a third Wittgenstein was rooted in my conviction that Wittgenstein's philosophy did not
only consist of two distinct phases, each with its own masterpiece, but of three phases, each with its
own masterpiece. Although the third phase was not a radical departure from the second because it was
not prompted by a recantation, after Investigations there was major different material and
methodology, as well as a neglected masterpiece that needed flagging: On Certainty. I was aware of
the unprecedented achievement of On Certainty, and found in the various writings and lectures on the
philosophy of psychology not just more of Investigations, but also new insights and achievements. I
felt there was a need to prompt others to go beyond what was beginning to sound like arrested
development with Investigations, and delve further and deeper into the post-Investigations works. The
late notes on certainty do not, as has been suggested, merely modify conceptions advanced in the
Investigations; they directly tackle and solve one of the most persistent problems of epistemology

the nature of basic beliefs and they dissolve the problem of skepticism. This is unprecedented, not
only in Wittgenstein's own work, but in philosophy as a whole. There is also much new substance to
be culled from the writings, remarks, and lectures on the philosophy of psychology with respect, for
example, to the unconscious, dispositions and capacities, psychological certainty, and imponderable
evidence particularly, with the important new concept of patterns of life (not to be confused with
form of life) which has hardly been noticed.
I would say the principal reason some scholars have opposed the idea of a third Wittgenstein or
simply the idea of acknowledging Wittgensteins post-Investigations work as a new chapter in his
development is their not devoting sufficient attention to that work. This is now beginning to change
the focus is increasingly shifting to On Certainty and away, particularly, from the Tractatus. This is
manifested in the increasing number of publications, PhD dissertations, seminars, conferences, and
workshops devoted to On Certainty in recent years.

Q: You consider On Certainty to be Wittgensteins third masterpiece. This book,


published posthumously, was compiled together from Wittgensteins notes as he lay
dying. What role does On Certainty play in Wittgensteins overall legacy?
A: What philosophers call "basic beliefs" are beliefs that implicitly underpin all that we say or do
for example, "I exist;" "There exist people other than myself;" "The world exists and has existed for a
very long time;" "Human beings have bodies, need nourishment, sleep" etc. Wittgenstein's
revolutionary insight in On Certainty is that these basic beliefs cannot, on pain of infinite regress,
themselves be justified true beliefs; that is: objects of knowledge. He realizes that they are in fact
animal or non-justified ways of acting which, when formulated by philosophers, look like empirical
propositions. It is this misleading appearance that leads philosophers to believe that at the foundation
of thought and knowledge is yet more thought and knowledge. But although they may often look like
empirical conclusions, our basic certainties constitute the ungrounded, non-propositional
underpinning of knowledge, not its object (e.g. we don't know that we have a body; we act as
embodied beings; we don't know that there exist people other than ourselves; we interact with others).
In situating the foundation of knowledge in animal certainties that occur as instinctive or inculcated
ways of acting, rather than as yet more basic justified true beliefs, Wittgenstein found the place where
justification comes to an end, and solved the regress problem of basic beliefs a problem that
philosophers have been struggling with since Plato and Aristotle. This insight also allows him to rebut
the logical possibility of hyperbolic skepticism, making On Certainty a corrective, not only to G.E.
Moore but also to Ren Descartes, David Hume, and all of epistemology. I believe these are
groundbreaking achievements for philosophy worthy of calling On Certainty Wittgenstein's "third
masterpiece."
And if that weren't enough, On Certainty also makes Wittgenstein the pioneer of Enactivism. Let me
explain. Broadly speaking, Enactivism is the view that mentality is rooted in engaged, embodied
activity as opposed to detached forms of thought; a view that favors the primacy of ways of acting
over ways of thinking when it comes to understanding our basic psychological and epistemic
situation (D.D. Hutto 2013, 281). This is now a burgeoning, current field within philosophy, but it
was Wittgenstein who first rejected the traditional assumption that the essence of thinking is
concentrated in processes of thought underlying, and separable from, its manifestations in speech and

