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  • Writer's pictureRobyn Norrah

Humble Epistemology

Updated: Oct 13, 2022

A revision of the standard view. Written for PHI 403: Contemporary Analytic Philosophy with Professor Watson at Arizona State University on June 24th, 2022. Final Grade: A.

Art by Hester Finch

Please refer to the .pdf version below for the footnotes and fully cited paper.

PHI 403 Final Paper_Kurdas
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After centuries of contorting the standard view, epistemology has essentially become defined within it. Epistemology, or the theory of knowledge, aims to understand what knowledge is. Under the standard view, knowledge is established as a justified true belief. In other words, someone S knows of some proposition p if and only if p is true, S believes that p, and if S is justified for believing that p. While many philosophers have tried their minds at convoluting how one arrives at knowledge through these means, none of them have been able to advance a theory that is impenetrable to uncertainty, especially in the face of skepticism which theorizes that certain knowledge is not possible. Ludwig Wittgenstein, the father of ordinary language philosophy, exercises his revolutionary point of view to challenge the skeptics not by applying the standard view but through a suggestive modified trust conditional which rests on an empirical sense of innateness. Innateness, traditionally having roots in metaphysical claims, has consistently served as a reliable exit for epistemologists who cannot otherwise escape the puzzles of skeptic counterexamples. Often philosophers will cite that innateness arrives from intuition or some transcendental nature of the mind. To empiricists, exits such as these do not exist. I am writing on the philosophical problem of innate knowledge raised in On Certainty by Ludwig Wittgenstein. Although it may be tempting to accept that belief is a condition for knowledge on the standard view, in this paper, I will argue that belief is not a necessary condition for knowledge but that trust is a necessary condition for knowledge because of the considerations that Wittgenstein raises against skepticism.


Early skeptics challenged certain knowledge by proposing that what we perceive as an experience of reality may be a dream. René Descartes, an influential mathematician, and metaphysician from the 1600s, established that if this were true, then it would involve deception of a colossal proportion, to where claims such as ‘1 + 1 = 2’ might not be true. In that they are, there must be some non-deceptive force to which they can be held as such. This force, Descartes says, is a non-deceiving God. Searching where the concept of God arises, he finds that some knowledge is innate, “just as the idea of myself is innate in me.” Cartesian doubt is formally characterized as Descartes's methodology, distinguishing itself from skepticism by intentionally inducing doubt to ascertain a kind of certain knowledge, not prove its non-existence.

I find that doubting need not be intentional, as it can be as intuitive as Descartes's assertions of God. This is because one only doubts if one holds a belief, for one cannot hold a belief without doubting the validity of something that locks that belief in a position of assumed certainty. Take, for instance, the belief that the Earth orbits the Sun. One could maintain this belief with a sense of knowing, but only in doubting that it is not otherwise the case. Applied in the context of the standard view, one may consider justifications of testimony from astronomers, ancient historical contexts wherein greater humanity thought that the Sun orbited the Earth, or through a collection of evidence that exemplifies the evolution of humankind as progressively gearing closer towards a vague truth. Considering each of these as grounds for justifying a belief comes at the cost of doubting. In this contrast, one could doubt people who claim otherwise that are not of authority, doubt perceptions of cultures that are removed in time and space from a personal understanding of reality, and doubt the theoretical possibility that progress is just another version of stagnancy. With belief, there is an undeniable necessity of doubt. So how can it be that any knowledge is certain at all?

Most humans on our planet have not had the opportunity to travel to space and witness, through their perception, how the Earth might relate to the Sun from a widened perspective. Arguments involving knowing something past one's direct perception may not be exemplary cases for defending the standard view against skepticism. George Edward Moore, an associate of Wittgenstein's, took a common-sense approach to this problem. He utilizes perception to object to skeptical arguments that discount knowledge of the external world by claiming that we may only be brains in vats, stimulated to conceive of a reality that is not actual. He argued, “By holding up my two hands, and saying, as I make a certain gesture with the right hand, ‘Here is one hand,' and adding, as I make a certain gesture with the left, ‘and here is another.' And if, by doing this, I have proved ipso facto the existence of external things.” Essentially, these statements act as proof of the external world. But as Moore observes, no amount of evidence seems to be enough against the doubt that clouds such skeptical investigation. And if it is not enough to know of one's own hands by having hands, then Moore concludes he must have to rely on their existences by mere faith.

