Habermas Commentary/Books/TCA1/p17

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Critique of Wittgenstein's Rules, as Used by Habermas[edit]


For Wittgenstein, as Habermas understands him (especially on pp. 16-17), a rule is a social phenomenon, in two regards: it has both "identical meaning and intersubjective validity." Looking at the first of those two, "identical meaning" means that two people go beyond a mere concurrence of interpretation (if "interpretation" is suitable, here, to avoid a question-begging use of "meaning" to explain "meaning"): they have the same interpretation of a "stimulus."

The reference to stimuli suggests that, to understand a rule, one must adopt (using the distinctions offered in TCA chapter 1) an objective (rather than normative or subjective) stance toward its constituent elements. We are not merely foregrounding a claim about an indetermin¬ate world: we cannot proceed without the shared realist assertion, by two individuals, that there is a stimulus whose empirical characteristics seem precisely the same to both of them. As stated in TCA I, this objective world "can be understood as the correlate of the totality of true proposi¬tions" and thus "retains the strictly ontological significance of a totality of entities" (p. 84).

It is not clear, on this account, how people can know that they have exactly the same interpretation of a stimulus. Typically, it would be infeasible, and does not actually happen, that they compare notes on all (or even manifold) aspects of a stimulus. Experience suggests that, if they were to do so, they would often discover that their interpretations differ in many ways. To avoid that, "stimulus" should presumably be interpreted in a minimalist fashion, to refer only to the single, smallest sensory datum necessarily implicated in the situation at hand.

In my understanding of this proposal, people are believed to assume, based upon some combination of present and/or previous communication (as interpreted with inconsistent fidelity to what was said or intended) that they are discussing the same stimulus, and that the things they are saying to the other person and receiving from that other person are identical with respect to that stimulus. There may be, in fact, no such identity in a particular case, either in the stimulus or in what they are trying to say to one another, but such facts would normally be concealed by unwillingness or inability to plumb the depths of reflection and communication that may be imaginable in each instance of putatively shared interpretation.

The question of how people can know that they have the same interpretation of a stimulus is based upon the impression that Habermas means to be talking about actual rather than theo¬reti¬cal communication events. In other words, I infer that he cares what actually happens between two persons in communication, as distinct from what might hypothetically be observed by a third party, almost universally non¬existent, who could empirically clarify the extent to which the participants do indeed share meaning – as when, say, they agree that a shirt is blue, though one's concept of true blue tends toward the grey while the other's tends toward the green, as could be demonstrated through comparison of their evaluations of selected color samples. This is, anyway, my understanding of the concept that the interpreter takes a performative rather than third-person stance toward the communication events in question (see TCA1, p. 103).

On Rules, in Particular[edit]

Wittgenstein, as reported by Habermas, has a puzzling concept of rules. Consider: "A subject S can follow a rule only by following the same rule under changing conditions of appli¬cation – otherwise he is not following a rule" (TCA II, p. 17). The first time someone applies a rule, s/he is not following any "same" rule; there was no previous instance in which a rule was involved. The description of rule-following seems to require amendment to accommodate this.

The second time one applies a rule, conditions may or may not have changed. Suppose that S begins a game of chess – chess being an example Habermas offers – by moving a certain pawn. Suppose S then quits. Later, she starts a new game, and moves the same pawn in the same way. Again, the quotation says that the only way in which S can follow a rule is to follow it under changing conditions; and since conditions (construed, narrowly, as the conditions of the pieces on the board) have not changed, S "is not following a rule." The better statement of the concept is presumably that S can follow a rule with or without changed circumstances.

A more significant problem, within this concept of rules, arises from this statement: "One understands the meaning of a particular symbolic action – a move in a chess game, say – when one has mastered the rules governing the use of the chess pieces" (pp. 16-17). This is not the case. I, a chess beginner, may have mastered the fact that a bishop moves diagonally across the board. That relatively trivial concept says nothing for the meaning of a move in which I position the bishop near my adversary's queen. I may not have noticed that I did so; I (or my adversary) may not realize the danger in which I have placed the queen or the bishop; I certainly may not be aware that my adversary, if s/he is an accomplished player, may consider the move audacious or absurd. And if we happen to be playing in some medieval contest, I may have no clue that I have just won the kingdom or placed myself in line for beheading.