action. As I have just made clear, one of the most important contributions he made to philosophy is his
insistence on our fundamentally animal nature; his insistence that at the basis of all our acting and
thinking are not tacit propositions or thoughts, but simply animal behavior, that is, proposition-free
action and reaction:
The origin and the primitive form of the language game is a reaction; only from this can more
complicated forms develop.
Language I want to say is a refinement, 'in the beginning was the deed. (CV 31)
This idea is strewn throughout his later philosophy, but it finds its ultimate expression and extension
in On Certainty. Acting, for Wittgenstein, is everywhere not only at the origin of thought and
language for the human species and for all individual human beings, but also at the origin of any
human thought or utterance. This is not merely to say that we need to be alive to think or that
thinking is a form of acting but that much (not all, but much) of what we have always regarded as
thinking is in fact acting or behavior. Acting, however, that looks like thought because we
philosophers have put it into words. This correction is at the root of Enactivism along with its
cohorts: embodiment, embeddedness and extensiveness: movements (all encapsulated in what is
currently being called: the e-turn) that Wittgenstein's work has inspired and is fostering.

Q: Wittgenstein was not afraid to critique his own earlier works: in his later life he
rejected parts of the Tractatus as dogmatic, and even went so far as to refute some of
his own arguments. As a scholar of Wittgensteins later years, how would you say the
older Wittgenstein differs from his younger self? How did his philosophy evolve over the
course of his lifetime?
A: After the Tractatus, Wittgenstein lost the arrogance of youth and became less dogmatic. This, I
believe, was due principally to two things: economist Piero Sraffa's famous gesture, accompanied by
the question: What is the logical form of that? and Wittgenstein's experience as a soldier in the
Austro-Hungarian army during WWI. Both of these humbled him and also prompted his introduction
of life in his philosophy -- The stream of life now essentially conditioning meaning, language,
mind, and action. I would say that, in spite of being traversed by recantation and transformation,
Wittgenstein's philosophical journey was continuously informed by his desire to free himself, and
philosophy, from the bewitchment of language. From the Tractatus to On Certainty, Wittgenstein
looked for the differences masked by the uniformity of sentence constructions; attempted to discern
the use beyond the appearance; and to make that use more perspicuous to philosophers. From his
singling out of pseudo-propositions in the Tractatus to the realization in On Certainty that not
everything that has the form of an empirical proposition is one (On Certainty, 308), Wittgenstein's
efforts to discern what is from what is not a proposition are continual and unwavering. His crusade
against the proposition is one with the discernment of the grammatical (or the logical) and its
separation from the metaphysical, the epistemic and the empirical.
It may be said that the single track of Wittgenstein's philosophy is the discernment and elucidation of
grammar its nature and its limits (grammar, in the Wittgensteinian sense, being the rules or
conditions for the use and understanding of the sense of our words and expressions). From the

Tractatus to Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein redefined, for himself and for us, the nature of
grammar; and from the Investigations to On Certainty he redefined its extension. The second
Wittgenstein realized not only that grammar is not a Begriffsschrift (a concept outlined in an 1879
book by German philosopher Gottlob Frege), which is fixed in advance of use, but also that it replaces
metaphysics: what once seemed a metaphysical impossibility (for example, A patch cannot be red
and green at the same time or A machine cannot think) now appears to be the expression of a rule
of grammar. The third Wittgenstein further realized that contingent facts such as the world existing or
my sitting here could also belong to grammar. This is a new direction; indeed, it is something even
the third Wittgenstein found difficult to recognize.

