Department of Philosophy

Wittgenstein and Practice

Most commentators agree that the notion of a practice plays a significant role in Wittgenstein’s work, especially in his later thought. Yet there is no general agreement on how we should understand that role. The purpose of this workshop is to explore this question.

Vintagebilde av en vegg med eldre typer verktøy
Ricky Kharawala/Unsplash

Main content

This workshop is being organized as part of the four-year project “Mathematics with a Human Face: Set Theory within a Naturalized Wittensteinian Framework”, which received funding from the Research Council of Norway in December 2018. 

Program and abstracts

26 May

09:00 – 09:15 Welcome from Professor Steinar Bøyum, Chair, Department of Philosophy

09:15 – 10:30 Lars Hertzberg, (Åbo Akademi University)

"Following a rule" is a practice

In Philosophical Investigations § 202 Wittgenstein writes: ‘“following a rule” is a practice’. How is this remark to be understood? What kinds of practice does Wittgenstein have in mind? The word ‘practice’ is not used frequently in the PI, although there are numerous remarks that can be held to bear on the concept. Hardly any concrete examples are given, however, apart from the playing of games which is, in any case, not a typical form of practice. In Zettel § 320 distinguishes between rules that are, in a sense, arbitrary (rules of grammar, chess) and rules that are not (cookery rules). I argue that this dichotomy is problematic. I will look at some concrete practices, such as greeting, and discuss the different senses in which they can be said to embody rules. 

10:30 – 11:45 Joe Rouse, (Wesleyan University) 

Practices, Normativity, and the Natural History of  Human Biological Niche Construction

Wittgenstein’s discussions of rule-following have often been taken up in practice-based social theories. Wittgenstein indicates a normative ordering and responsiveness expressed in what people do that is more fundamental than explicit interpretation of what they do. These social theories appeal to “practices” as constituting the background orientation, understanding, or competence that enables following rules, answering to norms, and articulating and grasping meanings. These capacities are concretely embedded in interrelations among a practice’s performances or enactments. Theories of social practice have been less attentive to Wittgenstein’s occasional remarks on such activities as belonging to the “natural history of human beings.” I argue for understanding the normative concerns constituted and sustained by ongoing practices as forms of biological niche construction, and thus as integral to the natural history of human ways of life in a stronger sense than Wittgenstein likely intended. Normativity is a biological phenomenon, and the diversity of normative concerns in people’s practice-differentiated ways of life reflects an evolved, “two-dimensional” form of the one-dimensional biological normativity of most organismic lineages. This recognition has important implications for how normative concerns arise and interact, how their content is embedded in practices, and how those concerns are expressed discursively.

11:45 – 13:00 Lunch, Café Christie, UiB Natural History Museum

13:00 – 14:15 Mark Risjord, (Emory University) 

Representation, Practice, and Social Ontology

Wittgenstein and, more recently, Brandom offer accounts of linguistic and mental representation that depend on social interaction.  Social accounts of representation are vulnerable to what this essay calls “the social ontology objection.”  The argument runs as follows: even the simplest forms of human sociality require joint intentionality. All plausible theories of joint action postulate sophisticated representational capacities: mutual knowledge, we-intentions, joint commitment, and so on. There is simply no way that practices sufficiently sophisticated to support social accounts of representation could arise without the prior existence of human-like representational capacities. Social accounts of representation in the vein of Wittgenstein or Brandom are simply nonstarters.  This essay first makes the objection more precise, and then articulates a minimalist account of joint action and shows how it can ground a social account of representation.

14:15 – 14:30 Break

14:30 – 15:45 Valérie Aucouturier, (Université Saint-Louis, Bruxelles / Centre Prospéro)

Are Habits Voluntary?

