Assorted Problems in the Secondary Literature on Kripke's Wittgenstein

1. Kripke's Wittgenstein and Scepticism
A common complaint against Kripke's account of Wittgenstein is that Kripke is wrong to see Wittgenstein as a sceptic about rules, meaning, meaning facts, etc. The complaint itself is or can be fair enough. However, many complainers often are unfair to Kripke. In particular, they fail to keep in mind that Kripke's Wittgenstein offers a sceptical solution to his sceptical paradox. Because of this, it is quite common to find commentators attributing views to Wittgenstein that are alleged to show that Kripke's Wittgenstein (KW) is mistaken but which in fact are similar, if not identical, to the views of KW. For example, Ilham Dilman in his review of Kripke's book says:

Thus given the plight of Wittgenstein's pupil in section 185 it looks to Kripke as if in Section 201 (from which Kripke takes his start) Wittgenstein himself is saying that 'no course of action could be determined by a rule, because every course of action can be made out to accord with a rule'. But this is not so. What Wittgenstein says is that it seems paradoxically that 'no course of action could be determined by a rule' because we look for an interpretation of the rule, which then requires another one, and so on ad infinitum. We forget that 'there is a way of grasping a rule which is not an interpretation.' As Wittgenstein puts it, 'I obey the rule blindly' (sec. 219), i.e. what I do is not the result of thought. It underlies the possibility of thought. (Dilman, p. 296).

Surely it is no part of KW's final position on rules that "no course of action can be made out to accord with a rule . . . ". KW's sceptical solution to the sceptical paradox (allegedly) shows how we are able to avoid the untenable sceptical conclusion that rule following is nothing more than a series of "unjustified leaps in the dark". That is the whole point of the sceptical solution. To put it roughly, KW's scepticism about rules is conditional. Roughly speaking, it says that if we are Tractarian truth-conditionalists about meaning, meaning and rule following are arbitrary, and so nonsensical. Of course, KW's sceptical solution starts by rejecting the Tractatus' account of meaning. So KW, just like Dilman's Wittgenstein, does not really or ultimately believe, as Dilman supposes, that no course of action can be determined by a rule. Similarly, KW does not, contra Dilman, deny that rules can determine the steps that accord with them. These are true of KW only insofar as he is willing to embrace Tractarian truth conditions, which of course, he is not, so they aren't. That's logic.

Of course, Dilman could allege that our way of grasping a rule is for Wittgenstein a fact about us that establishes how the rule is to be followed. But I don't think Dilman wants to make such a claim. Furthermore, if Dilman was willing to bite this bullet, he would owe us an argument to show that our graspings could satisfy the constraints on facts or meaning facts laid down by Kripke. Frankly, I don't see that they do so.

The bottom line here is that it's unfair to see KW as a "real live" sceptic about rules and meaning, and then to claim that KW is not LW because LW is not a real live sceptic about rules and meaning. KW is, as noted above, a conditional sceptic who very clearly, in his sceptical solution, denies the condition on which his scepticism rests. Thus he is ultimately no sceptic about the possibility of rules, rule following and meaning being something more than unjustified leaps in the dark. Kripke has not, then, misunderstood or misread or overlooked Wittgenstein's point at PI §201. Anyone who claims otherwise is guilty of failing to appreciate the whole of KW's position.

This is not to say that Kripke's use of §201 is completely accurate and legitimate. McGinn (see his Wittgenstein on Meaning, pp. 68-70) does a pretty good job of clarifying Kripke's sins of omission with respect to §201. Still, the fact that KW proposes a sceptical solution to the paradox shows that he too does not ultimately hold that no course of action can be determined by a rule.

As for the sceptical solution, the main problem with KW's attempt to avoid the sceptical problem by switching from TCs to ACs is that it is unsuccessful. As many critics have noted (in particular, Ayer and Gellner are the most explicit about this), if each of us is, individually, in the position of not knowing that 125 rather than 5 is the correct way to continue, then how is someone else, or two or three or any number of others, going to be any help here. The only way they could be is if, contra Kripke, we make what appears (the point of the italics here being to remind everyone that KW's sceptical problem challenges the idea that we can say someone agrees with us simply on the basis of his/her giving the same answers as others to all the computation problems so far) to be the agreed upon way to follow the rule, to be the correct way to follow the rule. Though Kripke's sceptical solution seems to say something like this, i.e., that what the majority agree to be the correct answer just is the correct answer to mathematical computations, (indeed, isn't this precisely why we allegedly need others to have rules and language?!), Kripke knows better than to strap Wittgenstein with such a ridiculous position. (See K, p. 111). But then KW's solution is misnamed, for it is no solution at all. For if the majority's answer is not, by definition, the correct answer, if it's possible for one person's answer to be correct and everyone else's answer wrong, then the role and need of others to make rule following possible becomes mysterious indeed.

