Meaning and Normativity (Draft of Truth and Context, chapter four (2001))

1) Meaning as Concrete Vantages.

Argument : that the contentof a linguistic performance is nothing other than the way it frames our relation to the world, that is, nothing other than a momentary, concrete vantage.

2) Wittgenstein’s Challenge.

Argument: that Wittgenstein’s arguments against the relevance of content founder once linguistic performances are understood as frames. The normativity of linguistic performances is a function of both practical contexts andcontent

3) The Skeptical Paradox.

Argument: that Kripke’s version of Wittgenstein’s argument likewise founders, but in a manner that at once demonstrates the robustness of vantages and the poverty of skepticism in general.

4) The Veil of Performances.

Argument: that Wittgensteinian contextualism traps us behind performances in a manner similar to the way representationalism leads to the ‘veil of perceptions.’

I should begin by making my thesis explicit. What follows might be described as a ‘normative interdependence thesis.’ The normativity of linguistic performances, I want to argue, is constituted by the accord of practices and content. Social practices do not simply condone or condemn linguistic performances, they condone or condemn certain vantages on the world. The propriety of any ‘move’ one might make, in other words, is not only a matter of ‘saying the right thing in the right circumstances,’ but of occupying the proper relation to the world. Understanding, in other words, is as much a matter of content as it is of social practices.

Any account of understanding must be able to make sense of what it means to understand more. For without differences in understanding, it would be impossible for understanding to become an issue. The contextualists chalk up differences in understanding to differences in competence. To understand more is to be more competent, to be able to follow certain rules better. And since competence can only be determined within a normative context, the notion of ‘understanding in isolation’ seems unintelligible to them.

One should note, however, that the contextualist clearly relies on an implicit understanding of vantages here.

Any determination of competence requires a relation to a certain feature of the world: the linguistic performances of another. In order for any act to strike us as a symptom of misunderstanding, in other words, we must first have a vantage on that act. And since we are unable to ‘see inside the head’ of the performer, there is a sense, moreover, in which our vantage is confined to the public performances of others.

What we are left with, then, is something akin to a ‘veil of performances,’ where vantages retreat from the interior to the exterior of language, just as they retreat from the interior to the exterior of perception in representational realism. Once this retreat is accomplished, the question of vantages is conveniently forgotten, and just as the question becomes one of how our representations correspond to the world in representational realism the question becomes one of how performances correspond to norms. Where the ‘problem of correspondence’ in the former becomes the basis of the idealist rejection of the ‘external world,’ the ‘problem of correspondence’ in the latter becomes the basis for the contextualist rejection of intellectualist accounts of rule-following. ‘Rules’ simply become an after the fact ‘making explicit’ (framing) of that which is internal to our practices.

Rules, in other words, are not like things, but rather like frames: they are constitutive of practices. This means that when a performance ‘goes awry,’ it strikes us as such immediately, and not on the basis of its correspondence to explicit rules.

But this just means that a performance is also something like a frame. The linguistic performances of the trainee, in other words, frame the trainer. And this means that the linguistic performance, in some measure, is occluded. In other words, the very thing that supposedly determines understanding on the contextualist account disappears in actual linguistic performances–in much the same way that perceptions disappear in actual perceiving.

If we say someone understands more when they are more competent, and that they are more competent when their performances are more in conformity with our practices, then the attribution of understanding would seem to depend upon the adjudication of the very thing we do not see. Linguistic performances are characterized by their occlusion in everyday contexts of speaking. The only time that linguistic performances ‘strike us’ as wrong, and therefore as a symptom of profound misunderstanding, is when they repeatedly fail to frame us in any relation to the world. The adequacy of the performance, in other words, seems to be determined by the adequacy of the content. The contextualist, it seems, must either insist that linguistic performances are not occluded, or that they somehow exclusively fund determinations of competence despite their occlusion.

Presented in this way, the contextualist ‘error’ can be diagnosed along lines similar to the representationalist: when they frame linguistic performances after the fact, the frame structure of those performances vanishes. Just as everything becomes ‘representation’ for the representationalist, everything then becomes ‘performative’ for the contextualist, and content becomes as every bit obscure for the one as the world becomes for the other.

Could it be, rather, that we attribute misunderstanding to linguistic performances not only because they fail to conform to our practices but because they also frame our relation to the world in untenable ways? Is not understanding as much a matter of content as it is of competence?

Any consideration of understanding in terms of content, however, must account for the problems that motivate this contextualist retreat from the ‘interior’ to the ‘exterior’ of language. The locus classicus for these problems is Wittgenstein’s discussion of rule following in §§ 139-242 of his Philosophical Investigations. Here Wittgenstein develops these problems in an effort to support the claim that ‘meaning is use in concrete contexts.’ Acknowledging that this claim runs counter to our intuitive sense of meaning as something like a ‘picture,’ he attempts to show that the intuitive picture founders on the issues of necessity and normativity. At stake, in other words, is the ability of content, or a certain picture of content anyway, to constrain the use of an expression independently of normative contexts.