Amongst the various things that we do, there are things we do on purpose, with a clear end in view, there are things we let happen voluntarily, things we do for fun or for no particular reason, things we are forced to do, things we do by mistake, things we do without noticing it, things we bring about without knowing. There are things we know how to do and things we don’t know how to do, things we do in such and such a way and things we do without even thinking about it. Amid all this complexity, some things we do are called habits. They are the things we are used to do (the French says: que nous avons l’habitude de faire) or that we are used to do in such and such a way, things we do by habit (such as dropping one’s key at a special place when one gets home), sometimes without noticing. Now the question is where to put habit on the spectrum that goes from involuntary movement to fully intentional action? To what extent does the incorporation of habits make them akin to reflex actions? To what extent are they under or beyond our control? What are the sorts of things we do which would belong to habit and what not? The present paper aims at clarifying these questions, drawing, more particularly on Ludwig Wittgenstein and Elizabeth Anscombe’s elucidation of intentional and voluntary actions.

15:45 – 16:00 Break

16:00 – 16:45 Nancy Yousef, (Rutgers University)

On the Use and Misuse of Wittgenstein for Literature or, The (Hard) Practice of Reading

Wittgenstein's work is enjoying a modest surge of interest among literary scholars advocating a turn away from the "ideological critique" and "hermeneutics of suspicion" that have been the dominant paradigms for critical practice in the literary humanities for the past half-century, especially in the Anglo-American academy.  While there have always been dissident counter-strains (varieties of new formalism, "reparative" hermeneutics, so-called "surface reading"), several recent high-profile theoretical polemics—most notably Toril Moi's Revolution of the Ordinary (2017) and Karen Zumhagen-Yekplé's A Different Order of Difficulty (2020)—have championed Wittgenstein (and "ordinary language philosophy" more broadly) as a resource for an approach to literary interpretation that would be both ethically transformative and "post-critical."  A touchstone for these new Wittgensteinean critics is the notion of attunement to the near-at-hand yet overlooked (as in Philosophical Investigations §129: "The aspects of things that are most important for us are hidden because of their simplicity and familiarity. (One is unable to notice something—because it is always before one's eyes.")  In this paper, I will strike a cautionary note about this critical turn to "the ordinary" and to "ordinary language" –especially insofar as it risks simplifying, or taking for granted the Wittgensteinean ordinary. After establishing the disciplinary context of the debates in literary studies in which Wittgenstein's work has recently been taken up, I will devote the greater part of my talk to consideration of how Wittgenstein's methods of working and writing entail a reading practice of heightened attention to the affective implications of small and subtle shifts in wording and context, the devoted labor of repetition and revision.  However simple and familiar, however near-at-hand "what is most important" may be, the discovery of it as "most important" is always an arduous endeavor for Wittgenstein—and the communication of that importance even more so. The paper speaks to the challenges of genuine interdisciplinary engagement with philosophy from the side of literary studies, but also indicates that attention to the aesthetic resources of language (and especially figurative language) central to literary criticism may have something to contribute to efforts, on the side of philosophy, to revive a substantive practice of engagement with the texts comprising its own history (what James Conant calls “philosophically illuminating history of philosophy”). 

16:45 – 18:00 Oskari Kuusela, (University of East Anglia)

Wittgenstein and Kripke on Rule-Following

In my talk I raise some questions about the kind of explanation that is given when it is said that rule-following is a practice or that rule-following involves or is based on communal agreement. I argue, and take Wittgenstein to hold, that a certain type of explanation, often attributed to Wittgenstein, where communal agreement figures as a necessary condition for the possibility of rule-following, something upon which a rule having certain definite sense depends, is problematic. Closer inspection reveals such explanations to be empty. They constitute merely apparent explanations that can’t do the explanatory job they are intended to do and are better understood as descriptive. Consequently, the role of practice as part of a grammatical clarification of what rule following is, must be understood differently.

