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On the Philosophy of Uncertainty

Ludwig Wittgenstein sheds no light on gullibility.

Key points

  • Ludwig Wittgenstein's book "On Certainty" addresses the problem of false certainty.
  • This would appear to be very relevant to the problem of mass gullibility towards manipulative propaganda.
  • But Wittgenstein approached the topic solely in terms of formal logic about physical objects and had nothing useful to say about politics.

Cambridge University professor Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) is frequently described as the greatest philosopher of the 20th century. Yet he only published one 82-page book ("Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus") plus one article during his lifetime, while his most influential book ("Philosophical Investigations",also exceedingly short) along with three other very small books ("The Blue Book", "The Brown Book", and "On Certainty", described as studies for Investigations) were compiled from his papers by his former students and published after his death.

A common reaction by readers to Wittgenstein’s writings is one of confusion, as he is generally considered very difficult to understand. The typical reader would blame themself for this state of affairs, assuming that they lack the intelligence or background to understand such a brilliant man, but a plausible alternate hypothesis (in league with "The Emperor’s New Clothes") is that Wittgenstein was not the great philosopher that everyone thought he was, but rather was a very muddled thinker and/or a terrible communicator, who addressed problems of trivial significance.

In such a view, Wittgenstein’s fame partly reflected his astounding personal story, namely his giving away one of Europe’s greatest fortunes (his father was an Austrian steel baron) in order to live in monastic near-poverty writing "Tractatus" while fighting in the trenches of World War I and then later as a POW in an Italian prison camp. Further, he was an extremely handsome closeted gay guy with poor social skills and likely mental illness, coming from a family of Judaism deniers who were spared the Holocaust only by paying an enormous bribe to Hitler (a technical high school classmate of Ludwig, who started off as an engineer), in return for which the Fuhrer signed off on a concocted story that one of Wittgenstein’s grandparents was actually the illegitimate offspring of an affair with a Christian aristocrat.

Wittgenstein had three brothers who committed suicide, an act Ludwig himself seriously considered, abandoning philosophy for several years--going on to teach elementary school in a rural town outside Vienna from 1919 to 1926 (which he quit after being criminally prosecuted for rendering unconscious his slowest student for failing to master advanced math) after which he worked as a gardener at a monastery and as an obsessive architect (he insisted on redoing a ceiling he considered 3 cm. too low. Wittgenstein announced that he left academia because he had solved all of the problems of philosophy; and then upon his return to the university arrogantly deciding that his earlier work along with almost all formal philosophizing is mostly nonsensical word-games, which his former mentor Bertrand Russell denounced as a cop-out reflecting a lazy reluctance to return to hard scholarly work.

Arrogance seemed to define LW (as he called himself) as in his describing the peasant parents of his elementary students as only three-quarters human, or the Cambridge philosopher G.E Moore an example of how one could be very successful despite having “no intelligence at all.” At his doctoral defense, LW told Moore and his most devoted sponsor Bertrand Russell that he doubted they could understand his ideas.

While I, as a psychologist, do not feel qualified to evaluate LW’s worth as a philosopher, I do feel qualified to see if he had anything useful to say about my own topic--human gullibility--which is peripherally addressed in his posthumous book "On Certainty".

That book can be described as an extended trashing of G.E. Moore’s ideas about the “philosophy of common sense.” To Moore, it was common sense to say things with certainty about aspects of reality--such as having two arms or never having visited Bulgaria or the Moon—on the basis that one “knows” such statements are true.

To Wittgenstein the most one can ever be justified saying about anything is “I think I know,” as there is always the possibility that one’s thinking is mistaken.Gullibility can be described as a tendency to act on a belief that is not true, therefore Wittgenstein’s focus on false certainty is relevant to understanding “credulity” (a term that occurs once or twice in the book), which is a major contributor to gullibility (a term that does not appear in the book)

Failure to address gullibility may be because it usually involves action while LW’s exclusive focus was on logic or more typically what he would consider its absence. Interestingly, while LW’s earlier writings about the philosophy of language stated that words derive their meaning entirely from how people act, one will find very few examples of human action in "On Certainty".

Wittgenstein accepted that some statements about reality are more plausible than others, on the basis both of statistical probability as well as scientific scholarship. Examples of the latter would be about the existence of a planetary object such as Saturn. Thus, someone who says “I do not believe that Saturn exists” would be exhibiting what LW called “irrationality,” which he attributed (once or twice, with zero elaboration) to stupidity, craziness or lazy failure to examine easily available empirical evidence. Nevertheless, even then LW would say one is only justified in saying “I believe I know” rather than “I know” as what is thought to be possible or real can change (as for example, people have since visited the Moon, and objects thought to be planets may someday turn out not to be).

A major limitation in Wittgenstein’s writings related to gullibility is that the role of other people in contributing to one’s sense of false certainty is not emphasized and is barely even mentioned. For the most part Wittgenstein did not address false certainty as anything other than a problem in flawed logic, and gave no attention to social influences.

To Wittgenstein philosophy is rubbish if it is not useful. Regrettably I found nothing useful on the topic of mass gullibility in the great philosopher’s book "On Certainty."

Copyright Stephen Greenspan

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