The Rule-Following Regress and its Solution
– and especially in theories under the heading ‘semantic holism’ – we
explain the meaning of a statement by another statement: ‘Pete is a cat’
means ‘Pete is a feline mammal’. And
we may make use of this second statement as delivering criteria in judging the
correctness of applying the first statement (‘No, this isn’t a cat at all,
since this isn’t a mammal, but some Martian penguin vaguely looking like a cat.’).
Thus linguistic descriptions made in some language occur in our semantic rules
for that very language. The problem of the regress starts with the simple
question, how this second description is rule-governed itself. If another rule
is introduced we need another one, and so on. So Wittgenstein, in his discussion
of rule-following, considers any theory like semantic holism as inappropriate.
Any interpretation would need an interpretation itself, and therefore leaves us
hanging in the air.
On the other hand,
according to Wittgenstein, any behaviour could be made fitting any rule if we
just re-interpret the rule, since the rules aren't determined enough. For
example: If you re-interpret ‘mammal’ as ‘mammal seen before 2007, and
fridge ever after’ you are free to come up with strange statements about cats
will consider two solutions to the regress problem, which are also two
interpretations of Wittgenstein: (a) the recourse on some capacity
(Colin McGinn´s Wittgenstein)
and (b) the recourse on the praxis of
rule-following (Saul Kripke´s Wittgenstein).
one appeals to a capacity of rule-following the regress of rule-following
vanishes: We speak the way we speak, since we have a corresponding capacity.
This seems to explain nothing. That we swim because we have the capacity to swim,
stated thus, does not explain anything (how do we do it?). The same holds for
language. Secondly: Inasmuch as the regress should be avoided the capacity to
follow a rule must not be
rule-governed itself. Semantic decisionism (being the opposite of orientation on
rules), however, violates our intuition that we have reasons
to employ this expression and not another. Wittgenstein says himself that
when we follow a rule, we don't choose.
And understanding ‘capacity’ as employing a causal mechanism (like
our capacity to stand upright) is in danger of giving away on the normativity of
language usage: our choice of word can be wrong
causality just operates.
In Kripke´s solution, that which determines the correct application of an expression is the common practise of a language community. No rule but ‘praxis’ speaks for itself. Rule-following is specified by a behaviour that accords to the rule. We fit in, tune in to our linguistic community. Convergence within the community constitutes the rule in the first place.
is this an alternative to (a) or to semantic holism? Instead of a subjective capacity
we now have a social habit. But how do
I take part in this habit? I seem to need the capacity to participate in the
doings of my speech community. Since there are – ex hypothesi – no rules laid down to which I adjust I have to tune in to my community. The notion of ‘praxis’ is by itself not
clearer than that of ‘capacity’ or that of ‘rule-following’. Even if the
conformity within the language community is part of securing the proper
application of the semantic rules, it cannot substitute for explicit regulations.
A mere praxis is not better than any
other praxis. That people talk this way today about cats does not make it the right
way to talk so. In the face of rule scepticism we might even say: How can we
distinguish between wrong applications and a change of rule? If we orient
ourselves to the majority of the speakers, how is it possible to criticise the
majority for an incorrect employment of an expression? Why can’t Sue be the
only left competent user of ‘cat’? Shouldn’t we, at least, require that
the majority adheres to its own standards (i.e. rules) of usage so far? The majority
might be the institution to change rules, but once it has laid down a rule we
should be able to criticise its behaviour with reference to these stipulations.
We seem to lose the normativity of rule-following if the majority is in its
praxis always right. And the praxis of a community is as re-interpretable as any
behaviour. So (b) also leaves the scepticism undefeated.
are reasons enough to see whether we don't do better in solving the regress
problem within semantic holism. The main problem of semantic holism is our
intuition of a regress. Justification, further on, is holistic: We give reasons without going back to some ultimate
‘given’ or ‘incorrigible’ facts, we refer to other reasons instead, even
if this means going in circles, given that the circles are wide enough. Reasons
(statements held to be true) support other reasons/statements, but we can
always put the last reason given to test.
we can solve the regress as follows: Because of the holistic procedure of
justification (and therefore of meaning something) we are allowed to keep asking
for further reasons in principle, but
in doing so we employ a meta-rule of sufficient
If there is no founded/reasoned
doubt, there is no need for
We employ the semantic rules in some situation and try to conform to the habits of our community. If someone asks us why we do so, we explain our usage by reference to the fulfilment of the criteria of use (i.e. give reasons by citing a second description like ‘feline mammal’). This duty is part of the normativity of meaning. But if in respect to the fulfilment of some criteria in such an argument after several steps there is no longer reasoned doubt (i.e. no foundation for belief in their non-fulfilment), why should we proceed in founding our claims? Our argument now is (relative to all claims founded in that debate) sufficient. Relative to our knowledge of this state of the argument and our knowledge of the rule of meaning it is the optimal logical procedure to evaluate the usage as ‘correct’. All reasons we have now speak in favour of this evaluation. This is neither an act of decisionism nor an act of some capacity, but the application of our rule-following procedures which can be taken up again in principle and has been interrupted only at a sufficiently clear point. So the meta-rule seems to be the lesser evil in comparison to the consequences of (a) and (b). We have not overcome the principled problem of the regress, but we can see that it is harmless if we employ our rule of sufficient foundation. The regress problem has our intuition of foundation as its driving force. But with respect to our intuitions the meta-rule as a principle that an argument just has to be sufficiently clear seems equally strong. Our pre-understanding of rule-following, therefore, doesn't decide the matter. And all other reasons in our comparison of (a),(b) and semantic holism speak in its favour.
we can use semantic holism to explain meaning by rule-following. There is
nothing wrong with stating the meaning of a sentence by giving another sentence.