27 May

09:00 – 10:15 David Stern, (University of Iowa)

On Translating the Tractatus Consistently

The paper begins from a distinction between "Tractarian" and “unTractarian” approaches to translating between two languages. The former identify a single overarching rule or principle. The latter recognize a number of competing considerations, making translation a skill, or practice. The Tractatus itself contains a Tractarian theory of translation, which turns on following clear-cut rules for the use of words. On this view, translation is simply a matter of formulating and consistently following the appropriate definitions (see 3.343, 4.025 and 4.243). Wittgenstein probably first became aware of the shortcomings of the Tractarian theory when he read Ramsey's initial Tractatus translation. Wittgenstein told Ogden that he considered it “far too literal. I have very often altered it such that now it doesn’t seem to be a translation of the German at all. I’ve left out some words which occur in the German text or put in others which don’t occur in the original, etc. etc.  But I always did it in order to translate the sense (not the words).” Once Wittgenstein immersed himself in translating his sentences, he found that word for word translations were often unsuccessful, and that a much freer approach was needed in order to translate the sense of a sentence. However, most later Tractatus translators have not been guided by that advice. Instead, they have taken the first published translation and Wittgenstein’s detailed responses to Ramsey and Ogden as authoritative, only changing those words when they are clearly mistaken.   Drawing on my experience working on the first complete translation of the Tractatus and its German sources (MSS 101-104), I explore the relationship between these different conceptions of translation and a number of controversial questions of Tractatus translation.

10:15 – 10:30 Break

10:30 – 11:45 Juliet Floyd, (Boston University)

Wittgenstein’s Later Remarks on Philosophy of Mathematics: The Question of Practice and the Notion of a “Technique”

In order to weave our general discussion of the notion of “practice” in Wittgenstein into conversation with the aims of the “Mathematics With a Human Face” project I will focus on reconstructing Wittgenstein’s uses of the notions of “technique” and “practice” in his manuscripts from 1934 on, including the 1939 Lectures on the Foundations of Mathematics that Alan Turing attended.  Although the notion of “practice” has often been used to describe a framework for Wittgenstein’s later notion of “language-game”, the notion does not often occur and is frequently misunderstood, leading to misreadings of Wittgenstein as forwarding a kind of conventionalizing of mathematics and human normativity generally. One forgets that a “practice” always already involves practitioners in disputes, colorings, and alternative routes of proceeding (something emphasized by both Cavell and Diamond).  In line with the practice-simply-constitutes-meaning reading is the frequently forwarded idea (e.g. Maddy’s The Logical Must) that the later Wittgenstein prioritizes sense over truth, especially in his philosophy of mathematics.  This underplays Wittgenstein’s longstanding aim to think undogmatically but with precision about the true/false distinction, as well as his systematic efforts to articulate the consequences of the crucial anthropological turn in his middle-to-later thought.  The notion of “form of life”, first occurring in 1937, opens up a serious role for the notion of a (mathematical) “technique” in Wittgenstein’s thought.  We shall explain why.

11:45 – 13:00 Lunch, Café Christie, UiB Natural History Museum

13:00 – 13:45 Kim-Erik Berts, (Åbo Akademi University)

Mathematical Proof at the Cross-Roads between Philosophy and Didactics of Mathematics

The concept of mathematical proof has received much attention from philosophers. It is also widely discussed within the didactics of mathematics. Although these two disciplines share this common interest, the interchange between them is sparse. In the philosophy of mathematics, it is common to distinguish formal proofs from informal (or intuitive) proofs. Within the didactics of mathematics, there is widespread agreement on the importance of including proofs in mathematics education. However, what kinds of proof that should be included is a hot topic. There is a consensus that the place for formal proofs is limited and that teachers would do well to focus on informal proofs. There is also an extensive discussion about the roles that proofs play in mathematical practice and the identification of different roles has given educators valuable tools for making informed choices concerning which proofs to include in their teaching. A common experience for educators is, however, that proofs are difficult for students to understand. Consequently, there is an emphasis on proofs that are meaningful to students and proofs that have an explanatory role for them. The philosophers that emphasize informal proofs as well as the didactical research into the roles of proofs have been strongly influenced by the focus on mathematical practice (and the history of mathematics) of the last decades. The aim of this paper is to argue that research into the teaching of proof can be improved by incorporating the kind of focus on language use that is found in Wittgenstein’s philosophy. While it is highly informative to consider the roles that proofs may have, we must also pay attention to the rationale a person may have for bringing up a proof in a particular situation. Only then will it be clear which of the different roles that a particular proof plays in that situation. This perspective can shed light on the difficulty of understanding proofs. If it is taken into account that the rationale for teaching proofs, at least in the beginning, can also be that the students need to learn a new way of verifying a proposition – that the students are not yet familiar with this mode of verification – it should come as no surprise that they experience difficulties in recognizing them as proofs, let alone in understanding them.

