Epistemic Privacy: A Further Investigation


When Wittgenstein speaks of showing instead of saying he is establishing some type of difference between the two. What is this difference’s relationship with epistemic privacy? It is one that doesn’t really change things, which is to say, showing and saying have the same relation to epistemic privacy: one of exclusion. If something can be said, then it is propositional, therefore meaning it is not private. Similarly, if something can be shown, then it can be seen by another who is not oneself, therefore meaning it is not private, though it may be esoteric. So, when Wittgenstein says in the Tractatus, “A proposition shows its sense. A proposition shows how things stand if it is true. And it says that they do stand,” there is no problem here for epistemic privacy (TLP 4.022). Furthermore, when Wittgenstein says, “What can be shown, cannot be said,” we are to be skeptical of him, for let us understand that the division between showing and saying is not so rigid (TLP 4.1212). Communication need not necessarily be propositional, and so, showing something is still a form of communication. Now, this raises a larger question: if something can be communicated, is it private? I would have to say yes.

When I say “2 + 2 = 4,” taking the “+” to imply addition, but you take the “+” to imply subtraction and then say to me, “No! 2 + 2 = 0,” there is no issue here, for both of us are correct based on our understanding. Nonetheless, I can inform you of my semantic intent, i.e., what I intended “+” to mean, in which, now understanding my semantic intent, you agree. But, why do we agree? The answer is obviously the rules of mathematics which themselves are rationally intuited. The rules of addition are reflected in the proposition “2 + 2 = 4,” yet for Wittgenstein this is not representation of said rules, because, for Wittgenstein, “Propositions cannot represent logical form: it is mirrored in them. What finds its reflection in language, language cannot represent. What expresses itself in language, we cannot express by means of language. Propositions show the logical form of reality. They display it” (TLP 4.121). While this is less problematic let us agree that propositions mediate. Now, if something is propositional, it is therefore propositionally mediated. Some fact of the world is propositional when it is reflected through propositions.

Is propositional mediation something that discounts privacy? I don’t think so. For example, Laurence BonJour’s idea of rational insight is somewhat propositionally mediated. As Mark Robert Burgess says in his important work Transcendent Apriorism: Pure Reason’s Quest for the Noumenal, “[BonJour] has defined rational intuition as ‘inuitive insight into necessity’. The term necessity, as BonJour uses it, is a qualifier that applies to propositions. Now, as we have seen, an insight that a proposition, or sequence of propositions, is necessary is very different from an acquainted insight into reality, which is not mediated through propositions” (pp. 220–221). Still, by our understanding of propositionality spoken of throughout our time dealing with the criterion for epistemic privacy, being propositionally mediated, contrary to what was stated in the paragraph above this one, does not make something propositional. The rational insight had is itself not a proposition, I cannot propositionally explicate why “A=C” follows from “A=B” and “B=C,” which is to say, I cannot propositionally explicate why the law of transitivity is truth conducive. I simply know, by way of rational insight, that it must (necessarily) be the case.

