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WITTGENSTEIN, KRIPKENSTEIN, AND THE SKEPTICAL PARADOX
A THESIS PRESENTED TO THE GRADUATE SCHOOL
OF THE UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA IN PARTIAL FULFILLMENT OF THE
REQUIREMENTS FOR THE DEGREE OF
MASTER OF ARTS
UNIVERSITY OF FLOIRDA
TABLE OF CONTENTS
A B STRA CT............................................ ........................ ...... ......... ................
1 INTRODUCTION ............................ ..................................... ....... 5
2 WITTGENSTEIN ON MEANING, UNDERSTANDING, AND RULES.........14
Live and D ead Signs.................................. ................................. 14
M meaning as U se........ ........ ............................................. ..........................20
The Language-Game Analogy...................................... ...................... 21
Ostensive Definitions.................... ...............................25
R ule-F follow ing .............................................................................................37
3 KRIPKE'S WITTGENSTEIN AND
THE PHILOSOPHICAL INVESTIGATIONS........................... .................. 40
The Skeptical Paradox.......................... .................................. ...........41
Problems with the Skeptical Paradox Interpretation......................... ..........45
The Skeptical Solution.......................... ............................... 49
Problems with the Skeptical Solution Interpretation.....................................53
Concluding Remarks............................ ...........................57
4 SOLUTIONS TO KRIPKE'S SKEPTICAL PARADOX:
AND NON-REDUCTIONISM........................... .....................59
Kripke's Skeptical Solution, Revisited....................... ...................... 60
D ispositionalism ........................................................... ............................. ..64
Non-Reductive Accounts............ ........ ...... .......... ........... 69
5 CONCLUDING REMARKS............................ .........................75
LIST OF REFERENCES...............................................................78
BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCH............................. ....... ... ......................80
Abstract of Thesis Presented to the Graduate School
of the University of Florida in Partial Fulfillment of the
Requirements for the Degree of Master of Arts
WITTGENSTEIN, KRIPKENSTEIN, AND THE SKEPTICAL PARADOX
Chair: Kirk Ludwig
Saul Kripke, in his work Wittgenstein on Rules and Private Language, presents an
interpretation of Ludwig Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations whereby Wittgenstein is
taken to be offering a paradox with respect to language. The paradox, according to Kripke, stems
from the nonexistence of facts which establish claims about what a speaker meant by a particular
term on a given occasion, and threatens the very possibility or rule-following and language.
Kripke interprets Wittgenstein as offering a solution to this problem that rejects truth-conditional
semantics and in its place establishes a theory focusing on conditions of warranted assertion. In
this thesis, it is argued that Kripke's interpretation of Wittgenstein is incorrect. Examination of
the text of the Philosophical Investigations reveals a much more complicated view of language
than Kripke offers, and certain passages conflict directly with the interpretation given.
This thesis, in addition to the exegetical question of the appropriateness of Kripke's
interpretation, is also concerned with the skeptical challenge posed in Wittgenstein on Rules and
Private Language. Kripke's skeptical solution to this problem is examined and found wanting in
several respects. Once the notion of warranted assertion is spelled out in terms of communal
agreement, it becomes clear that Kripke has not answered the skeptic at all, as claims about
meaning entail claims about correct use, and communal agreement, a statistical notion, cannot
ground such claims.
Having found the skeptical solution unsatisfactory, the thesis focuses on direct answers to
the skeptic, whereby certain types of fact are submitted as meaning-fixing facts. The most
popular of these answers are those which cite a speaker's dispositions to behave with respect to a
given word in hypothetical situations. There are several different varieties of dispositionalism,
and the most prominent are discussed. It is contended that Saul Kripke's objections to
dispositionalism are correct, and that no version of dispositionalism can serve as an answer to
Dispositionalism is an attempt to reduce semantic facts to behavioral facts. The question
is raised as to why this is necessary. It is suggested that there is no prima facie reason to think
that semantic or normative facts are unsuitable as answers to Kripke's skeptic, and several
objections to non-reductionism are considered and rejected. While a fully developed non-
reductive theory is beyond the scope of this thesis, some groundwork is done, paving the way for
such a theory.
In 1 of the Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein presents an account of language
drawn from a passage of St. Augustine's Confessions. In this passage, Augustine recounts how
he learned the meaning of words as a child:
When they (my elders) named some object, and accordingly
moved towards something, I saw this and I grasped that the thing
was called by the sound they uttered when they meant to point it
out. Their intention was shewn by their bodily movements, as it
were the natural language of all peoples: the expression of the face,
the play of the eyes, the movement of other parts of the body, and
the tone of voice which expresses our state of mind in seeking,
having, rejecting, or avoiding something. Thus, as I heard words
repeatedly used in their proper places in various sentences, I
gradually leant to understand what objects they signified; and after
I had trained my mouth to form these signs, I used them to express
my own desires.1
This account has two important features. The first is that words are used to name objects.
If this alone is the function of a word, then it would seem that the meaning of that word is the
object named. Meaningfulness in general, according to this account, is a matter of a word
picking out some object. The second feature is that the learning and teaching of a language is
done ostensively. Understanding of a word rests on observation of its use by competent speakers
of the language, or on a more direct method of explanation, exemplified by pointing towards the
intend object and uttering "This is called 'x'."
That the first feature of the Augustinian account has been found in the writings of other
philosophers subsequent to Augustine, including the early Wittgenstein, testifies to its appeal.
'Augustine, Confessions, 1.8 as recounted in Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical
Investigations 1 footnote 1.
One can see this in the picture theory in the Tractatus.2 Wittgenstein asserts that "simple signs"
have as their meanings the objects that they name.3 According to the Tractatus, the world is
made up of facts: states of affairs which obtain. States of affairs are combinations of objects, and
are represented by propositions, whose structures are isomorphic to the states of affairs that they
represent (and so propositions are facts as well, namely, the fact that their constituents are
arranged in a certain way). Words constitute the elements of a proposition, and name the objects
in the relevant state of affairs, for which they are the counterparts.4 There is some departure from
the Augustinian account in the Tractatus, to be sure. While Wittgenstein takes most of our words
to have as their meaning the objects that they name, he points out that certain words do not seem
to name anything. Logical operators that appear in propositions, for example, don't represent any
object in the world. But these are exceptional.
The Tractatus presents a theory which is much more sophisticated than the account given
in 1. It was, however, developed under some of the same presuppositions about language found
in the primitive account. One of Wittgenstein's goals in the Investigations is to examine these
presuppositions and to expose their failings. The first fifth of the Investigations is dedicated to
this task.5 In addition to challenging these presuppositions, Wittgenstein has a positive goal, that
of offering suggestions that will allow philosophers to properly orient their thinking with respect
2Indeed, in the summary of part I, 19 of Philosophical Grammar, Wittgenstein writes
"My earlier concept of meaning originates in a primitive philosophy of language. Augustine on
the learning of language. He describes a calculus of our language, only not everything that we
call language is this calculus."
3Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. New York, 1974, 3.203.
5This figure comes from Robert Fogelin's Wittgenstein.
to language. In particular, he seeks to dissolve problems that arise from misconceived notions of
meaning and understanding.
The notion that a word's meaning is the object that it picks out rests on a overly simplistic
view of the variety of roles that words can play in a language. In 1, Wittgenstein remarks that
the Augustinian account doesn't take into account the variety of words, but rather focuses on
nouns, names, and to some extent properties. If one considers proper names, then it is easy to see
how this view is motivated. According to a direct-reference theory, a proper name picks out a
unique object, and if a proper name could be said to have a meaning, then it seems sensible that
the meaning just is the object that it names. With a little work, the view could be extended to
apply to regular nouns and adjectives, with the latter being treated as the names of properties, for
If, however, one considers all the different kinds of words that are found in language, it
becomes difficult to maintain this account. Wittgenstein illustrates this in 1 of the
Investigations with the grocery-list example. Imagine a grocer who is handed a slip on which the
words 'five red apples' has been written. The grocer opens the apple drawer, consults a color
chart to match the apples, and counts from one to five, taking an apple out for each number. The
various acts that the grocer performs relevant to the different words is supposed to show the
differences between the types of words in question. The word 'apple' may be used to pick out a
particular type of object, but the word 'five' doesn't seem to be used in the same way.
Having located what he believes to be the primary misunderstanding motivating the
account of meaning that he attributes to Augustine, namely, that all words function as proper
names, Wittgenstein presents an alternative. He connects meaning with use. Meaningfulness in
general is having a use, and the meaning of a particular word is given by the way that the word is
used. Of course, not just any use of a word is relevant. Any theory of meaning must account for
correct and incorrect usage. Mere regularities in the way that words are used do not necessarily
reveal correct usage. They show only how words are, in fact, used. Statements about regularities
only describe word use, they do not prescribe. The implication of this is that there must be rules
that are to be obeyed in order for a use of a word to be correct. Rules, unlike mere regularities,
are prescriptive, and as such are capable of grounding the notion of correctness and incorrectness
with respect to the application of words.
The use of a word in a language, then, is a rule-governed activity. With this consideration
in mind, Wittgenstein draws an analogy between language use and playing chess.6 Here, the
chess pieces correspond with words, and meanings correspond with the rules governing the
appropriate moves of the pieces. This analogy is useful, but one should not take it too far. The
rules governing the use of an individual chess piece are fairly circumscribed, and the variety of
chess pieces is not great. The rules governing the use of individual words, however, are likely to
be much more complex, allowing for a much greater number of "moves" that one can make. The
variety of words exceeds the rather modest variety of chess pieces. Nevertheless, the chess
analogy, though perhaps over simple, is helpful in understanding the view of language in
Wittgenstein's later works. Language is like a game. Language, like games, is an activity
pursued according to certain rules, rules which are not imposed upon it from without, but are
rather the constructs of the community of players. Understanding a language is similar to
understanding chess: as the latter is exhibited in the playing of the game, the former is exhibited
in the speaking of the language.
6Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations. Oxford, 1953, 31.
To say that meaning is connected with rule-governed use is not strikingly illuminating. A
host of questions arise from such a characterization. What exactly counts as a rule? What does
participation in a rule-governed activity consist in? What is involved in understanding the
demands of a rule? Wittgenstein dedicates a significant portion of the Investigations, from
around 143-242, to questions such as these. Clearly, if one is to have a firm grasp of
Wittgenstein's thoughts on meaning, one must attend to these sections with care. One of the
goals of this thesis, and arguably the most difficult to accomplish, will be to examine these
sections with the aim of arriving at a clear view of Wittgenstein's position on the nature of rules
and rule following, and how these are related to the possibility of meaning. To preview what will
follow: It will be argued that when Wittgenstein speaks of rules, he refers to statements given to
justify, explain, or teach certain behavior. Understanding which actions count as being in
accordance with a rule, according to Wittgenstein, is the ability to engage in certain normative
behavior (such as the aforementioned acts of justification, explanation, and teaching) with
respect to a rule.
Saul Kripke's interpretation of Wittgenstein's often cryptic remarks on rule-following
have become the focus of an intense scrutiny over the past two decades. According to Kripke,
Wittgenstein was presenting a skeptical paradox regarding language. Not much work is done by
Kripke in attempting to justify this reading of Wittgenstein, but the first sentence of 201 of the
Investigations is specifically singled out: "This was our paradox: no course of action could be
determined by a rule, because any course of action can be made out to accord with the rule." It is
possible, of course, to understand a rule, but to make a mistake as to what the rule requires in a
given situation. What is being suggested here, and in earlier passages of the Investigations, is
more radical than this rather pedestrian observation. One might be inclined to think that a given
rule can be applied or misapplied to a given situation. Correct application of a rule implies the
existence of an interpretation of the rule which determines which actions accord with it. This
interpretation, though, runs into the same problem, and seems to require a further interpretation,
which itself stands in need of an interpretation, and so on ad infinitum.
Wittgenstein gives an example in 185 which can be of some help in illustrating this. A
student of arithmetic has been given a task of writing a series of numbers, starting from 0, and
increasing by 2 at every step. He performs the task well up to 1000, upon which he proceeds by
writing "1004, 1008, 1012, ..." One is inclined to say that the student misunderstood the rule by
which he was supposed to act. Yet it can also be said that he proceeded according to the rule as
he interpreted it. The student was ordered to proceed by the rule "Add 2 to the previous number
in the series," but interpreted the rule as "Add 2 to the previous number in the series up to 1000,
and add 4 following that." So the student, in proceeding by adding 4 after 1000, was acting in
accordance with the rule that interpreted. This case can be generalized: every action can be said
to accord with some rule under some interpretation. This threatens the distinction between
correct and incorrect ways of responding to rules. The concepts of correctness and incorrectness
rest on the notion of an act being in accord or disaccord with a rule, but if the example of 185
shows that any action can be in accord with a rule, then any act can be considered correct.
Furthermore, if any action can be in accord with a rule upon some interpretation, then any act
can similarly be said to violate a rule upon some interpretation. It gets worse: for if meaning is
connected with rule-governed use, but the notion of acting in accordance with a rule is hollow
(as the above example attempts to show), then it would seem that the concept of meaning itself is
It is considerations such as these that Kripke sees as indicating that Wittgenstein was
presenting a skeptical paradox with respect to meaning. In the third section of his book
Wittgenstein on Rules and Private Language, he writes
There can be no such thing as meaning anything by any word.
Each new application we make is a leap in the dark; any present
intention could be interpreted so as to accord with anything we
may choose to do. So there can be neither accord, nor conflict.7
Though Kripke does little to show that Wittgenstein truly had this paradox in mind when
he wrote the Investigations, he does offer some independent reasons for thinking that a paradox
of this sort exists. It comes in the form of a challenge from a skeptic regarding the past and
present use of the word 'plus'. The reader is asked to assume that though he has used the word
'plus' and the symbol '+' many times in the past, he has never performed any computations with
numbers larger than 57. When asked to compute '68+57' he responds that the answer is '125'.
