Code: TP-10


Dewey, Wittgenstein, and Contextualist Epistemology


Type of Submission: "Traditional Paper"




In this essay I compare the epistemological accounts of two philosophers whom some may think odd or strange bedfellows: John Dewey and Ludwig Wittgenstein. One, of course, is generally known as a pragmatist philosopher, and the other, of course, is generally known as an analytic philosopher. Yet, as I hope to make clear, at least indirectly, this is not necessarily a helpful distinction. This project is done largely through discussion of Dewey’s The Quest for Certainty and of Wittgenstein’s On Certainty. I seek to emphasize a theme I consider Dewey and the later Wittgenstein to have held in common, namely the primacy of the pragmatic over the epistemic, or, in a word, contextualism.


            Alexander R. Eodice, in his 1990 essay "Dewey and Wittgenstein on the Idea of Certainty," begins by reminding us that Dewey contends that inquiry is evoked by doubt.[1] Yet doubt only makes sense in terms of experience. It is intelligible only within some kind of context. That is, doubt only makes sense in relation to some notion of certainty. Thus it seems that reasonable certainty and reasonable doubt are logically prior to inquiry.

So, as Eodice indicates, inquiry requires a type of certainty that is pragmatic rather than only epistemic. This is understood not in terms of some special realm of knowledge of a set of self-evident propositions, but rather in terms of a group of implicit assumptions that arise out of our shared human world. For Dewey, one engages the world by pointing to those contextual situations in which the act of thinking occurs, those situations presupposed by acts of so-called pure cognition, which do not exist in themselves. Wittgenstein seems to have held a remarkably similar view. I contend that such views constitute a contextualist understanding of certainty and its relation to doubt. Hence I also contend that Dewey’s and Wittgenstein’s respective epistemologies are consistent with one another.

Dewey dealt with epistemological issues such as certainty and doubt in a historically informed and humanistic manner. He indicated that humans have groped at just about anything for life to feel more secure, and he viewed the history of philosophy in this light, for he held "…that insecurity generates the quest for certainty."[2] The western philosophical tradition is viewed as a history of misguided quests for certain knowledge of unchanging reality. As such, in Dewey’s analysis, we have always been too unsettled by change and uncertainty. Accordingly, he said that

As long as man was unable by means of the arts of practice to direct the course of events, it was natural for him to seek an emotional substitute; in the absence of actual certainty in the midst of a precarious and hazardous world, men cultivated all sorts of things that would give them the feeling of certainty.[3]


As such, much of Dewey’s writing has traditional philosophy as its target.

Dewey contended that the western philosophical quest, in all its forms from Aristotle onward, is characterized by a group of systematically misguided epistemological, metaphysical, and methodological commitments. There has been an

epistemological commitment to the search for and acquisition of certitude. Also, there has been a metaphysical commitment to locating the object or objects of such knowledge within some higher reality, within a realm of immutability, for, as Dewey characterized this commitment, "…certainty, security, can be found only in the fixed and unchanging."[4]

Finally, there has also been a methodological commitment to a type of inquiry that rejects completely the role of practical activity.

            Dewey contended that such practical action is always uncertain, for it involves specific situations that are always unique and, as such, never able to be duplicated exactly. As he said, "No mode of action can…give anything approaching absolute certitude; it provides insurance but no assurance."[5] So, for Dewey, as for classical pragmatism generally, the possibility of absolute certainty is rejected in favor of

fallibilism,[6] for "Doing is always subject to peril, to the danger of frustration."[7] Moreover, such activity involves change, and this is why it is uncertain. Yet the quest of traditional philosophers has been one for epistemological certainty about some unchanging reality. Hence the method of such philosophical inquiry has been concerned not with the uncertain area of practical activity, but with absolute or complete knowledge of the immutable, and this type of knowledge is presumed to be available through reason alone, in the tradition of philosophical rationalism. Yet Dewey contended that "Knowing is, for philosophical theory, a case of specially directed activity instead of something isolated from practice."[8] So, knowing is a kind of activity in our lives.

