Wittgenstein Bugbears

January 18, 2011

Okay, a few more remarks on Wittgenstein before I start to try to get to the point of this digression.

A common way of interpreting Wittgenstein runs more or less as follows: W articulates his ‘rule-following paradox’. This paradox shows that there are multiple ways in which any individual can interpret any given rule. Yet we interpret rules correctly – how is this possible? Well, obviously we are members of “forms of life” – social, collective modes of behaviour which impart to us the correct rules. In this interpretation, “forms of life” (or a similar phrase) provide the basic explanatory ground in Wittgenstein’s account – the place where rules have, so to speak, their ontological footing. Wittgenstein is thus taken to open the Cartesian preoccupations of much philosophy onto the social: social forms of life, rather than (say) the synthesising activity of the transcendental subject, are taken to provide the source of our normative frameworks. And this is, indeed, more or less right, as far as it goes.

If this is how we interpret Wittgenstein, it is extremely tempting to attempt to extend Wittgenstein’s (“sadly underdeveloped”) discussions of ‘forms of life’ into a more robust social theory. David Bloor’s Wittgenstein: A Social Theory of Knowledge can be seen as engaged in this endeavour; as, arguably, can Pierre Bourdieu (I will hopefully get around to contrasting Bourdieu with Brandom later in this series of posts). And, indeed, this is ultimately what I aim to be doing here myself. However, a couple of provisos need to be borne in mind.

First, as I think Henry Staten has brilliantly demonstrated in his comparative study of Wittgenstein and Derrida, it is a mistake to see Wittgenstein as solely preoccupied with the problem of how individuals conform to a rule. It is true that Wittgenstein, in the Investigations and related works, returns obsessively to the moments when an individual deviates from another’s or a community’s normative practice, or when the ‘correct’ normative practice is unclear. However, as Staten argues, this is because Wittgenstein is preoccupied with those liminal moments in which it is unclear what it would mean to follow a specific rule – and Wittgenstein does not just resolve these moments by providing a philosophical account of how a rule can, in fact, be followed after all: Wittgenstein is just as interested in the improvisation of practice and unpredictability of creative behaviour that is capable of constituting new, alternative rules, or (perhaps still more importantly) of not adhering to any communal rule – even a newly created one – at all. The conformity of an individual’s practice to an already-collectively-accepted rule is one direction in which these liminal moments can go; but it is not privileged, in Wittgenstein’s text, over the alternative directions just enumerated. For Wittgenstein, the liminal moments in which no guide to behaviour can be found are not problems that necessarily have to be resolved in favour of conformity to a communal “form of life”. In fact Wittgenstein’s own philosophical practice is centrally concerned with rediscovering such liminal moments, breaking up the frozen sea of habitual practice in order to immerse ourselves once again in the waters of doubt. Wittgenstein is at least as concerned with breaking the grip of habitual social practice, as he is with discovering such practice as the legitimate ground for normative guidelines. Those who understand Wittgenstein as principally a theorist of conformity to communally-established rules (which most Wittgensteinians, in one way or another, do) miss absolutely central parts of his philosophical and ethical endeavour.

That’s one issue. The second issue is Wittgenstein’s theoretical quietism, which is central to the Investigations, and which has been adopted in the strong form Wittgenstein advocates (which would rule out most kinds of scientific practice, for example) by more or less no one – no one, at least, who has continued to participate in the discourse of academic philosophy. I would argue that there are two broad categories of responses to Wittgenstein’s quietism in the Wittgenstein-influenced philosophical community: on the one hand, people who largely discard it altogether, except for some general remarks about theoretical modesty and the critique of metaphysics (and I guess this is the camp I’m going to fall in); on the other hand, people who apply it selectively, disregarding Wittgenstein’s most strenuous claims about the inadmissability of explanation or theory, but wheeling on the quietism to close down specific kinds of theoretical discussion, with greater or lesser degrees of justification. I would place John McDowell squarely in this latter camp, for example: Mind and World is, despite McDowell’s avowed quietism, an inescapable explanatory project. Wittgensteinian quietism – and a therapeutic ‘dissolving’ of philosophical perplexities – is, however, McDowell’s excuse for not providing various forms of philosophical explanation that, in my view, the project simply demands if it is to be carried through on its own terms. I agree with Brandom that Making It Explicit provides, not an alternative to McDowell’s category of ‘second nature’, but an explanation of what that category could possibly refer to, if it is to do the philosophical heavy lifting McDowell demands of it. But this is all digression.

