Two Wittgensteinian Arguments

January 18, 2011

[This post is the first part of a longer sub-argument, and is not really satisfactory to me – I really need to return to the Investigations and do a proper commentary on the relevant sections that also engages with the debates in the secondary literature. But I don’t want to do that right now, so this post stands as a place-marker for a much more careful possible future analysis.]

I concluded my last post by drawing attention to two different problems Brandom identifies with ‘regularist’ attempts to explain the basis of normativity in naturalistic terms – epistemological and ethical/political. These two problems are brought together – or the extent to which they are aspects of the same theoretical problem is demonstrated – in the set of Wittgensteinian ‘paradoxes’ around rule-following; which in turn connect Brandom’s critique of ‘regularism’ to his critique of ‘regulism’.

I want to devote this group of posts to a brief aside, to address the issue of philosophical and social-theoretic explanation (to which Brandom is committed) as against the Wittgensteinian emphasis on theoretical quietism. As I think we will see, it is this difference in philosophical orientation that breaks apart the critique of regulism from that of regularism – in Wittgenstein’s own texts, these two sets of issues are more tightly bound together than they are in Brandom’s. I want to look briefly at why I think this is so, and what it says about the particular explanatory demands placed on Brandom’s theoretical apparatus.

As we have seen, Brandom’s critique of regulism opens the door to his philosophical pragmatism. The Wittgensteinian rule-following paradoxes demonstrate to Brandom’s satistifaction that there is (in Wittgenstein’s words) “a way of following a rule that is not an interpretation” but that is rather about “following a rule or going against it in actual cases”. This leads Brandom to the conclusion that any philosophical adequate account of normativity needs to be, in part, an account of what it means for rules to be implicit in practice. (Brandom is also committed to developing an account of what it means to make implicit rules explicit in linguistic communication; and then, further, an account of what it means to be able to make explicit in linguistic communication this theoretical account of explicitation itself – i.e. the conditions of possibility of Brandom’s own philosophy. But we are still focussing on the first stage of this long and complicated argument.)

I want to draw attention to two different aspects of Wittgenstein’s rule-following paradoxes, which are sometimes I think taken to be different ways of articulating the same underlying issue, but which are in fact I think rather different in implication (and roughly correspond to Brandom’s distinction between critiques of regulism and critiques of regularism). We could call these, crudely, the move to pragmatism and the move to sociality.


We’ve already looked at the critique of regulism that leads Brandom to a pragmatist position: if we understand norms as explicit rules, then a rule is required in order to make explicit how to follow a rule, and an additional rule is required in order to make explicit how to follow that rule, and so on ad infinitum. The Wittgensteinian argument basically says wtf?, and points out that at some point we simply follow a damn rule, without further thought: in Wittgenstein’s words, we follow a rule ‘blindly’: at some point we reach a rule-following-behaviour at which we simply say ‘this is what we do’.

This argument leads us to rules implicit in practice. But it says nothing about the kinds of practices that are implicitly normative in this way. And, further, it says nothing about how those practices are implicitly normative. These are each additional, and quite different, questions.

Note in particular that nothing in this argument prevents us from concluding that the implicitly normative practices we’re dealing with here are a kind of mental or ideal magic lodged in the depths of the human soul – there is nothing intrinsically naturalistic or social-theoretic about the kind of pragmatism this argument seems to lead us to. [This is partly what justifies Brandom’s close assimilation of the Kantian emphasis on judgement and the Wittgensteinian emphasis on practice, in the first chapter of Making It Explicit: although in MIE Brandom uses Kant as his ‘regulist’ bogeyman, Kant is also a pragmatist of sorts in this precise way – he simply fiats that the synthetic activity of the transcendental subject at some point ‘follows a rule blindly’, and thereby short-circuits the ‘Wittgensteinian’ critique of regulism. We may feel that Kant’s account of the nature of these implicitly normative practices is unenlightening – or indeed mystificatory – but that is a separate issue from the plain move to pragmatism, understood in this very broad way (the practice in question is the activity of the synthesising subject) – a move of which Kant in fact partakes.]

Now – when Wittgenstein makes his critique of regulism, he famously does so by means of a kind of reductio ad absurdum: Wittgenstein points out that we can make any practice conform with a rule, provided we interpret that rule in a creative enough way. This famous argument I think plays two very different roles in Wittgenstein’s work, and it’s worth trying to draw these roles apart. On the one hand, this absurdity is taken to set up the response, on the part of the teacher and the reader, that ‘no, that’s not how you interpret that rule, you’re interpreting the rule for interpreting the rule wrong, here is how you interpret that rule’. This response, which Wittgenstein’s text generates, is part of a longer reductio ad absurdum, whereby this chain of error and response is taken to be capable of continuing indefinitely, through infinite interpretations of interpretations of interpretations, and this apparently vicious regress is then taken as damning evidence of the failure of regulism as a theoretical project. That’s one thing this argument is doing. The discursive lever in this argument is our outrage at the fact that the right rule is not in fact being followed – the argument wouldn’t work if we, the reader, did not share the instructor’s sense that the pupil is doing the wrong thing, and failing to understand the real rule being communicated.