The problem is twofold. On the one hand, since the same picture can have different applications, it makes no sense to say that a picture can determine our applications. It is possible, in other words, to have the same ‘meaning’ in mind even though we are using expressions in startlingly different ways. Even if we were to say that the picture contains a rule determining its application, we find ourselves confronted by the same dilemma: it would still be possible to have the same meaning in mind (now understood as a picture with a rule) and use the expression differently, depending upon how we interpret the rule. Simply adding an interpretation to our picture and rule makes no difference because the interpretation itself faces the prospect of multiple interpretations. One could have a picture with a rule with an interpretation in mind and our linguistic performance could still find different applications depending on how these were interpreted. As Wittgenstein notoriously puts it in §198: “an interpretation still hangs in the air along with what it interprets.” There is nothing we could add to our picture which could guide our application of our ‘meaning’ because every addition would be afflicted by the same dilemma faced by the original.

Not only does the necessity of our applications become inexplicable if rules are conceived as ‘things in the mind,’ their normativity, the fact that our linguistic performances can be either correct or incorrect, becomes inexplicable as well. Since different applications can be made out to conflict as well as accord with the same rule, the very notion of correct and incorrect applications–the normativity of meaning–becomes unintelligible. In other words, if rules and, by extension, meaning are construed in terms of some content, the very notion of rule following seems to collapse.

Saul Kripke has ingeniously illustrated this ‘paradox of interpretation,’ where our performances can be made out to both accord and conflict with a rule, with his problem of ‘plus/quus,’ the so-called ‘Skeptical Paradox.’ Interpreting ‘quus’ (‘#’) as

x # y = x + y, if x, y < 57, otherwise x # y = 5

and stipulating that we have never added any numbers greater that 57, he asks whether, given our limited uses of ‘plus,’ there is any fact of the matter regarding the meaning of ‘plus’ that can assure that we have not in fact been using ‘quus’ all along. Obviously we would accuse anyone who produced the answer ‘5’ when summing numbers greater than 57 of not fully understanding the meaning of ‘plus.’ But if by ‘meaning of plus’ we mean some kind of factual content, a mental image, a disposition to behave, or so on, then we need to explain not only how that content constitutes the meaning of plus, but how it determines the propriety of its use as well.

Wittgenstein’s paradox of interpretation and Kripke’s Skeptical Paradox foreground the apparent inability of different theories of content to account for the normative dimension of meaning. Why should a vantage theory of content fare any better?

This also suggests why traditional theories of meaning seem utterly undone by the skeptical paradox. When we reflect on meanings after the fact, that is, when we retrospectively frame our vantages on the world, they become things like representations or dispositions to behave; the way they frame us disappears. And when the occluded frame structure of meaning disappears, the relationship of content to normativity becomes inexplicable. Once meanings become things they begin to seem externally related to everything else. Because of this, the question of how they could ‘correspond’ to any particular application becomes impossible to ascertain. Analogies like ‘games,’ on the other hand, seem so appropriate not only because they are already normative, but because they also involve internal relations. Even though ‘games’ and ‘normativity’ are exasperatingly mysterious, it seems clear to us that the correctness or incorrectness of our performances is determined by the way they are internally related to other performances and the implicit rules constitutive of our play.

Once meanings are framed as things, Wittgenstein’s regress of interpretation becomes an inevitability. Since singular things do not frame particular performances, that is, are related to them externally, we feel compelled to further specify our ‘picture’ with a rule. Prima facie, this seems unproblematic because we follow rules all the time, and are not generally inclined to think that making a rule explicit robs it of its implicit normative force. What Wittgenstein does at this point is read the rule from the standpoint of its completion, which is to say, construes it as a completed thing rather than something enacted. Accordingly the rule finds itself in the same dilemma that the picture did. As something framed, it no longer frames a course of action, so that it seems to require an interpretation which specifies the action to be framed. Wittgenstein need only make the same move in order to problematize this as well. And so on.

This strategy, however, is preempted once content is construed as a frame. Content or meaning, on this account, are understood as a our relation to the world as framed by linguistic performances. Social practices and the norms they embody are simply part of this frame, as are history, physiology, the quotidian matters of day to day life, and so on. Accordingly the onus is not to show how this content constitutes the normativity of meaning, but to simply explicate the role it plays in it.

Although Kripke’s Skeptical Paradox is also circumvented by this, it possesses several peculiarities that, when seen from the standpoint of frames, are worthy of note.

