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Sceptical Vertigo

Here is a paper I wrote fifteen years ago and never did anything with it other than present it at the American Philosophical Association meeting in Pasadena, California. The idea was largely drawn from a course on internalism and externalism in epistemology. Since then, Duncan Pritchard has published a paper by the same name in a special issue of the Journal for the History of Analytical Philosophy honouring Stanley Cavell. His paper is, of course, much better than the one I reproduce here, but I would like to thank him from prompting me to reconsider some of the views that I express here.

Epistemologists often focus upon the tripartite sceptical argument, whether they take scepticism seriously or not. Sometimes their response to it has been one of aggravation, asking why they should take scepticism seriously in the first place. At other times, their response is more sanguine. We need to take the tripartite argument seriously to answer the question whether knowledge is possible. From there, we can put ourselves in a better position to argue for what knowledge is. I will begin with the tripartite argument not because I am aggravated by it so much as I believe that epistemologists have not given adequate attention to an internal psychological dimension of it. I would like to argue that one's inner sense, one's own psychology, places one well for tackling the problem of scepticism.

The tripartite argument is this:

  1. I don’t know that I’m not a brain-in-a-vat.

  2. If I know that I have hands, then I know that I’m not a brain-in-a-vat.

  3. Therefore, I don’t know that I have hands.

Some epistemologists defend scepticism (cf. Nagel 1986, Stroud 1994), others a Moorean response to scepticism (whether in the form of semantic or epistemic externalism) (cf. Moore 1959; Putnam 1981; Sosa 1993), and yet others some form of contextualism (DeRose 1995; Lewis passim). Concessive responses to sceptical scenarios, that is, those who defend scepticism, usually accept the conclusion of the tripartite argument. (This position has also been called the ‘sceptical response’.) Moorean’s generally accept premise (2), but claim that (1*) “I know that I have hands.” From this it would follow that (3*) “I know that I’m not a brain-in-a-vat.” The contextualist response suggests that we might be able to reconcile these two responses. According to the contexualist, we should accept the Moorean response in some contexts but the sceptical response in others. (Keith DeRose introduces his brand of contextualism in 1992 and develops it in 1995. He addresses important objections to his argument in 1999a and 1999b.)

This paper will argue that our effort to generate compelling responses to the tripartite sceptical argument may benefit from an exploration of a person’s inner experience or unity of agency when one confronts sceptical scenarios such as the one outlined above. When we consider a solution to the sceptical problem, we need not begin with or concern ourselves with the tripartite argument; instead, I would like to suggest that the focus of our epistemological concern should be the sceptic herself. Such a discussion of scepticism should begin with what Stanley Cavell has called the “truth in scepticism.” Much of my discussion will be informed by Stanley Cavell’s reflections on scepticism, which are largely derived from his reading of Wittgenstein (Cavell 1979). This is sometimes called the therapeutic view or the New Wittgensteinian view (cf. Crary and Read 2000). For Cavell, we should see truth in scepticism without necessarily seeing the truth of scepticism. To see the truth of scepticism is to suggest that a refutation of scepticism is unsuccessful. I will hope to show that “truth in scepticism” is a sort of sceptical vertigo, without conceding to the sceptic or refuting scepticism altogether (cf. Putnam 2006, 121).First, I will outline an orthodox view of Wittgenstein on scepticism. The orthodox view has argued that scepticism fails to make sense. On this view, what we must realize is that Wittgenstein believes we have to see through nonsense to find an ineffable truth. Next, I will show how Cavell shifts the focus from the meaningfulness of the sentences uttered by a speaker to the intelligibility of what the speaker is doing in making utterances. Finally, I will contend that the unique perspective Cavell offers when he moves focus of scepticism from the words uttered to the person uttering them is a decisive shift in the treatment of epistemological questions concerning the sceptical problem.

The Orthodox View

Stanley Cavell’s reflections on scepticism are unique. Cavell does not offer a concessive, Moorean, or contextualist response to the sceptical problem. The uniqueness of his approach to scepticism is best exemplified by Part II of his magnum opus, The Claim of Reason (Cavell 1979). The views he expresses in it about scepticism arise from his interpretation of Wittgenstein.

