Thursday, 19 February 2015

Who are we?

This is the whole of a short article published in Splijtstof, the student philosophy journal at Radboud University, Nijmegan to coincide with the Philosophers' Rally 2014. I assume that they would no longer mind it being posted in accordance, I guess, with the green standard of public access.

Who are we? 

We learn and teach words in certain contexts, and then we are expected, and expect others, to be able to project them into further contexts. Nothing insures that this projection will take place (in particular, not the grasping of universals nor the grasping of book of rules), just as nothing insures that we will make, and understand, the same projections. That on the whole we do is a matter of our sharing routes of interest and feeling, senses of humour and of significance and of fulfilment, of what is outrageous, of what is similar to what else, what a rebuke, what forgiveness, of when an utterance is an assertion, when an appeal, when an explanation – all the whirl of organism Wittgenstein calls ‘forms of life’. Human speech and activity, sanity and community, rest upon nothing more, but nothing less, than this. It is a vision as simple as it is difficult, and as difficult as it is (and because it is) terrifying. [Cavell 1969: 52]

In this influential passage, Stanley Cavell offers an interpretation of Wittgenstein’s discussion of shared language. It is offered in part to undermine the assumption that language use is governed by formal rules. So it aims to correct the idea that linguistic usage just is rule following. But that is not to say that Cavell thinks that following formal rules, in logic or mathematics, are underpinned by anything more than is described in this passage. Neither language use nor logic or mathematics is underpinned by extra-human, or extra-rational-subject, platonism.

We are able to learn and teach words or rules because we share routes of interest and feeling, senses of what is similar to what else etc. But who are we? What light does Wittgenstein’s discussion of understanding meaning and following rules shed on who we are? In this short note I will compare three contemporary philosophers who have attempted to address this question.


In three papers on Wittgenstein, Jonathan Lear vividly illustrates the difficulty of thinking about the connection between the discussion of rules and the ‘we’, the plural subject, who can grasp them. He argues that Wittgenstein’s discussion has two aspects: transcendental and anthropological. The transcendental aspect aims at non-empirical insight into rule-following [Lear 1986: 270]. The anthropological aspect consists of empirical descriptions of human nature and practices drawing on Wittgenstein’s comment that he provides remarks on the natural history of human beings which no one has doubted only because they are always before our eyes.

Although Lear thinks that Wittgenstein’s discussion contains both aspects, he also thinks that they are in tension, both with each other and with other explicit aspects of Wittgenstein’s view of the nature of philosophy. Crucially, the anthropological approach threatens to turn a philosophical discussion of norms into an explanation of them which would violate Wittgenstein’s separation of philosophy and explanation. Further:

[I]t would threaten Wittgenstein’s repeated demand that philosophical reflection should leave our practices and customs intact… Why should we not come to view the law of non-contradiction as merely one of the deeply held tribal beliefs of our tribe? [Lear 1986: 270-1]

Lear suggests that the Philosophical Investigations remained an incomplete work because Wittgenstein was never able to work through the full consequences of interaction of these two approaches. Nevertheless, he thinks that a model of philosophy as transcendental anthropology is possible given two claims he draws from Wittgenstein’s discussion of rules or norms: the first homely, the second radical.

First, non-empirical or transcendental investigation of what might come to mind shows that grasping a rule or norm cannot consist of entertaining any kind of a mental image or inner sign or speech or other kind of talisman. The ‘individual’s inner experience cannot endow his practical ability with normative content’ [Lear 1984: 235]. And thus the result of a piece of critical reflection suggests instead a need to look outwards to practices to grasp the nature of rules or norms. The anthropological description of norms is justified by the transcendental investigation of what can and crucially cannot come to mind.

Second, and more radically, Lear proposes a connection between the content of rules or norms and our ‘mindedness’. Our mindedness is illustrated in words drawn from Cavell as our ‘shared perceptions of salience, routes of interest and feelings of naturalness’ and thus rightly studied through an anthropological perspective. But it is also what conditions our concepts, rules or norms. The conditions of possibility of our thought have an ‘essential relation to our mindedness’ [Lear 1984: 238]. Thus the anthropological perspective is deployed in the service of a transcendental inquiry into norms.