The skeptic challenges this answer, and claims that the correct response is '5'. The skeptic claims
that in the past, 'plus' and '+' were used not to denote the function plus, but rather, the function
quus. Kripke's skeptic defines quus as follows:
x oy = x + y, ifx,y < 57
= 5 otherwise.8
By hypothesis, every action that was undertaken in the past in which 'plus' or '+' was
used is compatible with the person's having meant quus instead of plus. The question is whether
any fact can be found that establishes that the answer of' 125' to the problem given is the right
one. The skeptic claims that no fact, behavioral or mental, about the past usage of these terms
can be found to establish that one meant plus rather than quus, or that '125' is indeed the right
Saul Kripke, Wittgenstein on Rules and Private Language. Cambridge, 1982, p.55.
answer to '68+57'. Kripke sees the upshot of this as devastating: "Wittgenstein's main problem is
that it appears that he has shown all language, all concept formation, to be impossible, indeed
Of course, any argument that purports to show that language is impossible will be self-
refuting. Kripke interprets Wittgenstein as offering a solution to the skeptic, but a solution which
grants the skeptic's premise. According to Kripke, Wittgenstein denies the existence of meaning-
fixing facts. He is able to reject the skeptic's conclusion because he rejects a picture of language
according to which claims about meaning have truth-conditions, that is, admit of evaluation as
true or false. There are no facts which make true claims of the sort "S meant m by 'w'", but this
does not show that language is impossible.
Two important questions emerge from this. First, is Kripke right in thinking that
Wittgenstein presents a skeptical paradox in the Investigations? As Kripke drew from
Wittgenstein's comments on rule-following, a study of sections 143-242 should help
illuminate this question. Again, as a preview, I will contend that though Wittgenstein does
attempt to show that there is a problem with a particular view of what it is to follow a rule, that
he does not present the skeptical paradox Kripke describes. The second question to consider is
whether Kripke's skeptical solution to the problem, considered independently of whether it is
properly attributable to Wittgenstein, is tenable. Once this solution is spelled out, I will argue
that it is not a satisfactory answer to the skeptic.
Finally, I will consider alternative answers to the skeptic. One of the most common
responses is to offer up facts about the dispositions of a speaker, or the dispositions of a select
group of speakers, as those which establish the meaning of a term. Such a strategy is reductive,
insofar as it is an attempt to ground semantic or normative facts and explain them by reference to
purely naturalistic facts about behavior. There are several versions of dispositionalism, each
attempting to identify a particular sort of disposition as the meaning-fixing one. I will argue that
none of the more prominent versions succeed, and that no version can answer the skeptic.
However, the failure of Kripke's response as well as that of the reductivist should not lead to an
adoption of skepticism. In chapter 4, I suggest a fourth way of responding that is non-reductive
and denies both the skeptic's premises and his conclusion.
WITTGENSTEIN ON MEANING, UNDERSTANDING, AND RULES
The purpose of this chapter is to develop a better understanding of Wittgenstein's views
on meaning, understanding, and rule-following, in the hopes that this will provide the
ammunition for an attack on Kripke's interpretation of the Investigations. Getting clear on
Wittgenstein's comments on meaning and understanding is essential for understanding his views
on private languages and rules. Of particular importance are Wittgenstein's claims that a word's
meaning is connected with its use, and that understanding is a practice rather than a mental state.
In what follows, I will elaborate on these claims and the reasons for holding them.
Live and Dead Signs
In the first few pages of The Blue Book and in 432 of the Philosophical Investigations,
Wittgenstein asks what it is that distinguishes the "live" signs of language from the "dead" signs
that are found in nature. A sign is an object characterized by its "shape", broadly speaking. Signs
include such things as written symbols, sounds, and gestures, among other things. There are sign
types and sign tokens, and tokens of a particular type can be either live or dead. Sign types are
Live signs are meaningful; they are those signs that humans use to communicate with one
another. These signs possess certain features that those not produced by linguistic beings lack,
features which are essential to their use in communication. Whether or not a sign is "live" or
"dead" is not intrinsic to the sign itself. Two sign tokens of the same type, one of which is
produced by a human, and the other by a natural process, can differ in respect to whether they
mean anything. The scribblings of a colleague on a bit of paper having the appearance
are taken to be meaningful when handed to a person distractedly tapping his foot during a
tedious philosophy lecture. To be precise, this sign would be taken as a command that he cease
his foot-tapping. On the other hand, the marks in a patch of sand made by a traveling snail which
have the exact same appearance, while quite extraordinary, would not be taken as an indication
that the snail meant for someone to stop doing something, or meant anything at all. The signs,
two tokens of the same type, differ with respect to whether or not they mean anything.
Though evidently there must be some property that living signs have that dead signs lack,
characterizing the property is a difficult task. The fact that meaningful signs are produced
exclusively by creatures with mental lives, or by entities standing proxy for minded creatures
(translation devices, video and audio projectors, telegraph machines, e.g.) may lead one to think
that a sign is meaningful only if its use is accompanied by, traceable to, or produces some special
sort of mental activity such as understanding or meaning. Wittgenstein anticipates this
It seems that there are certain definite processes bound up with the
working of language, processes through which alone language can
function. I mean the processes of understanding and meaning. The
signs of our language seem dead without these mental processes;
and it might sem that the only function of the signs is to induce
such processes, and that these are the things we ought really to be
interested in. Thus, if you are asked what is the relation between a
name and the thing it names, you will be inclined to answer that
the relation is a psychological one, and perhaps when you say this
you think in particular of the mechanism of association. 1
If this view is correct, then the property that distinguishes live signs from dead ones is
that of being accompanied by (in one way or another) a special mental process. For the word
'Ludwig Wittgenstein, The Blue Book. New York, 1960 p. 3.
'red' to be meaningful, then, for example, it would have to be the case that whenever it is uttered,
the speaker has a certain mental state, perhaps that of picturing the color red to himself, and
anyone who understands the sign likewise has that mental state.
Wittgenstein challenges this picture of meaning and understanding by asking the reader
to suppose that the mental process is replaced by a similar outward process. Instead of someone
imagining the color red, suppose he consults a color chart whenever he is called upon to use (be
the use interpretive or expressive2), the word 'red' (for the purposes of this thought experiment, a
consultation should be taken as consisting exclusively of outward behavior, such as the
movement of a finger across the chart from the symbol 'red' to a color patch). This doesn't have
the intuitive force of the original example from the previous paragraph. It doesn't seem that the
outward act of consulting the chart accompanying the utterance suffices to make the word being
used meaningful. Consulting a color chart just following the utterance of the word 'red',
explained in purely behavioral terms, is to be the sort of activity that a well-programed robot
(something that is generally thought not to be capable of understanding) could do.
Wittgenstein's comments on this are a sketchy; some interpretative work is required. The
original thought was that some mental process which coexisted with an utterance or a sign
served to make that utterance or sign meaningful. Wittgenstein then suggests that outward
processes be substituted for mental ones:
2I have borrowed the distinction between interpretative and expressive uses from Alan
Millar's article "The Normativity of Meaning," Philosophy: The Journal of the Royal Institute of
Philosophy, vol. 51 p.57-73. The distinction is intended to capture both passive and active uses
of a word, where the user is a "listener" and a "speaker" respectively.
There is one way of avoiding at least partly the occult appearance
of the processes of thinking, and it is, to replace in these processes
any working of the imagination by acts of looking at real objects.3
Shortly following this passage, he shifts and speaks of a substitution of the objects of
these processes, specifically painted images and mental images respectively:
If the meaning of the sign... is an image built up in our minds when
we see or hear the sign, then first let us adopt the method we just
described of replacing this mental image by some outward object
seen, e.g. a painted or modeled image.4
Presumably, he felt that the actions involved were similar enough to justify this shift in
focus from processes to objects, that the only relevant difference between imagining a color and
picking out a color patch on a chart was the type of image involved. Whether this move is in fact
warranted or not is debatable. For now, this concern should be put aside in favor of getting clear
on other aspects of Wittgenstein's reasoning in this matter.
In The Blue Book, Wittgenstein claims that a painted image fails to "impart any life to the
sentence"5 that it accompanies. This view can be fleshed out as follows. A swatch of red is not,
on its own, meaningful. It may be used in communication, certainly, but in any instance where it
is, there is some feature of the context which makes it meaningful. In this way, the swatch has
the same status as a word divorced from whatever property makes it meaningful; it is, in short,
dead. Substituting the swatch for a mental image has the effect of placing on it the burden of
making the utterance of the word 'red' meaningful, and this, according to the view in question, is
something that a dead sign cannot do.
3Ludwig Wittgenstein, The Blue Book. New York, 1960 p. 4.
Under the view in question (allowing for Wittgenstein's focus on the object rather than
the act), a mental image is capable of conferring meaning. The question is what feature of a
mental image gives it this ability. If a dead sign lacks this ability, perhaps the mental image is
itself a live sign. Its being live could not be the result of coexisting with another mental image as
that would result in a regress, for that additional mental image would either be live or dead, and
if dead of no use, and if alive itself requiring, by the same argument, some distinct associated
mental image, and so on. Instead, this life would have to be something intrinsic to the mental
image, and something capable of giving life to dead signs (though how it does this is not at all
clear). Wittgenstein rejects this line of thinking. To say that mental objects have this ability but
to be unable to say how, or to give any in-depth explanation of it, would be to attribute to mental
objects "occult" properties.
The Augustinian account Wittgenstein discusses in 1 may fall prey to the charge that in
appeals to such occult properties. Recall that the central feature of this account was that words
function as names of objects; for a word to have a meaning, is for it to name something. The
relationship between a name and the thing named must be made explicit, and Wittgenstein's
focus on mentalisticc" accounts of understanding and meaning in the opening pages of The Blue
Book indicate that he believes that this relationship is usually taken to be psychological.
Meaning, in the Augustinian sense, would, if the above considerations are correct, involve a
mental process which cannot fully be explained. Any account involving essential but mysterious
elements is, of course, at a serious disadvantage, all else being equal, in comparison to an
account involving elements whose natures are entirely explicable. Another approach is needed.
Wittgenstein rejects the possibility that either an outward process or a mental process
accompanying a word can make the word meaningful. He concludes that the mistake is to think
that anything accompanying a word makes it meaningful. The Augustinian account seems to
labor under this mistaken idea, and so should be viewed as suspect. Here can be seen the first
hints that Wittgenstein's account of meaning won't turn out to be very tidy.
In the preceding chapter, another deficiency of the Augustinian account was noted. The
central topic of the first dozen or so passages of the Philosophical Investigations is the rejection
of the oversimplified view that a word's meaning is the object that it names. This view has
proven seductive. It can be found in the works of Frege, Russell, and the early Wittgenstein,
among others.6 The objection to this view is not that it is false that words name objects (though
not in the sense of naming found in the Tractatus, in which a word stands for the object it names
in a representation whose structure is isomorphic with a possible state of affairs), but rather, that
such a characterization doesn't accurately reflect the complexity of natural language.
Augustine, we might say, does describe a system of
communication; only not everything that we call language is this
system. And one has to say this in many cases where the question
arises "Is this an appropriate description or not?" The answer is:
"Yes, it is appropriate, but only for this narrowly circumscribed
region, not for the whole of what you were claiming to describe."'
Of course, if Wittgenstein's comments from The Blue Book are any indication,
Augustine's account still suffers from the mistaken idea that a mental process must accompany
the use of a word in order for the word to be meaningful. The comments here, though, seem to
presuppose that an account of naming has been found which requires no such accompaniment.8
6For further discussion of the influence of the Augustinian account on these thinkers, see
G.P. Baker and M.S. Hacker Wittgenstein: Understanding and Meaning Part I: Essays. Oxford,
2005, pp. 19-28.
Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations. Oxford, 1953, 3.
8See the grocer's list example in 1 for an illustration of what this might look like.
Naming, then, is a perfectly legitimate use of a word. It is not, however, the only
legitimate use. Imperatives, interrogatives, color-terms and logical connectives don't seem to
name anything unless one is to posit a very rich ontology. Yet even if one were to do so, to
describe these words as naming various objects would be to obscure the very different ways in
which they are used. In 11, Wittgenstein compares the corpus of words to tools in a tool-box,
and the variety of functions of words to the variety of functions of the tools within. He writes:
Imagine someone's saying: "All tools serve to modify something.
Thus a hammer modifies the position of a nail, a saw the shape of
a board, and so on." And what is modified by a rule, a glue-pot,
and nails? "Our knowledge of a thing's length, the temperature of
the glue, and the solidity of a box." Would anything be gained by
this assimilation of expressions?9
Saying "All tools serve to modify something" is akin to saying "all words name
something," in that important differences among the relevant body of things are glossed over in
an attempt to provide a uniform characterization which, in the end, is quite uninformative.
Meaning as Use
What is needed is an account of meaning that respects the variety of functions that words may
have. The emphasis that Wittgenstein gives to this points the way to the desired account: the
meaning of a word is determined by the use that word has in communication. This is explicitly
stated in the opening pages of The Blue Book: "But if we had to name anything which is the life
of the sign, we should have to say that it was its use.""1 It is implied in the discussion of the
grocer's list in 1, with the introduction of the notion of a language-game in 7, is made explicit
in the discussion of ostensive definitions of 30: "an ostensive definition explains the use the
1'Ludwig Wittgenstein, The Blue and Brown Books. Oxford, 1958, p.4.
meaning of a word when the overall role of the word in language is clear," and once again
(though with a bit of caution) in 43: "For a large class of cases though not for all in which
we employ the word "meaning" it can be defined thus: the meaning of a word is its use in the
The use of a word can be seen as the behavior that occurs before, during, and after its
utterance. Consider the primitive language introduced in 2. One might be inclined to view the
sparse vocabulary of this language ('block', 'pillar', 'slab', 'beam') as consisting of the names of
objects. This seems appropriate as within the context in which language is employed, there are
four types of objects associated with the use of each of the four words. In thinking of these
words as names of objects, though, one would ignore a crucial feature of their use: they function
exclusively as commands. The master builder calls out one of the words when he wishes his
assistant to bring him the corresponding stone. The assistant, upon hearing the master call out,
selects a stone from the appropriate stack, and delivers it to the master. The actions of the master
involving each word, and the assistant's reactions to those, constitute the use in this language of
those words. Meaning is thus tied to a practice which occurs over time a word cannot have a
meaning outside of any such practice. Wittgenstein thus has the makings of an answer to the
question posed at the outset of this chapter: a live sign is one which has a role in the activities of
those who employ it. There must be a regularity in the use of a word for it to be meaningful.
