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Wittgensteinian Hinge Epistemology and Deep Disagreement


Deep disagreements concern our most basic and fundamental commitments. Such disagreements seem to be problematic because they appear to manifest epistemic incommensurability in our epistemic systems, and thereby lead to epistemic relativism. This problem is confronted via consideration of a Wittgensteinian hinge epistemology. On the face of it, this proposal exacerbates the problem of deep disagreements by granting that our most fundamental commitments are essentially arationally held. It is argued, however, that a hinge epistemology, properly understood, does not licence epistemic incommensurability or epistemic relativism at all. On the contrary, such an epistemology in fact shows us how to rationally respond to deep disagreements. It is claimed that if we can resist these consequences even from the perspective of a hinge epistemology, then we should be very suspicious of the idea that deep disagreements in general are as epistemologically problematic as has been widely supposed.

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  1. 1.

    For some of the key literature in this regard, see Kelly (2005), Christensen (2007), Elga (2007), and Feldman (2007). For my own contribution to this debate, see Pritchard (2012, forthcominga). For some useful recent surveys of this literature, see Christensen (2009), Matheson (2015), and Lackey (2016).

  2. 2.

    The terminology is not new, but I would ask the reader to treat it as a term of art rather than a pre-existing classification, as this terminology gets used in different ways in the contemporary literature. For example, Fogelin (1985) clearly treats such disagreements as being in their nature rationally unresolvable, and yet, for reasons that will become apparent, I want to keep this issue open (indeed, I will be suggesting that there is a clear sense in which the class of deep disagreements that I am interested in can be rationally resolved). For some other recent discussions of ‘deep disagreements’ that are closer to my intended usage, see Lynch (2012a, b), Kappel (2012), and Siegel (2013).

  3. 3.

    See, for example, Pritchard (2009).

  4. 4.

    See, for example, Haller (1995). Grayling (2001), and Boghossian (2006). For two useful discussions of this claim, see Coliva (2010b) and Kusch (2016).

  5. 5.

    For a more thorough survey of Wittgenstein’s treatment of hinge commitments in OC, see Pritchard (2017b).

  6. 6.

    Wittgenstein rather nicely expresses this point by quoting a line from Goethe: “In the beginning was the deed.” (OC, § 396; cf. OC, § 342).

  7. 7.

    This is one of the features of hinge commitments that lead me to argue that they involve a different propositional attitude to our ordinary notion of belief. See Pritchard (2015a, part two) for the details in this regard. Note, by the way, that in saying that one’s becoming aware of a hinge commitment qua hinge commitment doesn’t lead to genuine doubt, I am not denying that it might nonetheless induce a certain kind of epistemic anxiety. I refer to this anxiety as epistemic vertigo—see Pritchard (2015a, part four)—but, as I explain, it is not a form a doubt but something different entirely. See also Pritchard (forthcomingc).

  8. 8.

    I apply a Wittgensteinian epistemology along the lines suggested in OC to the epistemology of religious belief in Pritchard (2011; cf., 2015b, 2017a, forthcomingb). Note that the result is a very different view to that normally attributed to Wittgenstein on this score, usually on the basis of Wittgenstein (1966). That is, the view one ends up with is not a straightforward fideism, but rather a completely new position as regards the epistemology of religious belief, which I term quasi-fideism.

  9. 9.

    Interestingly, in a paper that tries to defend the idea that a Wittgensteinian hinge epistemology doesn’t lead to epistemic relativism, Williams (2007) in fact ends up conceding that such an epistemology entails that there may be no rational way of resolving disagreements. Accordingly, he ultimately defends the claim that a Wittgensteinian hinge epistemology generates the very kind of epistemic incommensurability thesis that we are here claiming leads to epistemic relativism. For further discussion of this point, see Pritchard (2010).

  10. 10.

    For some key defences of reformed epistemology that employ parity arguments of this kind, see Plantinga (1983, 2000) and Alston (1991).

  11. 11.

    This concerns our hinge commitment that we have parents, an example that Wittgenstein discusses in a number of places (OC, § 159, § 211, § 239, § 282, § 335). There are also other independent reasons for holding that OC is heavily influenced by Newman (1979 [1870]), such as Wittgenstein’s growing interest in Catholicism, particularly as his health was failing. For further discussion of the influence of Newman on OC, see Kienzler (2006) and Pritchard (2015b).

  12. 12.

    See, for example, Williams (2005).

  13. 13.

    See Pritchard (2015a, part two).

  14. 14.

    This is broadly the interpretation of OC that I offer in Pritchard (2015a, part 2). For some alternative treatments of OC, see McGinn (1989), Williams (1991), Moyal-Sharrock (2004), Wright (2004), Coliva (2010a, 2015), and Schönbaumsfeld (2016). For a recent survey of Wittgenstein’s treatment of radical scepticism in OC, see Pritchard (2017b).

  15. 15.

    For further discussion of Davidson’s views in this regard, see Pritchard (2013). For further discussion of these views within the specific context of a Wittgensteinian epistemology, see Pritchard (2015a, chap. 4).

  16. 16.

    On this front, see also Kinzel and Kusch (2017) who similarly argue, albeit on different grounds, that what we are here calling deep disagreements don’t license epistemic incommensurability and thus epistemic relativism (as we are understanding those monikers, at any rate).

  17. 17.

    I think this point about deep disagreements has important ramifications for a number of contemporary debates. For example, I think it accounts for why the ‘New Atheist’ movement seemed to fail to properly engage with those with religious conviction. Their mistake was to suppose that disagreements of this kind are best met head-on, when in fact the more subtle, side-on approach set out here would have been a much more effective means of engaging with the other party (though, as just noted, this might have led to changes in their own beliefs, and thus hinge commitments). For a philosophical discussion of the New Atheism movement, see Taylor (2017).

  18. 18.

    This paper is part of a wider project of trying to show that the epistemological import of disagreements (both of the ‘deep’ and the ‘epistemic peer’ kind) has been overstated. The point is not just that deep disagreements do not license epistemic incommensurability and thereby epistemic relativism—see Pritchard (2009, 2010)—but also that the arguments that have been offered which purport to show that epistemic peer disagreement entails that we should downgrade our epistemic assessments are also flawed. On the latter front, in particular, I’ve claimed that one can consistently stick to one’s epistemic guns in the face of epistemic peer disagreement without that entailing that one is committing the intellectual vice of dogmatism. See Pritchard (2012, forthcominga). See also Pritchard (2018).


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I am grateful to two anonymous referees for TOPOI for their detailed comments on a previous version of this paper.


This paper was not directly funded by any grant. It did, however, benefit from two earlier projects that were both funded by the John Templeton Foundation and hosted by the University of Edinburgh’s Eidyn research centre: (i) the ‘Intellectual Humility MOOC’ project, and (ii) the ‘Virtue Epistemology, Epistemic Dependence and Intellectual Humility’ project, which was itself part of the wider ‘Philosophy and Theology of Intellectual Humility Project’ hosted by Saint Louis University.

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Correspondence to Duncan Pritchard.

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Pritchard, D. Wittgensteinian Hinge Epistemology and Deep Disagreement. Topoi 40, 1117–1125 (2021).

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  • Epistemology
  • Disagreement
  • Epistemic relativism
  • Epistemic incommensurability
  • Hinge epistemology
  • Wittgenstein