13:45 – 14:00 Break

14:00 – 15:15 Cheryl Misak, (University of Toronto)

The Bolshevik Menace of Anthropological Mathematics: Ramsey and Wittgenstein on Logic as a Normative Science

Wittgenstein (at some point between 1937-44) said that “mathematics is after all an anthropological phenomenon”. This was an about-face from the view of mathematics expressed in the Tractatus. There, Wittgenstein had said that mathematics consisted of “equations”. I will argue in this paper that the shift was caused by Wittgenstein’s most important interlocutor, the great Cambridge mathematician, philosopher, and economist, Frank Ramsey, who died in 1930 at the age of 26. Along the way, I hope to shed light on what Wittgenstein meant by a normative practice.

15:15 – 16:00 Tom Eide Osa, (University of Bergen)

Wittgenstein and Musical Practices

In my dissertation (2021) Musikalske grammatikker (Musical grammars) perspectives from Wittgenstein's philosophy are applied to three case studies from different genres in music performance, with the aim of identifying rules governing ways of playing and singing. The thesis is motivated by a desire to investigate music practices in the light of perspectives from Wittgenstein’s aesthetics. Through observation of musical knowledge management – musical language games – in the case studies, I identify constituting rules for singing and playing. Identified rules are compiled for analysis, outlining distinctive normative musical grammars. Comparison across the case studies clarifies similarities and differences, revealing intrinsic qualities. The research method used in the field work is structured video-based observation. The cases were selected on the basis of expectations about their information content and are understood as exemplary paradigms in their genres. The cases are three experts leading musical practices: a violinist leading a European classical string orchestra, a singer teaching Norwegian vocal folk music, and a trumpeter and conductor leading an American style big band. Analysis of instruction and teaching in the video data generated case-specific rules for playing and singing. A key finding is that the grammars in the three cases are diverse, with contradictory ideals operating as grammar for playing and singing across the three cases. Finding common themes in the particular rules in the different grammars provided the basis for a conception of music performance that showed greater similarities between the cases on a more abstract level. The philosophical starting point from Wittgenstein was found to offer valid descriptions of musical practices. The thesis can deepen awareness of musical diversity, by showing how ways of playing and singing appreciated in some contexts are undesirable in others. The thesis gives empirical support to Wittgenstein’s writings on aesthetics and use of language in art practices, as found in Wittgenstein’s Lectures: Cambridge, 1932–35, Lectures and Conversations on Aesthetics, Culture and Value, and in Philosophical Investigations. The grammars identified in the case studies had differences, but the aesthetic language games in the three case studies - instruction and communication of aesthetic ideals - showed all significant similarities to examples in Wittgenstein’s writings. Central in musical language games is to lead attention, to use comparisons, and to persuade.

16:00 – 16:15 Break

16:15 – 17:45 Martin Gustafsson, (Åbo Akademi University)

Practice and Context

The terms “practice” and “context” are routinely used in attempts to characterize central strands in Wittgenstein’s later discussions of language. Less often is a potential tension between the two notions observed. Whereas “practice” involves the idea of repetition, of doing the same thing over and over again, sensitivity to “context” may be taken to involve a fragmentation of language use. So, if language is pervasively context-sensitive, then how can it exhibit the sort of continuity essential to a practice? Jason Bridges has argued that many contemporary contextualists who think of their views as congenial to Wittgenstein’s in fact propose hopelessly disintegrated conceptions of language use– conceptions that stand in direct conflict with Wittgenstein’s own. In this paper, my aims are (i) to consider what a better version of contextualism would look like, and (ii) to argue that at least some contemporary contextualists do in fact offer such a better version and thus do not fall prey to Bridges’ objections.

