Monday, August 15, 2011

An architectural requirement

Tommi Uschanov referred in comments the other day to a couple of passages from On Certainty and to Philosophical Investigations 217. So I re-read 217 and was surprised to see the part about architecture, which I had forgotten. It provides a link to Wittgenstein's views on Heidegger and the influence on his thinking of Adolf Loos (see below). So I would like to investigate all this, starting by looking only at 217. Here it is:

217. “How am I able to follow a rule?” – If this is not a question about causes, then it is about the justification for my acting in this way in complying with the rule.
     Once I have exhausted the justifications, [then] I have reached bedrock, and my spade is turned. Then I am inclined to say: “This is simply what I do.”
     (Remember that we sometimes demand explanations for the sake not of their content, but of their form. Our requirement is an architectural one; the explanation a kind of sham corbel that supports nothing.)
(This is Hacker's and Schulte's translation, but I have inserted the word 'then' for the German 'so' to make it clear that "I have reached bedrock" is not meant just as another way of saying "I have exhausted the justifications'.)

The demand for explanations here is fairly clearly regarded by Wittgenstein as a bit of bad taste: he wasn't a big fan of sham corbels (those are corbels above), and this remark recalls the "Dictation for Schlick" (see pp. 75-77), in which he discusses the various requirements of style that are felt to be required at different times, and says that what he says has been influenced by Loos (it's here, too, that he makes an implicit reference to Heidegger). But he doesn't say it is bad taste; he just notes that it is a matter of taste. Anyway, back to the start of the passage.

The first paragraph distinguishes two possible meanings of a question such as "How is it possible to follow a rule?" We could inquire into the biological features of human beings, perhaps, that make it possible for us to follow rules. This would be a causal, scientific inquiry. It is not for philosophers. Or we could want to understand how doing this could be justified (or made the right thing to do) by such-and-such a rule. How does the rule translate, or get translated, into certain acts and not others? What makes this and not that the right thing to do, given the rule?

The second paragraph suggests that multiple answers can be given, but gives no examples. I suppose we can imagine any rule we like, and then imagine explaining it to a child or other person unfamiliar with the rule and its application. After some time you run out of things to say to explain the rule, and then you are likely to be inclined to say, "That's just what you do," or something similar. Wittgenstein does not say that we are right to be so inclined, nor that the inclination leads us to say something true. But he doesn't deny this either.  

Then in the third, parenthetical paragraph he suggests that the question and the answer are pretty meaningless. We ask for an explanation or justification not because any such thing is needed but only because that is what our taste requires. And the explanation(s) offered (which end in "This is simply what I do") does nothing, except satisfy our taste for such things. It isn't an explanation at all, we might say, and so the demand for an explanation is sort of empty too. It is a request for something that can never (not just not yet) be provided. "How is rule-following possible?" seems to be a bit like "Why is murder wrong?" and "Why are we here?" It looks like a question, but it has no answer. So one might say it isn't really a question at all. (Although the point is not to be dogmatic about what is and what is not a real question. Call it a question if you like, as long as you see that it is the kind of question that can never be answered.) So Wittgenstein's view of rule-following would appear to be that it's a mistake (and one in bad taste) to ask about it, unless you do so in a scientific spirit.

That's my initial take on this passage anyway.


  1. And the explanation(s) offered (which end in "This is simply what I do") does nothing, except satisfy our taste for such things. It isn't an explanation at all, we might say, and so the demand for an explanation is sort of empty too.

    Your gloss seems pretty correct to me. The next time I go to the library I must remember to look up the entry on §217 in Garth Hallett's Companion to Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations (which is almost everything Baker and Hacker's should have been but wasn't), as I vaguely seem to remember that it was illuminating.

    The conceptual link between satisfaction (of the kind afforded by explanations) and peace of mind is clear in Germanic languages. The most common word in German for 'satisfactory', befriedigend, literally means 'calming' or 'pacifying'. The Swedish tillfredsställande, 'at-peace-putting', is more explicit still.

    (In the Frazer remarks: "Compared with the impression which the description makes on us, the explanation is too uncertain. Every explanation is an hypothesis. But an hypothetical explanation will be of little help to someone, say who is upset because of love. - It will not calm him.")

    Among Wittgensteinians to have written on this small cluster of themes, Frank Cioffi is of course unbeatable, and always worth reading. I only wish he had published more, but I can't really criticise him because I'm so grateful for whatever he has published.

  2. Thanks, Tommi. One thing I've thought of doing with this is looking at what various commentators have said about 217. I'll have to check Hallett and Cioffi.

    Rupert Read seems quite good (I've only skimmed the paper) on this.

  3. From Cioffi, see especially his "When Do Empirical Methods Bypass 'The Problems Which Trouble Us'?" and "Explanation, Self-Clarification and Solace" (originally here and here). But the whole of Wittgenstein on Freud and Frazer is relevant, passim, including the introduction and the afterword.

    As far as I can remember, he never discusses PI §217 by name, but he is very helpful in getting one to see why, in the words of the epigraph from Moore to the former paper, Wittgenstein's "discussion of aesthetics was mingled in a curious way with criticism of assumptions which he said were made by Frazer in The Golden Bough and also with criticisms of Freud" - and how this connects closely with the "hard core" of his PI philosophy, as seen in glimpses in passages like the architectural bit in PI §217, instead of being a separable and optional side street.

    I've read Rupert's paper, but it was one of those where it proved impossible for me personally to be certain whether my disagreements with him were philosophical disagreements or merely incompatibilities of temperament. A bit like part of our Anscombe discussion here. But it's certainly one well worth reading!

  4. Thanks, Tommi!

    I think I know what you mean about that kind of disagreement. I got the impression that it argues for (or really against) a certain way of talking. But someone might talk that way without getting anything wrong. So it could all amount to a matter of taste. But I really only glanced at it, so I could be way off.