The Language-Game Analogy
In his later writings, Wittgenstein developed an analogy comparing the use of language
to playing a game. He calls the activity in 2 between the master carpenter and his assistant a
language-game. While it is billed as a complete primitive language, it is also a practice that
occurs in complex natural languages. Though this account is a bit simplified, the game that the
master and the assistant plays is one of many different types of activities that can be found in
language. In calling this activity a game, Wittgenstein is making a number of suggestions about
the way a language works.
When one plays a game, one has to abide by certain rules in order to be said to play the
game correctly. Not just any move in chess is appropriate; one cannot, for example, move a rook
diagonally and be said to playing chess properly. So too with language. While meaning is
connected with use, not just any use of a word is correct. For there to be correctness and
incorrectness in word usage, there must be rules of word-usage, and conformity to those rules is
a necessary condition for proper use.
The rules of a game are conventional insofar as they are the products of those who play
the games; the same is true for language. The rules governing word-usage and sentence
formation are not imposed from outside of the system. This idea is explicitly addressed in a later
section of the Philosophical Investigations: "The rules of grammar may be called "arbitrary", if
that is to mean that the aim of grammar is nothing but that of the language."" This view of the
nature of the rules of language represents a significant change in Wittgenstein's thought from his
Tractarian days, when he was inclined to believe that the rules of language were imposed from
without the rules of language were the rules of logic.
The diversity that one finds when one considers the different types of games is mirrored
in the diversity in the various functions of language. In his comments on family resemblances,
Wittgenstein remarks that there is no set of features, nor any one feature that is common to all
games. Presumably, he means that if one were to attempt to give an explanation for the concept
of a game, one could not respond by saying that "A game necessarily has such-and-such
"Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations. Oxford, 1953, 497.
features" or "anything which has such-and-such features is a game." Now, it isn't at all obvious
that a consideration of the concept 'game' fails to yield necessary conditions some
characteristic or characteristics common to all games. Games, it seems, must be rule-governed
activities. Anything which is not an activity cannot be a game, and it is difficult to conceive of a
game completely lacking in rules. Consider a child playing with blocks, but with no eye for
building a stable structure. The child picks up pieces, stacks some, throws others, and puts others
still in his mouth. Surely the child is playing, but is he playing a game? It is not clear that he is.
Wittgenstein does not go to great lengths to defend this view of games, giving no explicit
examples of a game which is not rule-governed. Perhaps he doesn't need to. It might suffice to
say that games are not, in fact, identified as such in virtue of being rule-governed activities (for
this seems to be a bit too vague of a criterion for most speakers), and that if pressed, a speaker
will be unable to cite those features in virtue of which he makes his determinations.
Assuming that Wittgenstein is correct in his view about family-resemblance concepts,
any attempt to establish necessary and sufficient conditions for such concepts would arbitrarily
exclude certain instances from consideration that should be included in the concept's extension.
What is being suggested is that the set of all games forms an imperfect community12, a
"complicated network of similarities overlapping and criss-crossing: sometimes overall
similarities, sometimes similarities of detail.""13 The same, he thinks, can be said of language.
One cannot give necessary and sufficient conditions for what counts as a linguistic activity. The
various functions of language are too disparate and resist such an easy classification.
2To borrow a phrase from Nelson Goodman in The Structure ofAppearance. 2nd ed.,
"Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations. Oxford, 1953, 66.
If the concept of a game has indeterminate boundaries, then it might seem that the term
'game' lacks a fixed meaning, and this lack is not the result of the superficial features of
language, but rather, the result of indeterminacy in the rules governing the use of the term. When
one uses the term 'game', one is not acting in accordance with a rule of the form "Apply the term
'game' to all and only those things which have such-and-such features necessarily." Whatever the
rule governing the use of the word 'game' looks like, it must reflect the indeterminate boundaries
of the concept.
To press the point a bit further, consider a potential definition of the word 'game' as a
rule-governed activity. If this definition were to be successful, then the rules governing the use
of the word would seem to leave no room for ambiguity: the word 'game' should be applied to
only those activities which are rule-governed. However, if Wittgenstein is correct, then no such
definition can be given. The "complicated network of similarities" doesn't admit of an analytic
definition, and the rules governing usage must reflect this complexity.
Wittgenstein doesn't think that the inability to give an analytic definition of the word
'game', nor the inability to give a list of rules strictly determining the correct use of the word,
threatens one's ability to understand the word. Neither is one's ability to explain the meaning of
the word threatened; a definition in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions is not required,
rather, all one needs to do is to point out examples and say "These are games." For family-
resemblance concept-terms, ostensive definitions can serve to explain the use of the term. This is
possible insofar as the members of a linguistic community agree in matters of classification and
generalization. That a speaker is unable to specify the network of similarities that unites certain
things under one concept does not impinge upon his ability to classify certain things that fall
under that concept, for having been trained in the use of terms through example, and
participating in what Wittgenstein calls a "shared form of life" with the members of his
community, he will follow the rules for the use of words "blindly", without making a conscious
decision to behave in this way rather than that.14
Wittgenstein doesn't make clear exactly how prevalent he believes family-resemblance
concepts to be. Due to the rather benign appearance of the concepts of language and game, one
might think that many everyday concepts might turn out to lack any essential features, despite
the fact that they have been given (or people have attempted to give them) analytic definitions in
the past. If it turns out that many of the concepts taken to have fixed boundaries are, in fact,
family-resemblance concepts, then many words will not admit of analytic definition.
While Wittgenstein doesn't claim that there is any one form that the rules of word-usage
must take, the inability to give analytic definitions for family-resemblance concept terms
indicates that ostensive definitions can play an important role in teaching and explaining the use
of words. By examining some of Wittgenstein's comments on ostensive definitions, it should be
possible to draw out his view on the nature of rules in general.
For those terms expressing family-resemblance concepts, pointing to examples can help
establish correct usage of the term. As indicated in the last section, for this form of explanation
to work, a certain degree of agreement amongst members of a linguistic community is required.
For an individual who did not find our way of classifying things under the concept game natural,
ostensive definitions would likely fail. This should not be too troubling, though, as any account
of language presupposes a certain degree of agreement among speakers.
14Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations. Oxford, 1953, 219.
An ostensive explanation need not be sufficient for explaining the use of only those
words for which an analytic definition might be found wanting. In 28, Wittgenstein gives a
partial list of the types of words for which an ostensive definition can be given: "a proper name,
the name of a colour, the name of a material, a numeral, the name of a point of the compass, and
so on." Numerals, the names of materials, and the points of the compass don't seem to resemble
family-resemblance terms their application requires certain specifiable necessary conditions.
Nevertheless, it is Wittgenstein's belief that not only can such terms be explained through
ostension, but that explanations of this sort are in no way deficient or subordinate to more formal
types of explanation. This view can be found in 28, just following the passage quoted above:
"The definition of the number two, "That is called 'two'" pointing to two nuts is perfectly
When one explains the use of a word, one gives a sentence (or a number of sentences)
which is intended to show those circumstances in which it is correct to use the word. This
sentence serves as a rule for the use of the word. An ostensive explanation is no different. In
explaining the use of a word, say 'game,' by means of pointing to a number of examples and
saying "This is a game," one has expressed a rule for correct usage of the word.15 This is not to
say that an ostensive definition is the form that the rules for word-usage take. The use of words
for geometric shapes, mathematical operations, and the like words which can be given strict
definitions in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions could be explained in alternative
ways, and perhaps more traditional rules are necessary for closing up those gaps left in language
"Wittgenstein indicates at several points that an explanation of a word's use serves as a
rule for that word's use. Cf The Blue Book, p. 12 (an ostensive definition is a "rule of the usage
of the word" and in 30 of the Philosophical Investigations (an ostensive definition "explains the
use the meaning of a word....").
by ostensive definitions. Yet in many cases, ostensive definitions serve perfectly well as rule for
the use of words.
As Wittgenstein takes the concept of a rule to be a family-resemblance concept, it stands
to reason that there is no one form that rules must have. Yet ostensive definitions can function as
rules for word usage in a great number of cases, more than perhaps was traditionally thought, as
indicated by Wittgenstein's claims that things such as numerals can be defined in this manner.
As a matter of practice, ostensive explanations are often given for words, and it is conceivable
that this may be the only explanation that a speaker has ever been given and the only one that he
is in a position to give in response to a request.
It might be denied that an ostensive definition is capable of filling the role that
Wittgenstein assigns to it. An ostensive definition, one might claim, leaves too much unspecified
in that appealing to a finite number of samples in explaining a word's use doesn't provide a rule
by which the correctness of a word's application in every conceivable instance can be judged.
This worry can be read in at least two ways. In giving an ostensive explanation, only a finite
number of samples can be appealed to. There may be an inclination to say that the rule so given
specifies that the word properly applies to only those objects specifically referred to. This type of
reaction would result from taking the statements used in the explanation (i.e. several statements
of the form "This is F") to be describing the objects in question. If these statements were
descriptive, then indeed, they would not be capable of playing a role in expressing a rule
governing the use of the word in cases beyond those already mentioned. If one points to objects
x,, x2, x3, and x4 and says about each "This is red," as a way of describing some feature of each,
this doesn't justify saying of object x5 that it is red. This is because a description has no
normative import; a true statement describing one object as being a certain way has no bearing
on the truth-value of a statement describing a second object as being that way a descriptive
statement of the form "This is red," when indicating a fire-truck, cannot establish the correctness
of saying "That is red" when indicating any distinct object (the truth value of the second
statement is established independently of the first). However, this is not what happens when one
gives an ostensive definition. One is not describing some feature of an object, but rather
establishing which type of thing it is correct to apply a word to.16 Ostensive definitions are used
in such normative activities such as teaching and justifying, they should not be seen as merely
describing certain entities as being a certain way, but as prescribing correct linguistic behavior.
Against this claim it might be charged that an ostensive definition isn't the sort of thing that can
accomplish such a task that it is a category mistake to think of an ostensive definition as having
a normative component. At best, an ostensive definition gives samples from which a rule
governing the use of a word can be deduced, but the definition itself fails to function as a rule.
Certainly, an ostensive definition does not have the form that is usually expected of a rule. If,
however, the concept of a rule is a family-resemblance concept, then this is not too damning of a
charge. Moreover, it would seem that, for Wittgenstein, developing rules is itself a language
game. A rule is the type of thing that can be appealed to for justification as to why a word was
used in a particular way, used to explain to a novice how a word is properly used, and to serve as
an instrument of evaluation regarding particular instances. An ostensive definition can do any of
these things, and thus seems to have a role in the game of giving rules for word-usage.
The second way of reading the above worry gains a bit more traction, but is, in
Wittgenstein's view, based on a misconception about language, one that has already been
16Cf. Baker and Hacker, Wittgenstein: Understanding and Meaning, Part I Oxford, 1980,
discussed, and one that Wittgenstein himself fell prey to in his early years. One may grant that an
ostensive definition provides a standard of correctness in many cases (i.e., that it is not limited to
those instances involved in the definition itself), but that it still leaves many possible cases
unaccounted for. Think of Wittgenstein's example involving the disappearing chair from 80. A
plausible ostensive definition for the word 'chair' would involve only those objects with a certain
degree of temporal permanence. If a person came across a "chair" that repeatedly disappeared
and reappeared, one might be at a loss to say whether or not the thing was properly called a
chair. Normally, chairs don't behave in such a manner and none of those involved in the
explanation of the word 'chair' did. So the rule that he had been operating according to in his use
of the word didn't cover this contingency or many others. But can this be seen as a serious flaw
in the rule? In everyday circumstances, the rule functions as it should, serving as a standard of
correctness and guiding the behavior of speakers. Only in bizarre hypothetical circumstances do
worries arise. So the rules that are available may not determine the correctness of using the term
in every possible case, but they should not be seen as deficient as a result since they do
determine correct uses in actual circumstances.
One who claimed that this indeterminacy was a flaw would be operating under a view of
language whereby linguistic rules are akin to (or identical to) the rules of logic in that they
rigidly determine what is and is not appropriate in every situation. Bob Hale, paraphrasing
Wittgenstein, characterized the view as follows: "following a rule a rule for the use of a word,
say is a matter of traveling along rails which are already laid down and determine its
application in new cases...."1 It is against this view that Wittgenstein's comments on family-
"Bob Hale "Rule-Following, Objectivity, and Meaning," A Companion to the Philosophy
ofLanguage. Bob Hale and Crispin Wright, eds., Oxford, 1997, p.369.
resemblance concepts and proper names are directed. The fact that a concept like that of a game
may have vague borders does not count against the usefulness of family-resemblance concepts.
Similarly, the fact that the rules for word-usage which come in the form of ostensive definitions
don't determine for every conceivable circumstance how the word is to be applied doesn't mean
that such rules are useless, or even imperfect and serve only to stand proxy for some hidden,
The analogy between language and a game again proves useful in highlighting some
common misconceptions about language. In 84, the reader is asked to imagine a game "that is
everywhere bounded by rules." Even a very extensive set of deterministic rules could admit of
some doubt, if one was willing to exert one's imagination. One could develop further rules (ones
which governed the original set) that removed this doubt, but even the expanded set would
conceivably admit of some further doubt, if one were inclined to press the issue. One could go
on raising doubts for any set of rules, no matter how extensive and determinate, without end. So,
in terms of there being conceivable situations for which the rules of word-usage do not apply, the
problem of indeterminacy is not one restricted to language, or to the types of rules for word-
usage (specifically, ostensive definitions). No game, nor any rule-governed activity, is immune
to doubt in this sense a sufficiently clever person could come up with a scenario not covered by
the rules. This is not to say that every rule-governed activity is in some sense problematic. As
Wittgenstein remarks in 84, just because someone could imagine a doubt that bypasses the rules
does not mean that those who engage in the activity are in doubt. Just because one can imagine
something having the appearance of a chair which blinks in and out of his vision, which the rules
do not deal with, does not mean that normal people don't fully understand what "chair" means, or
that the practice of calling things by this name is somehow defective. The rules that are available
for the use of the word 'chair' are perfectly satisfactory for those situations that do in fact
Ostensive definitions admit of misinterpretation. For example, one might not know
exactly what feature of an object is being indicated in the definition. This is considered in 28: a
listener may witness an ostensive definition involving a gesture towards two nuts and the phrase
"That is called 'two'" and take 'two' to be the name of the particular pair of nuts being pointed to
(rather than understand that what is being conveyed is that the number of the nuts is called
'two'). The rule would have been misinterpreted, and the subsequent behavior of the listener
would reflect this. Yet as was just discussed, the possibility of misinterpretation is not something
unique to ostensive definitions any rule can be misinterpreted. Yet this does raise an interesting
point. In cases where a listener misinterprets a rule, a further rule is necessary to correct him.
