Wednesday 10 August 2011

Wittgenstein's regress argument and tacit knowledge

Wittgenstein’s regress argument appears on a first reading to support a role for tacit knowledge runs as follows. The examples of correctly determining the direction that a sign-post points, or of the possibility of deviant reactions to explanations of how to continue, correctly, a mathematical series, suggests that everything that can be said still allows for misunderstandings. Since everything that can be made explicit apparently underdetermines the correct understanding, such understanding must instead be based on something unsaid and implicit. It must depend on tacit knowledge of the rule. Hence, on this account, the regress argument is stopped by an appeal to tacit knowledge.

This connection seems also to fit Wittgenstein’s own conclusion:

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. [Wittgenstein 1953: §202]

Nevertheless, whilst there is something right about that line of thought, there is something misleading about it. That there is something misleading can be by three problems it faces.

The first problem with it as an interpretation of Wittgenstein is that it accepts part of what he criticises: a platonic picture of rules as rails ‘invisibly laid to infinity’ fundamentally distinct from our capacity to articulate them. That picture is easily prompted by the case of the deviant pupil. What that case, and others like it, seems to show is both that any finite set of examples underdetermines a correct understanding of the rule but also that such correct understanding must involve grasp of an extra-human or supernatural pattern. Since no actual human enumeration of the pattern seems enough to determine it, it must be extra-human. Hence the metaphor of rails laid to infinity.

With that picture of the way rules determine correct moves in place, there is a substantial role for tacit knowledge to bridge the gap between what can be made explicit in the sublunary realm and the ideal platonic rule. But if so, it seems that Wittgenstein offers support for a platonic picture he also seems to criticise. (To put this point in the terms used by McDowell: such a picture of tacit knowledge presupposes a rampantly platonic picture of rules [McDowell 1994].)

A second problem concerns the communication of knowledge of rules. Since explanations are insufficient explicitly to fix a unique rule, the tacit grasp of a particular rule cannot be a matter of knowledge even if it were, as a matter of fact, of the rule intended. Nothing could justify the selection from the infinite range of alternative options. But even this is problematic because of a third problem.

The final problem is accounting for the idea that tacit knowledge of a rule or the meaning of a word has some content to be known. As far as what can be made explicit, this approach is in the same position as Kripke’s sceptical account. But it differs from that in attempting to invoke something tacit. The problem, though, is that this means that nothing can be said by way of positive account of what the tacit knowledge amounts to since any attempt will fall prey to the Kripkean objections to explicitness. But if that is the case, what reason is there to think that what remains tacit is a ‘something’ at all? It may justify the label ‘tacit’ but only at the cost of undermining the idea of knowledge.

These three problems all stem from the idea that tacit knowledge is needed to plug a gap between what can be explained, or otherwise made explicit, and the full grasp of a rule which can be understood as a result. Wittgenstein undermines that gap, however, and thus that account of the support his argument gives for tacit knowledge. He suggests, instead, that there is a close connection between what a teacher can express and what a student can grasp in the examples which manifest the teacher’s meaning.

“But do you really explain to the other person what you yourself understand? Don’t you get him to guess the essential thing? You give him examples, – but he has to guess their drift, to guess your intention.” – Every explanation which I can give myself I give to him too. – “He guesses what I intend” would mean: various interpretations of my explanation come to his mind, and he lights on one of them. So in this case he could ask; and I could and should answer him. [ibid: §210]

“But this initial segment of a series obviously admitted of various interpretations (e.g. by means of algebraic expressions) and so you must first have chosen one such interpretation.”–Not at all. A doubt was possible in certain circumstances. But that is not to say that I did doubt, or even could doubt…[ibid: §213]

In §210. the interlocutor expresses the worry that since an explanation fails to determine the rule to be explained, a listener has to guess – from an infinite range of options – what rule was intended. The guess is needed to bridge the gap between what is actually expressed and what was really intended. But Wittgenstein’s response is to equate the what can be explained to another person and what might have been assumed to be epistemically optimal: what a speaker can explain to him or herself.

This equation might be thought – optimistically – to offer in the third person case the happy circumstances of the first person case: what one knows one intends in one’s explanation. But it might also be thought – pessimistically in the context of an inquiry which undermines the efficacy of mental templates to underpin one’s own grasp of a rule – to limit what is available to others to what is available to oneself. Either way, the connection undermines the idea that a guess is necessary to bridge a gap between first and third person cases.

