Wednesday, 13 August 2008


I wish in the following to draw upon a certain ‘resolute’ and therapeutic reading of Wittgenstein in order to suggest the possibility of a fruitful analogy between Wittgenstein’s approach to language and the understanding of language evident in some of the work of Jacques Lacan. I will begin by drawing upon an article from 1996, by James Guetti and Rupert Read, on Wittgenstein and rule following. It serves to lay out with exemplary clarity issues that are crucial to a grasp of Wittgenstein’s take on acting from rules. [The article, "Acting from Rules", is to be found in International Studies in Philosophy, 1996, 28:2, 43-62.] The essay begins with a sustained critique of Baker and Hacker’s claim that the relation between a rule and its application is ‘internal’. The gist of their argument here is that there is in B&H a failure to distinguish rule-expression and application-description from rule and application as such. The result is that the application seems to take on the character of the rule, as though it were a part of the rule, something already in place within the rule (46). The mistake here is to ignore the active nature of the application of a rule: B&H see the connection of application to rule as something that exists within grammar, where grammar is thought of as a standing set of logical relations, and by so doing they assimilate application or judgement to definition or rule.

Guetti and Read want to insist that, no matter what grammatical relations may in place at any moment, ‘an application of grammar must consist in something beyond or in addition to them, some further step’ (46). To support this view they quote from Wittgenstein:

I see that it is red—but how does that help me if I do not know what I have to say or how, in some other way, to give expression to my knowledge? For sooner or later I must make the transition to expression. And at this transition all rules leave me in the lurch. For now they all really hang in the air. All good advice is no help to me, for in the end I must make a leap. I must say "That is red" or act in some way, which amounts to the same thing.
To act according to a rule involves a leap away from the rule, supported by nothing other than the anticipation involved in the leap itself. I am at this point reminded of a question put by Stanley Cavell: ‘Is the issue one of a leap [not of faith but, let us say, of reason] from a ground that is itself implied or defined by the leap?’ The ground—the rule—is retroactively defined by the leap away from it.

Guetti and Read imagine a chess game whose players hold in one hand a table or chart of the possible moves of the chess pieces. ‘Before any move they look back and forth from the game board to their charts. But when they actually come to moving a piece, they no longer do this, but give all their attention to the positions on the board’ (47). Applying a rule here involves literally turning away from the charts formulating the rules. The application of the rule is something of a quite different kind from the formulation of the rule itself. Thus, when Wittgenstein writes ‘I follow the rule blindly’ (PI, 219), he may be read as saying that when I follow a rule, I am blind even to the rule-formulation itself. The question arises: if I leap away from the rule to something that the rule, just because I am acting on it, cannot describe, how do I know I am following that rule? Here part of the answer may be that I do not leap towards anything, I act as I have acted before or as others have acted. As Cavell puts it: ‘nothing insures that this projection will take place (in particular, not the grasping of universals nor the grasping of books of rules), just as nothing insures that we will make, and understand, the same projections’ (MWM, 52). To invoke in this connection Wittgenstein’s phrase ‘forms of life’ is to offer no more than a reminder that it makes no sense to ask for the foundation or ground of our practices; for the most part, we rely in our use of language on a fact of agreement for which there is no further explanation. (One may think here of Wittgenstein’s discussion of adding 2.)

As an example of what they have in mind, Guetti and Read offer the following narrative: ‘Two people are walking in the country, in light woods along a stream, and just ahead of them several birds fly up from some high branches and down along the water, and then return fluttering to the bushes. "Waxwings!" says the one who was looking in that direction. And now the other looks. What is the relation of that word—"waxwings"—to his action? Probably we should think that his looking for the birds, or his seeing them, was governed or directed in some way by the word naming them. And he might quickly have them in view, and perhaps as quickly say, "There they are," or, "So those are waxwings," or simply, "Waxwings!"’ (47-8). The problem this story raises for Guetti and Read is how to account for the second speaker’s non-linguistic action: what did he do with the first speaker’s remark? ‘How exactly should the relation among the increments of such a sequence be understood?’ what seems to emerge from this story is that the first speaker’s empirical observation, expressed in the exclamation ‘Waxwings!’, comes to function in the temporal development of the sequence as a grammatical stipulation, a stipulation that is constituted retroactively by the change in register brought about in the first remark by the second speaker’s comment ‘So those are waxwings’. As Guetti and Read note in a later paper on a similar theme:

In this development the role of such expressions [i.e. ‘waxwing’] changes "dialectically" from active to "static," from a temporarily descriptive and even "referential" functioning to a new and undoubted grammatical establishment, a background or "foundation" against which one can make another testable observation. Expressions that serve initially as description of fact are transformed, evidently just by the onward sequencing of the discourses in which they occur, into presumptions that make the next description assertable; and each presumption amounts to a further articulation of the grammatical rules of the sequence, a determination of the logical "range" appropriate for further empirical expression, and hence a modification of the grammar of the entire discourse to that point. ["Meaningful Consequences", The Philosophical Forum 30:4 (December, 1999), 303. Also see the updated and expanded version of this article online HERE.]
It is here that one finds what it is to speak of ‘a dynamic conception of grammar’: ‘a conception such that the grammar of a sequence is to a certain degree being generated as one goes along’. Thus, in the example given, the second speaker’s remark could be responded to by the first speaker’s saying: ‘Indeed! Notice the red tips like sealing wax on some of the wing feathers’.