Moore’s response to skeptical arguments did not satisfy Wittgenstein's view, who rejected his argument on the assertion that it depended on a different sense of knowledge. In Wittgenstein’s ordinary language philosophy, the sense of a term informs us of its use or where it applies within a particular context. When using the term ‘know,' he notices that skeptics mean this with a level of definite certainty, whereas Moore is using it in a rather loose way. To use Wittgenstein's words, this kind of knowledge points to a “queer and extremely important mental state.” Albeit important, I will not be focusing on the nature of knowing outside of certainty in this paper. I am exclusively concerned with getting to the origin of certain knowledge. This means that I am examining knowledge that does not elicit doubt.

Wittgenstein feels that the nature of the arguments both Descartes and Moore set forth generates a further line of questioning. Namely, “how does one know?" Ultimately, knowledge claims and justification claims can be doubted. So the certainty of propositions such as “here is a hand” must lie beyond the questions that provoke them. And while Wittgenstein, in no direct way, recruits trust as an alternative condition to belief, I suspect that the subtext to his presentation suggests that it is an exceptionally viable option for epistemic consideration. By unraveling the method to which I have detected this, I intend to demonstrate that it is not only the case that trust is a condition of knowledge, but that it is by its quality of being considerably innate, through an empirical sense, that it stands as a superior condition to belief.


A. Uncertain Knowledge

In my considerations of Descartes's methodology, I upheld earlier that everything that one believes is something that one could doubt. And in examining Moore’s response to skepticism, I learned that nothing one could doubt is something that one could know with explicit certainty. So it seems that nothing one believes is something one knows with exact certainty. But then, what could it be to know with such certainty?

Wittgenstein observes that a tone of voice commonly expresses certainty but that one does not draw an inference from this to assert justification. In this instance, certainty is filtered through the standard view to resemble a kind of common use that is confined to limits of what it means to be ‘certain' in whatever social context is being given. Similarly, the expression “'I know’ often means: I have the proper grounds for my statement. So if the other person is acquainted with the language-game, [they] would admit that I know. The other, if [they are] acquainted with the language-game, must be able to imagine how one may know something of the kind.” Wittgenstein's reference to a ‘language-game’ nods to his theory that forms of language involve social action. In this frame, assumptions are being made between a multitude of variables that may or may not confirm the alleged validity of one's knowing. This demonstrates how the facilities that the standard view occupies to cushion justified true beliefs may be either inadequate or invalid, as they ride on general claims of knowledge that could bypass justification conditions but are defended by apparent or indirectly expressed ‘certainty.’ Where if certainty is placed at such and such degree of justification within a language-game, it passes as true knowledge even thought very well might not be. For this reason, the sense of certainty, specifically certain knowledge, that I will be using will not employ everyday use of the term. Instead, I am focusing on a stringently explicit epistemological sense.

As I have found, certain knowledge cannot be doubted, making it not one we can choose to believe in or align with. It is concrete, entirely unshakable, and if we attempt to disprove it, it will retaliate. Like setting oneself up on top of the Willis Tower in Chicago, riding on a justified true belief of being able to fly, without any context to the whole truth. The whole truth, in this case, accounts for the fact that one must use some sort of manufactured equipment to achieve a total understanding of the truth-value of the statement, “I can fly." Inevitably one plummets down to their fateful death. Certain knowledge is as sure as the laws of gravity. It is a ‘force,’ as a force of nature itself. It is the rapid heart rate leading up to the decision to jump, the beads of sweat rolling down one's forehead as if working to clear the mind of its warped worth. It is primal, biological, and not always able to be rationalized in or out of.

B. The Trust Conditional

The following quote from Wittgenstein’s On Certainty acts as the muse of the trust conditional and the backbone of my thesis. It encapsulates the undeniable doubt and desperation that uncertain knowledge requires and places a white rabbit in the equation for us to follow down the rabbit hole.

How does someone judge which is his right and which his left hand? How do I know that my judgment will agree with someone else's? How do I know that this colour is blue? If I don't trust myself here, why should I trust anyone else's judgment? Is there a why? Must I not begin to trust somewhere? That is to say: somewhere I must begin with not-doubting; and that is not, so to speak, hasty but excusable: it is part of judging.

In this passage, Wittgenstein addresses the fallibility of judgment or justification. In the hunt for certainty, searching for a way to know that a belief holds certainty will only lead one to fall, tripping over the necessity of doubt. There is doubtfulness, which is necessary for belief, if there is non-trust. Non-trust is a negation of our ‘white rabbit,’ and in the way that I believe both Wittgenstein and I are applying it, it insinuates an uncommon use. For example, “I trust the that the Earth is round” can be used almost synonymously with ‘to know’, of a sense addressed in section A of this part III by Wittgenstein. In the common sense, trust says something like ‘I believe firmly.' It is tied by strings that connect beliefs to judgments or justifications. I will address the sense of trust I am using as ‘genuine trust’ for clarity, where genuine will resemble the notion of trust that is instinctually firm and comfortable. I recognize that this might sound like I am describing a good mattress, and I suppose that is not far off from the idea. Genuine trust is like the relief of laying one's head down to rest, which embodies a level of zen of being removed from doubt.

