Knowing one's mind

Abstract

In one of the more compelling introductions to philosophy, Bertrand Russell begins with this question: “Is there any knowledge in the world that is so certain that no reasonable man could doubt it?” (Presumably he means to include women.) “So certain that no reasonable man could doubt it.” And it’s a good question to begin an introduction to philosophy with, because so often, philosophy is in the mode of skepticism, so often it’s in the mode of offering a critical assessment of conventional wisdom. So, Russell wonders, is there anything so certain that no reasonable man could doubt it. And when we embark on this question, I suppose we have to ask about the question itself, we have to wonder what Russell’s talking about—right? We have to wonder what certainty is. So, what is certainty? It can’t merely be powerful confidence, it can’t merely be something like the assurance that we feel for ordinary knowledge claims. After all, there are lots of things that I know: I know that two plus two is four, I know that water is H2O, I know that I’m standing here before you. But I’d balk if you pressed me and asked me whether I was certain about these things—well, I don’t know if I’m certain about these things, I believe them on what I take is good evidence, I have a considerable confidence in these claims, I’d even bet a whole lot on at least some of them, but certain about it? I’m not sure about that. So we have to ask: what more is required than our confidence, then something like reasonable belief on plausible evidence? What’s certainty?

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Joe Cruz
Williams College

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