Such activity changes the object of knowledge, and, as such, "The knower is within the world of existence; his knowing, as experimental, marks an interaction of one existence with other existences."[9] Accordingly, Dewey claimed his epistemological view to be a Copernican Revolution,[10] which means "…that we do not have to go to knowledge to obtain an exclusive hold on reality…", for "The world as we

experience it is a real world."[11] That is, reality is affirmed as what it is experienced as.[12] Along these lines, Dewey, in Experience and Nature, said that "It is a reasonable belief that there would be no such thing as ‘consciousness’ if events did not have a phase of brute and unconditioned ‘isness,’ of being just what they irreducibly are. Consciousness as sensation, image and emotion is thus a particular case of immediacy occurring under complicated conditions."[13] Accordingly, knowers directly interact with their world. Moreover, Dewey said that within this world "What is known is seen to be a product in which the act of observation plays a necessary role. Knowing is seen to be a participant in what is finally known."[14] In this sense, the epistemic presupposes the pragmatic. It is in this manner that Dewey avoids the traditional epistemological problem of skepticism. This is because knowing constitutes itself in action, and, for Dewey, this tends to happen within the context of problem-solving.

Given such considerations, Dewey rejected spectator theories of knowledge. That is, he rejected the view that knowing is very much like seeing, that to know something is akin to viewing something rather than doing something. According to a spectator epistemology, knowing is equated with passivity, and it does not affect that which is known. Dewey said the following:

The theory of knowing is modeled after what was supposed to take place in the act of vision. The object refracts light to the eye and is seen; it makes a difference to the eye and to the person having an optical apparatus, but none to the thing seen. The real object is the object so fixed in its regal aloofness that it is a king to any beholding mind that may gaze upon it. A spectator theory of knowledge is the inevitable outcome.[15]


Traditionally, philosophers have assumed such a spectator view of knowledge and have

thus searched for certainty as non-contextual and distinct from any specific situation. On the other hand, Dewey advocated an understanding that is contextual or situational. As he


Mind is no longer a spectator beholding the world from without and finding its highest satisfaction in the joy of self-sufficing contemplation. The mind is within the world as a part of the latter’s own on-going process. It is marked off as mind by the fact that wherever it is found, changes take place in a directed way, so that a movement in a definite one-way sense - from the doubtful and confused to the clear, resolved and settled - takes place. From knowing as an outside beholding to knowing as an active participant in the drama of an on-moving world is the historical transition whose record we have been following.[16]      


This kind of epistemology is attentive to and involved with the lived experience in which one plays an active part, for "If it be admitted that knowing is something which occurs within nature, then it follows as a truism that knowing is an existential overt act."[17] As such, Dewey’s work seems compatible with at least some kinds of phenomenology, and, indeed, some have considered, in interesting ways, both Dewey and Wittgenstein as phenomenologists.[18]

In fact, Dewey’s notion of inquiry is not overtly concerned with what we can or cannot know. That is, knowledge is experimental as opposed to drawing some strict line between the known and the knower. When we know, we know about our relations with things, as opposed to knowing about things in themselves. As such, knowledge is intimately connected with action, is even a type of action, and hence philosophy, according to Dewey, should deal with actual problems in life and, as such, in human society. Also, the objects of our knowledge are changed and constituted by our interactions with them, rather than simply being immutable and independent. It is for such reasons that Dewey thought that we need a re-constructed philosophy in order to yield important insights into metaphysics, ethics, aesthetics, and, of course, epistemology as contextual.     

Similarly, one way of understanding Wittgenstein’s so-called later philosophy, as found in his Philosophical Investigations and On Certainty, is as a kind of contextualism. As Jose Medina says, this kind of philosophy involves "…the pragmatic context of our actual practices or ‘language games.’"[19] More specifically, Wittgenstein, in On Certainty, developed a contextualist account of epistemology in terms of certainty.