In short, the bulk of the "meaning" of the chess move (which I can talk about, in the first place, only by ignoring that this discussion seems to involve another potential use of "meaning" to define "meaning") consists of something far beyond mastery of "the rules governing the use of the chess pieces." In many instances, neither humans nor computers have mastered the meaning of a move in a chess game, even if "meaning" in this context is construed solely as a question of the move's impact upon subsequent moves (in which case computers are becoming steadily more adept than humans at "understanding meaning"). There are just too many possibilities.

According to Habermas, rules "lay down how someone produces . . . symbolic formations such as numbers, figures, and words" (p. 16). This is plainly not the case. Within a particular context, the rules may tell me that I can move my bishop diagonally, from its present position, for a total of one, two, or three spaces. But (except for the rare instances when I have no other options) the rules do not tell me which number of spaces to move, nor whether to move the bishop at all. Likewise, referring to Habermas's other example, the fact that someone could continue to recite the numbers in a geometric progression may say nothing about why that particular progression was chosen, instead of another that may have been more boring or difficult; nor does it necessarily dictate the decision of when to stop reciting and do something else instead. The rules are givens, like my age and gender, within which symbolic formations occur; but they generally do not "lay down" those formations.

While granting that these examples, chess and geometry, may reflect Wittgenstein's tastes more than those of Habermas, it nonetheless seems reasonable to ask whether such examples say something about the nature of the enterprise for which they are cited. Chess does, or at least can, communicate information; but that is not its primary purpose. It is a game. Likewise, the recitation of a geometric progression is communicative, but communication is not the primary purpose for which people learn how to use such progressions. They want to solve problems whose geometric aspects may well be communicated to no one else.

Of course, Habermas cites these examples in service of a larger point. But the pursuit of cerebral abstractions, in a detour from the central point, brings the risk that one may encounter further difficulties en route. In this instance, the talk about rules exposes the dubious belief that a rule can "serve to explain the meaning of examples" (p. 16). If facts are "theory-laden" (Hanson, 1958, p. 19) – if, that is, what one observes is affected by what one thinks – then it would seem that the meaning of an example may be determined by a rule through which it is construed. In that case, an indefinite number of rules could "explain" the divergent meanings of the same examples. This appears to be the case in, for instance, scriptural exegesis – where, over the centuries, the same passages have "supported" an impressive variety of interpretations.

It is not immediately obvious that abstruse examples (e.g., chess, geometry) portray the nature of rules very well. When the goal is to reach conclusions about people, communication, and society, it would seem that real-world illustrations would be better suited. To that end, in the social world within which interesting communication takes place, there is perhaps no better example of devotion to rules than that which one finds in law. Everything in law is oriented toward detection and explication of the rules governing conduct in situations of daily life.

That orientation of law, however, has results that seem worlds apart from Habermas's discussion. One such result is the generation of millions of pages of judicial opinions, briefs, congressional bills, legal periodicals, and the like. Another is the creation of a privileged caste of specially trained and highly remunerated individuals who advocate and adjudicate differing perspectives on what the rule might be in a specific case. A third result, following from the first two, is that people and situations that cry out most desper¬ately for competent advocacy and adjudication may be exactly the people and situations to which such outcomes are most commonly denied. The model of "rule" that emerges from this sort of context could easily lead to an awareness, nascent in the preceding paragraph, that a rule can be indeterminate in concept and arbitrary in application – that, in the example, the "rule of law" may be mere shorthand for the understandings and institutions of a culture that proves far harder to transplant, as a whole, than the paltry term that pretends to name it.