On the other hand, a superficially identical argument elsewhere in Wittgenstein’s text is doing rather different work. Here – as in, for example, the famous ‘private language’ argument – the fact that any number of rules can be made out to conform with a given practice, and any given practice can be taken to conform to a rule (provided we interpret the rule creatively enough) leads to the conclusion not that “this is simply what we do”, but rather “here we cannot talk about following a rule.” For example, when Wittgenstein looks at the possibility of obeying the rules of an entirely private language, he concludes that the subject would be sovereign over the meaning of each token in the language at each moment, and that therefore the stability of meaning – the lack of moment-by-moment absolute control over the content of meaning-units – that is a prerequisite of linguistic communication is absent in the case of a ‘private’ language, therefore it makes no sense to speak of a private language. The difficulty for Wittgenstein is that it’s unclear why the move to “following a rule blindly”, which he makes when dealing with social interaction, cannot also be deployed in the case of private self-interaction. It is possible for the isolated private subject to interpret each symbol whatever way she wants, just as it is possible for the student to do so; but at some point we have to say “this is what we do” – we follow the rule. Even though it seems within our power to re-interpret the rule afresh at every moment, we in fact don’t.

This is what Robert J. Fogelin (in his very useful and insightful book Wittgenstein) calls Wittgenstein’s selective application of a sceptical paradox. The same argumentative set-ups are at different moments in Wittgenstein’s text used to support very different conclusions: at times, the apparent possibility of sovereign control over interpretations, and the subsequent possibility of infinite interpretation of interpretation, etc., is taken to lead us to rules implicit in practice; at other times the apparent possibility of sovereign control over meaning-units is taken as a reductio ad absurdum of the idea that a rule can be followed in this context at all. These are very different arguments and conclusions, and Wittgenstein does not – to my mind at least – fully justify his differential application of each.

That said, it’s clear what’s driving Wittgenstein’s differential applications of his sceptical critiques: he has a particular set of impulses as to how linguistic practice in fact functions, and for many – myself included – those impulses seem plausible. Furthermore, Wittgenstein can, I think, be taken to have justified the move to sociality in the expanded sense of that term that I’ve argued Brandom ultimately intends – whereby the multiple subject-positions in potential communication with one another can be different aspects or moments of the same empirical self, rather than discrete organisms. Thus while I agree with Fogelin that Wittgenstein’s private language argument doesn’t seem to justify the use he makes of it, it does, I think, justify the claim that multiple different accessible subject-positions, with potentially different assessments of the conceptual or normative commitments associated with a symbolic action, are required for the meaningfulness of a symbolic action to any one subject-position – in this sense of ‘public’, language must indeed be public. I think.

Nevertheless, there’s a reason why these sets of issues are more closely bound together or less pristinely distinguished in Wittgenstein’s work than in Brandom’s, and this has to do with different fundamental orientations to philosophy as a task of thought. For Brandom, philosophy is largely an explanatory endeavour – an exploratory one also, to be sure, which leaves room for multiple different approaches to the same basic subject-matter, in the conviction that access to divergent intellectual frameworks is as essential a part of knowledge as it is of wisdom, but nevertheless an endeavour oriented to explaining the origins and functioning of the phenomena under examination. For Wittgenstein, by contrast, and famously, philosophy has nothing to do with explanation. Here is the Investigations‘ paragraph 109:

It was true to say that our considerations could not be scientific ones. It was not of any possible interest to us to find out empirically ‘that, contrary to our preconceived ideas, it is possible to thing such-and-such’ – whatever that may mean. (The conception of thought as a gaseous medium.) And we may not advance any kind of theory. There must not be anything hypothetical in our considerations. We must do away with all explanation, and description alone must take its place. And this description gets its light, that is to say its purpose, from the philosophical problems. These are, of course, not empirical problems; they are solved, rather, by looking into the workings of our language, and that in such a way as to make us recognise those workings: in despite of an urge to misunderstand them. The problems are solved, not by giving new information, but by arranging what we have always known. Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language.

I can’t begin to discuss the complexity of commitments involved in this passage in any kind of adequate way here. I want, however, to make some remarks more directly relevant to the broader argument about Brandom of which this post is a part…

One Response to “Two Wittgensteinian Arguments”

  1. […] I have already criticised (in my post from the other day, Two Wittgensteinian Arguments) Wittgenstein’s own application of this ‘sceptical paradox’ in his private language argument: […]

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