Random thoughts on random topics

Traboule, Lyon

Certainties, truth and relativism

If we compare the picture that we can extract from On Certainty with Davidson’s view (as expounded in, e.g., ‘A Coherence Theory of Truth and Knowledge’), the important difference seems to be this, that Wittgenstein introduces the layer of certainties in between our epistemological practices and external reality, whereas Davidson construes the relation between belief and reality much more directly. The fact that certainties are categorically different from beliefs and other epistemological entities (despite the fact that over time, and between communities and/or individuals,  what counts as what may change) in combination with the plurality of systems of certainties, makes room for a measure of (conceptual) relativism that Davidson seeks to avoid. His way of doing so is to take the core of our belief system to be as stable (over time, over communities and/or individuals) as is the causal influence of external reality on humans. (There is more room for differences in the ‘superstructure’ of complex beliefs that are not directly caused by our interactions with reality, but that is something that Davidson does not pay that much attention to). 

This has also consequences for how truth works in both perspectives. In On Certainty truth is first and foremost a concept that operates within a particular epistemological practice, that itself is made possible by a particular system of reference consisting of certainties. (That Wittgenstein construes it in more or less verificationistic terms is an additional,  independently motivated feature.) The relation between external reality and certainties is not one of determination, but of constraint. This is the source of plurality, and it also implies that certainties are not upheld because they are true. The fact that different certainties  can be upheld at the same time also testifies to that, of course. Nevertheless, certainties differ in terms of their entrenchment and some are so basic to our form of life that it does not seem that much of a stretch to call them ‘true’, admittedly in quite a different sense. In Davidson’s perspective we also have two distinct properties. ‘Mild correspondence’ is the notion of truth that links beliefs (and hence meaning) to the world. It is what  the causal influence of the world on us results in. Internally, i.e., within our actual epistemological practice, truth then takes on a different form, that of coherence. 

Martin Stokhof
from: Aantekeningen/Notes
date: 22/03/2012

Random thoughts on random topics

East Goodwin

On belief and introspection

Wittgenstein claims that belief (like doubt, expectation, etc.) is ‘introspectively accessible”: if we believe that p, we know that we believe that p. Hence, we cannot say, Wittgenstein claims, that we thought we believed something, but actually did not believe it. Knowledge is not like that: we can think that we know something, only to find out that we didn’t. The reason is (presumably, but Wittgenstein does not discuss this explicitly) that belief concerns a certain state or disposition, whereas knowledge in addition involves a particular relation to the world (this is where truth comes in). 

Does this hold up if what a person believes ultimately must show itself in his or her actions, i.e., if belief is a disposition to act in a certain way? That is a view that Wittgenstein seems to endorse as well, so the issue at hand can also be formulated as follows: does it make sense to say that one can somehow be mistaken about what it is one is doing, or is disposed to do? 

Stepping back: is there at this particular point a difference between belief in the ordinary, epistemological sense, and religious beliefs and ethical convictions? If we grant Wittgenstein that, indeed, it does not seem to make sense to say “I think I believe that Amsterdam is the capital of the Netherlands, but maybe I’m wrong, maybe I don’t believe that”, are we then forced to also hold that it does not make sense to answer “I don’t know” if someone asks us “Do you believe in an after-life (transubstantiation, Last Judgement, …)”, and that we cannot meaningfully express doubt concerning an ethical prescription, as in “I’m not sure I believe that one should always respect the right to bodily integrity” ? It would be interesting to try to construct different cases and see whether doubt concerning belief is possible, and if so, what it means to express it. In that way we might also get a better picture of how various kinds of beliefs are related to action, on the one hand, and reality on the other (cf. above, concerning knowledge) 

It is true that what people say and what they do all too often diverges, but that does not mean that what they believe and what they do diverges as well. For saying something is one thing, believing it is another. It is only a sincere utterance that allows an inference to a belief (cf., Grice’s Maxim of Quality). This is the gist of what is known as “Moore’s Paradox” (which Wittgenstein regarded as Moore’s most important contribution to philosophy): an utterance of the form “p but I don’t believe that p” may very well be true, but it cannot be sincere. 

So, the crux of examples about a person saying one thing and doing another concerns that person’s sincerity : that cannot be taken for granted, but has to be argued for. 

That many (most) of our beliefs are unreflected, unanalysed, is an important here: in fact, explicitly held beliefs seem to be the exception, rather than the rule. And that seems to make the way a person acts the primary source for belief-ascriptions. 

This observation itself raises some other questions: Can we as outside observers always derive distinct beliefs from the way a person acts? Can a person himself do this? What kinds of beliefs lend themselves to such investigation? Aren’t these more like certainties, rather than cognitive beliefs? What about the requirement that it should always be possible to explicate a belief derived from a way of acting? 

Consider the case of the egalitarian who does not act upon his beliefs: would that be a case of a person being wrong about what he believes (he thinks he believes in equal rights, yet his failure to act shows that he does not), or is it rather a case of failing to act upon one’s beliefs? Given his beliefs the egalitarian also believes that he should act in a particular way in particular situations. That he does not, might also be attributed to weakness in character, or some other circumstance, and not to a mistake about the beliefs he holds. Of course, if he consistently acts in opposition to what we would expect on the basis of the beliefs he confesses to, we would start to doubt. And his sincerity would be the first thing we would doubt. 

Note finally that the phrase “I believe” itself can be used in a variety of ways: as a statement of a firmly held conviction; but also as a way of indicating that we are not sure (yet), that we actually leave room for the opposite. “I think” is more like “I believe” in the latter sense than in the former. And for Wittgenstein’s  argument we do indeed need the former sense. 

Martin Stokhof
from: EOL Discussion Board
date: October 2002