Q: On Certainty grew out of Wittgensteins response to two papers by G.E. Moore


entitled A Proof of the External World and Defence of Common Sense, both of which
supported the idea of a world external to human senses. Does On Certainty support
Moores claim, or disagree with it?
A: In Proof of an External World, Moores concern was to address the reproach made by Kant to
philosophy about the absence of a satisfactory proof of the existence of things outside of us. For
Kant, it remains a scandal to philosophy that we must accept the existence of the external world on
faith; that we have not refuted skepticism of the external world. Moore then proceeds to meet the
challenge, not by proving the existence of external things which he admits he cannot do but by
showing that the absence of such proof does not mean we do not know that things external to us exist.
Moore insists that he can know things he cannot prove. Now, Wittgenstein does not question our
assurance of the existence of an external world, or even the legitimacy of Moore's assurance that, e.g.,
Here is a hand. What he does question is whether Moore is right to call this assurance knowledge.
In Wittgenstein's view, knowing does not correctly describe Moore's assurance about something as
basic as that he is now standing up and talking, or that the object he is waving is a hand. This is not to
say that Wittgenstein is questioning or belittling Moores assurance about these things, only that he
believes this assurance to be of a more fundamental nature than knowing:
I should like to say: Moore does not know what he asserts he knows, but it stands fast for him, as
also for me; regarding it as absolutely solid is part of our method of doubt and enquiry. (On
Certainty, 151)
On Certainty does not therefore support Moore's epistemic claim; it argues, rather, that our most basic
assurance is not epistemic but logical, or grammatical. There is therefore no proving the existence of
the external world because our assurance of its existence is not subject to doubt, and therefore to
justification; it belongs to the substratum of all [our] enquiring and asserting (On Certainty, 162). It
underpins our questions and doubts and it underpins knowledge.

Q: Throughout On Certainty, Wittgenstein makes reference to the language-game, a


concept he first introduced in Philosophical Investigations. Could you briefly explain
what this term refers to?
A: In reaction to the mentalist conception of meaning, which sees it unilaterally as a mental
connection between words and objects, Wittgenstein affirms that the meaning of a word or sentence

resides in the use we make of it. He introduces the term language-game to highlight the interplay, in
the determination of meaning, between language and the actions into which it is woven, and to bring
into prominence the fact that the speaking of language is part of an activity, or of a form of life
(Philosophical Investigations, p.23). Like games, language is embedded in our social, cultural and
natural ways of living that is, in our form of life. Languages cannot be abstracted from the context
in which they live: words have meaning only in the stream of life (LW I 913). Language is a
normative, social practice; any language is founded on convention (Philosophical Investigations, 355)
and is embedded in the shared activities of the language users in a given community.
There is no change in Wittgenstein's use of the expression language-game in On Certainty. What he
does here, however, is affirm the importance of unmoving foundations for the possibility of languagegames: it is essential for the possibility of having language-games that no doubt appears at certain
points (On Certainty, 524); absence of doubt belongs to the essence of the language-game (On
Certainty, 370). So that, for example, when a child is learning to use the word tree, and we say,
standing with the child in front of a tree Lovely tree!, 'no doubt as to the trees existence comes into
the language-game' (On Certainty, 480). Wittgenstein argues that some basic certainties that we can
formulate as: This is a tree, The world exists, or Cats don't grow on trees are necessary,
unmoving foundations of our language-games (On Certainty, 403, 411); that the whole languagegame rests on this kind of certainty (On Certainty, 446), and that one is not playing the game or is
playing it wrong, if one does not recognize objects with certainty (On Certainty, 446). So that
someone who seriously doubts (that is, not just mouth doubt as philosophers do, but live in the doubt
of) the existence of the world, of other minds, or the possibility of cats growing on trees, is not
playing the language-game right. And here, not playing the game right means being mentally
disturbed (On Certainty, 155, 257, 674). The other new thing that Wittgenstein does in On Certainty
with respect to language-games is explain the nature of the certainty that lies indeed, must lie at
their foundation:
Giving grounds, ... 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. (On Certainty, 204)

Q: What is the importance of language to the ideas that Wittgenstein posits in On


Certainty?
A: Rather than language, it is action that holds center stage in On Certainty. Where Wittgenstein
addresses language (and thought), it is to oust them from the foundations and replace them, as we
have just seen, with action. After the linguistic turn came, with Wittgenstein, the e-turn.
Wittgenstein's sensitivity to the importance of language also involves great care in being conscious of
what goes on with language in many circumstances: he reminds us that philosophical problems arise
when language goes on holiday (Philosophical Investigations, 38), and constantly warns us against
the bewitchment of language (Philosophical Investigations, 109). In fact, it could be said that from
his first work (Tractatus) to the last (On Certainty), Wittgenstein crusaded against the face-value of
language. Why is this a philosopher's crusade? Because the attempt to demarcate the merely
contingent from the necessary is a philosopher's task, and Wittgenstein realized that this task was

