Philosophy, Film, Politics, Etc.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Kripkenstein, Pt. 3: The Skeptical Solution Revisited

I wasn't able to convince my professor that KW accepts the picture of 'grasping a rule' which sustains the skeptical argument. She claims that the skeptical argument is (or is similar to) a reductio ad absurdum--the argument and its intolerable conclusion lead to rejection of one or more of the premises. Thus, she argues, when KW says he accepts the skeptic's argument and conclusion, he only means that he accepts that, given the original picture of 'grasping a rule', there can be no facts about intended meaning. The skeptical solution supposedly replaces that picture, which relies on the history of the individual, with a different picture which focuses on the social construction of rules.

I grant that some of what KW says supports such a reading, but it cannot be correct.

First, it is hard for me to understand why KW would accept that there are no facts about intended meaning if he rejected the original picture of 'grasping a rule'. Even when we accept a reductio, we do not accept the conclusion. We rather accept the argument as a refutation of the set of premises, and we do so because we reject the conclusion. KW accepts the skeptical thesis. He accepts both the argument and its conclusion. His skeptical solution is not to reject the conclusion, but to show that it is not as intolerable as it first appeared. So it does not appear that he rejects any of the premises or presuppositions of the skeptical argument.

Second, Kripke emphasizes that the solution does not take rules to be social constructs. When we say a person follows the rule of arithmetic, we do not mean they have followed the rules of society. Kripke quotes Wittgenstein: "Does this mean, e.g., that the definition of the same would be this: same as what all or most human beings . . . take for the same?--Of course not." And also, "Certainly the propositions, 'Human beings believe that twice two is four' and 'Twice two is four' do not mean the same." Kripke observes that, if we tried to solve the skeptical problem by treating rules as social constructs, we'd just be providing a different set of truth conditions. Worse, we'd be reaching for a set of truth conditions which are intuitively unappealing. We're not talking about social constructions when we talk about identity or the rule of addition, even if social constructions are required to support our talk about such rules.

The skeptical solution does not treat rules as social constructions. In fact, it does not treat rules as anything at all. For KW, rules need not even exist, though we are justified in talking about them. What does exist, at least, is our agreement and our discourse, and the former justifies the latter.

To draw on the parallel to Hume which Kripke observes: For Hume, laws of causality need not exist, even if regularities in nature justify our talk about them. We would not say that Hume has offered a different picture of causality. Rather, Hume has denied any knowledge of causality, but justified the discourse on causal laws by appealing to something else: regularities in nature. Similarly, KW does not offer a different picture of intended meaning and rules; he only denies any facts about intended meaning and rules, instead justifying the discourse by appealing to regularities in our use of expressions. So the original picture of intended meaning and rules remains, just as the original notion of causality remains for Hume.

The original picture of intended meaning is thus: To (correctly) mean plus by "plus" is to act in accordance with one's past intentions regarding the use of the term "plus," where those intentions determine unique answers to an indefinite (perhaps infinite) number of future cases. That is the picture which KW accepts, and in this picture we see KW's notion of what it means to grasp a rule: to formulate (via representations) an intention to follow a rule which determines answers for an indefinite number of future cases. KW gives no indication that he wants to reject this picture. He only rejects the claim that this talk of intended meanings and rules has truth conditions. In other words, he only denies that this picture actually shows us anything.

The point here is a little hard to construe. In fact, it's downright confounding. Before I explore it a little more, let me spell out where my professor and I presumably agree. We agree that KW's skeptical solution denies that there are any truth conditions which could justify our talk of intended meaning or rules. Furthermore, we agree that the skeptical solution denies that our talk of intended meaning and rules entails or implies any such truth conditions. According to KW, when we talk of intended meaning, we're not appealing to facts which constitute an intention to mean one thing rather than another. We're appealing to our general agreement; and yet, we don't mean our general agreement. For, if we meant that, we'd claim that "the same" just means "what most people more or less agree is the same." But that's not what we mean by "the same." So what we mean must be distinguished from what justifies our discourse. And what we mean, as KW notes, is that we intend the same thing we intended in the past and which determines answers to an indefinite (perhaps infinite) number of future cases.

Kripke does explicitly say that following a rule (on the skeptical solution) amounts to agreeing with your community. So, I admit, it does look a little like he is presenting a different picture of rule-following. According to KW, whether or not we can say we are following a rule depends only on whether or not we are in agreement with our community. And he explicitly offers this as an alternative to the original way of thinking about rule-following, which focused on the solitary individual. So, I admit, it does look a little like KW rejects the original picture of rule-following in favor of a picture which focuses on the community, just as my professor claims. Yet, at the same time, and for the reasons I've already given, KW cannot reject the original as a picture of what we mean when we talk about rule-following. He does not suppose we mean something about our community's acceptance when we talk about grasping a rule or meaning plus by "plus," nor does he suppose that such talk is meaningless. What it means, then, is a picture which lacks factual content. A picture which guides us without showing us anything.

If this looks incoherent, I think that might be because KW's skeptical solution is fundamentally inconsistent. KW acknowledges that we speak of intended meaning as determining an indefinite number of as-yet-unknown future uses of a rule. For example, KW would not ban me from saying,

(1) The word "plus," as I intended it in the past, indicates a rule which determines answers for an indefinite number of cases which I have yet to encounter, and which I follow by my use of the word "plus" today.

What KW says is that no facts actually constitute what I ever mean by "plus." So I cannot justify (1) by appealing to any facts about what I or anyone has ever intended to mean. In short, (1) lacks truth conditions. I cannot (objectively/superlatively) claim that any rule has ever determined anything at all. So KW has us in a bind. We can talk about rules and intentions, but at the same time, we do not do so truthfully. We can justify this talk (pragmatically, we might say) by appealing to the fact that we all generally agree about how to use the word "plus." But if we try to look for some other sort of justification, we'll end up nowhere.

The meaning skeptic says that there is no way the use of an expression can be metalinguistically correct or incorrect, which is to say that there are no facts which determine whether or not the present use of an expression is in accordance with previous uses. KW accepts the skeptical position, and so agrees with the indeterminacy of metalinguistic correctness. But this does not mean KW rejects talk of metalinguistic correctness, or denies the picture of rule-following it entails. To do so would be to deny the sense of (1). KW denies that (1) has truth conditions, but he does not deny that it makes sense. He does not deny that our language-game produces this picture of rule-following, nor does he deny that this picture plays an important role in our language-game. He only denies that it shows us any (superlative) facts.

As I noted in my last post, KW's skeptical solution hinges on an opaque distinction between two types of facts, superlative and ordinary facts. There is some sense in which it is a fact that I meant plus by "plus," but there is another sense in which it is not a fact at all. There is a sense in which (1) states a fact, but another sense in which (1) leads us to look for facts in the wrong places. Unfortunately, this distinction is anything but clear. It is no wonder if KW seems to simultaneously accept and reject the original picture of intended meaning and grasping a rule. I think he must accept the original picture. I see no other way to interpret his skeptical solution. But I admit, it is hard to see why he should accept it, since he denies that it is a picture of anything at all. What KW fails to explain is why anybody would ever want that original picture in the first place.