Rules of law do not patently support Habermas's generalizations about the functions and behavior of rules. The discussion of rules of law raises another difficulty with the statement, quoted above, in which Habermas says, "A subject S can follow a rule only by following the same rule under changing conditions of appli¬cation – otherwise he is not following a rule." If law rather than chess is chosen as the basis for illustration, one will observe that what happens in practice is sometimes the opposite of what Habermas says. Sometimes, that is, people follow what they thought was the rule, and they are affirmed in doing so by the local judge. Then, however, someone decides to appeal, and the higher court reverses. In such cases, it turns out that "following the same rule under changing conditions" is exactly not what was called for. A similar question arises in scientific inquiry – where, sometimes, the rule we thought we understood is not as we thought we understood it.

Within the so-called rule of law, the real rule governing a situation might not be, "Follow what the law books [or appellate courts] say." Instead, as practicing attorneys know, and as some judges admit (e.g., Posner, 1990), factors governing the specification of a rule may include a collection of pragmatic adages, such as the one by which "lawful" is defined as "Compatible with the will of a judge having jurisdiction" (Bierce, 1911). Which adage, within that collection of adages, should the attorney follow, when preparing for trial before Judge Smith? The attorney needs a rule about rules, one that indicates when s/he has reached the bottom of the rule barrel and need not search further for the rule that governs a particular situation.

Far from having prospective utility, as Habermas seems to want, an orientation toward rules may serve a primarily historical function: as a rule-obeyer, you may actually be only as good as your last gig.

Examples from chess and geometry can conceal such complexities precisely because they are simplistic; their functioning is largely unrelated to the operation (and limitations) of rules in human experience. The chess player, the lawyer, the boxer, and the conversa¬tionalist all operate within a rich milieu that includes rules, constraints (e.g., the skill of the opponent), and priorities (e.g., win; or win gracefully; or draw the greatest amount of advertising revenue). These various influences combine in myriad ways to suggest the variant courses of action that people do choose. To speak as if one were facing a simple rule, and were challenged to demonstrate comprehension of that rule by behaving in conformity with it, is to impose upon reality a narrowminded monotony of analysis that could easily overlook the most interesting aspects of relevant phenomena.

Again, in the interests of brevity, this analysis does not continue on to Habermas's distinction between identity of meaning and intersubjective validity, where the former consists of rule-following while the latter entails judgment upon rule violations (TCA2, p. 16). It would be possible, again, to question various assertions within his review of intersubjective validity (e.g., his counterintuitive legislation (p. 18) that people cannot have rules strictly for themselves). For present purposes, it may suffice to note that judging rule violations entails having some sense of what a rule is – and that, by the analysis provided here, appears to be an open question.


This paper has focused upon one or two aspects of the reasoning found in just one subsection of Habermas's magnum opus. I have selected that subsection because its subject matter is of interest to me, particularly due to its potential relevance to my ongoing inquiry into contemporary views on knowledge.

In undertaking this scrutiny of a few lines, I hope to have provoked responses that will help me to sharpen my understanding of this section of TCA. I may also have incidentally illustrated the nature of my experience in reading TCA, during which process I am constantly reminded of Benjamin Stolberg's remark (citation unavailable): "An expert is a person who avoids small error as he sweeps on to the grand fallacy." Not that I know how to apply that remark, exactly, to my study of TCA. I am not sure that Habermas avoids small error; I am not sure he commits a grand fallacy. Perhaps, in his case, it is just the opposite, on both counts.

What I do know is that I find his work difficult to read, in good measure because (as demonstrated in this paper) it seems that almost every page raises a number of questions. It is enough to provoke a preference for aphorisms, poems, even e-mails – anything but the intellectual coup d'état, the single, overwhelming, ostensible masterstroke qua magnum opus. Such a coup, like its political counterpart, disempowers those who would question it; it engenders a sense that readers ought to admire the quest for the supreme vantage, deferring their small questions and barely tolerable uncertainties while the genius presses on.

Notwithstanding accepted conventions within the world of book-publishing, such a monologue seems curiously incompatible with the vision of dialogic communication that TCA evokes. This paper illustrates that a single individual page of that lengthy work can raise so many questions as to justify skepticism about the grand enterprise.


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