This latter connection is, however, a difficult one to spell out. The appeal to the idea of mindedness must avoid both vacuity but also making a substantial but false empirical claim. Lear suggests that he can avoid the first because in appending ‘We are so minded’ to our thoughts - so as to demonstrate what conditions them - we make a substantial and synthetic claim [1984: 229]. He attempts to avoid the second by arguing that our mindedness is not merely one sort among many possible.

Considering the question of what 7 + 5 equals, Lear suggests that there are two possible answers. 

Either 12 or ‘anything at all, just as long as everyone is so minded’. The first is the correct answer but ‘After studying the later Wittgenstein, one is tempted to say that [the latter] also expresses some sort of truth’ [Lear 1982: 385-386]. But, he argues, it is not an empirical truth because that would licence counterfactuals of the form: 7 + 5 would equal something other than 12 had we been other minded:

But these counterfactuals cannot for us express real possibilities; for the notion of people being other minded is not something on which we can get any grasp. The possibility of there being persons who are minded in any way at all is the possibility of their being minded as we are. [ibid: 386]

He suggests that this transformation is a kind of modal gestalt shift:

In one gestalt, one becomes aware that there is nothing to guarantee one’s continued correct language use beyond the fact that one happens to share with one’s fellow man routes of interest, perceptions of salience, feelings of naturalness etc. From this perspective, one’s continued hold on the world appears the merest contingency... As the gestalt shifts, one comes to see that there is no genuine possibility of having fundamentally different routes of interest and perceptions of salience, for that is the spurious possibility of becoming other minded. The illusion of possibility is engendered by considering our form of life as one among others. [ibid: 386]

The second gestalt suggests that the qualification ‘for us’ which attaches to our form of mindedness ‘cancels out’.

There can (for us) be no getting a glimpse of what it might be like to be ‘other minded’, for as we try to pass beyond the bounds of our mindedness we lapse into what (for us) must be nonsense: that is, we lapse into nonsense... That the ‘(for us)’ ultimately cancels out is a key to understanding what it is to establish the objective validity of our representations: for we come to see that being one of ‘our’ representations is all that there could be to being a representation. [Lear 1984: 232-3]

This picture contrasts with those who take Wittgenstein to subscribe to a form of conventionalism or cultural relativism. On Lear’s interpretation, the fact that the qualification ‘for us’ cancels out helps to vindicate our ways of following rules. At the same time, however, although he appears to reject the link, summarised in the first gestalt above, between our logic and mathematics and our mindedness, he really rejects a reading of this position which makes logic depend on a contingent ‘one among many’ kind of mindedness. It remains philosophically important that one can have the insight this first gestalt describes when construed as an act of pointing towards transcendental connection between our mindedness and the content of our rules. So although the ‘for us’ or ‘we’ cancels out, it does not disappear.

It is not obvious, however, that the ‘We are so minded:’ must therefore disappear. Our ability to append the ‘We are so minded:’ represents a permanent possibility of reflective consciousness. [ibid: 241]

Lear thus provides mixed support for the project of highlighting the nature of the ‘we’ who are the transcendental subjects of the conceptual order through an examination of Wittgenstein’s discussion of rules. On the one hand, he argues that the negative arguments suggests that the content of rules depends on the merest contingency rather than platonic foundations of extra-human logical or mathematical norms. And hence there is a substantial role in accounting for the content of rules in appeal to our nature. But on the other hand, no other ways of going on are conceivable. The idea that our mindedness contrasts with any other turns out to be spurious. But with no possible (for us!) contrast, can we understand this connection? Has the nature of the ‘we are so minded’ been singled out? To address this question I will turn now to John McDowell.


There is, in fact, a brief explicit discussion of Lear’s interpretation of Wittgenstein in McDowell’s Mind and World. The main target of that book is a dualism of norms and nature which seems to support related dualisms of mind and world, concepts and intuitions and conceptual schemes and empirical content. Rejecting these need not be seen, however, as support for Quine’s attack on analyticity.

The suspect notion of the analytic is the notion of schemes in the suspect sense, the sense in which schemes are conceived as dualistically set over against the world…. [W]hen we reject the dualism of scheme and world, we cannot take meaning to be the stuff of schemes, on the dualistic conception of schemes. But this does not deprive us of the very idea of meaning... We can reject the two factors without threatening the idea that there are limits to what makes sense: that our mindedness, as Jonathan Lear puts it, has a necessary structure. The idea of a structure that must be found in any intelligible conceptual scheme need not involve picturing the scheme as one side of a scheme-world dualism. And analytic truths (in an interesting sense, not just definitionally guaranteed truisms such as ‘A vixen is a female fox’) might be just those that delineate such a necessary structure. [McDowell 1994: 157-8]

Although McDowell expresses approval for Lear’s idea that our mindedness has a necessary structure he rejects the picture Lear himself proposes to sustain that idea.