This could be done by pointing to more objects with the right feature (say being two of
something) and saying while gesturing to each "This is called 'two', and This is called 'two', and
This is called 'two'" and so on. While as a practical matter this extending of the definition would
likely suffice, it is certainly conceivable that a person could still misinterpret the rule given. In
such a context, a definition might be required specifying exactly what feature it is to which the
word is intended to apply. One might say "This number of things is called 'two'." This
presupposes that the listener already has a grasp of the concept of a number a presupposition
that existed in the original definition given. For it is only if a person grasps the concept of
number will the definition involving the phrase "This is called 'two'" have the right impact. What
this shows is that ostensive definitions rules for word usage do not stand alone. They require a
prior understanding of different aspects of language. They do not provide an exit from the circle
of words, that is, a direct nexus between language and the world.
At the outset of this chapter, Wittgenstein's rejection of the characterization of meaning
(by which meaning was taken to be a mental state) was discussed. The sections following 143
of the Investigations are dedicated to the rejection of this characterization of understanding. If
one focuses on the performance of a student as the measure of understanding, it is clear that one
is unable to say that, from a solitary performance which is in keeping with the dictates of the
rule, the student understands the rule. His performance may only accidentally "match up" with
the rule, and so a teacher would need to observe other performances before satisfying himself
that the student understood. Yet it seems that no clear point can be established at which the
student's performances can be said to constitute understanding (inviting a sorites paradox). This
may incline a person to reject the link between understanding and performance, and instead
adopt the view that understanding is a mental state, one that gives rise to the appropriate
performances. This view has some intuitive force, as understanding often seems to happen all at
once, like an awakening of sorts the dawning of an intellectual grasp of some thing. This
consideration does not seem to be compatible with the view that understanding is a matter of
In response to this, Wittgenstein makes only the briefest of remarks. In 148/9, he asks
whether understanding is the type of thing that comes and goes whether one understands only
when attending to a rule. Wittgenstein is pressing the idea that mental states have the
characteristic of being limited in duration. This is obvious when one considers states such as
pain and pleasure.18 If this suggestion is right, and furthermore, if understanding is a mental
18Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations. Oxford, 1953, 149 notes (a) and
state, then understanding is similar to having sensations of pain and pleasure. Intuitively, though,
this is suspect. Understanding isn't necessarily the type of thing that, once had, is always had.
Debilitating injuries can result in a person failing to understand something that they once did,
and of course, there is forgetfulness. But these cases are notable for their effects, indicating that
our notion of understanding is not of a transient mental state. It is assumed that a person
understands rules, say those governing addition, even he is not consciously attending to them,
whereas (and this is not without controversy) pain and pleasure are not taken to last beyond a
person's consciousness of them. The denial of the stability of understanding would have the
result that one "comes to understand" every time he is called upon to apply it, and this seems
As a way to salvage this view, one might posit the existence of unconscious mental
states. This would grant some stability to understanding insofar as a person could be said to
understand a rule even when not consciously attending to it, say while attending to something
else, or while sleeping. Worries arise, however, when attempting to characterize these
unconscious mental states. One option is an appeal to "a state of a mental apparatus (perhaps of
the brain) by means of which we explain the manifestations of that knowledge."19 The mental
apparatus might be cashed out in neurophysiological terms, and the state in question can be seen
as one that causes the person to behave in a certain way. In the case of understanding a rule, the
state would be the one which causes the person to act in accordance with the rule in the right
circumstances. Another way of putting this would be to say that understanding a rule consists in
being in a physical state which gives rise to a behavioral disposition.
19Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations. Oxford, 1953, 149
Wittgenstein objects to calling the state of a mental apparatus a mental state, as there
would be two separate criteria for it: the physical state itself, and the behavioral manifestations.
Wittgenstein does not develop this criticism in any great detail. One can infer from this passage
that he believes that a mental state should have but one criterion, though he does not explicitly
say what this criterion is. If, however, this account under consideration is correct, then either the
knowledge that a person has the appropriate physical state or the knowledge that a person
behaves in such-and-such a way under certain circumstances would be sufficient for saying that
he understands a given rule. In a parenthetical remark, Wittgenstein alludes to a further problem
with this account, claiming that it makes the mistake of equating the distinction between
conscious mental states and unconscious mental states with that between conscious mental states
and dispositions (as the term is used in 149 indicating a dispositional "state" of the brain). Just
what he has in mind is not abundantly clear, as no effort is made to specify either distinction, but
something like the following seems to be a plausible interpretation. The distinction between
conscious and unconscious mental states that Wittgenstein has in mind might be exemplified by
the distinction between occurrent and non-occurrent beliefs. A non-occurrent belief does not
present itself to the possessor, an occurrent belief does. However, being non-occurrent is not
essential to the belief; it is possible for a person to actively consider a belief which did not
previously present itself. A disposition (again, using the term as Wittgenstein uses it in 149) is a
physical state that causes a person to act in such-and-such a way in response to certain stimuli. It
is not the sort of thing that can present itself to a person (we can't be aware of the neurological
states of our brain at least, not directly). In this sense, an unconscious mental state is not
identical with a disposition, and thus the distinction between conscious and unconscious states
cannot be identical with that between conscious states and dispositions.
It is for these two reasons that Wittgenstein rejects the account of understanding as a
mental state. The alternative offered is that understanding is akin to an ability. This avoids the
problem of duration that faced the mental state account, for one possesses an ability even when
one is not employing that ability. The questions raised at the beginning of this section remain,
however. At what point do performances constitute understanding, and how, on this account, can
the sensation of coming to understand something "in a flash" be explained?
To address the second problem first, one must examine what understanding "in a flash"
amounts to. If a sequence of numbers is taken as an example, understanding in this way might
consist in the grasping of the formula that governs the sequence. But might it not be said that
someone could understand the sequence even if the formula never occurred to him? If
questioned, a person might not be in a position to recite the formula by which their continuation
of a sequence is governed he might, instead, claim that continuing in the way that he does just
"feels" right. Should the predication of understanding be withheld as a result, even if his
performance never varies with respect to the sequence from that of a person who did recite the
formula? Or, alternatively, might one be able to recite the formula, while continuing the
sequence in an incorrect manner? In this latter case, the formula may occur to the person, but not
as the result of proper algebraic thinking, and the formula would be of no use for continuing the
series beyond the sample given. The upshot of these considerations is that, in the case
mentioned, being able to produce a statement of the rule is neither necessary nor sufficient for
understanding. Similar remarks can be made about the vague sensation that is commonly
associated with understanding one can have the sensation, and yet fail to understand (the
sensation was premature, e.g.), and, presumably, one can understand without that sensation
occurring. Take, for instance, the manipulation of dough by the apprentice baker. When he first
attempts to shape dough into a particular shape, the result is likely to be substandard. His
baguettes will probably look like a snake that has swallowed an elephant. The person, at this
early stage, understands that certain techniques are necessary for shaping baguettes, but he fails
to understand entirely how a baguette is properly shaped. There are subtleties that he fails to
grasp. After repetition, he will notice that his product comes out looking right. He may be
inclined to say "Now I get it," but in truth, this claim comes after the fact. He will be unable to
pinpoint any instant in which he progressed from not understanding to understanding, as it was a
gradual change not accompanied by any sensation or belief.
The various phenomena that can be associated with understanding "in a flash" are neither
necessary nor sufficient for understanding. This bolsters Wittgenstein's assertion that
understanding is not a mental process. These phenomena may often accompany understanding,
but are not essential to it. Looking back to the example of the bread-maker, it becomes apparent
that, for Wittgenstein, understanding is not just a matter of being in some mental state. It is,
rather, the mastery of a technique. A person might reflect on his (perhaps hypothetical) actions
and have the sensation of understanding something all at once, but this sensation is not
understanding, but a byproduct of it. The answer to the other question under consideration the
question of when a person can be said to understand can be gleaned from these considerations.
As understanding is a mastery of a technique, a person can be said to understand if he is capable
of using the word in ways that accord with the established rules. If a student, instructed to
develop a series of numbers by writing the next number but one, proceeds to write 1004 after
1000, then there has been a failure of understanding.
This leads to the discussion of rule-following beginning in 185. Here, Wittgenstein harkens
back to the game introduced in 143 wherein a student is instructed to continue a series of
numbers according to a certain rule (the rule +2'). It is conceivable that the pupil continues the
series perfectly up until a given point, after which his performances would be judged as not in
keeping with the rule given for example, after 1000, he continues the series by writing '1004,
1008, 1012...' When confronted with his mistake, the student contends that he has not deviated
from the rule given, that he has proceeded in the same manner as before. For the student,
proceeding as he did was in keeping with the rule as he understood it writing '1004' after '1000'
seemed correct because he did not take the rule to indicate that he should write the next number
but one after each number. This misunderstanding is quite unusual given the rule in question; of
this, Wittgenstein remarks: "Such a case would present similarities with one in which a person
naturally reacted to the gesture of pointing with the hand by looking in the direction of the line
from finger-tip to wrist, not from wrist to fingertip."20
This reinforces a point previously discussed, namely, that having a formula in one's
mind, so to speak, is not sufficient for understanding. In this situation, the student can give
expression to the rule that he is supposed to be following, so it would seem that he is thinking of
the rule, but his actions belie misunderstanding. The student has understood the rule '+2' to mean
that he is to add two to the previous number in the set up to 1000, and then to add four thereafter.
This is not what was meant by the rule. Rather, what was meant was that the student should add
two to every previous number in the set, so that regardless of the last number, the next will
always be two greater.
20Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations. Oxford, 1953, 185.
That this is what was meant is not very controversial, and yet, if someone is asked what
justifies writing '1002' after '1000' given the rule, and not '1004', he may have a difficult time
giving an answer. That such a move is justified seems obvious, but the fact justifying it is
elusive. It might be claimed that upon understanding the rule, one knew in advance which
actions would be in accord with it, and so that in ordering the student to continue the series
according to the rule '+2', the teacher meant for him to write '1002' after '1000'. This claim,
taken in the most literal sense, cannot be true. One does not, upon understanding, actively
consider every possible application of a rule. One might be drawn to this view by the fact that
upon understanding a rule, a person is in a position to act in accordance with the rule without
hesitation in novel situations. This is, of course, misguided. Everyone understands the rule '+2',
but no one has thought of every step in a sequence governed by that rule the set is infinite, and
humans have only a finite capacity for thought. Perhaps one has actively thought of the transition
from 1000 to 1002 according to the rule '+2', but some other example which has not been
actively considered could be produced, and the conviction as to how one should act would
remain. Moreover, an appeal such as this would be a reversion to the mental conception of
meaning and understanding, which Wittgenstein has already rejected on independent grounds.
The notion of a rule involves the determination of correctness, but the elusiveness of the
answer to the question of how they accomplish this might lead one to question whether rules can
determine which actions are correct or incorrect. If a reason cannot be found to justify writing
'1002' after '1000' when given the command to increase the series according to the rule '+2', then
how can the student who writes '1004' be chastised? Some, most notably Saul Kripke, have
taken Wittgenstein to presenting a skeptical paradox with regards rules and language precisely
on grounds of this sort. The next chapter is dedicated to exploring this interpretation of
This brief survey reveals a number of notable things about Wittgenstein's views on
language. The representationalism of the Tractatus is rejected in favor of a much more complex
view of language. Also rejected is the "calculus" conception of the rules governing language: the
rules of language are not necessary in the way that the rules of logic are, they do not govern in
all conceivable cases, and they are the constructs of those who speak the language (i.e., they are
not grounded in anything external to the language). Certain mental conceptions of meaning are
dismissed as invoking "occult" properties in an attempt to avoid confronting serious difficulties;
instead, Wittgenstein connects meaning with rule-governed use, suggesting that the meaning of a
term is to be read off of the role of the term in the language. Similarly, certain mental
conceptions of understanding are dismissed understanding is not to be equated with the
sensation that accompanies learning, nor with any other mental state; in place of these views,
Wittgenstein claims that understanding is an ability, and attributions of understanding are to be
restricted to those capable of correct behavior within the relevant domain.
The complexity of Wittgenstein's views should be quite apparent. It would be folly to think that
one could grasp the principles of the Investigations by examining a few select passages in
isolation. As we shall see in the next chapter, Saul Kripke does just this. With the resources at
hand, it should be possible to show just where Kripke goes astray in his interpretation of
KRIPKE'S WITTGENSTEIN AND THE PHILOSOPHICAL INVESTIGATIONS
The focus of this chapter will be Kripke's interpretation of Wittgenstein's comments on rule-
following. Kripke's book, Wittgenstein on Rules and Language has proven incredibly influential,
even as many commentators express doubt about the accuracy of its portrayal of Wittgenstein's
later thought. I hope that, as this chapter progresses, a clear picture will emerge of the
differences between the discussion of rules in Wittgenstein's Investigations and Kripke's
interpretation. Neither Kripke's skeptical paradox, nor his skeptical solution to that paradox, I
contend, is properly attributable to Wittgenstein.
One might question the value of such an inquiry. After all, Kripke does write that the
ideas presented in WRL should be thought of as "Witttgenstein's argument as it strikes Kripke,"1
and in doing so, seems to shield himself from charges of inaccuracy in interpretation. To this it
must be said that Kripke only once attempts to distance himself in such a way, and proceeds
throughout the work as if he were offering a straightforward interpretation, and not merely a
novel problem inspired by the writings of another. Furthermore, despite the dismissal by
numerous thinkers of Kripke's interpretation, there are few serious attempts to justify this claim.