When I state a fact of reality, such as, “A is A” or “existence is” (which is equal to “Being is” which is equal to “Being being,” i.e., “A is A”), the law of identity is reflected, yet what gives it justification, my rational intuition, is not stated, nor relfected. Therefore, in this way, intuitions are not propositionally mediated. Now, they can be, for example, socially and culturally mediated, in which a problem arises. Just as divine intuition ran into issues in regards to its aptness for epistemic privacy because its truth condudiveness was not totally contained within itself (it was dependent on God’s judgement), i.e., epistemically autonomous, culturally and socially conditioned moral or axiological intuitions are not epistemically autonomous, for we can question culture and society. Furthermore, if we take individual moral relativism to be the case, then an individual moral intuition, too is not epistemically private, for its truth conduciveness does not lie completely in itself, but is also a part of the individual. We can question the individual’s ability to confer truth conducivness. Now, I, as an individual subject, still have privately justified intuitions, for they are not true because they come from me, i.e., from a subject, but because they come to me and present the entirety of their truth conduciveness to me from themselves. Think of it like this: I have a rational intuition of the law of identity which is propositionally expressed as “A is A.” My rational intuition, however, has not been expressed, for the reason “A is A” is true, which is to say, the reason the law of identity is true has not been expressed, thus, it cannot also be shown. But, someone, who is not me, can also intuit (not see, for nothing is shown, in the sense Wittgenstein uses the term; in another sense, it is “shown” to me by way of the intuition, not by way of the proposition) the law of identity.[1] This, however, does not complicate its privacy, for it was only shown to the other person by way of the rational intuition of the law of identity. I cannot communicate the contents of the intuition to the person, I can only state the proposition and see if what arises in them is also what arose in me. So, I can “hint” at what makes it true, e.g., it is “tautological,” “it is true by definition,” etc., etc. But, none of these “hints,” so to speak, actually communicate the reason, for the reason itself cannot be communicated, rather what is communicated is the spark for the intuition (and its subsequent understanding?) to arise. Now, when say that “A=C” is true because it follows from “A=B” and “B=C” and then you ask why, and I respond, “Because of the law of transitivity,” what I have done is a propositional explication of my reason. Now, you then ask me for a warrant for the law of transitivity, and what I must do in reaction is retreat to the security of epistemic privacy.

Now, conditioning, whether it be divine, social, or cultural, is problematic, because it makes epistemic privacy open to skeptical questioning and then infinite regress and then circularity, and so on. Thus, moral intuitions seem, for now, out of the picture. Divine intuitions will forever be out of the picture. But, could one not rationally intuit that God is absolutely truth conducive? Would that not certify divine intuitions? It would, but that doesn’t really mean anything to us, for divine intuitions can still be questioned. Divine intuitions would only be truth conducive as a result of a process of inference. Divine intuitions would not basic, foundational, or private. Thus, in making our foundational epistemology (which is what we are doing), they are of absolutely no concern to us, and, for now, are discounted as we have not yet had such a rational intuition relating to God. We have yet to even have a rational intuition of God’s existence.

Now, can logic(al thinking) not just be the result of conditioning? This is a question that certainly troubles me. I think the whole discussion of Socrates’ discussion with the slave boy in Meno, rather than showing that “there is nothing [the soul] has not learnt,” goes to show is that logic or rather that rational intuitions are not the result of conditioning (Great Dialogues of Plato, p. 38). Common sense is the plague upon America’s current “collective consciousness.” Common sense is conditioned and is often wrong. If I had ten dollars for every time someone has spoken to me of “common sense,” I would be tens of millions of dollars richer. Common sense is not apt for private justification because it is public, for it is common. This why any argument from queerness does nothing to actually deny the epistemic legitimacy of our intuitions. Let us understand that “‘queerness’ is a predicate with no epistemological value” — just because something goes against our common sense, or seems strange (i.e., “queer”) does not at all deny the epistemic legitimacy of that something — therefore, we should have the attitude of Parmenides, for he “is a philosopher who follows his rational intuitions without concern for whether his results are ‘queer’ or not. He makes no attempt whatsoever to ‘save the appearances’ … [and, in doing so, he has] the correct attitude for any philosopher” (Burgess, Transcendent Apriorism, p. 223). Thus, in light of all this, Burgess is absolutely right: “Philosophers should be completely unconcerned with the question of the strangeness or otherwise of a particular doctrine” (Transcendent Apriorism, p. 223). We should have no issue with us having “an admission of advocating an extreme anti-common sense approach to philosophy” (Burgess, Transcendent Apriorism, p. 223).


So, it is not “wrong” to say that the intuition shows me the truth and that I see it. But it is wrong to say that the proposition shows me the truth and I see it.



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Evan Jack

How sweet terror is, not a single line, or a ray of morning sunlight fails to contain the sweetness of anguish. - Georges Bataille