            On Certainty is Wittgenstein’s last work, a project on which he was still at work as late as two days prior to his death in 1951. Although these notes were certainly inspired in part by G.E. Moore’s "A Defense of Common Sense"[20] and "A Proof of the External World,"[21] they were also inspired by discussion with Norman Malcolm.[22] Although these notes were obviously never revised, polished, or completed, they nevertheless have a kind of thematic unity, one of epistemology, not found in Wittgenstein’s other later work.

Roughly speaking, Wittgenstein’s account of certainty is that presuppositions of context determine whatever fully warranted propositions are beyond challenge or doubt.[23] For example, "here’s one hand" is usually a certain proposition. It may be uncertain if we know, for example, that there are a few fake hands on our table, and/or if we know that the table has a hole through which others occasionally stick their hands in order to deceive us. Yet in normal circumstances, such a proposition is certain. Perhaps more

importantly, Wittgenstein contends, as Medina says, that "…the philosophical assessment of our epistemic practices can become idle when philosophical reflection is so removed from all practical contexts that it leaves our lives untouched."[24] That is, legitimate accounts of what it is to know things must be handled in such a way that philosophical reflection is conducted in relation to practical contexts, that is, to our lives.

Accordingly, for Wittgenstein, whether a group of signs is nonsense is not decided only by referring to general rules (as in his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus), but this is also dependent on those circumstances within which expressions function. As Wittgenstein said, "Our talk gets its meaning from the rest of our proceedings."[25] This is congruent with his admonition, in the Philosophical Investigations, that focusing just on the logical form of an expression, rather than its use, results in philosophical confusion.[26]

So, for Wittgenstein, sentences only have meaning as they appear contextually as parts of a form of life.

Moore, on the other hand, argued that the way to deal with epistemological skepticism is to construct propositions that one can "…know, with certainty, to be true."[27] As such, he was, roughly speaking, very much within the tradition of philosophers since Descartes, who believed it to be almost a moral imperative to defeat skepticism by

rehabilitating knowledge in terms of propositions that cannot be mistaken, upon which a whole philosophical system rests. This, of course, is clearly not the approach of Wittgenstein.

On the contrary, Wittgenstein rejected the notion that we can have just one or a

few more fundamental beliefs from which to build the remainder of our knowledge.[28] Moreover, he questioned whether or not such propositions are at all even instances of knowledge, although he did attribute to such propositions "…a peculiar logical role in the system of our empirical propositions…", which he then characterized in various ways.[29] Wittgenstein said that "…A totality of judgments is made plausible to us" and that "When we first begin to believe anything, it is not a single proposition, but a whole system of propositions. (Light dawns gradually over the whole.)"[30] Yet in contrast, Descartes, and Cartesians, held that one could be certain only of an isolated single proposition, and then, through the sheer power of reason, build a system of  knowledge from this proposition.

Of course, empiricists look to sense-experience, as opposed to reason, as their main basis of knowledge. Yet, again, relevant epistemological items, such as impressions or sense-data, are acquired bit by bit, and are later arranged and combined in different ways in order to build the knowledge one actually has. One is given these basic elements prior to such construction. In contrast, Wittgenstein, as I have indicated, held that "What has to be accepted, the given, is – so one could say – forms of life."[31] This expression forms of life seems to be meant as a way of conveying the system’s wholeness and that this includes both action (life) in addition to experience or passive observation. Thus knowledge reveals itself in action, and, accordingly, perhaps even a proposition’s logical status is dependent upon the situation or context in which it occurs.

Moore’s way of dealing with skepticism is to confront the skeptic with bits of knowledge that seem unshakeable. Regardless of what some may expect from Wittgenstein, this, for him, is far from the case. Of course, it seems that this may, in a way, raise the potential problem that Wittgenstein strengthened the position of the skeptic. That is, he did not ultimately refute skepticism in the ways that Descartes, Moore, or others have tried.

