7.24.2002

[53,54] We can anticipate a critical reflection on the practice of philosophy and how that practice's conventions turn practitioners away from up close examinations of phenomena (conventional objects). But here Wittgenstein returns to the details of correspondence relations in language; and this investigation serves to evince a sense of the life of (inside) a language-game. Remark 53 inaugurates Wittgenstein's investigation into rules and what it is to lead a rule-governed life. In language-game 48 we have a table of colors and a two symbols, R and B, that are used to label the red and black squares of the color table. Our tendency, Wittgenstein says, is to offer a general description or rule for this language-game's use or purpose. Immediately, this tendency to generalize is challenged by the idea that "our language-game (48) has various possibilities."

Two things are going on here. One is the explicit argument regarding the plurality of uses of a language-game. The second is a broader claim about philosophy and the origin of a certain brand of philosophical errors -- errors of reductive generalization (how is that for an oxymoron?). We philosophers want to say that the color table is a language-game used to show the linearity and symmetry of correspondence relations. Wittgenstein observes, to the contrary, that the table has a variety of possible uses. "If we call such a table the expression of a rule of the language-game, it can be said that what we call a rule of a language-game may have very different roles in the language-game." In reduction, what we want to arrive at is the underlying logical structure -- exemplified by idealized correspondence relations. Wittgenstein is saying there is no underlying structure. There are rules that give the game shape. They distinguish one game from another. But rules, like the words used to express them, have different uses even within a language-game. This gives a sense that there is no hierarchy of exactness in rules. Indeterminacy is a trait of (all?) rules.

Forgive me for the tedious quality of this analysis. I know that the question of rules is an enormously contentious issue in Wittgenstein scholarship and I want to try to gain some clarity on the subject from the beginning.

In 54, Wittgenstein takes on the idea of a definite rule. "Let us recall the kinds of case where we say a game is played according to a definite rule." Did philosophers talk about games prior to Wittgenstein? If not, who is he addressing in this remark? Who is "us" if not philosophers?

Wittgenstein imagines a game where the definite rule can be used to teach the game. Immediately, I think that there would not be much fun or creativity to such a game. There are rules to chess, but the skill is acquired once the rudimentary rules pertaining to piece positioning and piece movements are learned. The real skill in chess is anticipating moves by your opponent -- seeing how the board will look five or six moves before they occur. And this is Wittgenstein's point. In games, rules can be used to teach the game, they can be criteria for distinguishing "between players' mistakes and correct play," they can be used to gauge unorthodoxy/creativity in correct play, they can be used to distinguish one game from another, and so on. A rule of ice hockey, for example, is how to break rules and avoid detection.

We wonder, as you note in your reading and writing blog, how we judge other language-games. In judging other conventions, we would love to have a morally ascendent or epistemically superior vantage to support our judgment. Wittgenstein is wiping away grounds of certitude for judgment in his investigation of rules. The grounds for judging are inescapably customary. This is small comfort when criticizing what we conceive to be morally repugnant rules in other language-games. I'd like to have a source of certitude to which I can turn when pronouncing practices like ritualized clitorectomies wrong. What I have is the localized truth of my language-game.

At the same time Wittgenstein is destroying foundations of certitude in his description of the indeterminacy of rules, he is also opening the possibility of criticism within a language-game. Here the language-game is philosophy and Wittgenstein is showing how it is he can turn against metaphysical impulses from the position of a participant in the same game. Rules can be used for this purpose too.

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