§213 applies the moral of §210 to the explanation of a rule. Whilst some explanations can fail that is not the general case. (Just as in general sign-posts succeed in pointing.) Although Wittgenstein rejects substantive explanations of our grasp of rules, via mental mechanisms, he does not claim that there is a gap between what can be manifested and what must be understood, a gap that has thus to be filled by a tacit element.

Recognising that our understanding can be expressed in examples undermines the gap between the sublunary and the platonic and thus that potential role for tacit knowledge. It also blocks the worry raised above that such a model of the tacit understanding of rules or meanings would put under pressure the idea that there is something to be known, a content grasped. There is a content which can be expressed in examples or ongoing practice.

That might suggest that, on a proper understanding, Wittgenstein’s regress argument offers no support for tacit knowledge. And indeed, an interpretation, perhaps inspired by Kripke, which concentrates on the potential failures of explanations or the lack of efficacy of signposts seems to have things almost exactly the wrong way round. A pointing sign can be a paradigm case of what it is to make a direction explicit not implicit. Some ostensive examples can explicate the meaning of a word.

But there is, nevertheless, a tacit dimension for two reasons.

First, such explanations work for those with eyes to see or ears to hear. It is because we are the kind of subjects we are, with our shared routes of interest, perceptions of salience, feelings of naturalness etc., that we are able to use finite explanations, as we do, to communicate unending rules [Lear 1982: 386]. Because we share what Stanley Cavell calls our ‘whirl of organism’ we can respond to explanations in a way which does not threaten a regress of interpretations.

Wittgenstein’s deviant pupil illustrates what it would be to lack the right background and thus fail to understand or react to explanations by example as we do. Under such hypothetical circumstances, examples would need to be bound together under an interpretation but – again without the right background – there would be no way to encode that interpretation without a vicious regress.

Now it might be tempting to obviate the need for such a background by trying to articulate or encode how understanding depends on one’s interests, saliences and perceptions of naturalness. But any attempt to articulate that would also have to presuppose the background that underpins understanding of any such explanation. If we take full articulation to be an articulation which does not require possession of the shared background, then no full articulation is possible (because of the regress of interpretations). But for those who do share that background, it can be put into words piecemeal.

That is one reason to think of the background of shared routes of interest, perceptions of salience, feelings of naturalness as tacit. Making elements of it explicit is only possible against a background which cannot be simultaneously articulated to someone outside it. An explanatory project which attempted to take nothing for granted would be bound to fail. But on the other hand, articulating the bounds of sense from within is possible. Thus it is a nuanced view of the tacit.

The second main reason to think that understanding a rule is a species of tacit knowledge is as follows. Consider a rule which can be partly codified in an informal statement such as that the digits always follow the pattern: ‘0, 2, 4, 6, 8, 0 etc’ or more fully codified in an explicit mathematical formula or principle. Someone who understands such a rule may understand such a general principle or perhaps a set of related principles using some of them to explain others. They may thus be able to articulate what they understand the rule to be in general and context-independent terms. Nevertheless, even with such a codifiable rule, understanding it cannot be independent of understanding its instances. One needs to know, in Wittgenstein’s phrase, how to go on. It is a form of practical knowledge. Wittgenstein gives an example of someone who grasps a series either with, or without, having a formula in mind:

It is clear that we should not say B had the right to say the words “Now I know how to go on”, just because he thought of the formula – unless experience shewed that there was a connexion between thinking of the formula – saying it, writing it down – and actually continuing the series...
We can also imagine the case where nothing at all occurred in B’s mind except that he suddenly said “Now I know how to go on” – perhaps with a feeling of relief; and that he did in fact go on working out the series without using the formula. And in this case too we should say – in certain circumstances – that he did know how to go on. [ibid: §179]

In addition to this connection to practice, however, there is something implicit in this example. It is connected to particular cases. To understand the rule requires a grasp that this particular number is the next number in the sequence, for example. So grasp of a general concept, even one which can be explained in general terms, implicates a situation-specific sensitivity. But as the regress argument establishes, situation-specific judgements cannot be reduced to or captured in merely general terms.

Because grasp of a rule involves knowing how to go on, it is a form of practical knowledge. But it is, additionally, situation specific. This is what we take to be the best understanding of tacit knowledge.