As I have noted elsewhere, KW's "solution" (i.e., the switch from TCs to ACs and the argument that only in a community setting can we get ACs that will provide us with substantive rule followings and language use) seems to work only because of the use of different criteria for rule following in the case of isolated individuals and community members respectively. In particular, Kripke runs through a hodge-podge of things that we allegedly cannot say about the responses given by an "individual considered in isolation" (ICI) and after doing so, draws the infamous conclusion: "All we can say, if we consider a single person in isolation, is that our ordinary practice licenses him to apply the rule in the way it strikes him." (K, p. 88). The problem with Kripke's conclusion (or KW's conclusion) is two-fold. First, the hodge-podge of things that we allegedly cannot say about the responses of an ICI are also things that we cannot say about anyone at all, be s/he an ICI or a community member. This is because the hodge-podge is based on the sceptical argument, an argument which applies to everyone, whether ICI or community member. But then it's clear that all we can say of anyone, whether considered as isolated or as a community member, is that s/he is licensed to follow the rule as s/he sees fit.

Second, and most importantly, Kripke's hodge podge list is incomplete, making his conclusion, viz., "All we can say . . . ", illegitimate. In particular, Kripke's hodge podge list fails to mention our ability to indict someone's response to a computation problem as being at odds with, or out of step with, some particular rule or other. For example, whether we're talking about an ICI or a community member, we can equally well say (roughly speaking, anyway) of either one that if s/he says, 68 + 57 = 5, then s/he is not adding or plussing; (or if someone says, 68 + 57 =125, we can say that s/he is not quadding). Not surprisingly, it is precisely this ability to recognize someone's lack of accord with particular rules that Kripke cites as that which allows us to make sense of rule following. His mistake is failing to appreciate that we have this ability even in the case of ICIs and so can say of them exactly what we can say of community members, viz., that they either are or are not out of step with some particular rule or other.

2. The Martinich Interpretation
In his popular anthology, The Philosophy of Language: Third Edition, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), A.P. Martinich includes a section on the debate about private language. The section contains key portions of Kripke's Wittgenstein on Rules and Private Language, as well as the old war-horses by Ayer and Rhees, and several other papers. The section on private language begins with Martinich's introduction, an introduction which finds him expressing sympathy with what he takes to be Kripke's reading of Wittgenstein. In particular, Martinich straps Wittgenstein (and, it seems, Kripke's Wittgenstein) with the view that it is only by the actual presence of others that an individual's utterances can possibly be regarded as meaningful, as genuine speech. A view this bizarre deserves to be articulated in the words of its adherent:

. . . Can a human language be spoken by only one person?" For the purposes of answering this question, one can assume that the alleged objects of meaning are not private in the sense that only one person could have access to them. And the question also does not concern how a sole individual might learn a language. To make both of these points clear, consider whether Robinson Crusoe, who was raised an English speaker, could continue to say such things as, "There's a coconut" and mean that there is a coconut; or whether, if all but one member of a linguistic community dies, the sole surviving member would have a language.
Wittgenstein, I think, would answer these questions in the negative and would deny that there could be language spoken only by one person.  (M, pp. 496-7. 
It's interesting to see the metamorphosis or evolution of Martinich's views on this matter in the various editions of his anthology. Certainly, the 3rd edition is where he really goes off the deep end, attributing to Wittgenstein the bizarre view just quoted. What's truly strange is that Martinich seems rather sympathetic to this view, unlike Malcolm, who also straps Wittgenstein with the same silly view.  But Malcolm appreciates just how strange this view sounds].

Although the saner supporters of Kripke's reading of Wittgenstein shy away from strapping KW with the view that those who already have a language would, upon becoming isolated a la Crusoe, cease to be speaking a language, it seems to me that something like this view is at least suggested by Kripke's prose. However, Kripke eventually distances himself from the view Martinich ascribes to Wittgenstein (see K, p. 110). It is, however, very much an open question whether Kripke's attempt to distance himself from the view of Martinich's Wittgenstein is or can be successful. Indeed, KW faces a kind of dilemma, viz., if we accept his claim that physically isolated individuals can follow rules and speak a language, the import of his denial that individuals considered in isolation cannot do so, is very much in doubt. (See Chomsky). On the other hand, if KW denies, a la Martinich's Wittgenstein, that physically isolated individuals can follow rules or speak a language then he's knee deep in absurdity.
Still, by my lights, almost every supporter of the community view (i.e., rule following/meaningful language requires the existence of more than one person) that I have encountered either does or must have recourse to something like the Martinich view or else is forced to admit that the alleged problems with meaning which, according to Kripke, confront an "individual considered in isolation" but not physically isolated individuals or individuals who are members of a community, are not really problems at all. In short, insofar as the community view rests on, depends on, is inextricably tied to, something like the Martinich view, and I claim it is if it is to have any substance at all, it must be rejected because the Martinich view is absurd. (A detailed examination of Martinich's Wittgenstein is now available; click here to see it).


3. The Bloor Ambiguity
In his recent book, Wittgenstein, Rules and Institutions, David Bloor alleges that Kripke's sceptical challenge/paradox contains a crucial ambiguity. According to Bloor, it's unclear from Kripke's text whether his Wittgenstein's challenge threatens the possibility of our finding no facts at all to warrant our meaning attributions or whether Kripke has threatened only "individualist facts", i.e., facts about an individual alone. Bloor contends that only the latter is the case (or that ideally, that is all that KW's sceptic ought to be claiming), although Bloor admits that there are passages in Kripke's book that justify the former reading as well.  (In progress).


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Last modified September 6, 2011
JAH, Professor
Dept. of Philosophy