This leads Guetti and Read to emphasise something they see as fundamental, namely, what they call ‘the interval condition’, which comes between the grammatical ‘cues’ generated by the onward movement of the sequence. Developing their earlier discussion of the ‘leap’, they want to argue that during the course of a dialogue, about waxwings for example, the grammatical cues, the rules, of that dialogue efface themselves, becoming not so much transparent as invisible. They quote Merleau-Ponty in support of this position: ‘In the way it works, language hides itself from us. Its triumph is to efface itself . . . There is language after the fact, or language as an institution, which effaces itself in order to yield the meaning which it conveys’ (51, cited from The Prose of the World, p.10). they back this up with a citation from Wittgenstein that captures precisely the effacing involved in the progress from grammatical increment to grammatical increment during the course of a meaningful linguistic utterance:

It perplexes us that there is no moment at which the thought of a sentence is completely present. Here we see that we are comparing the thought with a thing that we manufacture and possess as a whole; but in fact as soon as one part comes into being another disappears. [51, cited from Philosophical Grammar, p. 108]

There is in our meaningful utterances a double movement, of anticipation and retroaction: ‘we may say that each element of a linguistic sequence is presumed in order for another to follow it, or that it is transformed to presumptive status when—or even because—that further step occurs’ (52). Just as in the Tractatus it was stated that the logical form of a proposition—of an actively meaningful expression—cannot itself be meaningfully represented, so, Guetti and Read argue, ‘a rule in action is "invisible" just in virtue of the fact that, to be taken as a rule—to be an actionable or capacitative concept—it must be un-expressed and un-exposed’ (52). They cite an example from Wittgenstein, who imagines someone who is in pain and simultaneously hearing a near-by piano being tuned.

"Were you thinking of the noise or of your pain?" If he answers "I was thinking of the piano-tuning"—is he observing that the connexion existed, or is he making it by means of these words?—Can’t I say both? If what he said was true, didn’t the connexion exist—and is not he for all that making one that did not exist? [48, cited from PI, 682]

The ‘existence’ of the connection is a matter of the conditional, a matter of what could or would have been said. At the same time, the connection seems to come into being only when it is constituted retrospectively in the act of speech. The existing conditions are anticipated by the possible connections of standing grammar, possibilities that will have been realised retroactively in the fact of the actual utterance.

What is crucial here is the temporal, not the spatial, structure of the logical or grammatical process, as that is involved in meaningful utterance. As Lacan points out in his 1946 paper on ‘Logical Time’, the ‘eternal’ prestige of the forms of classical logic reflects an ‘infirmity’, ‘i.e. these forms do not furnish us anything which cannot already be seen at a single stroke [d’un seul coup], an infirmity which, one may note, is precisely that emphasised by the presentation of logic as given to us by Wittgenstein in the Tractatus. [Newsletter of the Freudian Field 2:2 (Fall, 1988, 9.] it is in these terms that one can take Wittgenstein’s remark in Philosophical Grammar (p. 145, cited by Guetti and Read on p.54):

By "intention" I mean here what uses a sign in a thought. The intention seems to interpret, to give the final interpretation; which is not a further sign or picture, but something else, the thing that cannot be further interpreted. But what we have reached is a psychological, not a logical terminus.

As Guetti and Read point out, 'it is not logic that makes an interpretation ‘terminal’—for it is not within the capacity of logic to do so—but only some action (an action, as it were, upon or from logic)’ (54-5).

The point of invoking psychology here is not to call upon it as some source of extra-logical explanation or justification. It is in effect to point to the limits of philosophy, and to do so by pointing to what Lacan would call the subject. What Guetti and Read have done is to show Wittgenstein’s profound understanding of the role of the subject in the temporality of meaning. The subject is manifest in the interval between two cues, where it functions as the irreducible excess, or what Lacan termed the ‘extimate’, inseparable from the dynamic use of language that it constitutes and by which it is itself constituted. The consequence would seem to be that any attempt to understand meaning as a process of which meaning is an effect or to grasp meaning by grammatical or logical considerations anterior to our engagement with language as language, that is, language in its active employment, will result in nonsense.

Lacan saw the minimum structure of language, based on Freud’s fort/da game, as two signifiers, S1/S2. Emerging from these signifiers, as an effect of their combination, is the subject, barred S or $. Something similar can be seen in the analysis of how grammar is presumed in the use of language as that use is described by Wittgenstein. As for Lacan, the subject may be said to emerge in the void of the interval between two cues. Not only that, but it is clear from what Guetti and Read have shown of Wittgenstein’s approach to language, that for him, as for Lacan, there is no metalanguage: ‘there is no big Other’. There is no a priori formal structure determining what our words mean. When Wittgenstein remarks: ‘One is tempted to say that a new decision is necessary at each application of the rule’ (PI, 186), his comment may be read as a reminder to us that our uses of language to say what we have it in mind to say are acts of speech that are contingent and frequently inconsistent. To put it in Lacanian terms, the big Other is itself barred.

© 2008 Michael Grant

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