Rather, Wittgenstein demonstrated that there is internal confusion on the part of the skeptic. He said that "If you tried to doubt everything you would not get as far as doubting anything. The game of doubting itself presupposes certainty."[32] That is, doubt

requires a ground for itself.[33] In Wittgensteinian terms, a language-game cannot begin with doubt. To question claims requires that one hold at least a few prior claims as

certain. That is, the human condition is such that it begins with non-doubting. This presupposed certainty involves the meaning of words in use, for, as Wittgenstein also

said, "If you are not certain of any fact, you cannot be certain of the meaning of your words either."[34] That is, the meaning of words, and hence that of certainty, depends upon particular facts of life, that is, upon contexts or situations. Words have meaning insofar as they are candidates for use within propositions that have meaning, and propositions are meaningful as used within a context.[35] Hence doubt makes sense, for Wittgenstein, only within the context of a language-game.

As we have seen, Wittgenstein sought to uncover a type of certainty that is in fundamental relation with human action. This is a kind of certainty presupposed by specific inquires and language-games. It is grounded in our actual lives, and thus Wittgenstein offered a humanistic view of epistemological issues. As Robin Haack has noted, such a characterization of meaning as use[36] is quite close to that of Dewey.[37] Also, as W.T. Jones has said, "At some important points Wittgenstein was much closer to Dewey than to any of the analytic philosophers - in his instrumentalism, in his emphasis on use, in his insistence that meaning is relative to social context."[38] That is, I suggest that one way of putting this is that the commonality between these two philosophers lies in their contention that meaning is an aspect of behavior and, more generally, as I have been attempting to indicate, that it is found in context.

            Although On Certainty was composed by an analytic philosopher, it leads to conclusions about which many analytic philosophers would be uncomfortable. As we have seen, these conclusions are ones of contextualism. For Wittgenstein, a belief is certain insofar as it plays its proper role within one’s framework of situated beliefs. That is, to say that such a belief is certain is to say that it may be appealed to as a way of justifying other beliefs, while that same belief does not itself need epistemological justification. Of course, philosophers such as Descartes or Moore might protest that such a position fails to address a skeptic’s concerns, because a skeptic doubts whether such a belief should play such a role. Yet that challenge is one that presupposes one’s practices as reflecting reality, an account to which neither Dewey nor Wittgenstein would completely assent, and, in fact, one which they both attacked.

            With these considerations, and while acknowledging that these two philosophers can seem like odd or strange bedfellows, I contend that at least Dewey, had he the opportunity to read it, would have approved of Wittgenstein’s thought about certainty, despite the respective differences between their philosophical temperaments. As for Wittgenstein, while he may have been uncomfortable with the idea of calling himself a pragmatist,[39] he did affirm a decidedly contextualist epistemology. As we have seen, such a contextualist view of epistemology is a fundamental component of Dewey’s project. Given this, I believe that the views of Wittgenstein and Dewey are quite

compatible, despite the historical fact that these two philosophers come out of different traditions, the so-called analytic and pragmatist traditions. It appears that these are two complimentary ways of approaching what it is to know or not know something, insofar as the epistemic presupposes the noncognitive, or, put differently, insofar as our theorizing presupposes our lives.[40] 


[1] Eodice. "Dewey and Wittgenstein on the Idea of Certainty" (Philosophy Today Vol. 34, No. 1, 1990, p. 30-38). In terms of Dewey, Eodice focuses on his Logic, The Theory of Inquiry, whereas I deal with Dewey’s The Quest for Certainty.


[2] Dewey. The Quest for Certainty (New York: Capricorn Books, 1960), p. 254. This work was originally published in 1929, the same year in which Dewey presented the eleven chapters that constitute this work as the Gifford Lectures at the University of Edinburgh. All references to The Quest for Certainty are to this edition.

See also the critical edition (The Later Works, 1925-1953) in The Collected Works of John Dewey, 1882-1953, Volume 4: 1929, ed. Jo Ann Boydston (Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, 2003), p. 18.

[3] Ibid, p. 33.

[4] Ibid, p. 51.

