Wittgenstein, ethics and basic moral certainty

Inquiry 51 (3):241 – 267 (2008)
Alice Crary claims that “the standard view of the bearing of Wittgenstein's philosophy on ethics” is dominated by “inviolability interpretations”, which often underlie conservative readings of Wittgenstein. Crary says that such interpretations are “especially marked in connection with On Certainty”, where Wittgenstein is represented as holding that “our linguistic practices are immune to rational criticism, or inviolable”. Crary's own conception of the bearing of Wittgenstein's philosophy on ethics, which I call the “intrinsically-ethical reading”, derives from the influential New Wittgenstein school of exegesis, and is also espoused by James Edwards, Cora Diamond, and Stephen Mulhall. To my eyes, intrinsically-ethical readings present a peculiar picture of ethics, which I endeavour to expose in Part I of the paper. In Part II I present a reading of On Certainty that Crary would call an “inviolability interpretation”, defend it against New Wittgensteinian critiques, and show that this kind of reading has nothing to do with ethical or political conservatism. I go on to show how Wittgenstein's observations on the manner in which we can neither question nor affirm certain states of affairs that are fundamental to our epistemic practices can be fruitfully extended to ethics. Doing so sheds light on the phenomenon that I call “basic moral certainty”, which constitutes the foundation of our ethical practices, and the scaffolding or framework of moral perception, inquiry, and judgement. The nature and significance of basic moral certainty will be illustrated through consideration of the strangeness of philosophers' attempts at explaining the wrongness of killing.
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James Conant (1998). Wittgenstein on Meaning and Use. Philosophical Investigations 21 (3):222–250.

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