[T]he disappearance of the ‘we’ should not take on the aspect of a reassurance, but should rather figure as part of the reason why a reassurance should never have been needed. “How we go on” is just our mindedness, which is ex hypothesi in constituted harmony with our world; it is not something that constitutes the harmony, as it were from outside. [McDowell 1994: 159]

McDowell’s actual remarks in Mind and World seem to suggest that Lear’s main focus is – like McDowell’s own in Mind and World – empirical concepts and a harmony between those and the empirical world. This does not fit so happily the Lear’s concentration on logical and mathematical concepts. But McDowell’s point can be extended to criticise the justification that Lear seeks for our logical or mathematical rules by ruling out other ways of going on. Without at least a glimpse of other ways of going on, then our ways cannot be legitimated over other possibilities. But anything more than a glimpse threatens to undermine that legitimation by undermining the necessity of our ways of going on. The notion of mindedness, however, is not sufficiently independent of what it is supposed to underwrite. Because it is introduced through the idea of shared perceptions of salience, routes of interest and feelings of naturalness, it cannot at the same time explain or constrain those notions.

McDowell’s criticism of Lear reflects a different view of the relation between the normative level of rule following and an underlying set of contingencies concerning behaviour and reactions (for example, to explanations of direction by a pointing finger).

On Lear’s view, the Wittgensteinian lesson that there is nothing to underpin rule following beyond shared routes of interest, perceptions of salience, feelings of naturalness prompts the conclusion that ‘one’s continued hold on the world appears the merest contingency’ [Lear 1982: 386]. This in turn motivates the need to vindicate our ways of going on through the idea of our mindedness. But according to McDowell, the correct interpretation of the significance of the underlying contingencies is to concede that were certain facts not the case there would be no conceptual order [cf McDowell 1984: 347-]. Future changes in the underlying facts which underpin our abilities to be rule followers or language users would not make our present understanding precarious. If such changes were to come about that would prevent us in the future from understanding one another. It would not retrospectively undermine present understanding.

This view suggests a kind of compromise between full blown platonism about the conceptual order in which view logic takes us by the throat, exerting an external constraint on any possible form of thought and a more sociological or anthropological view. McDowell calls the middle way ‘naturalised platonism’.

In rampant platonism, the rational structure within which meaning comes into view is independent of anything merely human, so that the capacity of our minds to resonate to it looks occult or magical. Naturalised platonism is platonistic in that the structure of the space of reasons has a sort of autonomy; it is not derivative from, or reflective of, truths about human beings that are capturable independently of having that structure in view. But this platonism is not rampant: the structure of the space of reasons is not constituted in splendid isolation from anything merely human. The demands of reason are essentially such that a human upbringing can open a human being’s eyes to them. [McDowell 1994: 92]

On this view, upbringing and education opens the eyes of rational subjects to the demands that logic, for example, places on them. McDowell suggests a similar view of moral obligations [McDowell 1979]. Those with eyes to see them can learn to be sensitive and to respond to moral reasons, construed as genuine features of the world.

This later view also seems to reflect a comment from the earlier paper ‘Wittgenstein on following a rule’ in which he comments that:

When we say ‘“Diamonds are hard” is true if and only if diamonds are hard’, we are just as much involved on the right-hand side as the reflections on rule-following tell us we are. There is a standing temptation to miss this obvious truth, and to suppose that the right-hand side somehow presents us with a possible fact, pictured as an unconceptualised configuration of things in themselves... We can find this picture of genuine truth compelling only if we either forget that truth-bearers are such only because they are meaningful, or suppose that meanings take care of themselves, needing, as it were, no help from us. [McDowell 1984: 351-2]

In these passages McDowell suggests that a proper understanding of the significance of Wittgenstein’s discussion of rules and meaning has implications for the relation of mind and world. It highlights the role that ‘we’ play in sustaining the conceptual order. Neglecting the connection of human practices and meaning threatens to present a myth of the world as made up of unconceptualised things in themselves. Avoiding that myth requires not letting our understanding of the judging subjects who think, for example, that ‘diamonds are hard’ shrink to a ‘locus of pure thought’ [ibid: 351-2].

