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Wittgenstein on Language and Rules

  • Norman Malcolm (a1)
  • DOI:
  • Published online: 01 January 2009

A paradoxical situation exists in the study of Wittgenstein. There is a sharp disagreement in the interpretation of his thinking about the concept of following a rule. According to one group of philosophers Wittgenstein's position is that this concept presupposes a human community in which there is agreement as to whether doing such-and-such is or is not following a particular rule. A second group of philosophers hold that this interpretation of Wittgenstein is not merely wrong, but is even a caricature of Wittgenstein's thought: for when Wittgenstein says that following a rule is ‘a practice’ he does not mean a social practice, he does not invoke a community of rule-followers, but instead he emphasizes that following a rule presupposes a regularity, a repeated or recurring way of acting, which might be exemplified in the life of a solitary person. On the first interpretation it would have no sense to suppose that a human being who had grown up in complete isolation from the rest of mankind could be following rules. On the second interpretation such isolation would be irrelevant.

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Benjamin F. Armstrong Jr., ‘Wittgenstein on Private Languages’, Philosophical Investigations, 7, No. 1 (011984), 54.

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