Theoretical quietism is central to Wittgenstein’s work in part for ethical/spiritual reasons: there is a Tolstoyan ethic of renunciation of intellectual pride that runs through, and motivates, much of Wittgenstein’s corpus. But there are also some theoretical reasons why quietism is an appealing option for those who gesture – even if only at moments – to such categories as ‘forms of life’ as part of their account of normative standards. In Wittgenstein, as we have seen, the critique of what Brandom calls ‘regulism’ results in the acceptance that “this is simply what we do”. This move, however, places the actual normative guideline that we follow beyond the reach of conscious or theoretical explanation, except as something that presents its demands to us, intuitively. Despite its social-theoretic inclinations, Wittgenstein’s philosophy places norms in a transcendent space – not transcendent of all society, necessarily, but transcendent of our selves in a way that – thanks to Wittgenstein’s quietism – makes them functionally inaccessible and unexaminable. This move is complicated by Wittgenstein’s parallel examination of moments in which we establish alternative normative behaviours – and I will argue (if I remember) in later posts that there is, implicit in these moments of the Investigations, an account of the formation of norms that is strikingly close to Brandom’s anti-quietist analysis. But the main point, for now, is that Wittgenstein’s quietism makes the origin of our norms in principle inaccessible to theoretical consciousness.

Why is this important? It is important because it prevents Wittgenstein himself – though not those Wittgensteinians who wish to take his philosophy in a more explanatory direction – from being vulnerable to the series of theoretical difficulties that Brandom analyses under the heading ‘regularism’. Because Wittgenstein refuses to explain what social behaviours might in fact be constructing the norms that we experience ourselves (as inhabitants of ‘forms of life’) as subject to, Wittgenstein is not vulnerable to the theoretical difficulties that are typically attendant on any such explanation. One might say that Wittgenstein has simply evaded these difficulties – and, of course, he has, albeit in a Tostoyan-renunciation-of-intellectual-hubris kind of way – but that doesn’t make the rejection of quietism any less theoretically problematic. If we aim, unlike Wittgenstein, to actually give a more or less social-theoretic account of how a “form of life” or a communal normative framework functions, we are immediately in the thick of the explanatory problems that Brandom draws attention to in his discussion of regularism. As soon as we reject quietism, we need to figure out our response to these difficulties. If Brandom is right, then that response has to be extremely complicated – much more complicated than most Wittgensteinians seem to anticipate.

The assertion that this is simply what we do, and that at a certain (very early) point, our spade turns, and no more explanation can be sought, is therefore doing double-service in Wittgenstein’s work. On the one hand this move short-circuits the regress of interpretations, rejects ‘regulism’, and establishes Wittgenstein’s pragmatism. On the other hand this same move is used by Wittgenstein to introduce his theoretical quietism, which enables Wittgenstein not to have to confront the difficulties of ‘regularism’. It therefore may seem, in Wittgenstein’s work, that the problems of regulism and regularism are dealt with using the same set of arguments.

However, the two functions that the ‘this is simply what we do’ move serves are logically dissociable – it is idiosyncratic to Wittgenstein’s philosophy that the short-circuit of regulism is also taken to prohibit explanatory intellectual endeavour. Brandom’s concept of ‘material inference’, as we will see, serves to short-circuit the problems of regulism, while still leaving open the possibility of further explanatory tasks – including the explanation of the nature and legitimacy of any given material inference. This process of explicitation – the opposite of Tolstoyan quietism – will lead Brandom on a very long explanatory road. I’m now going to conclude this digression, and attempt to rejoin that road. In the next few posts I’ll try to explore in more depth the problems associated with regularism.


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