Perhaps the fact that this justification would have to be largely exegetical in nature explains this:
exegesis is typically seen as the work of historians, not those interested in fundamental questions
about language. It seems to this writer, though, that this discussion is not without merit, for any
light, however dim, that can be shed on the writings of Wittgenstein is a boon.
'Saul Kripke, Wittgenstein on Rules and Language. Cambridge, 1982, p.5.
The Skeptical Paradox
The discussion of Kripke's interpretation of Wittgenstein was introduced in the
introductory chapter of this thesis. Recall that a problem seemed to arise when seeking the
justification for the claim that the student who continued the series according to the rule '+2' by
writing "1000, 1004, 1008..." had made an error. Kripke takes this problem to be the basis of a
skeptical paradox with regards to meaning and, more generally, rule-following.
Any action, it might seem, can be made to accord with a given rule if there is some way
of stating the rule which makes the action out to conform with it. The student who continues the
series as previously noted can be said to be acting in accordance with the rule '+2' insofar as he
has interpreted the rule as follows: "add 2 to every number less than 1000, and add 4 to every
number greater than or equal to 1000."2Yet if this is the case, then any continuation of the series
can be said to accord with the rule, and any continuation can similarly be said to conflict with it.
This would seem to undermine appeal to a rule as a standard of correctness indeed, it seems to
destroy the very possibility of the existence of rules. One does not need a fully-developed
account of rules to have the conviction that a rule functions as an arbiter between correct and
incorrect behavior. If it were to turn out that this was impossible, due to the inability to state
coherently how a rule could set a standard of correctness by distinguishing, at least in most
cases, which actions definitely were in accord with it and which actions definitely were not, then
rules would have to be relegated to the realm of fiction.
Kripke highlights the problem in a slightly different way than Wittgenstein. Instead of
asking what justifies the claim that the student has proceeded incorrectly, he constructs a thought
2This is only one possible interpretation of'+2' (out of infinitely many) that the student
could be appealing to.
experiment that puts into doubt the conviction that one's current use of a word is in keeping with
one's past use. Specifically, with regards to the term 'plus', he asks whether the answer '125' to
the question "What is 68 plus 57?" is in keeping with the past usage of the term. By hypothesis,
the subject has never performed addition on numbers greater than 57, and while his past usage is
in consistent with his having meant addition, it is also consistent with his having meant the more
complicated function of quaddition, whose definition is repeated here:
x ey = x+ y, ifx, y< 57
= 5 otherwise.
As the subject's past usage of'plus' and '+' conforms both with the supposition that he
meant addition and with the supposition that he meant quaddition, what fact makes it the case
that he meant one rather than the other? Kripke points out that no instructions that one has
previously given onselfwill suffice, for any such instruction can fall prey to the skeptic's doubt.
Kripke considers the following candidate for instruction with regards the function in question:
when faced with any equation of the form x + y = ?, one is to grab a handful of markers, and
count out one pile equal to the value of x, and another equal to the value of y. The two piles are
then combined and counted, the result being the value sought. Yet the skeptic can call into
question the term 'count'. Perhaps when one gave himself such instructions, one was using the
term 'count' to mean quount, an activity whereby one performs the action associated with
counting if one is joining two heaps that are individually less than 57, but whereby one answers
'5' if either heap is 57 or more. If one indeed was using 'count' in this manner, then the
instructions that he gave himself for 'plus' would dictate that he now answer '5'. Any instructions
that one could cite grounding 'count' as meaning count would fall prey to similar worries.
The challenge, then, is this: can any fact be produced that makes it the case that the claim
that the present usage of 'plus' (whereby the correct answer to the question 'What is 68 plus 57?'
is 125) conforms to past usage (whereby the correct answer is 5)? The considerations of the
preceding paragraph, motivated by Wittgenstein's comments3on rule following, attempt to show
that as any rule can be variously interpreted, and that as no interpretation is in any sense
privileged, nothing in a subject's mental history fixes what one meant. Wittgenstein illustrated
how understanding did not bestow upon a subject knowledge of how to act according to the rule
understood in every possible circumstance, and the rule that the subject might be in a position to
cite as the one he is following is subject to many different interpretations, each, according to the
skeptic, with no better claim than any other to be the "correct" one. So nothing mental seems to
solve the problem.
Of course, there may be other options. Perhaps non-mental facts about a person can
determine what that person means in a given situation. The dispositionalists in particular will
argue something like this. Kripke rejects a dispositional account, and with good reason. This
issue will be investigated in some detail in the next chapter. For now, it is enough to note that the
only facts that Kripke thinks are even candidates for fixing meaning are mental and behavioral,
and neither, he feels, foot the bill.
Having set out in sufficient detail the challenge of the skeptic, Kripke makes some
remarks about the scope of the skeptical paradox:
Given, however, that everything in my mental history is
compatible with the conclusion that I meant plus and with the
conclusion that I meant quus, it is clear that the sceptical challenge
is not really an epistemological one. It purports to show that
nothing in my mental history of past behavior not even what an
3Cf. Philosophical Investigations, 84-86, 185, and 201.
omniscient God would know could establish whether I meant
plus or quus.4
According to Kripke, if the skeptic is successful in showing that there is no fact that
establishes that a subject meant one thing rather than another, then the conclusion to be drawn is
not epistemological. That is, it isn't a matter of not knowing what a subject meant by his use of a
term as a result of not being able to discover a meaning-fixing fact (which may exist, but do so
beyond our ken). Instead, it is Kripke's contention that the inability to find such facts is a result
of the absence of any potential candidates (such as instructions that a subject gives himself) to
justify a claim about what a subject means. This being the case, there simply are no meaning-
fixing facts. Notice how strange the label skeptic appears in this light: Kripke's interlocutor isn't
merely claiming that meaning facts are something that cannot be known rather, he claims that
such facts have no place in metaphysical space. Furthermore, the so-called skeptic takes this
nihilism about meaning-fixing facts to entail nihilism about meaning in general without these
facts, there is no such thing as meaning anything by any word. Once his cards are on the table, it
is clear that he is no skeptic at all. Though the so-called skeptic initiates the discussion by
questioning the possibility of a certain kind of knowledge, he eventually abandons skepticism for
a position that has metaphysical as well as epistemological implications. This position,
moreover, is on much shakier ground than skepticism. The conclusions that there is no such
thing as meaning and, thereby, that language is impossible, cannot be cogently argued for as they
would render any premises that might be brought to bear unjustified. While arguments for
skepticism have been given that suffer from the same problem (for example, the argument from
deceptive senses that is advanced in Meditations II), it is generally granted that some skeptical
4Saul Kripke, Witgenstein on Rules and Private Language. Cambridge, 1982, p. 21.
arguments exist that do not. No such argument, it seems, could be given for the claim that
language is impossible. Kripke attempts to overcome this problem by insisting that the so-called
skeptic is only raising concerns about a person's past usage of a term, the idea being that there
are no worries about the language being used to establish the problem. This won't work, as the
scope of the conclusion is not limited to language in the past. The label skeptic, then, is not
properly used with respect to Kripke's gadfly. This, though, is a minor observation, and is
tangential to the purposes of this chapter. Kripke never intended the his interlocutor to be
presenting a tenable thesis about language, in any event, as he ultimately attempts to show how
language is possible without the existence of meaning-facts.
Problems with the Skeptical Paradox Interpretation
In a discussion of Kripke's interpretation of Wittgenstein, there are few better places to
start than at Investigations 201, for it is this passage which Kripke identifies as central to the
project of the Investigations. Kripke quotes the first paragraph of this section at the beginning of
his chapter on the "Wittgensteinian Paradox".
This was our paradox: no course of action could be determined by
a rule, because any course of action can be made out to accord
with the rule. The answer was: if any action can be made out to
accord with the rule, then it can also be made out to conflict with
it. And so there would be neither accord nor conflict here.5
One can see the origins of Kripke's skeptic in this passage, to be sure. What is interesting,
though, is that despite the importance Kripke places on this section, he does not give any
attention to the next paragraph, which reads as follows:
It can be seen that there is a misunderstanding here from the mere
fact that in the course of our argument we give one interpretation
after another; as if each contented us at least for a moment, until
we thought of yet another standing behind it. What this shews is
that there is a way of grasping a rule which is not an interpretation,
but which is exhibited in what we call "obeying the rule" and
"going against it" in actual cases.
Hence there is an inclination to say: any action according to the
rule is an interpretation. But we ought to restrict the term
"interpretation" to the substitution of one expression of the rule for
Contrary to Kripke's claim that the skeptical paradox is the central issue of the
Investigations, Wittgenstein appears to dismiss it immediately. The paradox is based on a
misunderstanding of the nature of rules and rule-following, a misunderstanding which
Wittgenstein is attempting to illuminate. Think back, once again, to the student from 185.
When confronted with the student's actions in continuing the series '+2', one is inclined to say
that the student has misunderstood the rule. Instead of understanding it to mean "write the next
but one after every number in the series", he has taken it to mean something like "add 2 to every
number up to 1000, and add 4 thereafter". Both of these alternatives constitute interpretations
(or, in the case of the latter, a misinterpretation) of the rule '+2'; they are different expressions of
the rule. The possibility of many different interpretations, and the seeming lack of a justification
for giving any particular interpretation priority, leads to the worries about rule-following, as we
have seen. But not only does Wittgenstein deny the conclusion that rule-following is impossible,
he denies the conception of rule-following which led to this problem. What Wittgenstein rejects
is the idea that understanding a rule is simply a matter of interpreting it correctly that is, of
being able to give the correct alternative expression of the rule.
During the discussion of ostensive definitions in the last chapter, the role that rules play
in the language-game was briefly touched upon. It was said that rules are used to explain and
justify behavior and to instruct novices about the proper moves to make within the confines of
the game in question. When a person engages in any of these activities, he is playing a game for
which there are rules. One cannot, of course, simply cite some rule one has to cite a rule that
agrees with his actions, for otherwise, his attempts to explain or justify behavior would fail. It is
in this agreement that the meaning of a rule is to be found. To determine the meaning of a word,
Wittgenstein claims that one must examine the way that the word is used what behavior is
associated with it. So too with rules. If one examines the behavior associated with the citation of
a rule, one can determine the actions which count as being in accord with the rule. It is not an
interpretation of a rule that determines what accords with the rule, but rather, the way that the
rule is used the behavior associated with it, that does this. Thus, Wittgenstein writes in 198:
"any interpretation still hangs in the air along with what it interprets, and cannot give it any
support. Interpretations by themselves do not determine meaning."
As mentioned earlier, one of Kripke's theses regarding the Investigations is the claim that
the skeptical paradox is among the central issues of the work. The text does not strongly support
this claim. Wittgenstein does not appear to be advancing a form of skepticism or nihilism as a
thesis which seriously threatens rule-following and language. Instead, he is concerned with a
particular conception of rule-following whereby the connection between a rule and those actions
which accord with it is made by the interpretation given to the rule by a subject. Just as he
rejected mentalistic pictures of meaning and understanding, so to does Wittgenstein reject this
mentalistic picture of rule-following. Having in one's mind a particular formulation of a rule
(that is, a sentence expressing the rule) does not settle once and for all how the rule guides
actions, for any interpretation is subject to further interpretation. Such a conception leads to
absurdity in that it strips rules of their normative character, since it seems to entail that any act
can be made to accord with a rule. So, this conception must be rejected, and in its place
Wittgenstein offers the picture mentioned above: the connection between a rule and those actions
which accord with it is established by custom the regular association of the rule with certain
behavior. Understanding a rule is a matter of being able to make this association in practice. It is
this which is the focus of198-201.
Kripke's attribution of a non-factualism with respect to meaning to Wittgenstein merits
consideration. On the one hand, Wittgenstein would almost certainly agree with the claim that no
facts about a subject's mental history could establish what was meant in a given instance. This
would seem to follow from Wittgenstein's rejection of mentalistic conceptions of meaning,
understanding, and rule-following. On the other, looking at some of Wittgenstein's middle-
period works, especially Philosophical Grammar, it appears that he did accept at least a limited
form of factualism:
"The proposition determines in advance what will make it true."
Certainly, the proposition "p" determines that p must be the case in
order to make it true; and that means:
(the proposition p) = (the proposition that the fact p makes true).
...Like everything metaphysical the harmony between thought and
reality is to be found in the grammar of the language.6
But is Kripke claiming that Wittgenstein came to deny this by the time he came to write
the Investigations? Perhaps not. When characterizing Wittgenstein's non-factualism, Kripke
appeals to a quote by Michael Dummett: "the Investigations contains implicitly a rejection of the
classical (realist) Frege-Tractatus view that the general form of explanation of meaning is a
statement of the truth conditions."'This is not as sweeping a claim as one attributing a general
non-factualism, and if this is all that Kripke is up to, then there is some truth here. Wittgenstein
6Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Grammar. Oxford, 1974, p.161-2.
Michael Dummett, Wittgenstein's Philosophy of Mathematics. p.348, as quoted in Saul
Kripke, Wittgenstein on Rules and Private Language, Cambridge, 1982 p.73.
would likely deny that there is any general form that an explanation of meaning must take.
However, it appears that Kripke is after bigger fish, for he claims that Wittgenstein seeks to
overthrow the view that all meaning can be explained in terms of truth conditions and replace it
with an "assertion conditional" theory. Again, there may be some truth to the claim that
Wittgenstein rejects a truth-conditional theory of meaning. If what is meant is that Wittgenstein
rejects the view that "a declarative sentence gets its meaning by virtue of its truth conditions, by
virtue of its correspondence to facts that must obtain if it is true," then this seems right. The
meaning of a declarative sentence comes from the way that the sentence is used from the role
that it plays in the language games in which it figures. But whether he intends to replace truth-
conditional semantics with a theory about assertion conditions is another matter entirely.
