Description: Macintosh HD:Users:witt:Desktop:wrpl.jpeg  Introduction/Reflections – Revised Edition


Greetings, and welcome, to the revised edition of my webpage on Saul Kripke’s classic book, Wittgenstein on Rules and Private Language.  My name is still John Humphrey and I still teach at Minnesota State University, Mankato.  But a few things have changed since this page’s inception and today.  I am now a professor of philosophy at Minnesota State University, Mankato and have just recently completed my 23rd year at MSU,Mankato.  It seems clear that, for better or worse, MSU,Mankato will be my first and last place of employment, qua philosophy prof.  

Although more years than I care to acknowledge have passed since I began work on my Kripke page, it has not been so many years that I am unable to recall some of the fun and excitement (along with not a few frustrations as well) of creating the page.  The web’s scope and immediacy was, as I recall, rather intoxicating, and I remember being energized by knowing that my work would go out to the world just as quickly as I could produce it.  (Truth be told, however, I have come to grips, sort of, with the fact that I tend to be more tortoise than hare when it comes to digestion and production of philosophical material.)  Web publishing was exciting and interesting enough that it made it quite easy for me to devote nearly all of my non-teaching time to adding to my webpage. 

I was especially motivated by the idea of using an entirely new technology for disseminating philosophy and for promoting philosophical idea sharing.  Of course, much has been written, and more will continue to be written, about the ways that the Internet, has, or will continue to, change our cognitive landscape.  But I have little interest in such matters.  For me, it’s still largely about content rather than presentation thereof, although I do have great respect (not to mention, a bit of jealousy) for those who are more able than I to bring electronic wizardry to bear on their philosophical work.  

Early in the creation of my Kripke page, I remember coming to regard it as “a virtual book”, and would use this term when telling interested parties about it.  For me, a virtual book differs from a “cover and pages” book (‘cover and pages’ is intended to be for books what ‘brick and mortar’ is to stores) in any number of ways but two are especially worth noting.  First, a virtual book allows for a greater variety of content than a C & P book.  While I would add that there is no physical difficulty to producing a cover and pages equivalent of my Kripke webpage, I do think there would be many editorial difficulties with doing so.  I will leave others to wonder about this and move on to the second, and rather obvious difference between a virtual book and a cover and pages book – namely, immediacy. 

Publishing a C & P book is a time-consuming task.  I know this firsthand from the case of my logic text.  It was a slow and ponderous slog, even though the book is no more than100 pages long and involved little more than me cleaning up material that I had been using in my classes for years.  And revising a C & P book is no walk in the part either.  In stark contrast, a webpage can be changed instantly, in any number of ways, without much muss or fuss.  New ideas can be added, as well as new graphics, large chunks of text and graphics revised, extended and updated, at any time. 


Although I have not made too many changes to the Kripke page since its initial “completion” (in 1999 or early 2001), that has largely been a matter of not having sufficient time or inclination to do so.  Simply put, I didn’t see much point in doing much more than trying to clean it up, that is, rectify as many typos, grammatical failings, silly claims, badly expressed claims, etc., as I had time for.  I must say that the more closely I scrutinize my page, the more chagrined I feel about my spelling, grammar and phrasing.  If nothing else, I want to apologize to any readers who were put off by such failings on my part.

As for substantive changes on the page, most of the changes find me shrinking, rather than extending, the content of many of the pages.  My current perspective on Kripke’s book is that it is even sillier and less important than I thought it was when I first began work on it, lo those many years ago.  It’s sad to say but it is clearer than ever, and not just to me, I think, that Kripke’s book on Wittgenstein should not be taken seriously for any longer than it takes one to see through its mistakes.  Also, it is clearer than ever to me that if the book wasn’t the work of a noteworthy and very bright philosopher, (something which includes the idea that it is the work of someone who is quite skilled at putting the best face on sheer nonsense as possible), it would not have been published. 


However, when a philosopher of Kripke’s reputation writes a book about one of philosophy’s most provocative and influential figures, a book which challenges standard accounts of THE argument of this figure’s “mature” philosophy, it will garner attention.  Kripke’s reputation will also lead many to find it difficult to conclude that what he has offered is not something worth taking seriously.  Still, if the emperor has no clothes, the emperor has no clothes, and we should not be afraid to say so.


My acquaintance with the book began while I was still in graduate school at Washington University in St. Louis. I was writing my dissertation on Wittgenstein's philosophy of mathematics and Kripke's book had already caused quite a stir among people in the philosophy of mathematics, as well as among Wittgensteinians.  I remember being sympathetic to Kripke's account at this time and no doubt saw Wittgenstein as being some sort of rule-sceptic, even if I didn't buy Kripke's whole story.