Cavell’s Wittgenstein differs from other interpretations of Wittgenstein, which I will call the “orthodox interpretations.” Proponents of the orthodox interpretation include Peter Hacker, Gordon Baker, Marie McGinn, and David Pears, to name a few. In this section, I will outline the orthodox view of Wittgenstein on scepticism. In the next section, I will show how Cavell’s Wittgenstein does not “focus on the sceptic’s words, asking what they might mean... [but] we should turn our attention to the sceptic himself, asking what he might mean by them.” (Williams 1995, 151)

Cavell uses an orthodox interpretation of Wittgenstein as his foil. According to Peter Hacker’s orthodox view, Wittgenstein has shown that scepticism cannot be coherently expressed (Hacker 1972). Hacker writes, “Scepticism is not to be answered by proving that we do know what the sceptic doubts, but rather by showing that the sceptical doubts make no sense.” (Hacker 1972, 208) On Hacker’s view, views which he and his collaborator, Gordon Baker, shared, Wittgenstein’s objective is not to discover facts about reality. Wittgenstein sets out the grammatical rules demarcating what makes sense from what is nonsense, thereby delimiting the ways in which it is possible to depict reality. On the orthodox view, this implies that the Wittgenstein views consisted of criticisms of traditional philosophy on the ground that its supposed theses and arguments turned on confusions over or violations of the rules of grammar, and thus are in fact nonsense.

Hacker has also enlightened us about Wittgenstein’s understanding of nonsense. According to the orthodox view, there are things a person cannot say but can only show. Nonsense can show what cannot be said. Thus, nonsense can be illuminating, deep, and important. It would seem on Hacker’s view that sceptical doubts are illuminating, deep, and important.

The orthodox view, then, distinguishes between two sorts of nonsense - illuminating nonsense and plain nonsense. Plain nonsense is simply gibberish or word salad. On the orthodox reading of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus, Wittgenstein believes the sense of a sentence determines when the sentence is true and when it is false. Since tautologies are true under all conditions, there is no way for a tautology to be false. So, tautologies and contradictions lack sense (are sinnlos), without being mere nonsense (unsinnig). Lacking sense means that a proposition fails to sort out the possibilities; for a proposition to be counted as lacking sense still allows it an ineffable content. If Wittgenstein thought that we see through intelligible nonsense to its ineffable content, and if Wittgenstein says that his work contains nonsense (see 6.54), then his readers should respond to this brand of nonsense by trying to do just that. The ineffable truths about reality are the only thing “one is left holding on to... after one has thrown away the ladder” (Hacker 2000, 357).

The orthodox view supposes that Wittgenstein is the philosopher who has refuted scepticism (and not only about other minds). His refutation does not show scepticism is false but it is nonsense. Cavell’s Wittgenstein sees the orthodox view as diluting what Wittgenstein says about nonsense, by insisting that he does not really mean what he says (Cf. Conant 1993, 197). On Cavell’s interpretation, we are advised to throw away the latter completely, which amounts to rejecting the notion of ineffable truths, per the orthodox interpretation. For Cavell, what cannot be shown cannot be said either.

Truth in scepticism

The orthodox interpretation and Cavell’s Wittgenstein differ in at least three ways, which follows Shieh (2006, 142). First, while the focus of the orthodox account is the sceptic’s words claiming that they are nonsensical, Cavell’s focus is the sceptic’s act of uttering his words apart from conditions in which he can be intelligible as making a claim. Second, proponents of the orthodox account argue that the rules of grammar determine what makes sense and what does not make sense. Finally, Cavell insists there is a “truth in scepticism.”

The first and third points require further explanation, but I would like first to show why Cavell’s Wittgenstein would reject point two. According to the second point, the orthodoxy belief is that the rules of grammar determine what makes sense and what is nonsense. This implies that intelligibility is left to the rules of grammar surrounding the sceptic’s attempts at performing speech-acts. Whatever we make of Wittgenstein on rule-following, we have reason to doubt whether it is the rules of grammar that determine sense. Mastery of language is an exercise of a skill or technique, which may not require the mastery of the rules of grammar. So, by contrast, Cavell believes the sceptic has a choice to be intelligible, but is driven by his project to “deprive” her speech-act of intelligibility.