19:00 Conference Dinner, Naboen Restaurant

28 May

10:00 – 10:45 Reshef-Agam Segal, (Virginia Military Institute)

Mathematics and Aspect-Seeing

How is aspect-seeing relevant to mathematics? – Stressing the philosophy of mathematics, Wittgenstein says that philosophy should leave everything as it is, be descriptive (Philosophical Investigations, §124). But description is not innocuous; re-description can change our whole perception and conception of an issue, which is of course a gesture towards the phenomena of aspect. Philosophy as a whole can arguably be seen in this light, as an activity of re-descriptions: What we need philosophically, the balm to the philosophically aching mind, is a changed look at things. My argument will be that something similar is true of mathematics. Mathematics too involves re-describing. Proofs, for example, typically give us new ways of looking; they have the power to make us see things anew. My main claim, then, is that mathematical proofs provoke aspect-changes, or at least something very much akin to that. This requires some background regarding how mathematics shapes the way we see things, and thus prepares our practices. (1) I explain this, and distinguish between the way mathematical propositions are preparatory and the way proofs are. (2) I then discuss and reject the view that aspects are relevant to mathematics only insofar as picture-proofs are involved; algebraic-proofs too, I claim, reorient our conceptions of things. (3) I explain how changing an aspect in mathematics involves an experience of our pre-linguistic, “primitive,” sense of things—not to be confused with some ‘thing in itself.’ This rudimentary sense, I argue, contingent as it is, guides the formation of our practices and grounds them. (4) I conclude by positioning the view between realism and antirealism. 

11:00 – 12:15 Kevin Cahill, (Department of Philosophy)

Avoiding Tack-On Theories of Culture

It is a commonplace that some broad sense of “the social” functions centrally in Wittgenstein’s later writings, including those writings devoted to mathematics. By “the social” I mean a nest of ideas connected to the learning, teaching, and performance environment of symbolic activity. Although there might be disagreement as to precisely how much weight to give them, most commentators would agree that the notion of practice (Praxis) and related notions such as use (Gebrauch), custom (Gepflogenheit), and form of life (Lebensform) are important for understanding Wittgenstein’s later thought. 
But this widespread agreement about the significance of the social for Wittgenstein’s later thought could obscure a distinguishing feature of that thought. It could lead to a failure to distinguish what I describe below as Wittgenstein’s “anthropological naturalism” from what I will call a “sociological naturalism” of practice, which encourages philosophers to seek answers to problems in, say, the philosophy of mathematics by focusing most of their attention on the practices of working professional mathematicians. After all, if we are told to “look and see” how a term is used if we want to grasp its meaning, what better way to understand the meaning of, say, “number” than to look and see how mathematicians operate with this term. This approach is in line with a widespread and many-decades old naturalist trend in philosophy of science more generally, wherein one eschews mere “armchair” speculation and take one’s problems and solutions mainly, if not exclusively, from the activities of experts in the respective fields. Whatever the merits of this trend in the philosophy of the science, in the case of reading Wittgenstein, too much focus on higher cognitive practices such as sophisticated theories, proofs, or even experimental activity risks bypassing what he is often targeting. For it can be very far from obvious how Wittgenstein’s frequent discussions of extremely elementary linguistic and mathematical situations are supposed to shed light on the technical questions that are sometimes taken to be the very stuff of mathematics or logic. Gaining more understanding of these issues will, I hope, clarify how we might read Wittgenstein’s later work as allowing us to avoid “tac-on” theories of culture.