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Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations: Obeying a Rule On Only One Occasion in §199

James Still

Wittgenstein argues that meaning and use should not be conflated; the whole use of the meaning of a word (the steps to be taken) cannot be understood in a flash nor can the use fit the meaning simultaneously in that flash (§138-9). There is just too much information in the use of a word than can fit into the space of meaning. The interlocutor objects (in §139a) and wishes to suggest that meaning and use are somehow grasped simultaneously in the understanding. W. disagrees and asks "on the other hand isn't the meaning of the word also determined by [its] use? And can these ways of determining meaning conflict?" (§139b). Understanding both use and meaning of a rule "in a flash" is in tension with the notion that use may determine meaning, for how can a thing which is dependent upon a prior thing occur simultaneously with the first thing? Further, what if the first thing no longer exists, such as in the case of the bearer of a proper name? W. also rejects the suggestion that meaning must point ostensively to an individual or thing. We may still speak of Excalibur being broken because this proper name still has use. We use "Excalibur" in our language-game and so it has meaning. Meaning, then, is often a word's use in our language (§43). W. argues even more strongly that "the meaning of the word [is] also determined by this use . . ." (§139b).

In contrast to the discussion of §43 and §138-9 in which use is determined somehow by meaning, W. argues in §190 that a rule's meaning "determines which steps are to be taken," i.e., meaning determines its use. The criterion for following a rule (for successfully deriving the meaning of the rule) is found in the way we use the rule and "the way we are taught to use it" (§190a). These passages reveal what at first seems to be a paradox in Wittgenstein's use of the terms meaning and use because each is said to determine the other. The interlocutor's resolution to this paradox is to once again fall back on the simultaneity of §138 and consider meaning and use to be grasped instantly "in a flash" (§191). Wittgenstein proceeds to outline his resolution to this perceived problem and his conclusions will lead directly to the impossibility of only one person obeying a rule only once.

Wittgenstein's argument for this begins with the analogy of the predetermined motions of a machine. In the same way that the motions of an actual machine are not predetermined by the concept of the machine-as-symbol, the use of a rule is not present in the rule in advance (§193-4). Despite the tendency to think of an actual machine's motion as predetermined, W. points out that, unlike the machine-as-symbol in which we say that the movements are somehow in it from the start, an actual machine can break down, melt, bend, and so on. We make this mistake in our language as well. When given a rule such as x!2, the use of the rule is not present as a shadow of the rule, nor is it predetermined so that the steps to be taken in following the rule are logically necessary. Rather, the meaning of a rule is not contained within the rule itself, but lies in its use (§197).

W. seems willing to admit that "in some sense" the whole use of a word can be grasped in a flash. But our mistake is in portraying this sensation as a predetermination of our future acts; we can grasp some sense of the use of a word during the saying of it but since we may be mistaken in our interpretation we should really acknowledge that the use of the word will determine whether or not our meaning was accurately stated. Earlier I suggested that these two elements of a rule (meaning and use) seemed paradoxical because W. argues that each is determined in some sense by the other. However, I believe that their unique relationship to each other is deliberately stated by W. in order to demonstrate that following rules is a custom and not an inward act. Subsequently, there cannot have been only one occasion someone obeyed a rule.

Suppose that I am walking in the woods and I come across a sign nailed to a tree. On the sign is an arrow pointing left. I cannot correctly interpret the rule for any interpretation that I submit does not determine its meaning (§198a). In fact if I had never seen such a thing before I would be at a total loss as to its meaning. I am fooled into thinking that I have correctly interpreted the sign (when I do eventually turn left) but really all I have done is to act upon the training I previously received when confronted with such signs in the past. Were it not for this prior exposure to the use of signs in my language, I would not be able to inwardly interpret what to do when first confronted with a sign. To think otherwise--for instance to imagine that I can correctly interpret a sign in a foreign country where I have never been--only demonstrates that I am already sufficiently trained in the meaning and use of "signs" and know how to proceed.

This can be made clearer with the example of §190 in which the formula x!2 can mean either x2 or 2x. The pupil, when confronted with this expression, desires to learn the meaning of it in order to be able to use it. However, the meaning is not within the rule or its expression anymore than the rules of chess are determined by the intention to sit down and play a game of chess. W. suggests in §198b that it is the pupil's training--the fact that he has been told to perform function x2 when he sees the sign x!2--that indicates that the pupil correctly uses what the teacher has meant by the formula.

The interlocutor has one last objection to this suggestion. Saying that it is the training of the pupil by the teacher refers to a cause for why the pupil acts, but does not speak to the original issue of what it means to follow the rule (§198c). Wittgenstein disagrees. There is nothing in the expression of the formula (or the letters on a sign-post) which causes the pupil to act in some behavioralistic fashion. It is only because a formula--like a sign-post--is embedded within existing customs and uses that the pupil knows how to react to the formula or the sign-post upon seeing them (§198c). If there never were sign-posts then it would be impossible to know what to do upon seeing them. Further, we would say that a word that we have never seen before (perhaps the formula ) has no meaning for us because we have never used it before. Before can have any meaning it must be used. The use of the formula will, the next time we encounter it in our language-game, determine the formula's meaning and, in turn, this meaning will in some sense determine its subsequent use. Over time a custom (an institution) will form around the rule based upon the constant interplay between meaning and use in our language.

Thus, if meaning is determined by use and, for its part, use determined by meaning, there must have been at least two occasions of solving a formula, making a report, or giving an order before it can be said that the activity is a rule which is understood. In order for one man to obey a rule only once in his life, the meaning and use would have to be contained somehow within the expression of the rule. (And even if meaning and use did exist as a shadow of the rule, he would know if he had correctly interpreted it.) However, since the meaning and use of a rule are determined by the relationship that they share with each other in our language, it is not possible for there to have been only one occasion in which a rule was obeyed.