[5] Ibid, p. 33.

[6] Of course, Charles S. Peirce is the originator of the doctrine of fallibilism, which is that there is no necessity that one’s beliefs must be certain. One can justifiably be content with holding beliefs that further evidence may force him/her to revise. As such, fallibilism is a position between skepticism and dogmatism. See Peirce’s "The Scientific Attitude and Fallibilism" and "Synechism, Fallibilism, and Evolution" in Philosophical Writings of Peirce (New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1955). 

[7] The Quest for Certainty, p. 33.

[8] Ibid, p. 204.

[9] Ibid, p. 295

[10] Dewey said that since Kant "…happens to be the author of the phrase ‘Copernican revolution,’ his philosophy forms a convenient point of departure for consideration of a genuine reversal of traditional ideas about the mind, reason, conceptions, and mental processes." (Ibid, p. 290)

[11] Ibid, p. 295.

[12] Dewey made a remarkably similar point in his much earlier "The Postulate of Immediate Empiricism", which was first published in the Journal of Philosophy, Psychology and Scientific Methods, Vol. 2, 1905, p. 393 399. Reprinted in The Influence of Darwin on Philosophy (New York: Henry Holt and Co., 1910) and in The Collected Works of John Dewey, 1882-1953, ed. Jo Ann Boydston (Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, 1969-1991): MW 3:158-167.

Such a view is, of course, quite compatible with William James’ radical empiricism. See James’ Essays in Radical Empiricism (in The Works of William James), ed. Frederick H. Burkhardt, Fredson Bowers, Ignas K. Skrupskelis (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1976).   

[13] Dewey. Experience and Nature (New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1925), p. 86. See also the more recent critical edition (The Later Works, 1925-1953) in The Collected Works of John Dewey, 1882-1953, Volume 1: 1925, ed. Jo Ann Boydston (Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, 1969-1991).  

[14] The Quest for Certainty, p. 295.

[15] Ibid, p. 23.

[16] Ibid, p. 291.

[17] Ibid, p. 245.

[18] For discussion of Dewey as phenomenologist, see Victor Kestenbaum’s The Phenomenological Sense of John Dewey (Atlantic Highlands, New Jersey: Humanities Press, 1977). For discussion of Wittgenstein as phenomenologist, see Nicholas F. Gier’s Wittgenstein and Phenomenology (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1981) and Byong-Chul Park’s Phenomenological Aspects of Wittgenstein’s Philosophy (Boston: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1998).

[19] Medina. The Unity of Wittgenstein’s Philosophy (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2002), p. 3. Unfortunately, Medina’s very interesting work does not deal with On Certainty in any substantial way. 

[20] First published in Contemporary British Philosophy, ed. J.H. Muirhead, 1925. Reprinted in Philosophical Papers (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1959). 

[21] First published in Proceedings of the British Academy, Vol. XXV, 1939. Reprinted in Philosophical Papers (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1959).

[22] For more biographical details and discussion of the relationship between Wittgenstein’s life and work, see Ray Monk’s Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius (London: Jonathan Cape, 1990.) While it is a bit terse (like the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus), I think that On Certainty is the best introduction to Wittgenstein’s philosophy (if our other choices are the Tractatus and the Philosophical Investigations), for, as Thomas Morawetz observes, "On Certainty can be used to study Wittgenstein’s innovative and

influential philosophical methods in microcosm." See his Wittgenstein and Knowledge: The Importance of ‘On Certainty’ (Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Humanities Press, 1980), p. 2.   

[23] Wittgenstein, while at times seeming to agree with Moore, is, however, also quite critical of Moore’s arguments. In fact, in On Certainty, Moore plays a role somewhat analogous to that which St. Augustine plays in Wittgenstein’s earlier later work in the Philosophical Investigations.

[24] The Unity of Wittgenstein’s Philosophy, p. 194.

[25] Wittgenstein. On Certainty, ed. G.E.M. Anscombe & G.H. von Wright, trans. Denis Paul and G.E.M. Anscombe (Oxford: Blackwell, 1969), §229, p. 30e.