But even without Lear’s attempt to justify or vindicate our ways of following rules, McDowell’s picture of naturalised platonism does not seem to help in the task of stopping our understanding of judging subjects from shrinking to a ‘locus of pure thought’. Since naturalised platonism still credits the conceptual order with some sort of autonomy, the only freedom it seems to permit is that of being blind to some tract of reality. The contribution that a rational subject makes to the truth 7 + 5 = 12 is merely one of passive recognition. If so, it is not clear that Wittgenstein’s discussion of rules and of meaning sheds light on who ‘we’ are.


Charles Travis expresses a reciprocal worry to the concern that playing up the autonomy or objectivity of our rules plays down the role ‘we’ have in sustaining the conceptual order. Travis’ worry starts with McDowell’s emphasis on our special capacities as rational subjects of a particular sort.

McDowell himself makes frequent appeal to ways in which we, or relevant thinkers, are thinkers of a special sort. Our special design opens our eyes, as he puts it, to particular tracts of reality. That our eyes may be thus opened shows where, and how, there may be facts that it takes special capacities, not enjoyed by just any thinker, to see. [Travis 2002: 305]

But this prompts the question.

Can mind-design select which tract of reality we deal with... without also deciding, of the selected tract, how things there are—without shaping the world along with our responsiveness to it? [ibid: 333]

The worry is that McDowell’s reliance on the idea that education and induction into the space of reasons opens a subject’s eyes to aspects of the world commits him (McDowell) to a form of idealism. This problem is brought into focus because McDowell rejects what he calls a ‘deductive paradigm that leads us to suppose that the operations of any specific conception of rationality in a particular area - any specific conception of what counts as doing the same thing - must be deductively explicable; that is, that there must be a formulable universal principle suited to serve as major premiss in syllogistic explanations’ [McDowell 1979: 339-40]. Special capacities are needed precisely because the demands of reason are not in general accessible to just any rational subject because, in turn, they are not codifiable in principles graspable by just any subject. But now the worry is that the role the special capacities have is to constitute the aspect of reality  supposedly revealed.

Travis offers McDowell a way out of this potential worry based on his own philosophical signature dish which he draws from an interpretation of Wittgenstein: occasionalism. The key idea is that this allows Travis (and hence potentially McDowell) to distinguish between two different contributions that the mindedness of a subject – our nature – might make.

Let P be a way a statement might thus represent things. Then, accepting that idea, we may still innocently allow that the way given thinkers think decides whether some one of their statements stated that P, or, say, that Q, where that is another such way for a statement to represent things. But one cannot, accepting this idea, allow that, where a statement spoke of things as being P, whether it thus stated truth depends on how a particular (sort of) thinker thinks. [Travis 2002: 338]

The latter would be a form of idealism which undermines the autonomy of our rules and normativity. But the former locates the contribution of subjectivity to selecting the way we represent the world to be. This is the role of occasionalism. What is said in using a sentence depends on the occasion of its use. Hence, also, whether what is said is true or false depends on the occasion, which in turn depends, among other things, on the nature of the speaker.

Travis gives an everyday example

Sid buys a DIY chair kit. On bringing it home he discovers that it is much more difficult to assemble than he had imagined. It remains a neatly stacked pile of chair parts in his spare room. One day, someone, pointing at the pile, asks, ‘What’s that?’ ‘It’s a chair’, Sid replies, ‘I just haven’t got around to assembling it yet.’ On a later occasion, Sid and Pia, with guests, find themselves a chair short for dinner. ‘There’s a chair in the spare room’, Sid says helpfully. But there is still only the pile. [ibid: 336]

The idea is that Sid’s first answer is true. On that occasion it is correct to say that the pile is a chair. But on the second occasion, his comment is false. The pile of parts is not a chair in the context of the dinner party. The same word ‘chair’ can be used correctly and falsely of the pile of parts because different things are said to be so with it on both occasions. This suggests a role for our psychological design, not in shaping the aspect of the world judged, but in shaping the nature of what we say with our words.

