Thursday, 19 February 2009

Wittgenstein on certainty and Lonergan on beliefs

I am correcting Sathish Thiyagarajan's MPh paper, "Wittgenstein on Certainty: A Reading of On Certainty."

Naturally I keep asking myself: what would Lonergan have to say about this?

I think W is entirely right when he points out that there are propositions which have the form of empirical propositions but actually function in a different way. It makes no sense, for example, to doubt these propositions. They are what we take for granted in our activity of knowing and doubting. They are, he says, the framework of our language game, they are the rules of the game. These be calls certainties. He does not hesitate to say that many of these certainties are beliefs, taken over from our form of life, our culture, in the course of our upbringing. Since our upbringing includes also learning one or more languages, language skills are also part of what he regards as certainties - propositions which it makes no sense to doubt. It makes no sense to doubt, for example, that this is a tree, he says.

I am asking myself: in place of W's distinction between knowledge and certainty, could we use L's distinction between (immanently or personally generated) knowledge and belief (what we have taken over from others, our culture, etc.)? Perhaps the overlap is not perfect, unless under 'beliefs' we include also the learning of a language.

But much of what L has to say about beliefs would, I think, be perfectly acceptable to W: the symbiosis of knowledge and belief, for example: it is almost impossible to separate out the two in any given instance. The fact that judgment is always contextual, and that even the making of a single judgment presupposes a host of other judgments, so that there is a frightful circularity to all our knowing. How, L asks, do we get out of this circularity? All logical circles are broken ultimately by action, and L points out that when we do not have, we can always borrow. So we proceed by borrowing - where borrowing would include taking from those who know better (the 'masters', the 'wise people'), from our culture, and so on. And of course we do not always 'borrow' in this explicit fashion. All our knowing takes place within the context of our being part of a culture, a language group, a game, etc. The 'way up' can function only within the context of the 'way down', and it is the way down that is prior. "Im Anfang war die Tat," W says somewhere: "In the beginning was the Deed." Lisbert D'Souza liked to quote that to me.

Questions do come to an end. The spade touches rock bottom. L would say: not that we cannot question further; further questions are always possible; but does it make sense to continue questioning? So the inbuilt way we function is: when there is the absence of further relevant questions, we 'assume' that we have reached an 'invulnerable' insight. When relevant questions come to an end, we have, as it were, reached a stasis, of the type we are more familiar in the realm of the moral conscience. We then sometimes go on to another topic. Is this an automatic criterion of truth? By no means. But: that is how we function. How then can we be sure of our insights and judgments? No short cut, no recipe, for producing good judgments. Only factors to be kept in mind: allow further questions a chance to arise; set questions correctly; try to move to mastery of the situation; be aware of and balance your temperament....

The echoes between W and L become less surprising when we bring Newman into the picture. But the relationship between N and W remains to be better clarified. Sathish has found at least three studies, but I would have to see them myself.

In the meantime, it might be a very good idea for Sathish to now do a little study of N's Grammar of Assent, and why not, eventually also a study of L on knowing and believing. Not an easy job though!

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