Cavell’s Wittgenstein is not out to “refute scepticism” or to show that scepticism is nonsense. In contrast, Cavell speaks of the “truth in scepticism.” The “truth in scepticism” does not mean that Cavell agrees with the concessive response to the sceptical problem. He does not believe the sceptic makes perfect sense, is intelligible, or is correct. His best summary of “truth in scepticism” comes when he writes:

[The work of Austin and the later Wittgenstein] is commonly thought to represent an effort to refute philosophical scepticism, as expressed most famously in Descartes and in Hume, and an essential drive of my book The Claim of Reason... is to show that, at least in the case of Wittgenstein, this is a fateful distortion, that Wittgenstein’s teaching is on the contrary that scepticism is (not exactly true, but not exactly false either; it is) a standing threat to, or temptation of, the human mind - that our ordinary language and its representation of the world can be philosophically repudiated and that it is essential to our inheritance and mutual possession of language, as well as to what inspires philosophy, that this should be so. (Cavell 1996, 88f)

If scepticism is “not exactly false,” then that points to what Cavell calls “the truth of scepticism, or what I might call the moral of scepticism, namely, that the human creature’s basis in the world as a whole, its relation to the world as such, is not that of knowing, anyway not what we think of as knowing” (Cavell 1979, 241).

The two approaches, the orthodox view and Cavell, share a common bond in their concern with questions of “sense and meaning.” While the orthodox view’s question of “sense and meaning” apply to words, Cavell’s concerns apply to linguistic actions and their agents.

On sceptical vertigo

Cavell contends that Wittgenstein provides directions for reading him. The New Wittgensteinians frequently cite TLP, 4.112 (“Philosophy is not a body of doctrine but an activity… A philosophical work consists essentially of elucidations.”); Preface (“[This book’s] purpose would be achieved if it gave pleasure to one person who read and understood it.”); and, 6.54 (“My propositions serve as elucidations in the following way: anyone who understands me eventually recognizes them as nonsensical.” [emphasis added]); and PI, 484 (“My aim is: to teach you to pass from a piece of disguised nonsense to something that is patent nonsense.”). For example, see J. Conant, ‘Throwing Away the Top of the Ladder’, The Yale Review, 79 (1990), pp. 343-347.

Conant, whose interpretation is largely in accordance with Cavell’s interpretation, suggests that “The only “insight” that [Wittgenstein] imparts, in the end, is one about the reader himself.” We read Wittgenstein to understand ourselves – nothing more and nothing less. This amounts to an accusation that proponents of the orthodox view have not thrown away the ladder, because they have held onto the notion of ineffable truths.

On Cavell’s treatment, the activity we are engaged in is “one of showing that we suffer from the illusion of thinking we mean something when we mean nothing” (Conant 1990, 344). James Conant adds:

The reader [of Wittgenstein’s work] undergoes an abrupt transition: one moment, imagining he has discovered something, the next, discovering he has not yet discovered anything to mean by the words. The transition is from a psychological experience of entertaining what appears to be a fully determinate thought – the thought apparently expressed by that sentence – to the experience of having that appearance… disintegrate. (Conant 1990, 344)

Conant – and Cavell would agree with him – is suggesting that our inner experience should move from imagining one thing to another when we read Wittgenstein’s work, and that this is what it is to read Wittgenstein with understanding.

So, Cavell’s lesson – and this is confirmed by Conant’s quotation – must consist in a gesture at an inner experience. The inner experience has to do with the unusual inner effects that come of reading Wittgenstein or the tripartite argument properly. According to the Cavell, those people who have this inner change understand Wittgenstein’s works and - likewise - understand scepticism.

