Skip to main content

Wittgensteinian Hinge Epistemology and Deep Disagreement

Abstract

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.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.

Notes

  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).

References

  1. Alston W (1991) Perceiving god. Cornell University Press, Ithaca

    Google Scholar 

  2. Boghossian P (2006) Fear of knowledge: against relativism and constructivism. Clarendon Press, Oxford

    Book  Google Scholar 

  3. Christensen D (2007) Epistemology of disagreement: the good news. Philos Rev 116:187–217

    Article  Google Scholar 

  4. Christensen D (2009) Disagreement as evidence: the epistemology of controversy. Philos Compass 4/5:756–767. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1747-9991.2009.00237.x

    Article  Google Scholar 

  5. Coliva A (2010a) Moore and Wittgenstein: scepticism, certainty, and common sense. Palgrave Macmillan, London

    Book  Google Scholar 

  6. Coliva A (2010b) Was Wittgenstein an epistemic relativist? Philos Investig 33:1–23

    Google Scholar 

  7. Coliva A (2015) Extended rationality: a hinge epistemology. Palgrave Macmillan, London

    Book  Google Scholar 

  8. Davidson D (1977, 1984) The method of truth in metaphysics. Reprinted as essay 14 in his Inquiries into truth and interpretation. Clarendon, Oxford

    Google Scholar 

  9. Davidson D (1983, 1986) A coherence theory of truth and knowledge. In: LePore E (ed) Reprinted as Chap. 16 in Truth and interpretation: perspectives on the philosophy of Donald Davidson. Blackwell, Oxford

    Google Scholar 

  10. Elga A (2007) Reflection and disagreement. Noûs 41:478–502

    Article  Google Scholar 

  11. Feldman R (2007) Reasonable religious disagreements. In: Antony L (ed) Philosophers without Gods. Oxford University Press, Oxford, pp 194–214

    Google Scholar 

  12. Fogelin RJ (1985) The logic of deep disagreements. Informal Logic 7:1–8

    Article  Google Scholar 

  13. Grayling A (2001) Wittgenstein on scepticism and certainty. In: Glock H-J (ed) Wittgenstein: a critical reader. Blackwell, Malden, pp 305–321

    Chapter  Google Scholar 

  14. Haller R (1995) Was Wittgenstein a relativist? In: Egidi R (ed) Wittgenstein: mind and language. Kluwer, Dordrecht, pp 223–232

    Chapter  Google Scholar 

  15. Kappel K (2012) The problem of deep disagreement. Discip Filosofiche 22:7–25

    Google Scholar 

  16. Kelly T (2005) The epistemic significance of disagreement. In: Gendler TS, Hawthorne J (eds) Oxford studies in epistemology, vol 1. Oxford University Press, Oxford

    Google Scholar 

  17. Kienzler W (2006) Wittgenstein and John Henry Newman on certainty. Grazer Philosophische Studien 71:117–138

    Article  Google Scholar 

  18. Kinzel K, Kusch M (2017) De-idealizing disagreement, rethinking relativism. Int J Philos Stud 26:40–71

    Article  Google Scholar 

  19. Kusch M (2016) Wittgenstein’s On Certainty and relativism. In: Rinofner-Kreidl S, Wiltsche HA (eds) Analytic and continental philosophy: methods and perspectives. Walter de Gruyter, Berlin, pp 29–46

    Chapter  Google Scholar 

  20. Lackey J (2016) Epistemology of disagreement. Philosophy, Oxford. https://doi.org/10.1093/OBO/9780195396577-0137

    Book  Google Scholar 

  21. Lynch M (2012a) Epistemic circularity and epistemic incommensurability. In: Haddock A, Millar A, Pritchard D (eds), Social epistemology. Oxford University Press, Oxford, pp 262–277

    Google Scholar 

  22. Lynch M (2012b) In praise of reason. MIT Press, Cambridge

    Book  Google Scholar 

  23. Matheson J (2015) Disagreement and epistemic peers. Oxford Handbooks Online, http://www.oxfordhandbooks.com/view/10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199935314.001.0001/oxfordhb-9780199935314-e-13

  24. McGinn M (1989) Sense and certainty: a dissolution of scepticism. Blackwell, Oxford

    Google Scholar 

  25. Moyal-Sharrock D (2004) Understanding Wittgenstein’s on certainty. Palgrave Macmillan, London

    Book  Google Scholar 

  26. Newman JH (1979, 1870) An essay in aid of a grammar of assent. University of Notre Dame Press, Notre Dame

    Google Scholar 

  27. Plantinga A (1983) Reason and belief in God. In: Plantinga A, Wolterstorff N (eds) Faith and rationality. University of Notre Dame Press, Notre Dame, pp 16–93