One might ask, for instance, whether the quus rule needs to be mathematical. Why not argue that every addition you have ever accomplished in your lifetime, on the basis of a colossal coincidence, happened to work according to your expectations for ‘plus,’ but for every other number, those you never got around to adding, ‘plus’ revealed itself as ‘quus,’ and resulted in ‘a basket of rotten oranges’?

The rule might look something like:

x # y = x + y, where x and y are numbers that you have actually added, otherwise, x # y = ‘a basket of rotten oranges.’

Although formally this rule serves the purposes of the paradox as well as any other, there is a further sense in which it trivializes it. The arbitrariness of the example highlights that Kripke is actually making a trivial move. The only real constraint apparently faced by the skeptic in generating these examples of ‘quus’ is that it must be something we’ve never encountered–that is, something outside of our vantage.

Kripke’s tactic takes vantages that you’ve never had on the world, but might possibly have at some future time, and asks that you prove that this other vantage isn’t actually your vantage. But this quite clearly doesn’t make sense. Of course the ‘quus vantage’ is not my vantage on the world. It may turn out to be a vantage that encompasses my vantage on the world, but that doesn’t mean that I’m related any less truthfully to the world, only that I might someday be related more truthfully to the world. As it stands, ‘plus’ does not mean ‘quus.’ The fact that it might mean ‘quus’ someday in no way robs me of my vantage on the world now, where the very idea of ‘quus’ is absurd.

Through the long succession of vantages that make up our lives we have learned that we learn, that our relation to the world deepens and becomes more thorough. We have learned, in other words, that we only possess a vantage, and that the world exceeds us by far. The only thing, literally, that the skeptic shows us is that we possess a vantage.

Our analogy of the room quite clearly shows the peculiarity of the skeptic’s claim. Our inability to see every angle on everything at once, for the skeptic, means that we cannot be certain that we see anything at all. But this clearly does not follow. Our inability to see every angle at once simply means that we can’t see all of anything. And that is what the hypothetical linguistically framed vantages of the skeptic show us: that we can’t see all of anything. Or in other words, that all we have is a vantage.

This means that when we reflect on ‘plus,’ frame it from a further vantage, all we have is an angle. All we have is a vantage on ourselves; there is no ‘privileged access.’ We can know that ‘plus’ frames a certain relationship to the world, without knowing precisely what plus is. In other words, we can know that there is a fact of the matter about plus, without being able to say, absolutely, what that fact of the matter is. There have been concrete moments in my life where my relation to the world was framed by linguistic or mathematical performances which included ‘plus.’ The facts of meaning are the facts of our actual lives.

The operative assumption behind these critiques of the relevance of meaning (Wittgenstein) or the factuality of meaning (Kripke) is that if content cannot shoulder the burden of normativity alone, then it shoulders none of the burden. The alternative, that the normativity of linguistic performances is only explicable in terms of the concert of practices and content, is obscured by the monopolization of normativity by practices. Once the importance of practices are acknowledged, all that any theory of content needs show is that content bears some of the burden, and, accordingly, that practices cannot bear all of the burden.

Understanding, for Wittgenstein, is simply a matter of demonstrated performative competence in the context of particular social practices–any ‘feelings of insight’ that might accompany such demonstrations are irrelevant. Understanding, in other words, is a matter of contextualized performances and not content. The problem with this, however, is that social practices require both a plurality of performers and the regularity of performances over time. This is a problem because, although it allows us to make sense of an individual ‘understanding more’ within the context of a social practice, it seems to suggest that ‘Copernican revolutions,’ where the linguistic performances of an individual fail to conform to with preexisting social practices and yet nevertheless count as an instance of ‘understanding more,’ should not be possible. If the warrant of our claims derives solely from the context of our social practices, how can an unprecedented or private performance ever be counted as a signal of ‘deeper understanding’?

What, for instance, makes language something like a game?

One might say that the analogy between ‘language’ and ‘games’ is simply warranted by their similar uses in our social practices. The problem, however, is twofold. On the one hand, this similarity in use was not always the case. Before Wittgenstein stumbled upon the analogy,1 for instance, the uses of ‘language’ and ‘game’ were quite distinct. For some reason it must strike us, before a given use is established as part of our linguistic practices, that this use is warranted. In the absence of a normative precedent, then, what could possibly warrant his relatively novel use of this analogy, unless, that is, there was a preexistent similarity in the content of ‘language’ and ‘games’?