Before moving on to this topic, though, it should be asked whether Wittgenstein would
have agreed with Kripke's claim that there are no facts about behavior which can establish what
a speaker meant. As Wittgenstein characterized rule-following as a practice or an activity, and
meaning as connected with use, it would seem as if facts about a person's behavior could, in his
view, establish what a speaker meant. Granted, these facts would not be free from normative
terms, as some of the behavior involved has normative import (that is, the facts being considered
would have to take into account the practices of teaching, explaining, and so on). But there is
nothing obvious in Wittgenstein's writings which explicitly rules out such facts, and their
normative character need not disqualify them from consideration as answers to the skeptic.
The Skeptical Solution
"There can be no such thing as meaning anything by any word. Each new application we
make is a leap in the dark; any present intention could be interpreted so as to accord with
anything we may choose to do. So there can be neither accord, nor conflict."'Thus Kripke begins
the third chapter of his book, in which he outlines what he sees as Wittgenstein's "skeptical
solution" to the skeptical paradox. The notion of a skeptical solution to a skeptical problem
comes from Hume's Enquiry9 Hume famously finds himself faced with a skeptical problem
concerning inductive reasoning, namely, that inductive inferences can be justified neither a
priori, nor a posteriori. Briefly, induction cannot be justified a priori since the denial of the
conclusion of any inducive argument is conceivable while granting the truth of the premises. To
attempt to justify induction through empirical methods begs the question. 0Thus, the skeptic
about induction claims that no inductive inferences are ever justified. Hume does not deny these
points. He does, however, deny that such considerations will "undermine the reasoning of
common life and carry its doubts so far as to destroy all action as well as speculation.""That is,
though those beliefs arrived at through induction cannot be rationally justified, the skeptical
considerations are incapable of affecting them. Humans are by nature compelled to make these
inferences, and so while a skepticism about induction is justified, this skepticism will not have
any effect on practical judgements. Beliefs that are arrived at through induction may not,
according to Hume, be justified, but the compulsion to make these judgements is stronger than
the skepticism which would advocate a rejection of them.
8Saul Kripke, Wittgenstein on Rules and Private Language. Cambridge, 1982 p.55.
9Cf David Hume, Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. Indianapolis, 1993,
'"One would be, in effect, attempting to justify the principle that one can extrapolate from
observed regularities to unobserved regularities by appeal to observed cases where such
extrapolation proved to be correct.
David Hume, Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. Indianapolis, 1993, Section
V, Part I SBN p.41.
Kripke interprets Wittgenstein as taking a somewhat similar approach to the
aforementioned considerations against meaning. Rather than attempt to refute the claims of the
"skeptic" regarding the non-existence of meaning-fixing facts, Kripke's Wittgenstein agrees, but
with a caveat: "Nevertheless, our ordinary practice or belief is justified because contrary
appearances notwithstanding it need not require the justification the sceptic has shown to be
untenable."'2In other words, Kripke's Wittgenstein accepts the "skeptic's" premise that there are
no meaning-fixing facts, but denies that this entails the impossibility of meaning. Claims of the
sort "S meant m by 'w'" are not justified by some fact about the world, but rather by assertability
conditions. It should be noted, though, that there is a difference between Hume's strategy and
that being attributed to Wittgenstein. Hume concluded that inductive inferences are not justified,
but that this fact was incapable of ending the practice of making such inferences, as this practice
is by nature compelled. Kripke's Wittgenstein, on the other hand, claims that while meaning-
claims cannot be established by appeal to facts, that there are conditions under which their
assertion is warranted. Hume never claims that inductive inferences are warranted, or that some
other watered-down normative predicate can be applied to them, but rather that people are going
to continue making them despite the fact that they cannot be justified.
Kripke initially offers a rather weak description of these conditions as "roughly
specifiable circumstances under which [assertions] are legitimately assertable,""13 though he goes
on the flesh it out somewhat, albeit in a way that, at first glance, makes the skeptical solution
12Saul Kripke, Wittgenstein on Rules and Private Language. Cambridge, 1982, p.66.
It is part of our language game of speaking of rules that a speaker
may, without ultimately giving any justification, follow his own
confident inclination that this way (say, responding '125') is the
right way to respond, rather than another way (e.g. responding '5').
That is, the 'assertability conditions' that license an individual to
say that, on a given occasion, he ought to follow his rule this way
rather than that are, ultimately, that he does what he is inclined to
This should give the reader pause. Kripke appears to be saying that a person is entitled to
claim that his way of behaving accords with a certain rule if he behaves in the manner that he is
inclined to. So, a person who is inclined to give the answer '125' to the question "What is
57+68", and subsequently does so, can claim that he meant addition by '+' (or, perhaps more
accurately, can claim that he understood '+' to mean addition) and, given that, can claim that his
answer is correct. This would seem to have the consequence that any answer to this question
would be correct, if it stemmed from the inclinations of the subject. If the person was inclined to
give the answer '5', then it would be claimed that his use of'+' accorded with its meaning
quaddition, and that his answer accorded with this rule. Yet meaning has a normative
component, and this view saps it of this. If a person were to write down '5' in response to the
question "What is 57+68", the response would not be that the student performed correctly based
upon some interpretation, or that the student's actions were in line with '+' denoting quaddition.
Rather, the student would be chastised for making a mistake, for not understanding the rule
given. Something more must be said on the matter. To this Kripke appeals to Wittgenstein's
brief comments on private language, and adds the condition that the answer given must be
subject to correction by other members of the community:
Jones is entitled, subject to correction by others, provisionally to
say, "I mean addition by 'plus'," whenever he has the feeling of
confidence "now I can go on!" that he can give the 'correct'
responses in new cases; and he is entitled, again provisionally and
subject to correction by others, to judge a new response to be
'correct' simply because it is the response he is inclined to give.15
This account places agreement amongst members of a community at the core of meaning.
Of course, agreement of this sort is required for communication. Wittgenstein writes in 240:
"Disputes do not break out... over the question whether a rule has been obeyed or not... That is
part of the framework on which the working of our language is based (for example, in giving
descriptions)." For Wittgenstein, agreement amongst members of a community is a prerequisite
for communication. There is reason to think that he does not think that it plays the central role
assigned to it by Kripke.
Problems with the Skeptical Solution Interpretation
There are some worries about the skeptical solution apart from those arising from the
inappropriateness of the skeptical paradox interpretation. There is little explicit textual evidence
to support the claim that Wittgenstein is advocating replacing truth conditions with assertability
conditions. To begin with, nowhere does Wittgenstein suggest that an individual is licensed to
act, with respect to a rule, in one way rather than another, because he is inclined to do so. In fact,
he seems to say the exact opposite when he remarks that "to think one is obeying a rule is not to
obey a rule."16Of course, this comment precedes a prohibition on private rule following, which
Kripke appeals to in an attempt to salvage this view, but whatever merits it may have on its
own1 it is not supported by Wittgenstein's text.
16 Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations. Oxford, 1953, 202.
17See the following chapter.
The communal aspect of Kripke's assertability conditions arises from a misinterpretation
of Wittgenstein's comments on private languages. Kripke views 202 as stating the conclusion
of an argument to the effect that private languages are impossible. Wittgenstein doesn't go out of
his way to make clear just what he means when he speaks of "private" rule-following, but it is
clear that Kripke takes him to be speaking of isolation from a community of speakers (not
necessarily a physical isolation, though this is the form such isolation will usually take). Kripke's
assertability conditions require the presence of a community, making rule-following a
fundamentally social practice. But the passages preceding 202 indicate that Wittgenstein is up
to something different. Understanding a rule, and acting in accordance with it, is a practice. That
is, rule-governed activity exists only insofar as there is a certain regularity between certain
performances and the citation of rules. When Wittgenstein writes in 199 that "It is not possible
that there should have been only one occasion on which only one person obeyed a rule," he is
making a rather simple comment on the nature of rule following: that as a practice, rule-
following requires a history of regularity in behavior. The key portion of this passage is the
restriction against singular occurrences, not a restriction against people in isolation.
Perhaps Kripke hasn't been done justice here. After all, he does write that it does not
follow from the private language argument (as he sees it) that "Robinson Crusoe, isolated on an
island, cannot be said to follow any rules....""Yet his strategy for allowing for this is a bit odd.
The assertability conditions that he attributes to Wittgenstein require communal agreement as the
standard of correctness. If this is right, then an individual who lacks a community will have no
such standard, and without this standard, cannot be said to follow rules. Intuitively, though, this
seems incorrect. A castaway doesn't loose his ability to speak in his native tongue simply
18Saul Kripke, Wittgenstein on Rules and Private Language. Cambridge, 1982, p.l 10.
because there are none of his countrymen around to correct him. Kripke's solution to this
problem is to claim that such an individual can be said to follow rules, but only insofar as he is
adopted into a community by those considering him. Being adopted into a community amounts
to being judged by the criteria for rule-following held by the community in question. The criteria
for rule-following, for Kripke, are assertability conditions, at the core of which is communal
agreement. As Kripke wishes to say that Crusoe can be said to speak a language, he must be
thinking that the community doing the judging is the community with which Crusoe's behavior
must agree. Indeed, in a footnote, Kripke characterizes this adoption as attributing the rules of
the community to the individual being evaluated. So Crusoe, when considered by English-
speakers, is subject to correction by a community, though indirectly. His behavior can be judged
as conforming to or violating the rules of the community. However, when Crusoe is "considered
in isolation," none of this is the case. Without the judgement of a community, be it ever so
distant, Crusoe cannot be said to follow rules and, therefore, cannot be said to speak a language.
This seems to have the effect that actual communal assent is not necessary. The fact that
Crusoe's behavior matches up with that of a distant community in such a way as to allow for the
community to judge him would be enough to justify the claim that he speaks English.
This view, though, leads to further problems. Consider two men living in isolation on two
remote islands. Assume that these men have never been taught to speak any language. Now
assume further that over the course of their lives, the men have developed strange behavioral
traits. The behavior of one of these men is such that, were he to be observed by an English-
speaking person, he would be judged to be speaking English to himself. Not only would one
judge that he seems to be speaking English to himself, but his behavior is so sophisticated that
were he to encounter an Englishman, the two would apparently be able to strike up a
conversation, though one limited by certain terms that are unshared due to the differences in
their surroundings (the man on the island, presumably, would not be able to talk about cars and
Since the islander's behavior matches up with some distant community, he can be said to
speak English. The behavior of the other man also involves vocalizations, but does not
correspond to any known language. His behavior, let's assume, is equally as sophisticated as the
man who seems to speak English. If the above view is right, then for this reason alone, the man
cannot be said to speak a language or follow rules. This doesn't seem right, though. That the one
can be said to speak a language, and the other not, seems to be the result of an accident. It is
conceivable that the second man does do all of these things, but that the rules he follows are
different from those followed by any other community of speakers. That this is so is a reason for
rejecting the view that agreement with others is a necessary condition of rule-following.
There is textual evidence that indicates Wittgenstein did not see his comments on private
languages as prohibiting the development of languages by those in isolation. In Investigations
243, which prior to Kripke was seen as the initial passage of the private-language argument,
We could even imagine human beings who spoke only in
monologue; who accompanies their activities by talking to
themselves. An explorer who watched them and listened to their
talk might succeed in translating their language into ours.
The situation described here makes no appeal to communal assent. The speakers in
question should not be viewed as engaged in corrective, educative, or any other sort of normative
behavior amongst one another (their languages need not even be similar), and it is clear that the
explorer is not simply adopting them into his own community. Certainly, to be successful in
translating their language into his own, he must presuppose certain basic things about them,19but
this cannot be all that Kripke has in mind, for in the Crusoe scenario, it was essential that Crusoe
be considered as a full-fledged member of the linguistic community doing the judging. The
explorer doesn't need to consider the speakers he observes as members of his community in
order to say of them that they follow rules and speak languages all he needs to do is watch and
listen for telltale behavioral signs.
Kripke is correct in claiming that Wittgenstein denies the existence of facts about a
speaker's mental history which could establish what a speaker meant by a particular sign on a
given occasion. As Wittgenstein asserts that meaning, understanding, and rule-following are not
mental phenomena, it follows that he would reject the claim that facts about the mind could
establish what one means, whether one understands, and whether one is following a rule. Yet
Kripke goes further and takes these comments as aimed at establishing a general skepticism
about the possibility of rule-following and language. However, Wittgenstein's goal in the
Investigations is to clear up misconceptions that have led to seemingly intractable problems in
philosophy, and his comments around 201 should be read in this light. Wittgenstein makes
clear that the "paradox" surrounding rule-following is not something to be taken seriously, and
results from an unsatisfactory conception of rule-following. Kripke's interpretation does not
appreciate this fact.
19Cf Investigations 185. The type of things to be presupposed would be akin to the
natural reaction to pointing, which is to look in the direction of wrist-to-fingertip. We assume
that our counterpart does not differ from us (to any great extent) with respect to things such as
the way in which he finds it natural to classify things, or the way he responds to natural
As stated above, central to the skeptical solution that Kripke ascribes to Wittgenstein is
the view of language and rule-following as essentially social or communal activities. This view
arises from a misreading of Wittgenstein's comments on private languages. Wittgenstein was not
claiming in 199-202 that rule-following does not make sense except in a social setting; rather,
he was making the point that as a practice, rule-following requires a regularity in behavior, and
as such, a rule cannot be followed only once (for no regularity could be established), and cannot
be such that only one person could, in principle, follow it (for the behavioral aspect of rule-
following is, in principle, able to be replicated by others).