With this finding, in cases of belief penetrated by doubt, with or without the consent of skepticisms interference, there is not enough to demonstrate a solid and compatible relationship to certain knowledge. As it appears to be the case from the previous argument from part III section A, if one has belief, accompanied necessarily by doubt, then they must not have certain knowledge. So it follows that if one does not have genuine trust, one does not have certain knowledge. Thus, if one has certain knowledge, one must have genuine trust.


T = One must have genuine trust Kc = One has certain knowledge B = One must have belief D = One must have doubt


C. Empirically Innate

Innate knowledge is assumed to have a metaphysical quality, arriving from ethereal hypotheses of the mind, as I discussed in part I of Descartes's method. Wittgenstein does not address the complexities of innateness in On Certainty. Still, he signals this physicalist notion in part 26, where he reflects on what it could mean to know (in the common sense involving belief), doubt, and have possible trust, genuinely, in the nature of history. He shows one's knowledge of the past is grounded in historical evidence, whereas if one were to believe that, for example, “the earth did not exist 150 years ago,’” based on some testimony, one may not be correct because “at some point, one has to pass from explanation to mere description.” The knowledge of the history of our planet moves past testimony; it proves itself in beingness, where one could interpret historical evidence by observing naturally occurring artifacts like tree rings in a stump or sediment layers of rock. But even that cannot guise its simplicity of being. There is more, and it is evident, but there is more because it is so and empirically so.

Up to this point, I found that no certain knowledge is speculative in that it does not contain notions of belief and doubt, and all of the skeptics backfire that may accompany these fallible means to certainty. Since all belief conditions are speculative, I can conclude that no belief conditions involve certain knowledge. Metaphysics is similarly speculative. They rely on theories and assumptions, most of which lack empirical evidence. Though, one could say that metaphysical accounts buzz with testimony and other means of justifications. But as no certain knowledge is speculative, I can logically deduce that no certain knowledge can be metaphysical. This must mean that certain knowledge is non-metaphysical. If something is non-metaphysical or does not lay outside of our perception or actuality, then it must be physical. But innate knowledge must not be certain knowledge, as certain knowledge is non-metaphysical, or it must have a physical quality. I do not doubt the existence of innate knowledge. Yet, in its assumption, it must hold an equivalence to certain knowledge, for without this relationship, it would not contribute to our understanding of knowledge in a meaningful way. With this relationship being fixed, innateness must adopt an empirical definition that acknowledges its fundamental physical necessity through our clarifications around certain knowledge.

In defining innateness with this empirical sense, I tend to like it to trust, as trust can be viewed as something innate to all forms of life. For example, infants of all types of species audibly call out as if they have the knowledge that they can make a sound or even be heard. They cling to their mother's bosom with little to no detectable reasoned direction. And they plant their feet on the Earth without doubting gravity will catch their balance. But do these beings awaken with an unshakable belief? What about a metaphysical inkling? An intuition? If empirical evidence shows us anything, it is that psychological functions aside, our bodies, in their entirety, know intrinsically what to do. They, or rather, we, trust our beingness and surroundings. Certain knowledge then must involve genuine trust based on its empirical innateness.

Wittgenstein says, “The child learns by believing the adult. Doubt comes after belief.” By this, he is saying that as children, we tend to believe in what we are told about the world. We take these things “on trust” to be true, but doubt erodes our beliefs in time. How could this be? It may be supposed that what is being said here is that the trust we hold as children is unfounded and that there is a “groundlessness of our believing.” However, I think it is not that our basis of trust is fallible but rather that the beliefs we associate with a common trust lead us to contend that we are either right or in error. With genuine trust, there are exquisite limits to certain knowledge. And I find that these limits lie in the innateness of knowledge and being.

For some early stages of infancy, genuine trust is not only the means to one's innate knowledge and being but a necessity for certainty that might very well be keeping one alive. When compounding this function with the introduction of trusting in common sense, the simplicity of one's nature becomes distorted in conflicting values placed, in a language-game, on belief, doubt, and knowledge. What is then mixed in this shuffle is not a matter of whether we have certain knowledge— that was apparent. It is how to distinguish it from knowledge assumptions. In a language-game, knowledge becomes myriad with definitions and possibilities. One gains knowledge on subjects through textbooks, applies knowledge through work and reasoning, loses or strengthens knowledge through inquiry and doubt, etc.. The essence of what is allowed for one to know with certainty, through the condition of trust, and by innateness, is swarmed with chaotic inputs and outputs that never belonged in the equation to begin with.

