Law in Contemporary Society

Becoming Unhinged

-- By DanLEe - May 19, 2021


Ludwig Wittgenstein’s On Certainty was his last work, and although decidedly less famous than either his Tractatus or Philosophical Investigations, it offers insights as profound as any that can be found in the remainder of his corpus. On Certainty is essentially a compilation of notes that Wittgenstein wrote as he was dying of cancer, only given definable structure by his friends posthumously. This unfinished quality has yielded a plethora of interpretations of this work. The epistemological ramifications of On Certainty also may provide an alternative way of appreciating the grimness of the modern American cultural and political landscape.

Descartes and the Skeptical Hypothesis

In order to understand On Certainty, a short detour is necessary to examine the skeptical problem he means to address in On Certainty. The skeptical problem was put forth in its most popular form in Descartes’ Meditations in the seventeenth century, where he postulated that it would be possible that his sensory experiences, logical reasoning, and subjective mind-states could all be completely fabricated and controlled by an “evil demon.” Even simple propositions whose truth we take for granted, like “The Earth existed long before I was born,” or “2 + 2 = 5,” or “I have a body,” could be doubted, as such beliefs could theoretically be the erroneous byproducts of a manipulated mind. The position of the radical, or global, skeptic is that knowledge about an external world is impossible, as no proposition can ever truly be free from doubt (besides perhaps “I think, therefore I am,” but this proposition cannot support the reality of an external world).

Moore's Argument

Descartes’ skeptical hypothesis was the topic of centuries’ worth of metaphysical debate, which rages on today. But in the early twentieth century, G. E. Moore wrote two watershed responses: “A Defence of Common Sense” and Proof of an External World. Moore flips the skeptical hypothesis on its head, arguing “Here is one hand, here Is another.” Ergo, there are two objects in the external world, and we have knowledge of an external world. His argument’s thrust is that it would be absurd, even for a skeptic, for one to claim that she did not know she had hands. Moore wields common sense as a means to defeat the skeptic, and while his argument has a certain charm to it, it is irritatingly question-begging; if an evil demon is controlling Moore, his “common sense” is worthless.

Wittgenstein's Argument

Wittgenstein, writing half a century later, acknowledged in On Certainty both the boldness of Moore’s approach to the skeptical problem, as well as its question-begging, epistemically circular nature. In what possible statement could we possibly be more epistemically secure in than “Here are two hands”? In a brilliant move, Wittgenstein sidesteps the metaphysical issue of whether or not a radically skeptical scenario is possible in favor of discussing the role that propositions such as “Here are two hands” play in our language-games and epistemology. Such statements are hinge propositions or hinge commitments, as they work like hinges on a door; the entire framework of propositions that form our epistemic webs of belief and justification, and our linguistic systems of expression, relies on our accepting them.

In order to have a choate conversation with someone, there needs to be some shared epistemological common ground; I couldn’t talk about the weather with someone who doubts the existence of the sky, sun, and Earth. The everyday inquiries that we concern ourselves with would be either unanswerable or utterly incomprehensible, and a true skeptic would be stuck in a kind of cognitive paralysis, unable even to make an argument or convey her thoughts.

Dwindling Common Ground

I agree with Wittgenstein in that there can be no true global skeptics. But in American culture and politics, a different and much realer variety of skepticism, levied at the opposing team in our never-ending culture wars, proliferates and deepens every hour. In late 2020, Fox News devoted hours a day to baseless claims of election fraud; the Atlantic wrote that no credible allegations existed. Breitbart claims that face masks are ineffective at protecting against COVID-19; the CDC and the Lancet say the opposite. The National Review writes that direct government aid is on the cusp of causing a labor shortage; the New York Times writes that said aid prevented millions from falling into poverty and food insecurity. This divergence widens and deepens on different social media platforms and across hundreds of issues and cultural flash points.

This is all meant to say that the epistemological common ground shared by the two sides of the divide is shrinking rapidly. We (for now) all agree on some extremely basic hinge propositions: that we have hands, and that the Earth was here long before us, but not too much else. Conversations regarding an election cannot be choate if one side doubts their integrity, and conversations regarding public health cannot make sense if one side doubts institutional expertise. These are not merely a difference of opinion on certain subjects. The polarization of these issues force entire chunks of our epistemological webs of logical belief and justification to be utterly incompatible with one another, causing conversations across the aisle to be as frustrating as those about the weather with a global skeptic. As the sheer volume of data (whether true or false) on the internet continues to expand, and as communities and cohorts on social media and in the world continue to become more insular, the number of propositions that both sides consider axiomatic will dwindle. To Wittgenstein, to whom language, thought, and reality are isomorphic, this is no mere rhetorical divergence; it is the creation of an alternative, incompatible reality.

There is nothing novel about saying that as a country, we are becoming more divided; it is obvious, and most of us are horribly tired of hearing about it. But Wittgenstein’s insights into hinge commitments give us an understanding of the true severity of the problem at hand. In light of the current climate, discourse and consensus will be more, not less, feasible in the coming years.

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r3 - 20 May 2021 - 01:33:32 - DanLEe
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