Finally, aside from the problems with Kripke's characterization of assertability
conditions, the claim that Wittgenstein was seeking to replace truth-conditional semantics with
talk of assertability conditions doesn't seem to respect the complexity of the view that he was
putting forth. Baker and Hacker sum up this criticism best:
Forcing Wittgenstein into the invented position of constructivism,
intuitionist semantics, assertion-conditions theories, is altogether
misguided. It is a mistake stemming from a hankering after
sweeping generalizations, global confrontations of semantic
theories, and large-scale theory-building. But Wittgenstein builds
no such theories. He does not contend that a language is a
monolithic structure run through with truth-conditions or assertion
conditions which give meanings to sentences and words. It is not a
calculus of rules, either in the form of classical logic or in the form
of intuitionist logic. It is a motley of language-games, an endlessly
variegated form of human activity, interwoven with our lives at
20 G.P. Baker and P.M.S Hacker, Scepticism, Rules and Language. Oxford, 1984, p.49.
SOLUTIONS TO KRIPKE'S SKEPTICAL PARADOX:
NON-FACTUALISM, REDUCTIONISM, AND
In this chapter, I examine several of the more common replies to the skeptic's challenge
about meaning-facts. For the sake of continuity between the previous chapter and the current
one, the first reply that will be discussed will be Kripke's skeptical response. While doubts were
raised in the last chapter about the appropriateness of attributing this view to Wittgenstein, little
was said about the merits of this view itself. At issue here will be Kripke's non-factualism and
the communal aspect of his assertability conditions. At the end of this discussion, reasons for
rejecting this solution should emerge.
Following the discussion of the skeptical solution, traditional direct solutions to the
skeptical challenge will be examined. A straight solution to the skeptic consists in the offering of
a particular type of fact which is supposed to be capable of establishing what a speaker means on
a given occasion. The most common direct responses are variations on the dispositionalist
account. Kripke offers some very compelling reasons for rejecting dispositionalism, but the view
has proven tenacious. While one cannot reasonably hope to, in the course of one essay, put to
rest once and for all any philosophical theory, it can be hoped that clear reasons can be given for
thinking that a particular line of inquiry is troubling enough to warrant setting it aside while
more fruitful avenues are explored. The dispositionalist account seems to have much against it,
and hopefully this will become evident in this chapter.
The dispositionalist attempts to answer the skeptic on the skeptic's terms. Having rejected
the appeal to instructions, the skeptic asks for facts which are naturalistic, that is, facts which
can be given in behavioral terms. It is the unavailability of any suitable naturalistic facts that
prompts Kripke to develop his skeptical solution. It is far from clear, though, that the restriction
to naturalistic facts is well motivated. This chapter, and this thesis, will end with a discussion of
whether non-naturalistic facts might be suitable as a direct response to Kripke's skeptic. Such a
strategy would not be playing by the skeptic's rules, and might not, in the end, bear fruit, but the
possibility will be explored.
Kripke's Skeptical Solution, Revisited
Kripke's non-factualism with respect to meaning results in the view that sentences of the
form "S meant m by 'w'" are not true in virtue of some fact. Instead, claims about what a speaker
meant are justified by reference to the appropriate conditions of assertion, which themselves
make reference to the assent of a community of speakers. There is reason to think, though, that
Kripke's non-factualism doesn't merely extend to sentences attributing meaning. Wright, in his
essay "Kripke's Account of the Argument Against Private Language" and Boghossian, in his
essay "The Rule-Following Considerations," think that Kripke is committed to a "global" non-
factualism, or a rejection of facts simpliciter. The reasoning behind this claim is as follows: the
truth-value of a sentence is determined by the meaning of the sentence and the relevant state-of-
affairs; if there is no fact of the matter with respect to the meaning of a sentence, then there is no
fact of the matter with respect to the truth-value of that sentence.' This has the uncomfortable
result that the truth-value of any sentence, not just ascriptions of meaning, is in part determined
by the conditions of warranted assertion, and not by facts alone. This includes the truth-value of
sentences expressing logical truths ("P V-P"), sentences expressing mathematical equations
("2+3=5"), and the sentence expressing the thesis of global non-factualism itself. This is a
'Cf. Crispin Wright, "Kripke's Account of the Argument Against Private Language" The Journal
of Philosophy vol. 81 no. 12, December 1984, p.769.
striking and somewhat extreme result, and one may be tempted to think that there must be
something wrong with this view. The problem here may be more felt than actual, though, a
shock at the scope of the view. If there is any incoherence here, it is not obvious. The proponent
of global non-factualism can claim that when one talks of truth, one is really speaking of
warranted assertion, and this extends to the thesis of global non-factualism. Any worries that one
might have in this regard stems from continuing to think of truth in purely factual terms.
Perhaps there are reasons for accepting such a view. Kripke, though, seems forced into
accepting this view by his skeptical solution; if it can be shown that the skeptical solution has
other problems, then global non-factualism will have to be recommended on independent
grounds. As it stands, there are further worries about the skeptical solution, ones which stem
from the communitarian aspect of the assertability conditions.
According to Kripke, following a rule does not make sense outside of a community of
practitioners. One can only be said to act according to a rule given that he is inclined to behave
in such and such a way with respect to a given rule and that his community, by and large, would
assent to the correctness of his behavior. Agreement with a community, then, is the mark of
correctness. There can be no such thing as a community as a whole (or at least, a majority of the
community) acting incorrectly with respect to a given rule.
This should raise some eyebrows. Intuitively, a community can get things wrong and
misapply rules. In many contemporary English-speaking areas, the word 'literally' is used by
many members of the community to mean something akin to 'figuratively'. The phrases "It is
literally raining cats and dogs out here", "I am literally freezing to death", "He literally knocked
the hell out of that guy" should not seem too foreign; these, or similar phrases, are bandied about
frequently in everyday use, and not just by the so-called uneducated masses. Now, it might not
be the case that such uses are the most common, but it would not take any great effort of
imagination to think that such could be the case. Now, if such were the case, and assuming that
the history of the English language remained largely unchanged (with the exception that the use
of the word 'literally' as synonymous with 'figuratively' had become more prevalent in recent
years than in fact), would it be appropriate to say that using 'literally' synonymously with
'figuratively' was correct? It can be granted that in this situation, using the word 'literally' in this
way would be effective in communication, but this is quite a different matter from whether the
use is correct. The right response, it seems, is to say that the community (or at least the majority
of the community) is using the word incorrectly, despite the fact that most of the members would
agree that so using the word is correct. If Kripke is right, though, it wouldn't make sense to say
that the community was using the word incorrectly. The only case, by the lights of this account,
in which it makes sense to say that someone is using a word incorrectly is one in which a
member of a community uses a word in a way that does not agree with the way that most of the
other members use it.
The account cannot be modified to respect this intuition by invoking a privileged subset
of the community with which agreement in behavior will serve as a standard of correctness. For
in claiming that this subset is somehow privileged, it is tacitly being claimed that the members of
the subset use words correctly. This presupposes a standard of correctness that does not appeal to
communal agreement, contrary to the initial claim.
If the considerations from the previous chapter about private languages are correct, then
there is further reason to reject the idea that agreement with a community determines which
actions are in accordance with a rule. It was suggested that the proper reading of Wittgenstein's
comments on private language does not preclude isolated individuals from using language. Even
if Wittgenstein had been claiming that physically isolated individuals couldn't use a language,
there would be little reason to think that this is so. Surely Robinson Crusoe didn't lose the ability
to speak English upon being shipwrecked! Kripke appreciates this, and tries to make an
allowance for cases like that of Crusoe. His provision for this allowance, though, seems
implausible. Crusoe speaks English regardless of whether he is being considered as a member of
some broader English-speaking community. Moreover, it seems possible that an isolated
individual could develop a novel language, so that there would be no community to consider him
a member of. Kripke's allowance for Crusoe, as interpreted in the previous chapter, doesn't
extend to cases like this, nor can it, for to allow cases like this would be to deny the central claim
of Kripke's account: that rule-following (and language) is essentially a social activity.
Nevertheless, the apparent conceivability of an isolated user of language speaks strongly for the
view that rule-following behavior does not require a community.
Finally, there is the question of whether Kripke has solved the skeptical problem at all.
The problem arose initially due to an inability to establish whether a speaker meant addition or
quaddition by 'plus'. Kripke's solution is to deny that there are any facts which establish this, and
claim rather that there are instead conditions of warranted assertion. Communal agreement is
supposed to play a large role here, allowing for the warranted assertion of claims such as "S
meant addition by 'plus'." Just how this is supposed to work, though, is unclear. That a
community agrees on the answer to the question "What is 68 plus 57?" might make it the case
that no member would disagree with the answer given by one of his peers, but does it warrant the
claim that any member means addition by 'plus' rather than another function? Consider what
Kripke says on the matter of third-person ascriptions of meaning:
Smith will judge Jones to mean addition by 'plus' only if he judges
that Jone's answers to particular addition problems agree with
those he is inclined to give, or, if they occasionally disagree, he
can interpret Jones as at least following the proper procedure... If
Jones consistently fails to give responses in agreement (in this
broad sense) with Smith's, Smith will judge that he does not mean
addition by 'plus'.2
If Jones and Smith both were to give the answer 125 to the above question, then
certainly, they would be in a position to say that neither meant quaddition. Yet they would not be
in a position to say, in virtue of their agreement, that they both meant addition, or even that they
both meant the same thing. The skeptic's problem still remains: it is an open question as to
whether Smith and Jim mean addition, or some other function. Furthermore, it is unclear just
how disagreement can warrant Smith in claiming that Jones doesn't mean addition, unless there
is some antecedent warrant for asserting that Smith means addition. Neither is it clear how
agreement or disagreement can warrant any answer to the question of whether Smith or Jones are
using 'plus' consistently with the way that either used it previously. So, in addition to the other
worries that have been raised about Kripke's skeptical solution, the claim that it allows for
warranted assertion of the aforementioned meaning-claims is dubious.
Taking from Wittgenstein the notion that following a rule is the expression of an ability,
some have been inclined to put forth the view that the facts which the rule-skeptic seeks are facts
about a speaker's disposition to behave in certain ways.3There are several varieties of this view,
2Saul Kripke, Wittgenstein on Rules and Private Language. Cambridge, 1982 p.91.
3Among those who have at one time or another expressed support for dispositionalism are
Simon Blackburn in "The Individual Strikes Back," Synthese, vol. 58, 1984; Paul Coates in
"Kripke's Skeptical Paradox," Mind, vol. 95 no. 377, January, 1986; and Paul Horwich in
"Meaning, Use, and Truth" Mind, vol. 104, no. 414, April, 1995.
resulting from the apparent failure of "naive" dispositionalism to satisfy the normative
requirements of meaning. The naive view might be stated thus: the fact that subject S is disposed
to use the sign w in such-and-such away fixes what w means in S's lexicon So, a speaker means
addition by 'plus' just in case he is disposed to give the sum of any numbers linked by the sign
'plus'. This strategy attempts to solve the worry that a speaker's past usage of a sign doesn't
uniquely determine what a speaker means by the sign past usage isn't capable of determining,
for example, whether a speaker means addition or some quaddition-like function by 'plus'.
Kripke presents several arguments against this view. The "argument from error" is motivated in
part by Wittgenstein's claim (P.I. 258) that the correct use of a sign cannot be based on the
supposition that "whatever is going to seem right to me is right." Correctness in the use of a sign
seems to require objective standards the use must be subject to correction by others; misuse
must be verifiable. Intuitively, one who was disposed to use the sign 'plus' in such a way as to
respond to the question "What is 68 plus 57?" with the answer '5' has made a mistake. The
dispositionalist theory, though, doesn't seem to allow for ascriptions of correctness and
incorrectness. How S is disposed to use the sign 'w' fixes what S means by 'w', and so ifS is
disposed to apply the sign 'plus' in the aforementioned way, then whenever he does so apply it, it
cannot be said that he has made a mistake at all, but rather, all that can be said is that his use
conforms to a non-standard meaning. It is, however, a fundamental feature of meaning that a
sign can be used correctly and incorrectly. If the dispositionalist cannot accommodate this
notion, then his theory is unsustainable.
The dispositionalist may attempt to save his approach to the problem by establishing a
privileged disposition that serves as the standard for correct usage. The communitarian approach
identifies this privileged disposition with the dispositions held by most of the members of a
community. Correct use of a sign depends on the subject's conformity to the dispositions of most
members to use the term. This is distinguished from the view that Kripke advocates in several
ways. Most importantly, the community-disposition account should be seen as a direct answer to
the skeptic's problem. That being the case, the proponents of this view do not deny, as Kripke
does, the existence of meaning-facts and truth-conditions for ascriptions of meaning. Another
difference lies in the fact that Kripke's account does not appeal to how the members of a
community would behave in some hypothetical situation. Instead, communal agreement in
actual cases is all that is needed for warranted assertions about meaning. Despite these
differences, though, worries similar to those offered for Kripke's communal-agreement account
arise for the communal-disposition account.
Again, it seems that a community can go off-track with respect to its use of a word. To
borrow an example from Boghossian, consider a community which is disposed to use the term
'horse' both to refer to horses, and to refer to horse-like cows on dark nights. Assume further
that, were the members of this community to encounter the horse-like cows during the daytime,
they would be disposed to call them cows, not horses. The most natural response to this scenario
is to say that the community has made a mistake, and that its application of the word 'horse' to
the horse-like cows on dark nights is incorrect. According to the community-disposition account,
however, the term 'horse' has here a disjunctive meaning: it refers to either genuine horses, or
horse-like cows on dark nights. The community-disposition account suffers from a problem
similar to one encountered during the discussion of naive-dispositionalism, namely, that at the
level of the community, it cannot allow for ascriptions of correctness or incorrectness. It can
only distinguish between different meanings, no one of which has any priority over another. As
such, it should be rejected.
A natural response to this objection is to point out that systematic mistakes are likely
only to occur in certain specifiable circumstances. If these mistake-inducing circumstances can
be identified, then a set of optimal conditions can be given in which mistakes of the above sort
will not occur. If we consider only that aspect of a person's disposition to use a term wherein
these conditions obtain as being relevant for establishing meaning, then an account can be given
that will allow for ascriptions of correctness and incorrectness at both the individual and
community level. Notice that in so doing, the dispositionalist no longer needs to appeal to the
dispositions of the community. The community-disposition thesis sought to give priority to the
dispositions of the community as a way of establishing a set of dispositions to serve as the
standard of correctness, but this proved to be unsatisfactory. The appeal to optimal conditions
seeks to give priority to the dispositions to use terms in specific circumstances reference to the
community becomes superfluous in this case. In considering those dispositions only under
optimal conditions, the dispositionalist needs only to consider individuals, for an individual
operating in these conditions is incapable of error.
