Thursday 27 February 2014

Who are we?

This is the first section of a short article published in Splijtstof, the student philosophy journal at Radboud University, Nijmegan to coincide with the Philosophers' Rally 2014.

Who are we?
Wittgenstein, rule-following and the 'whirl of organism' 

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...