On Certainty

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Wiley, Jan 8, 1991 - Philosophy - 208 pages
5 Reviews
Written over the last 18 months of his life and inspired by his interest in G. E. Moore's defence of common sense, this much discussed volume collects Wittgenstein's reflections on knowledge and certainty, on what it is to know a proposition for sure.

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On Certainty was not published until 1969, 18 years after Wittgenstein’s death and has only recently begun to draw serious attention. I cannot recall a single reference to it in all of Searle and one see’s whole books on W with barely a mention. There are however xlnt books on it by Stroll, Svensson, McGinn and others and parts of many other books and articles, but hands down the best is that of Daniele Moyal-Sharrock (DMS) whose 2004 volume “Understanding Wittgenstein’s On Certainty” is mandatory for every educated person, and perhaps the best starting point for understanding W, psychology, philosophy and life.
Wittgenstein (W) is for me easily the most brilliant thinker on human behavior of all time and this is his last work and crowning achievement. It belongs to his third and final period, yet it is not only his most basic work (since it shows that all behavior is an extension of innate true-only axioms), but the foundation for all description of animal behavior, revealing how the mind works and indeed must work. The “must” is entailed by the fact that all brains share a common ancestry and common genes and so there is only one basic way they work, that this necessarily has an axiomatic structure, that all higher animals share the same evolved psychology based on inclusive fitness, and in humans this is extended into a personality based on throat muscle contractions (language) that evolved to manipulate others (with variations that can be regarded as trivial). This book, and arguably all of W’s work and all discussion of behavior is a development or variation on this idea.
In the course of many years reading extensively in W, other philosophers, and psychology, it has become clear that what he laid out in his final period (and throughout his earlier work in a less clear way) are the foundations of what is now known as evolutionary psychology (EP), or if you prefer, psychology, cognitive linguistics, intentionality, higher order thought or just animal behavior. Sadly, nobody seems to realize that his works are a vast and unique textbook of descriptive psychology that is as relevant and unique now as the day it was written. He is almost universally ignored by psychology and other behavioral sciences and humanities, and even those few in philosophy who have more or less understood him have not carried the analysis to its logical (psychological) conclusion. His heir apparent, John Searle, refers to him periodically and his work can be seen as a straightforward extension of W’s, but he does not really get that this is what he is doing. I eventually came to understand much of W by regarding his corpus as the pioneering effort in EP, and by starting from his 3rd period works and reading backwards to the proto-Tractatus. It has been extremely revealing to alternate W with the writings of hundreds of other philosophers and evolutionary psychologists (as I regard all psychologists and in fact all behavioral scientists, cognitive linguists and others).
The failure (in my view) of even the best thinkers to fully grasp W’s significance is partly due to the limited attention On Certainty (0C) and his other 3rd period works have received, but even more to the inability of philosophers and others to understand how profoundly our view of philosophy, anthropology, sociology, linguistics, politics, law, morals, ethics, religion, aesthetics, literature and all of animal behavior (all of them being descriptive psychology), alters once we accept the evolutionary point of view. The dead hand of the blank slate view of behavior still rests heavily on most people, pro or amateur. Steven Pinker’s brilliant ‘The Blank Slate: the modern denial of human nature’ is highly recommended, even though he has no clue about Wittgenstein and hence of what can be regarded as the first really deep investigation into the foundations of human nature.
To say that Searle has carried on W’s work is not to imply that it is a direct result of W study, but rather that because there is only ONE human psychology (for the
 

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About the author (1991)

Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) was born in Austria and studied at Cambridge under Bertrand Russell. He volunteered to serve in the Austrian army at the outbreak of World War I, and in 1918 was captured and sent to a prison camp in Italy, where he finished his masterpiece, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, one of the most important philosophical works of all time. After the war Wittgenstein eventually returned to Cambridge to teach.

G. E. M. Anscombe was Professor of Philosophy at the University of Cambridge.

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