Perhaps existing language-games do possess a ‘range of possibilities’ for new games bearing family resemblances to old games to arise, such that ‘novel moves’ find their warrant insofar as they conform to the possibilities of our language-games. And yet, even though any number of novel moves may be made, not any move allows the unprecedented integration of many other moves. In the spirit of innovating, for instance, one might say that ‘language is like a disease,’ and offer justifications for this similarity, but it would be hard to imagine that anything approaching the systematic sophistication of a philosophical standpoint–what allows us, for instance, to predict with an amazing degree of accuracy what Wittgenstein will say with regard to a certain topic before actually reading what he has to say–could possibly arise from this analogy. The question is not only one of what licenses the linguistic performance ‘language is like a game’ as a novel move, practice or content, but of how it is that this novel move in turn ‘licenses’ the elaboration of an entirely different game. How, for instance, could this lone performance of a new game derived from the possibilities of an old game ever claim to exemplify a ‘better understanding’ of language, if understanding is simply a matter of competence according to preexisting norms? Was this tacit assumption on Wittgenstein’s part simply an error until the first ‘Wittgensteinians’ banded together and provided the plurality of performers and regularity of performances required to make his linguistic performances competent? Or did Wittgenstein see something more than just the possibility of a game?

‘Language is like a game’ was a powerful analogy before being sanctioned by an actual social practice because it allowed us to share, organize, and condense our multifarious vantages on the world in a way that few analogies could. It relied on a preexisting similarity in the vantages framed by ‘language’ and ‘game’ in order to fund a ‘deeper understanding’ of language, an understanding which has subsequently transformed a small family of language-games. And although certain social practices were required to frame those vantages on the world that would allow the similarity of ‘language’ and ‘game’ to suggest itself, it partially relied on content not only for its initial warrant, but for the revision of those very social practices. It demonstrated a deeper understanding of language not because it was more ‘competent’–competence in the absence of a practice is impossible–but because it allowed for the integration of our vantages on certain features of the world. Only now, in the wake of the highly specialized social practice it initially sanctioned (contextualism), does its warrant seem to derive entirely from those practices.

When we construe meaning in terms of frames and vantages, the monopolization of normativity by practices should no longer strike us as a necessity. It is our contentful relation to the world which in part determines the propriety of our moves within a context of social practices. Our relation to the world, in other words, is a central criterion of normative success. When someone incapable of irony says the sky is dark on a sunny day, what he says is inappropriate in part because the sky is bright. He violates our norms because he has framed our relation to the world in an inappropriate way. Even if we interpret him as saying something ironic, and therefore appropriate in a different way, we do so in part because the sky is bright. This is not merely because the bright sky happens to be part of the ‘context’ that specifies the propriety of our linguistic performances–this is merely the vague way in which the contextualist flatten our vantages into performances–but because his linguistic performance frames our vantage on the world. It is the way his linguistic performance frames our vantage on the world that in part determines its inappropriateness as a statement of fact or its appropriateness as an instance of irony. To say that vantages are not relevant to such a determination is to say that vantages could be subtracted from this example without any appreciable loss, to say our perspective on the bright sky plays no role in this instance of concrete language use.

Language-games, social practices, and so on, constrain us not merely to perform in certain ways, but to be constrained by the world in certain ways as well. Since the world exceeds us, it is always possible to find ourselves constrained by the world in ways not sanctioned by our social practices, and to then use the resources of language, its ability to frame us in innumerable ways, to share our ‘recalcitrant’ vantage with others–to bid the priests to look through our telescope, as it were.

Since Wittgenstein mistakes the inability of ‘content’ as it is framed after the fact to bear on questions of propriety with the irrelevance of content period, he turns to all that seems to remain: public performances within normative and factual contexts. He retreats behind the veil of performances. As a result, the world becomes part of the contextual furniture of our linguistic performances, a vague component of the game, and ‘understanding the world’ becomes a matter of performative competence in ‘mixed’ contexts. It never occurs to Wittgenstein that, just as there is a way of ‘grasping’ a rule that does not involve after the fact framing, there is a way of grasping content that also does not involve after the fact framing, but which is exhibited in what we call ‘having a perspective on the world’ in actual cases.

Wittgenstein’s reduction of understanding to performative competence is also motivated by the fact that it never appears when we attempt to frame it, as though understanding must be something that we can readily ‘see’ in order to be relevant. Understanding, however, is difficult to see for the same reason that ‘seeing’ or ‘meaning’ is difficult to see: it is a way in which our relation to the world is framed. ‘Understanding,’ on this account, is simply having a vantage on the world, a vantage framed in innumerable ways. Discursive understanding, for instance, certainly requires a vast amount of socio-normative ‘stage-setting,’ but we do not simply attribute understanding to others when they ‘perform well’–their linguistic performances are, after all, occluded for us–but when their assertions frame our relation to the same world in ways that organize and condense our multifarious vantages. We understand together. And we ‘understand more’ when our vantage on the world becomes more comprehensive, when we literally ‘stand under’ or beyond our past positions in the great room of the world.