Wittgensteinian ethics

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-L114-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved May 18, 2022, from

3. Rule-following and ethics

During the 1970s and 80s Wittgenstein studies took a new turn, the effect of which was felt in ethics. Partly in response to Saul Kripke’s reappraisal of the ‘rule-following considerations’, attention began to focus less on the specificity of particular language games and more on the idea of a rule-governed practice as such – the genus that includes all ‘games’ involving conventional signs (see Meaning and rule-following §3). Above all, how should we understand Wittgenstein’s account of the way a rule or order can ‘reach into the future’ and determine in advance what will and will not comply with it?

Because of the prominence it gives to the notion of criteria and to communal standards of correctness, Wittgenstein’s later philosophy has often been regarded as ‘anti-realist’. However, the rule-following considerations can be interpreted in a way that challenges this view and gives more weight to Wittgenstein’s own metaphysical ‘quietism’ – his disavowal of any substantive philosophical position. This different interpretation is unfavourable, in particular, to theories that refuse to take at face value the ostensibly factual character of certain regions of discourse. For example, it is opposed to the neo-Humean view that evaluative judgment cannot be genuinely factual because it involves a projection of our subjective attitudes onto the world (see Projectivism).

In the spirit of Wittgenstein’s remark that ‘words are also deeds’ (1953: part I, 546), and of the link he sets up in Philosophische Untersuchungen between linguistic understanding and socialization, the ‘quietist’ reading gives a central place to the ethical in reconstructing his overall account of rules. Wittgenstein notes that interpretation, explanation or justification necessarily ‘comes to an end’, giving way – if successful – to a moment when we see the point (or grasp the message) without the mediation of any further signs. The possibility of such immediate, tacit understanding is ultimately due to our common nature as members of an animal species, but the human species is distinguished from others by the fact that it exploits this natural ‘likemindedness’ in order to transmit to successive generations the various culturally distinct forms of likemindedness realized in particular languages. The work of socialization carried on within human cultures maintains in existence an array of shared sensibilities – the ‘feel’ speakers have for what a rule-governed practice requires in this or that particular case – and it is these sensibilities that support all our resources of normative judgment, whether about overtly ethical ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ or about right and wrong ways of describing things, right and wrong conclusions to draw from given premises, and so on.

Citing this article:
Lovibond, Sabina. Rule-following and ethics. Wittgensteinian ethics, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-L114-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2022 Routledge.

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