Following a Rule: Wittgenstein and Habermas

Rules are constitutive of any game, insofar as they define what it means to play a particular game. An agent expresses competence to the extent that they demonstrate an ability to abide by the rules of the game. But, the agent does not necessarily have to be able to explain the rules. Thus, competence is bound up with knowing-how – practical ability – rather than knowing-that – theoretical knowledge. This is manifest in an agent’s ability to continue to play a particular game even when a situation arises that he has never encountered before.

There are two consequences of drawing a parallel between playing a game and using language. First, philosophy of language must give up monological explanations because the phenomenon of following a rule cannot be explained monologically. Language presupposes a community to check that one is following the rules, for instance (against private language). Second, it calls for a fundamental reassessment of the nature of language and meaning. In correspondence theories, the meaning and truth of a proposition are largely dependent upon reference to objects in the non-linguistic world. Their emphasis is upon the cognitive role of language (as a means to communicate facts). They are rule bound, but in a subtly different way.

Wittgenstein is not interested in the truth of a proposition, that is, in its adequacy to the non-linguistic world as in correspondence theories, so much as the appropriateness of a sentence in a given context. Following a rule means that the rules can differ in any given context, for instance the expression of religious beliefs or governing scientific experiments. Thus, what is true or meaningful is distinctive to a particular language game. Further, following a rule gets you beyond deep grammar, since the competence of a speaker rests not just in the tacit understanding of the rules that govern part of the sentence, but also in the ability to engage with other speakers in concrete situations.

Here, Wittgenstein flips from the philosophy of language into social theory. The former is concerned with sentences and the latter with speech acts. Speech acts include questions, promises, orders, requests and baptisms. Beyond the words spoken, they entail a normative commitment.  In so doing, speech acts establish specific social and moral relationships between the speaker and hearer. They are distinguished from language games, because they are irreducible communicative units that occur within the broader context of a language.

For Habermas, though Wittgenstein approaches social theory, he remains tied to a therapeutic rather than theoretical approach and so does not constitute a whole. This is because language for Wittgenstein has no systematic or universal core, whereas universal pragmatics transcends specific language games. Second, Wittgenstein’s position entails perspectivism since he offers no ideas as to how certain rules are legitimated or accepted because the speaker is so embedded in the language game that he is unable to get a critical purchase on it.

Habermas thus identifies two weaknesses in Wittgenstein. First, he fails to adequately grasp that relationship that exists between competent communicators. Second, there is too little emphasis on the role of cognitive language in which an agent must relate to another human subject, and to the matters about which he is communicating. In fact, the games analogy distorts ordinary language use, as in the former one is able to conceal their intentions, but if we were to do this in the latter communication would break down. Thus, Wittgenstein’s games players are forced to merely accept the legitimacy of the rules of the game, but Habermas’s players are capable of accessing the legitimacy of social conventions as part of playing the game.


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