    Google Scholar 

  28. Plantinga A (2000) Warranted Christian belief. Oxford University Press, New York

    Book  Google Scholar 

  29. Pritchard DH (2009) Defusing epistemic relativism. Synthese 166:397–412

    Article  Google Scholar 

  30. Pritchard DH (2010) Epistemic relativism, epistemic incommensurability and Wittgensteinian epistemology. In: Hales S (ed) Blackwell companion to relativism. Blackwell, Malden, pp 266–285

    Google Scholar 

  31. Pritchard DH (2011) Wittgensteinian quasi-fideism. Oxford Stud Philos Relig 4:145–159

    Google Scholar 

  32. Pritchard DH (2012) Disagreement, scepticism, and track-record arguments. In: Machuca D (ed) Disagreement and scepticism. Routledge, 150 – 68

    Google Scholar 

  33. Pritchard DH (2013) Davidson on radical skepticism. In: LePore E, Ludwig K (eds) Blackwell companion to Donald Davidson. Blackwell, Malden, pp 521–533

    Google Scholar 

  34. Pritchard DH (2015a) Epistemic angst: radical skepticism and the groundlessness of our believing. Princeton University Press, Princeton

    Book  Google Scholar 

  35. Pritchard DH (2015b) Wittgenstein on faith and reason: the influence of Newman. In: Szatkowski M (ed) God, truth and other enigmas. Walter de Gruyter, Boston, pp 141–164

    Google Scholar 

  36. Pritchard DH (2017a) Faith and reason. Philosophy 81:101–118

    Google Scholar 

  37. Pritchard DH (2017b) Wittgenstein on hinges and radical scepticism in on certainty. In: Glock H-J, Hyman J (eds) Blackwell companion to Wittgenstein. Blackwell, Malden, pp 563–575

    Google Scholar 

  38. Pritchard DH (2018) Disagreement, of belief and otherwise. In: Johnson C (ed) Voicing dissent: the ethics and epistemology of making disagreement public. Routledge, London, pp 22–39

    Chapter  Google Scholar 

  39. Pritchard DH (Forthcominga) Intellectual humility and the epistemology of disagreement. Synthese

  40. Pritchard DH (Forthcomingb) Quasi-fideism and religious conviction. Eur J Philos Relig

  41. Pritchard DH (Forthcomingc) Wittgensteinian epistemology, epistemic vertigo, and Pyrrhonian skepticism. In: Vlasits J, Vogt KM (eds) Epistemology after sextus empiricus. Oxford University Press, Oxford

  42. Schönbaumsfeld G (2016) The illusion of doubt. Oxford University Press, Oxford

    Book  Google Scholar 

  43. Siegal H (2013) Argumentation and the epistemology of disagreement. Proceedings of the Ontario Society for the Study of Argumentation 10, https://scholar.uwindsor.ca/ossaarchive/OSSA10/papersandcommentaries/157/

  44. Taylor JE (2017) The new atheists. In: Fieser J, Dowden B (eds) Internet encyclopaedia of philosophy. http://www.iep.utm.edu/n-atheis/

  45. Williams M (1991) Unnatural doubts: epistemological realism and the basis of skepticism. Blackwell, Oxford

    Google Scholar 

  46. Williams M (2005) Why Wittgenstein isn’t a Foundationalist. In: Brenner WH, Moyal-Sharrock D (eds) Readings of Wittgenstein’s on certainty. Palgrave Macmillan, London, pp 47–58

    Chapter  Google Scholar 

  47. Williams M (2007) Why (Wittgensteinian) contextualism is not relativism. Episteme 4:93–114

    Article  Google Scholar 

  48. Wittgenstein L (1966) Wittgenstein’s lectures and conversations on aesthetics, psychology and religious belief. Basil Blackwell, Oxford

    Google Scholar 

  49. Wittgenstein L (1969) On certainty [=OC]. In: Anscombe GEM, von Wright GH, (trans: Paul D, Anscombe GEM). Blackwell, Oxford

  50. Wright CJG (2004) Warrant for nothing (and foundations for free)? Proc Aristot Soc 78:167–212

    Article  Google Scholar 

Download references

Acknowledgements

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

Funding

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.

Author information

Affiliations

Authors

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Duncan Pritchard.

Ethics declarations

Conflict of interest

There is no conflict of interest associated with this paper.

Research with Animal and Human Participants

This article does not contain any studies with human participants or animals performed by any of the authors.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Pritchard, D. Wittgensteinian Hinge Epistemology and Deep Disagreement. Topoi 40, 1117–1125 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11245-018-9612-y

Download citation

Keywords

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