A Reflection from a Class taken at Holy Apostles College and Seminary
How does Wittgenstein’s account of rule-following connect to his criticism of Cartesianism?
For Descartes, we begin with clear first principles which are known without reference to experience. Wittgenstein recognizes that we do not arrive at clarity about rules or first principles without a rich and perhaps infinitely complex embodied engagement. Clarity about a rule only emerges in context of its use for Wittgenstein. “The hardness of the logical must” emerges not a priori, but by learning the game.1 From this, Wittgenstein concludes that it is not the rule itself which is self evident and compelling us according to the necessity of reason, but rather we must learn how to think in the way that the rule demands in order to affirm it, and so we must learn the game to affirm the rule. Does this mean there are no absolute first principles? Perhaps for Wittgenstein. What he does get right is that we cannot learn logic without simultaneously being taught how to think by the rules of logic. “The laws of logic are indeed the expressions of ‘thinking habits’ but also of the habit of thinking.”2
The question is whether such a mode of thought is merely arbitrary. To clarify, we could say that the thinking we did before learning the logic game was unclear or confused.
Along the lines of learning to think and along the lines of needing experience to know a rule, Wittgenstein goes further. He explains that “the limit of the empirical–is concept-formation.”3 Perhaps this a pre-scientific revolutions Kuhnian (Thomas Kuhn) sense of how science works. We cannot think or explain or understand without an already functioning paradigm and all science takes place in the context of such a paradigm. This seems to fit with his sense that doubt requires the backdrop of faith.
Ultimately, this account of Wittgenstein goes to show that we are not first and foremost disembodied, but embodied, communal, complex, developmental beings.
It also suggests that we know by living in a world and not by encountering rules or objects discretely. Wittgenstein therefore preserves the sense of man as a cosmic and inter-penetrative being rather than, primarily atomistic. In this manner he stands in contrast to his former teacher, Bertrand Russell who advocated a kind of logical and philosophic atomism.
1 Wittgenstein, The Wittgenstein reader, Ed. Anthony Kenny, Blackwell. Malden, Mass. 2006, 222.
2 Wittgenstein, The Wittgenstein reader, Ed. Anthony Kenny, Blackwell. Malden, Mass. 2006, 225.
3 Wittgenstein, The Wittgenstein reader, Ed. Anthony Kenny, Blackwell. Malden, Mass. 2006, 225