Certain knowledge is more straightforward than it is made out to be, but it comes at the cost of great humility. If one accepts the narrow view of certain knowledge, the truth-conditional, and the revised perspective of innateness that I present in these arguments, one would be required to admit that they know significantly less than they may have presumed to know. Under these pretenses, knowledge of common sense is not limited to what there could be to ‘know,’ but it is haunted by doubt and trapped in the fact that it is not of a certain kind. And of a certain kind, it is exclusively tied to what is innate, genuinely trusted, unshakably sound, but vastly scaled down by the limits of one's own self and physical being. To where, if one were to question whether the Earth existed over 150 years ago, they might very well uncover through the evidence to arrive at a ‘hunch’ that it did. Nevertheless, the realm of certain knowing would escape their grasp and be enough to say, “I believe that I know,” as it could only be as such in the sense of common knowledge.


Skeptic claims against certain knowledge ride on propositions that question common knowledge that is distinctly linked to belief and its necessity to doubt. To question certain knowledge is to question someone's genuine trust, which is to question based on empirical innateness. Unfortunately for the skeptic, these grounds are more rigid, if not impossible, to prove false. One could believe they are alive and breathing based on empirical evidence and doubt the justifications they have of life to position some metaphysical explanation of death. When at the core, trust is so certain that it does not need to reason beyond its innate beingness to know of its liveliness.

I find it will not matter whether skeptics want to place epistemologists in dreams or as brains in vats. Either way, their arguments are invalid under my thesis. Wittgenstein dismissed Moore in On certainty because he saw that his senses of knowledge were being interchanged in his counterargument, “here is a hand.”. But I do not see this as Moore’s fault, only his error of not noticing it in the skeptic's original argument, where (S) is subject, (sp) is “skeptical possibility,” and (q) is some empirical knowledge claim:

1. If S does not know that not-(sp), then S does not know that q.

2. S does not know that not-(sp).

C. S does not know that q. (1, 2 MP)

In premise (1), the skeptics refer to a metaphysical possibility that is non-actual. On this alone, it is clear that the proposition is not challenging certain knowledge. In proposition (q), I can then presume that what is in question, albeit typically referring to the actual world, is still in the sense of common knowledge. Not certain knowledge. By premise (2), “know” reads in the sense of certain knowledge. Of course, S does not know that not-(sp) in this sense, as (sp) is metaphysical, which, as stated in part III section C, is not knowable in certainty.

This oversight persists in its counterargument:

1. If S does not know that not-(sp), then S does not know that q.

2. S does know that q.

C. S does know that not-(sp). (1, 2 MT)

Premise (1) does not challenge certain knowledge; then it shifts to premise (2), which rides on a sense of certainty and concludes that this somehow validates what one can say one knows commonly.

These are distinct senses of language which Wittgenstein warns against. Meanwhile, the lack of recognition of these distinctions has plagued the study of epistemology for centuries. Skeptical arguments seem like infuriating riddles to solve, but they are nothing more than a pair of mismatched socks. I insist that philosophers release their concern from these puzzles. They are not something that needs to be hacked. Rather, they are something we can use as an analytical guide that might influence us to rewrite the codes that are otherwise foundational to modern epistemology— the standard view. To start, I strongly recommend replacing the belief condition with one of trust so that we may secure that which is beyond doubt and move our attention to more pressing and realistic matters of common knowledge which divide our world today.


A. Bypassing Justification

I imagine one may object to my argument by pointing out that, under the standard view, if someone believes something through justification and that it is true, they have certain knowledge. Beliefs can be trustworthy through their justifications and coincide with the truth, making them considerable of certain knowledge. Trust, under my premise, might not need to be validated by justifications beyond innateness. If this is the case, one could say that I might think that I am not just setting forth a revision of the belief condition that faces trust but that I do not support the standard views necessity of justification. This would then mean that I am not just rejecting the belief condition but almost the entirety of the standard view.

It is accurate to derive this objection from my arguments. However, I think it wiser to suggest that the standard view remains somewhat intact, if only for analysis under the concept of common knowledge. Justifications are fallible means of deriving truth that is supposed to validate certain knowledge under the standard view. Often, justifications act to solidify beliefs or offer common knowledge a degree of ‘certainty,’ they do not guarantee certain knowledge that, by nature, is equivalent to some aspect of truth (to which, as a whole, I think to be beyond our merger understanding).