When Cavell claims that the sceptic “imagines himself to be saying something when he is not” (Cavell 1979, 221), and does not “know what [he] means, nor even that [he] means nothing” (Cavell 1979, 225),

this is not the same as saying that the expressions [he] is then using in themselves, as it were, ‘mean nothing’ i.e. are nonsense; ‘nonsense’, used as a term of criticism in recent philosophizing, registers that concentration on ‘expressions themselves’, i.e., apart from their human use, which I have found a pervasive temptation of the tradition generally. (Cavell 1979, 225)

In particular, “We can understand what the words mean apart from understanding why [someone says] them; but apart from understanding the point of [his] saying them we cannot understand what [he] means” (Cavell 1979, 206).


Distingushing between the orthodox view and Cavell’s approach is best understood as a contrast between the meaningfulness of the sentences uttered by a speaker and the intelligibility of what the speaker is doing in making those utterances. On Cavell’s view, there is something we are not in attunement with when the sceptic claims that we “don’t know.” The sceptic’s failure to make what we might call “sense” is, at bottom, a failure of attunement. The sceptic, particularly those who advocate a concessive response, will regard this as Cavell’s confirmation of scepticism.

The view that Cavell somehow confirms scepticism is a failure to see how he increases our understanding of scepticism. On Cavell’s reading, he tries to increase our unease, our “conflicts,” in the face of the sceptical argument’s presence, inside ourselves as well as outside. Epistemologists may be concerned with answering the sceptic’s arguments (or to defend them), but Cavell (and Wittgenstein as Cavell reads him) is concerned to make us see something that troubles the sceptic himself. The conflict of the sceptic’s inner experience is something that can and should give him a sense of “vertigo” at times. The vertigo does not cause them either to become sceptics or to find illusory comfort in over-intellectualized response.

What we should learn from Cavell is that epistemologists have approached the tripartite sceptical argument in a detached way. “Knowledge” is a part of the linguistic community. The complex ways we speak of “knowing” have not been discussed by epistemologists. We should consider not only whether I “know” I am writing my paper, when I am (or I am not as the case may be) but what kind of inner experience occurs when I write the paper.

Cavell, S. 1979. The Claim of Reason: Wittgenstein, Scepticism, Morality, and Tragedy. Oxford University Press.

Cavell, S. 1996. Psychoanalysis and cinema: the melodrama of the unknown woman. in Stanley Cavell. Contesting Tears. The University of Chicago Press.

Conant, J. 1990. Throwing Away the Top of the Ladder. The Yale Review, 79.

Conant, J. 1993. Kierkegaard, Wittgenstein, and nonsense. in T. Cohen et al. (eds.). Pursuits of Reason: Essays in Honnor of Stanley Cavell. Texas Tech University Press.

Crary, A. and Rupert Read (eds.). 2000. The New Wittgenstein. Routledge.

DeRose, K. 1992. Contextualism and knowledge attributions. Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 52: 913-929.

DeRose, K. 1995. Solving the sceptical problem. Philosophical Review 104: 1-52.

DeRose, K. 1999a. Contextualism: an explanation and defense. in J. Greco and E. Sosa (eds.) The Blackwell Guide to Epistemology. Blackwell: 187-205.

DeRose, K. 1999b. Now you know it, now you don’t. Proceedings of the Twentieth World Congress of Philosophy: Volume V, Epistemology. Bowling Green, OH: Philosophy Documentation Center: 1-16.

Hacker, P.M.S. 1972. Insight and Illusion: Wittgenstein on Philosophy and the Metaphysics of Experience. Clarendon Press.

Hacker, P.M.S. 2000. Was he trying to whistle it? in Crary and Read (eds.). The New Wittgenstein. Routledge.

Moore, G.E. 1959. Philosophical Papers. George Allen and Unwin.

Nagel, T. 1986. The View from Nowhere. Oxford University Press.

Putnam, H. 1981. Reason, Truth and History. Cambridge University Press.

Putnam, H. 2006. Philosophy as the education of grownups: Stanley Cavell and scepticism. in Alice Crary (ed.). Reading Cavell. Routledge: 119-130.

Sosa, E. 1994. Philosophical scepticism and epistemic circularity. Aristotelian Society Supplementary Volume 68: 263-290.

Stroud, B. 1994. Scepticism, ‘externalism’, and the goal of epistemology. Aristotelian Society Supplementary Volume 68: 291-307.

Williams, M. 1995. Unnatural Doubts. Princeton University Press.

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