[26] Wittgenstein says the following at §11 of the Philosophical Investigations:

Think of the tools in a tool-box: there is a hammer, pliers, a saw, a screw-driver, a rule, a glue-pot, glue, nails and screws.-The functions of words are as diverse as the functions of these objects. (And in both cases there are similarities.)

Of course, what confuses us is the uniform appearance of words when we hear them spoken or meet them in script and print. For their application is not presented to us so clearly. Especially when we are doing philosophy! (p. 226e)

Trans. G.E.M. Anscombe (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1967). This work was first published in 1953, two years after Wittgenstein’s death. 

[27] Moore. Philosophical Papers (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1959), p. 32. This is from "A Defense of Common Sense".

[28] For a very different interpretation of On Certainty, in which Wittgenstein is argued, on the contrary, to be a foundationalist, see Gertrude Conway’s Wittgenstein On Foundations (Atlantic Highlands, New Jersey: Humanities Press, 1989) and Chapter 9 ("Wittgenstein’s Foundationalism") of Avrum Stroll’s Moore and Wittgenstein on Certainty (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994). Of course, the positions of Conway and  Stroll are well out of step with most scholarship on Wittgenstein, and, in my judgment, miss the whole point of his critique of traditional Cartesian epistemology.

For an antidote to such interpretations, see, for example, Puqun Li’s "Is Wittgenstein a Foundationalist in ‘On Certainty’" (Contemporary Philosophy Vol. 21, No. 1-2, January 1999, p. 9-15), in which Stroll’s position is argued to be wrong. See also Michael Good’s "Wittgenstein on Certainty" (Dialogue Vol. 38, No. 2-3, 1996, p. 69-76). Of course, we must also note the now classic formulation of Wittgenstein as an anti-foundationalist in Richard Rorty’s Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1979).  

[29] On Certainty §136, p. 20e.

[30] Ibid, §§140-141, p. 21e. Quine later expressed this in terms of his web of belief.

[31] Philosophical Investigations, p. 226e.

[32] On Certainty §115, p. 18e. Wittgenstein’s student O.K. Bouwsma later expressed this view of skepticism in his brilliant and humorous "Descartes’ Evil Genius" (The Philosophical Review Vol. 58, No. 2, 1949, p. 141-151).

[33] Despite the significant differences between Wittgenstein’s early and later work, it is interesting to note that he seems to anticipate On Certainty’s discussion of skepticism thirty years earlier with the following comment at 6.5I of his Tractatus: "Scepticism is not irrefutable, but palpably senseless, if it would doubt where a question cannot be asked. For doubt can only exist where there is a question; a question only where there is an answer, and this only where something can be said." Trans, C.K. Ogen (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1922), p. 187.

See also the translation by D.F. Pears and B.F. McGuinness (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd, 1961).  

[34] On Certainty, §114, p. 17e.

[35] Here I agree with Thomas Morawetz’s assessment. See Wittgenstein and Knowledge: The Importance of ‘On Certainty’, p. 59. 

[36] For example, at §43 of the Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein said the following: "For a large class of cases - though not for all - in which we employ the word ‘meaning’ it can be defined thus: the meaning of a word is its use in the language." (p. 20e) In conjunction with this, see Garth Hallett’s Wittgenstein’s Definition of Meaning as Use (New York: Fordham University Press, 1967).

[37] See Haack’s "Wittgenstein’s Pragmatism" (American Philosophical Quarterly Vol. 19, April 1982), p. 164.

[38] Jones. A History of Western Philosophy, Vol. IV. (Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., 1975), p. 423.

                [39] At §422 of On Certainty, Wittgenstein said the following: "So I am trying to say something that sounds like pragmatism. Here I am being thwarted by a kind of Weltanschauung." [Weltanschauung is German for "worldview"] (p. 54e)        

[40] I thank Thomas Alexander and Larry Hickman for their helpful comments on earlier drafts of this essay.