I call for epistemic humility, where, while we may find we ‘know’ less than we might have otherwise assumed, we may come to understand better what it is that we do not know with certainty. In this way, I recommend that epistemologists work to understand these different senses of the term ‘knowledge' and how they relate to the subject. For instance, common knowledge might address justification with the condition of belief but most possibly remove or alter the necessity of truth in the equation. Studying certain knowledge within the scope of the trust conditional and the various aspects addressed in this paper would allow us to focus on how we can relate to truth in its heavily empirical and natural sense. This would most likely involve the sciences and perspectival considerations beyond the human form, but still of our known Earth (unless there were an opportunity to include others beyond this planet). The distinction could help us navigate and metamorphose into an adaption of a modest, analytical, epistemological reasoning.

B. Allegory of Innateness

Innateness has been concisely viewed as a priori and, therefore not empirical. If this is the case, then I would imagine one could object that certain knowledge is a priori and any supposed knowledge from observation and experience is only belief. But despite philosophers' considerations that innateness is a priori or strictly mental, it is evident that other empirical data points are being overlooked when addressing what composites knowledge of this sort. Knowledge extends beyond metaphysical guesswork and cognitive reduction. What there is to know is only of knowing by empirical data which is timelessly and sensationally irrefutable, to me, to you, to here, or there. Innateness has been erroneously treated as a priori from what I suggest to be an error of mistakingly associating a condition of belief to certain knowledge. Remedying this assumption proves that innateness is, in fact, empirical. It does not suggest that we can know, without doubt, anything beyond immediate certainty. It downplays what we believe to know to be true, but in understanding the senses and contexts of language we are using when addressing the problem of innate knowledge, it is clear to see that is not only okay to not know something for certain, but that there is much power in being able to know for certain.

V. Conclusion

In this paper, I reviewed skeptic arguments against certain knowledge through a critical analysis of counterclaims found in Descartes’s method and Moore’s perspective. I used Wittgenstein's works in On Certainty to detach knowledge claims, revealing a distinction between what is certain and common. These revelations unearthed a fault in belief by its dependence on doubt. Through this relationship, I was able to illustrate how trust is necessary for knowledge, which entails that we can maintain certainty without skeptic backlash but that such certainty comes at the cost of surrendering to epistemic humility. For with the necessity of trust to certain knowledge, what we think we know refashions to something acutely limited by an empirical sense of innateness. But in acknowledging our lack of certainty in propositions held by the standard view’s belief condition, we can illuminate not only what it may be to commonly know, but find assurance in what we can know with certainty.

The lines of skeptic inquiry are ultimately significant in the epistemological study as they may aid us in grasping the complexities of knowledge by applying principles of analytic philosophy with Wittgenstein’s ordinary language philosophy. They leave many of the same questions unanswered but give us more relevant questions to ask. Such as, if certain knowledge just is, could common knowledge be gained? Are justifications a way in which we can achieve common knowledge or is there something more to our concept of truth? How can we distinguish between our certain knowing and common knowing? What might it require of us to do this? What might it entail on our relations to each other, society, the world at-large? Does Descartes's “I think therefore I am” still ring true? Might we consider, “I feel therefore I am”? What could this mean for us and other feeling things? How might the empirical view of innateness and emphasis on the mind and body connection impact other considerations of philosophical study? And with these, and many more, we may find ourselves directed towards novel, even innovative, epistemic discovery.


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Ichikawa, Jonathan Jenkins, and Matthias Steup. “The Analysis of Knowledge.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Stanford University, March 7, 2017.

Moore, George Edward. “Proof of an External World.” University of Colorado Boulder. Accessed June 26, 2022. Popkin, R. H.. "skepticism." Encyclopedia Britannica, November 18, 2020.

Soames, Scott. “Skepticism, Perception, and Knowledge.” Chapter 2. In Philosophical Analysis in the Twentieth Century, Volume 1: The Dawn of Analysis, 12-33. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2003.

Soames, Scott. “The Tractarian Conception of Language” and “The Private Language Argument.” Chapters 1 and 2. In Philosophical Analysis in the Twentieth Century, Volume 2: The Age of Meaning, 3-61. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2003.

Watson, Jeffrey. “Unit 1: Early Analysis” and “Unit 3: Cambridge Ordinary Language Philosophy.” Video Lectures 3.1-3.3. PHI 403: Contemporary Analytic Philosophy. Arizona State University. Accessed June 3, 2022.

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