Part of the motivation for Travis’ occasionalism is Wittgenstein’s criticism of (rampant) platonism: the idea that in the face of the argument that words, signs, utterances are susceptible to different interpretations there might be some intermediary, a last interpretation, between words and world which still represents the world but uniquely independently of context. Rejecting this as a myth leaves the standing need for features of the occasion, of speaker and context, to fix what is said in any utterance.

Travis’ view of meaning, like Lear’s and McDowell’s, can be seen as a development of Cavell’s view of the contingency of meaning. But whereas Lear’s and McDowell’s accounts seem to leave our contribution to the conceptual order to ‘cancel out’ – to be a merely transcendental glimpse into the conditions of possibility of meaning – Travis’ account stresses an empirical claim. As a matter of fact, we do mean different things by our words on different occasions and what we mean, and are taken to mean, depends on what it would be rational to say or to think in context. This claim goes beyond the rejection of (rampant) platonism that he shares with Lear and McDowell’s interpretation. It requires piecemeal demonstration of how occasions help fix meaning which Travis offers case by case (eg green leaves both natural and painted; red hair natural and dyed etc). But that raises the question of whether such examples might carry over to the hard cases of logic and mathematics discussed by Lear. Given their standard meanings, what does our sense of occasions contribute to the answer to ‘what is 7 + 5?’?


Cavell’s famous description of the contingency of meaning responds to Wittgenstein’s criticism of platonic foundations by suggesting that contingent features of our subjectivity sustain the conceptual order. One reaction to this might be to assume that facts about meaning reduce to contingent sociological facts. The apparent inexorability of the judgement that 7 + 5 equals, and must equal, 12 somehow reduces to contingencies of what we find natural. But such a move threatens to undermine what Wittgenstein calls the ‘hardness of the logical must’.

Lear, McDowell and Travis attempt to balance retaining the autonomy of the conceptual order with crediting some role for particular features of our subjectivity. If so, the conceptual order, the space of reasons, somehow reflects our mindedness and so should shed light on who we are. That is why we are involved, according to McDowell, in the facts set out on the right hand side of instances of the T-schema as well as the sentences mentioned on the left. But as Lear stresses, taking the inexorability of rules seriously seems to reduce the contribution of subjectivity to zero, to cancel it out. And McDowell’s own positive account of the relationship between our rule following and our contingent natures should block Cavell’s sense of terror.

Travis’ occasionalism promises a way of balancing a substantial view of the contribution of subjectivity with maintaining the autonomy of judgement. But it is open to doubt whether it generalises to the kind of hard cases Lear stresses.

So what should we make of Cavell’s comments? Does Wittgenstein’s discussion of rules and meaning suggest a positive connection to our subjectivity to balance the – negative – rejection of platonic foundations? I think not. I think we should take seriously an element of Lear’s dialectic. Reflecting on the switch between the views of the status of logical and mathematical claims as contingently reflecting our mindedness versus or inexorability reflecting the hardness of logic he says:

The difference between Wittgenstein and the conventionalists can be summed up as follows: the conventionalists state a falsehood; Wittgenstein tries to point beyond to a transcendental insight. [Lear 1982: 387]

But to take the later Wittgensteinian seriously is to realise that any such successful act of pointing would require more stage-setting than Lear describes. There is no ineffable truth outside the limits of sense to which Wittgenstein gestures. The most that Cavell’s remarks reveal is that, in the necessary absence of platonic foundations, it is a contingent fact that we understand explanations of meaning and that we can continue following rules in the way that we do. But the truths of maths and logic are truths of maths and logic: not truths about our own subjectivity. They shed no further light on who we are other than our ability to grasp them.


Cavell, S. (1969) Must we mean what we say, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Lear, J. (1982) ‘Leaving the world alone’ Journal of Philosophy 79: 382-403
Lear, J. (1984) ‘The disappearing “we”’ Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society supplementary volume 58: 219-58
Lear, J. (1986) ‘Transcendental anthropology’ in Pettit, P. and McDowell, J. (eds) (1986) Subject Thought and Context, Oxford: Clarendon Press pp2367-98.
McDowell, J. (1979) ‘Virtue and Reason’ Monist 62: 331-350
McDowell, J. (1984) ‘Wittgenstein on following a rule’ Synthese 58: 325-63
McDowell, J. (1994) Mind and World, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press
Travis, C. (2002) ‘Frege’s target’ Royal Institute of Philosophy Supplement 51: 305-343