My view of Kripke's book has changed considerably since my grad student days and I now regard the book as fundamentally flawed, both as Wittgenstein exegesis and as an independent thesis. In this respect, I am certainly in good company, since similar (albeit somewhat milder) views are held by many philosophers including Gordon Baker and Peter Hacker, Noam Chomsky, John Searle, Warren Goldfarb, the late Peter Winch, Patricia Werhane, Neil Tennant, Stuart Shanker, Colin McGinn, Donald Davidson, John McDowell, David Pears, Burton Dreben, et. al. However, despite this rather impressive list of enemies, Kripke's book continues to have its supporters. To echo Kant, I regard this state of affairs, viz., the continued existence of supporters and believers in the legitimacy of Kripke's book (either as Wittgenstein exegesis or as an independent thesis) as a scandal of philosophy. Or, to vary a line from Daniel Dennett, I blush for the profession of philosophy anytime I find someone defending Kripke's book, either as a correct reading of Wittgenstein or as a viable account of rule-following or meaning, irrespective of its pedigree.

So, to lay my cards on the table, it is one of the goals of this page, if not the main goal of this page, to show just how flawed and misguided Kripke's book really is.  But why then, it could be asked, devote a website to a book that is fundamentally flawed and already recognized to be such by many philosophers?  Of course, one answer is that those on the other side need to be shown the error of their way. But a better answer is that despite the book's mistaken views, it is nonetheless important and interesting in a way that perhaps no correct account of Wittgenstein could possibly be.  As such, bringing out its flaws and infelicities is both interesting and important, irrespective of how many people get convinced along the way.  One can say of Kripke's book what is often said of Anselm's ontological argument, viz., it's interestingly wrong, i.e., its mistakes are important and significant mistakes. So the number of philosophers who "see the light" as a result of visiting my page is not the bottom line.  (There are still defenders of the ontological argument after all). The bottom line is getting a clear view of Kripke's book.

For the uninitiated, Kripke’s book is extremely readable and sucks you in with a rather bizarre paradox right from the start and so perhaps the best thing to say for those unacquainted with the book is:  START READING THE BOOK!  Beyond this, I can say that Kripke's book purports to give a radically new way of understanding one of the main arguments of Ludwig Wittgenstein's philosophical classic, Philosophical Investigations (hereafter, PI).  (If you wish to know some details about Ludwig Wittgenstein and his Philosophical Investigations, click here). I'll let the following from John Searle serve as a very brief introduction to Ludwig Wittgenstein:

The single most influential analytic philosopher of the twentieth century, and indeed, the philosopher whom most analytic philosophers would regard as the greatest philosopher of the century, is Ludwig Wittgenstein.

It's also important to say that Wittgenstein's philosophy is commonly divided into an early period, culminating in his book, Tractatus logico-philosophicus (hereafter, TLP), and a later period, culminating in PI. In many ways, PI is a repudiation of many of the views of TLP. However, for my purposes, the most important thing to say about PI is that it contains a very famous argument that is alleged to show that a "private language" is impossible.  Kripke's book makes the provocative claim that previous commentary on Wittgenstein's private language argument has failed to appreciate the real nature of Wittgenstein's argument. As Kripke puts it in his introduction:

"[WRPL] constitutes . . . 'an elementary exposition' of what I take to be the central thread of Wittgenstein's later work on the philosophy of language and philosophy of mathematics, including my interpretation of the 'private language argument', which on my view is principally to be explicated in terms of the problem of 'following a rule'."

Very briefly, Kripke finds Wittgenstein presenting a sceptical paradox about rules and rule-following, and, a la David Hume in his An Enquiry concerning Human Understanding, providing a sceptical solution to it.  According to Kripke, it is Wittgenstein's sceptical solution to the paradox that contains Wittgenstein's argument against the possibility of private language.  (I vacillate between speaking of the views expressed in WRPL as being Kripke's or Kripke's Wittgenstein (KW).  Despite Kripke's disclaimers to the contrary, he is doing a lot of arguing in the text).  For more introduction and information concerning the sceptical paradox, the sceptical solution, or KW's case against private language, click here.

One of Kripke's most controversial claims is that Wittgenstein's main argument against private language is completed by §202 of PI, whereas for many years scholars held that Wittgenstein's case against private language begins at §243!  Another is that Wittgenstein, who is commonly seen as anything but a sceptic, can be seen to propound and accept key portions of a sceptical paradox about the possibility of rule-following and meaningful language.

Another controversial part of the book is Kripke's claim (noted above) that Wittgenstein's sceptical paradox (or sceptical problem or sceptical challenge) is analogous to David Hume's famous sceptical anlace in sections IV and V of An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding.  Although some Kripke commentators have criticized Kripke's treatment of Hume, none has made a careful study of this part of Kripke's story.  At some point, my own analysis of Kripke's Hume and his alleged case against private causation will appear on this page.

Although this is a very brief and rough introduction, it should be clear that Kripke's book is filled with juicy philosophical issues and controversies, enough to keep a lot of philosophers busy for a long, long time.  So, don't just sit there, get busy!

Finally, I welcome all comments and criticism of my ideas here, and welcome any suggestions for improving this page.  Please e-mail me at the address below. I hope you have a fun and informative experience.  Thanks for stopping by.

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Last modified October 5, 2012
JAH, Professor
Dept. of Philosophy