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Solitary Rule-Following

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  30 January 2009

T. S. Champlin
University of Hull


Can a rule be followed by one person who has lived all his life in as complete isolation from other human beings as is consistent with his mere physical survival?

This question divides philosophers as sharply today as it did over thirty years ago when, prompted by their reading of Wittgenstein, they first asked it. My aim here is to suggest a way of reconciling the two opposing sides in the current debate. I also hope to explain why it was that Wittgenstein did not concern himself with the complexities I am about to discuss, which none the less are, I believe, at the root of the difficulties we experience when we try to understand what Wittgenstein said about following a rule and to think clearly about this question.

Copyright © The Royal Institute of Philosophy 1992

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1 Rhees, Rush and Ayer, A. J. were the protagonists in the symposium, ‘Can there be a Private Language?’, Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, supplementary vol. XXVIII, 1954, 6394Google Scholar, which set the scene for subsequent discussions of the possibility of private rule-following (Rhees, spoke of ‘the rules of language’)Google Scholar. Baker, G. P. and Hacker, P. M. S., Wittgenstein: Rules, Grammar and Necessity (Oxford: Blackwell, 1986), 154–81Google Scholar, have recently sided with Ayer against Rhees in denying that rule-following by a totally solitary person is impossible; Baker and Hacker have also denied that Wittgenstein ever maintained the opposite. Shortly before his death, Norman Malcolm fuelled the renewed debate by lending his authority to Rhees's interpretation on both counts. Malcolm argues that rule-following cannot be exemplified in the life of a life-long solitary human being, and that this was Wittgenstein's own view, in Malcolm, Norman, ‘Wittgenstein on Language and Rules’, Philosophy, 1989, 528.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

2 SirScott, Walter, Tales of a Grandfather (Edinburgh: Adam and Charles Black, 1869), 80.Google Scholar

3 See the last three pages of criticism culminating in what the authors themselves describe as a fully justified retort, in Baker, G. P. and Hacker, P. M. S., ‘Reply to Mr. Mounce’, Philosophical Investigations, 1986, 199204 (pp. 202–4)Google Scholar. The, in my opinion, undeserving object of their criticism is Mounce, H. O., ‘Following a Rule’, Philosophical Investigations, 1986, 187–98.Google Scholar

4 ‘See the entry under Habit, Custom in Farrell, R. B., Dictionary of German Synonyms (Cambridge University Press, 1953), 150–1Google Scholar: ‘“Custom” when applied to an individual, particularly in the phrase “it is my (his, etc.) custom to…”, cannot be rendered by any of the above terms [sc. Gewohnheit, Angewohnheit, Sitte, Gebrauch, Brauch, Brauchtum]. Pflegen or a synonymous verb should be used’ (ibid., 151). As for Gebrauch itself, Farrell has this to say: ‘Gebrauch mostly means “use” ([Farrell adds in a footnote]. Compare: im Gebrauch sein, to be in use, to be customary. Gebrauch approximates closely to “usage”, either as an established way of behaviour that serves as a guide, or in reference to the correct meaning of words). In the meaning of “custom” it is rare, particularly in the singular, in which it occurs mainly in fixed phrases. It refers to a way of doing things that has been agreed upon by a number of people’ (ibid.).

5 Moser, Paul K., ‘Malcolm on Wittgenstein on Rules’, Philosophy, 1991, 101105CrossRefGoogle Scholar, has recently argued that the relation which Wittgenstein says exists between the words ‘rule’ and ‘agreement’ (‘they are cousins’, PI, §224)Google Scholar can be satisfied, not only by one person's agreeing with another person, but also by one person's actions today agreeing with his actions yesterday, thus obviating the necessity for interpersonal, communal agreement in all cases of rule-following. I think this overlooks the fact that one completely isolated person's activities cannot within his life-span establish that it is agreed that anything is the case; and that it is this kind of normative agreement which is a prerequisite for the existence of a normative rule expressible in the words, ‘The rule is that such and such is the case’.

6 Consider the example of someone using a pattern or, as I prefer to call it, a template of three dots alternating with three dashes as a rule to follow in decorating the walls of his house, proposed in Baker, G. P. and Hacker, P. M. S., Scepticism, Rules and Language (Oxford, Blackwell, 1984), 39Google Scholar. There is, Baker and Hacker insist, no difficulty in imagining a life-long solitary person using a template in this way. I agree but I am proposing that we draw a distinction between its being someone's (non-normative) rule to do something in a certain way (of which Baker and Hacker's house decorating rule is an example) and someone's bringing it about that the (normative) rule is that something is done in a certain way, of which Baker and Hacker's house decorating rule is not an example because departure from the rule in their example would not result in any error, in a house's being wrongly or incorrectly decorated or in the decorative pattern's being wrongly continued. To appreciate this, consider the arrival of a visitor in the solitary's vicinity. If the visitor built himself a house, borrowed the template in order to decorate his own walls, and occasionally deliberately introduced an irregularity into the pattern by painting four dots every now and then, nothing in the example supports the accusation that the visitor has broken the rule on how to decorate the walls of a house.

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