obstructed - not by any metaphysical obstacle, but by the very nature of language, which allows us to
use the same sentence in different capacities. This economy comes with a disadvantage: sentences do
not wear their status on their sleeve; the status of words or sentences is not visible from their form.
Hence, the very same sentence can, depending on use, constitute an empirical proposition or a rule of
grammar, and philosophers often fail to discern the difference in status behind the uniform
appearance: not everything that has the form of an empirical proposition is one, Wittgenstein writes
in On Certainty. What I have called the doppelgnger of a hinge Wittgenstein's metaphor for a
foundational certainty (On Certainty, 341) is a sentence made up of the same words as a hinge, but
which does not function as a hinge. To mistake a hinge certainty for an empirical proposition simply
because both can, in different circumstances, be formulated by the same string of words (e.g., I am
here) is to envisage the possibility of doubt and skepticism where there can, in fact, be none.
Wittgenstein's continuing crusade was to remind us of the misleading uniformity of language, and to
denounce its ravages on philosophy.

Q: According to Wittgensteins friend and fellow philosopher Georg Henrik von Wright,
Wittgenstein felt that his ideas had been misunderstood, and once said that he felt as
though he were writing for people who would think in a different way, breathe a
different air of life, from that of present-day men. More than six decades after his
death, have we come any closer to truly understanding Wittgenstein? Did even
Wittgenstein truly understand himself?
A: Wittgenstein has been widely misunderstood. I think the reason for this is that understanding
Wittgenstein requires more than a strictly intellectual penetration of his ideas; it demands a
conversion. Not a religious conversion or a conversion to the Wittgenstein tribe, but a long weaning
off traditional ways of thinking about what the human mind is and how it works; how it is connected
to action and to language. This process requires a long, sustained, and deliberate withdrawal from the
assumption that the brain is the intellectual head of the body, and the mind is either synonymous with,
or substantively derived from, the brain. It takes exceptional effort to recover from such habits of
thought and start viewing the brain as a crucial, but merely mechanical enabler of the mind. To have a
mind is to have and exercise a set of capacities like thinking, reasoning, remembering, willing,
intending, lying, expecting etc. The brain is no more the intellectual source of these activities than it is
the digestive source of digestion. Of course, we need the brain to think, and to digest; but the brain no
more thinks than it digests. These assumptions are extraordinarily difficult to get rid of. Look up
brain in the dictionary, and you will find some variant of the seat of thought, memory and
emotion (Collins, Reverso). The Cambridge Online Dictionary defines it as the organ inside the
head that controls thought, memory, feelings and activity. That seems anodyne enough, but look
again. The mind is similarly reified; Merriam-Webster defines it as the part of a person that thinks,
reasons, feels, and remembers. As British philosopher Peter Hacker has tried to make clear, we are
beguiled by the mereological fallacy of attributing to a part of the body a function or activity that only
a person is capable of performing. It is the person who thinks, reasons, feels and remembers, not her
brain or her mind. Mistakes like these are not of mere terminological import; they determine the
direction of scientific research. Neuropsychologists who believe that the brain produces, manages,
directs, and activates our thoughts, memories, and feelings are going to look for representations,
concepts, propositions etc. in the brain. In fact, they have been on a search for the engram a

(hypothetical) codified memory trace in the brain since the 1920s; and a tiny number of them are
now only beginning to realize that it is a search that is doomed to failure, as stated by cognitive
psychologist Fergus Craik, who has done groundbreaking work on levels of processing in memory.
Still, we have come closer to understanding Wittgenstein. Of course, a great number of philosophers
have contributed to this enhanced understanding; but I would particularly salute Peter Hacker and
Avrum Stroll, who have followed Norman Malcolm and G. H. von Wright in paving the way that we
are today extending.