The practical difficulty in establishing a set of optimal conditions can for the moment be
ignored, for though this would surely be a significant undertaking, there are more troubling
problems for this view. Were someone to develop a statement of the optimal-conditions version
of dispositionalism, it might look like this:
S means m by 'w' if, under conditions O, S is disposed to apply 'w' to m's
This view is, unfortunately, doomed. It is clear that being tired, distracted, drunk, brain-
damaged, and so on are conditions in which one would be disposed to make mistakes regarding
word usage, but a problem arises when one attempts to justify why the conditions that he
describes as optimal are optimal. It might be claimed that past observation of people under these
conditions has shown that they are inclined to make mistakes in their use of words, but this
presupposes the notion of correctness and meaning with respect to a given word. The fact that a
person's use of a term while tired or distracted diverges from his use while wide awake and
focused doesn't itself seem to establish that one set of conditions is optimal and the other
deficient. IfS is disposed to apply 'w' to m's in C, and is also disposed to apply 'w' to n's in C2,
what is to justify the claim that C, represents optimal conditions xor that C2 does? What is to
justify the claim that S means m by 'w', xor that he means n by 'w'? It seems that some prior
notion of the tendency of people under certain conditions to make mistakes is needed, lest our
designation of optimal conditions be arbitrary.
The task of the dispositionalist is to give necessary and sufficient conditions for a
subject's meaning something by a given sign completely in naturalistic terms. And this, it seems,
will require an account of various psychological phenomena in behavioral terms. For it seems
clear that one's use of a word is influenced by one's beliefs, among other things, and the
dispositionalist must have some story to tell in this regard likely by specifying which beliefs
(namely, true ones) are required for proper usage (the possession of which would be an optimal
condition). Even assuming that one could specify, in a non-question begging way, which beliefs
a person must have to be operating under optimal conditions (a task that seems impossible), he
would have to further give a purely behaviorist account of belief. So, then, it would appear that a
satisfactory dispositionalist account requires the validation of the entire behaviorist project. This
is a task with little hope of success.
The dispositionalist seeks to give a reductive analysis of meaning in terms of naturalistic
facts. This strategy has been shown to face problems which, if not insurmountable, are quite
daunting. The most successful portion of Kripke's Wittgenstein on Rules and Private Language
are those passages which attempt to highlight the problems ofreductionism. Yet the failure of
reductionism should not lead immediately to an embrace of Kripke's skeptical solution, or of
skepticism about meaning and rule-following. There is another strategy for answering Kripke's
skeptic in a straightforward way.
Kripke does not argue for naturalism, and though his skeptic does not explicitly restrict
the search for meaning-fixing facts to naturalistic ones, that only naturalistic facts are considered
in the text implies a presumption in favor of naturalism. Here, 'naturalism', means the view that
all normative claims supervene on purely descriptive, natural, non-normative facts. Such facts
are usually given in behavioral terms. In opposition to this view is non-naturalism, which might
be described as the claim that there is a certain species of fact which has a normative component
and is not reducible to a purely natural fact. According to this view, normativity is a primitive
feature of the world.
What might an argument for naturalism look like? One might argue that this is a
conceptual truth: genuine facts are, by their very nature, wholly descriptive. Any supposed non-
natural facts would have an irreducible normative component, thereby disqualifying them as
candidates for facthood. There are at least two problems with this argument. In the first place, if
by stipulating that facts are wholly descriptive, one means that they are naturalistic, then the
argument begs the question against the non-naturalist. In the second place, if 'descriptive' is not
intended as meaning the same thing as 'natural', then it might be possible for a non-naturalist to
accept descriptivism. A descriptive claim might be taken to be nothing more than the claim that
the world is a certain way. Such a thin view of descriptivism leaves room for a descriptive non-
naturalism. Normative facts might take the following form: "Such-and-such behavior in such-
and-such circumstances is permissible." Any claim which has this form would appear to be both
descriptive and normative. In any event, this argument from conceptual analysis doesn't offer
good reason for accepting the naturalist thesis.
Another strategy might be to appeal to an argument from queerness.4If normative facts
are not reducible to natural facts, then epistemic access to these facts requires a special faculty
not required for access to natural facts More precisely, normative facts would have to be
intrinsically motivating, so that upon the recognition that one of these facts obtained, an agent
would be compelled to act in a certain way. However, no good story has been told about this
special faculty, and there are reasons for thinking that it does not exist. In the absence of a good
story about how one can have epistemic access to normative facts anyone who postulates
irreducible normative properties flirts with unverifiability. If it turned out that normative claims
were not verifiable, and one were to accept Ayer's principle of verification, the result would be
that normative claims were meaningless. Yet even if one were to deny the principle of
verification, the seemingly queer nature of normative properties, so different from that of any
other entity, might be enough to dissuade someone from postulating them.
To address the metaphysical concern first, the principle of economy urges against the
postulation of entities beyond what is necessary. Postulating normative properties which cannot
be reduced to natural properties would clutter up one's ontology a bit, and if these properties are
4What follows is a redeployment of Mackie's argument against objective values. Cf
EthiL Inventing Right and Wrong, London, 1977, pp.38-42.
queer, hesitation would be further warranted. It has been shown, however, that attempts to
account for certain normative properties and facts by reducing them to natural properties and
facts are themselves quite problematic. This is not to say that a complete survey of reductive
accounts of meaning has been accomplished here only the more prominent versions have been
discussed. Nevertheless, the worries that have been raised are general enough to apply to many,
if not all, reductive accounts. Kripke's irrealism doesn't seem to be a desirable alternative to
reductionism. The global non-factualism that he advocates is a bitter pill to swallow, and it is
questionable whether his emphasis on agreement can even allow for warranted assertions of
correctness. The remaining option, to countenance some sort of error-theory, is even more
undesirable. So, while it is true that, all other things being equal, postulating queer properties
should be avoided, all things are not, in fact, equal.
As for the epistemic concern, consider what such a charge would amount to: if an
account of a special faculty for epistemic access to normative properties was lacking, then there
would be no way to give a proper account of a person's ability to know the truth conditions of
normative claims, including claims about meaning and lacking such an account, any judgement
about the truth conditions of these claims would appear unjustified. The problem goes much
deeper, in a very familiar way: if one cannot know the truth of statements about meaning, then it
would seem that one could not know the truth of any statement. Worrisome indeed. Yet anyone
bringing this charge against the non-naturalist has to give reasons for thinking that a) this special
faculty is needed and b) humans don't have it. We should ask ourselves whether this poses the
same worries for the sort of non-naturalism under consideration as it does for ethical non-
naturalism. Mackie was concerned with access to properties and facts which possess
"authoritative prescriptivity", such that the appreciation of the truth of some moral fact would
impel a person to act. In contrast, normativity with respect to meaning just amounts to there
being correct ways of using a term. Given that a term is meaningful, then there are certain facts
about what it is correct to apply the term to. This doesn't have the mysterious appearance that so
concerned Mackie, and the demand for a special faculty seems misguided in this case. If this is
right, then our access to normative facts of this sort is in no worse shape than our access to
Another argument against non-reductionism might go something like this: by adopting
the non-reductionist strategy, one will be in a position to respond to the skeptic about meaning
with semantic facts. But the response "Because S did mean m by 'w'" is not an appropriate
response to the question of what fact justifies the claim that "S meant m by 'w'". Such an answer
is vacuous. If this strategy were to be adopted, nothing interesting could be said about meaning.
Whatever problems the alternative accounts had, surely none was as damaging as this!
Claiming the following does seem a little odd.
"S meant m by 'w'" is true if and only ifS meant m by'w'
Anyone asking for a fact which established the semantic claim would probably not be
entirely satisfied with this. The non-reductionist could simply stand firm, and assert that any
worries that result from this are merely the result of latent reductionist tendencies. Meaning
facts, on this view, would be on par with natural facts, and though some may have concerns
about a correspondence theory of truth, one would not think it so strange to respond to the
question of what fact justifies the claim "The cat is on the mat" by appeal to the fact that the cat
was on the mat. On the other hand, the non-reductionist does not have to be committed to the
view that there are no specifiable conditions for meaning. All he needs to be committed to is the
claim that if there are conditions for speaker or sentence meaning, that these conditions are
irreducibly normative or intentional.
A complete account of a non-reductive theory about normativity is outside the scope of
this essay. However, reasons have been given (it is hoped) for thinking that this is the proper
strategy to adopt. Kripke's skeptical solution is unconvincing and apparently flawed. In perhaps
one of the his most revealing statements, he writes: "What follows from these assertability
conditions is not that the answer everyone gives to an addition problem is, by definition, the
correct one, but rather the platitude that, if everyone agrees upon a certain answer, then no one
will feel justified in calling the answer wrong."5If one is to take Kripke at his word, then it would
seem that his skeptical solution solves no problem. That no one feels justified in calling an
answer wrong is quite a different thing than actually being justified or warranted in making such
a claim. As such, even if one were to reject the truth-conditional theory of meaning, the skeptical
solution doesn't even account for warranted assertion of meaning claims.
The strategy for any reductionist will be to explain normative facts in terms of behavioral
features of speakers, which will likely be given in terms of behavioral dispositions. The most
promising dispositional accounts have been considered here and found wanting. It doesn't seem
as if it will be possible to develop a dispositional account which will not fall afoul of the worries
about the feasibility of the overall behaviorist project, and moreover, it seems unlikely that any
privileged disposition can be singled out without tacitly appealing to a notion of correctness.
For these reasons, a different tack is needed. The strategy being suggested here is not
without its problems, but it is hoped that some of the more obvious objections have been
5Saul Kripke, Wittgenstein on Rules and Private Language. Cambridge, 1982, p.l 12.
addressed here. In the light of the glaring deficiencies of the alternative theories, the initial
unease that might be experienced at the thought of taking normative facts, including semantic
facts, as irreducible should be mitigated.
At the outset of this work, two questions were raised. The first, exegetical in nature, was
the question of whether Kripke's reading of Wittgenstein was correct. In the second chapter, the
first two-hundred sections of the Investigations were examined in an effort to paint a picture of
Wittgenstein's later thoughts on meaning, understanding, and rule-following. A common theme
emerged: the application conditions for these concepts are not to be viewed as consisting in the
possession of some mental state or standing in relations to some mental states. A word doesn't
get its meaning from some associated mental image. Rather, the meaning of a word is to be read
off of how the word is used. Since not just any use of the word is relevant to establishing its
meaning, there must be more to the story than simply "meaning is use." Thus, it emerged that
meaning is to be read off of rule-governed use. The use of a word is bound up with the activities
of explaining the use, teaching the use, justifying the use, and so on. Each of these activities
involves the giving of some statement which serves to explain, establish a standard of
correctness, or justify. This statement is the rule governing the use of the word. Understanding a
rule is not just a matter of being able to cite the rule; one must also be capable of behaving
according to the dictates of the rule. Now, any rule is open to various interpretations (which
should be seen as the giving of another sentence elaborating on the original formulation). The
worry arises that there is no privileged interpretation, and as such, any act could be made to
square with any rule. Thus we have the makings of skepticism about rules. But Wittgenstein has
an immediate answer to this problem: interpretations do not determine the meaning of the rule;
instead, the meaning of the rule is given by the way the rule is used in normative behavior and
the regularity of the associated behavior. Wittgenstein does not treat the problem brought up in
201 of the Investigations as a serious concern that threatens the notion of rule-following.
Rather, the problem arises as a consequence of a flawed view of what determines which actions
accord with a rule. It is interesting that Kripke never mentions the interpretation-view of rules in
his work on Wittgenstein. Instead, he seems to have interpreted these passages as a rejection of
meaning-fixing facts. Though Wittgenstein may have been a non-factualist, this is certainly not
evident in the passages Kripke cites.
The skeptical solution that Kripke attributes to Wittgenstein bears little resemblance to
what is written in the Investigations. The communal assertability conditions that form the core of
this solution seems to stem from a misreading of Wittgenstein's comments on private language.
The earliest comments in this regard can be found in 199, and taken in context, the prohibition
seems to be not on isolated rule-followers, but on single instances of rule-following. Following a
rule is a practice, and as such, is not the type of thing that can happen just once. Moreover, in
later sections of the Investigations, Wittgenstein allows for isolated speakers. This is pretty
strong evidence that he did not view language as essentially requiring the existence of other
speakers with whom one shares a practice, which is how he was interpreted by Kripke.
The second question at issue in this work was whether or not a viable solution could be
found to the problem highlighted by Kripke's skeptic. It was contended that the skeptical
solution presented by Kripke was unsatisfactory. The focus on the agreement between members
of a community seems wrongheaded agreement cannot establish anything more than the fact
that the actions of people do, in practice, agree. Moreover, the global non-factualism that the
proponent of the skeptical solution seems committed to is a bitter pill to swallow. Looking at the
straight answers to the skeptic, significant problems with the more promising versions of
reductionism were found. Naive dispositionalism doesn't allow for a standard of correctness, and
attempts to focus on the dispositions of a community seems to suffer from the same problem on
the communal-level. The attempt to give priority to those dispositions under optimal conditions
fails in that optimal conditions can only be established if there is some notion of correctness
already in place Furthermore, as what a speaker means by a certain term has something to do
with the beliefs that he has, the dispositionalist needs to be in a position to give a naturalistic
analysis of psychological terms, which is a task that isn't likely to be accomplished.
The problems faced by irrealism and reductionism led to the consideration of a non-
reductive account. The general strategy goes something like this: Kripke's skeptic can be given a
direct answer as to the question of what fact establishes that a speaker meant such-and-such by a
certain term, but these facts are not reducible to natural facts. Normative properties, according to
this account, should be taken as fundamental and on a par with natural properties. A lot of work
is left to be done with respect to fleshing out this account, to be sure. All that has been done here
is to address some of the major concerns that might argue against adopting this strategy. The
problems faced by the alternatives seem to be greater than those facing non-reductionism, and as
such, it should be seen as a viable alternative.
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Jonathan Robert Hendrix, Jr. was born in Lexington, SC. He graduated from Heathwood
Hall Episcopal School in 1997. He attended the University of South Carolina from 1997 until
2001, majoring in history and philosophy. In 2003, he returned to academia as a graduate student
in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Florida, completing his master's thesis in