Q: In your studies of Wittgenstein, which resources do you find useful for research? Are
there any other Wittgenstein scholars whose works you would recommend?
A: Many colleagues and students have told me that they find the BWS Recent Books page on the
British Wittgenstein Society (BWS) website a quick and ready resource tool. It displays (with links to
the publishers) all Wittgenstein-related book publications since 2001. Also, the Wittgenstein Archives
at the University of Bergen (WAB) have recently made available on open access a selection of papers
from the annual International Wittgenstein Symposia (IWS) in Kirchberg am Wechsel, Austria. In my
own research, I have found the Proceedings of the Kirchberg Symposia consistently full of gems. Of
course, the journal Philosophical Investigations is an invaluable research tool, alongside WittgensteinStudien and the more recent Nordic Wittgenstein Review, which has online open access. The BWS
Wittgenstein Annotated Bibliography stores hundreds of articles by Wittgenstein scholars, and is
being augmented regularly. It is still far from the Comprehensive Bibliography it aims to be, but we
are working on getting the funds required for this. The Annotated Bibliography can be accessed via
the BWS website or directly through the web. And of course, as of autumn 2014, thanks to the recent
initiative of the partnership between Trinity College Cambridge, the University of Bergen and the
Stanhill Foundation, a new Nachlass facsimile of Wittgenstein originals will be made freely available
online. This is a wonderful initiative which will democratically benefit all scholars and students of
Wittgenstein.
The Wittgenstein scholars I have found indispensable in my own work and would highly recommend,
besides Peter Hacker and Avrum Stroll, are John V. Canfield, H-J. Glock, Michel ter Hark, Dan Hutto,
Jose Medina, and Stanley Cavell.

Q: In addition to your multiple articles, reviews, and books regarding Wittgenstein, you
are the president of the British Wittgenstein Society (BSW). What sort of work does the
Society do? Are there any upcoming events youd like our readers to be made aware of?
The British Wittgenstein Society aims to be a focal point for research and exchange of ideas among
Wittgenstein scholars and students throughout the world; but its mission is also to reach out to nonWittgensteinians and engage them in a constructive debate on Wittgenstein's contribution to
philosophy and other fields. I founded the Society in reaction to the decline of Wittgenstein's
reputation in the UK, particularly London universities. One of the reasons for this, as I noted earlier,
was the emergence of the New Wittgenstein rendering of Wittgenstein as a quietist philosopher who
urges us to rid ourselves of false philosophical pictures and put nothing in their place. This is in
blatant contradiction to Wittgenstein's reminders of the fundamental importance for us to command a

clear view of the use of our words; our need to disperse the fog, so as to make our accounts into
more perspicuous presentations (Philosophical Investigations, 5, 122) and put other things in the
place of false pictures. Also, the non-reductionist, anti-physicalist nature of his philosophy vied with
the growth of an empirically-based or cog sci philosophy, which takes philosophy to be continuous
with science and reduces the human to neurons and electrons. Wittgenstein is certainly not averse to
science, and indeed thinks philosophy can give a new direction to scientific investigation (RPP I,
950), but although he is perfectly aware that our life (inner and outer) is dependent on molecules, he
fundamentally rejects the notion that it is determined by, or reducible to, molecules. This, as you can
guess, did not make him popular in cog-sci circles. I am, however, pleased to report that Enactivism is
gaining ground in Cog Sci.
I founded the BWS to help ensure that Wittgenstein's work has the impact on our civilization that it
deserves to have. Disciplines other than philosophy have discovered and used Wittgenstein: he has
contributed to reshaping thought in cognitive psychology, psychiatry, the sciences of education,
sociology, anthropology, primatology, linguistics, mathematics, and aesthetics. The BWS has been
successful in calling renewed attention to Wittgenstein's importance worldwide, not least in inspiring
societies such as the Nordic Wittgenstein Society (NWS), the Chinese Wittgenstein (CWS) and the
Indian Wittgenstein Society into existence. It now has, I might add, more than 400 registered
members worldwide. But most importantly, in bringing together, at its annual conferences,
philosophers opposed to, as well as philosophers inspired by, Wittgenstein, the BWS has contributed
to reawakening the spirit of a philosopher whose work was not aimed at stopping us doing philosophy,
but at helping us do it better.