Communalism, Correction and Nihilistic Solitary Rule-Following Arguments

© Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2015
Michał Araszkiewicz, Paweł Banaś, Tomasz Gizbert-Studnicki and Krzysztof Płeszka (eds.)Problems of Normativity, Rules and Rule-FollowingLaw and Philosophy Library11110.1007/978-3-319-09375-8_3

3. Communalism, Correction and Nihilistic Solitary Rule-Following Arguments

William Knorpp 

James Madison University, Harrisonburg, USA



William Knorpp


Rule communalism is the view that the rule asymmetry claim is true: rule-following (e.g. language-use) is possible for communal individuals but impossible for solitary individuals. The most notable argument of this general type is Kripke’s Wittgenstein’s argument in Wittgenstein on Rules and Private Language. Kripke’s Wittgenstein’s argument, however, is not a paradigmatic example of communalism because it does not attempt to show that genuine rule-following is possible in a community. Instead, Kripke’s Wittgenstein is a full-blown rule nihilist; his view entails that there is no such thing as rule-following, even in communities. What he offers is an ersatz alternative to rule-following which purportedly useful in communities, but not in solitude. I examine the prospects for defending genuine rule communalism on the familiar grounds that interpersonal—but not intrapersonal—correction can make rule-following possible even in the face of nihilistic arguments. I conclude that such arguments are extremely unlikely to succeed.

Solitary languagePrivate languageRulesKripkeWittgenstein

3.1 Introduction

On some interpretations—Kripke’s, most notably—the private language argument is an argument for the conclusion that solitary individuals cannot follow rules nor use language, but communal individuals can (Kripke 1982). That is, it is an argument for the Asymmetry Claim:

(AC) (i) It is logically impossible for a solitary individual to follow rules/use language; (ii) it is logically possible (in fact, not particularly difficult) for individuals in a community to follow rules/use language. (Knorpp 2003)

Such arguments can be called solitary language arguments (SLAs), and/or, more generally, solitary rule-following arguments (SRAs) and the position that accepts such arguments can be called communalism.

There are many different versions of communalism and the SRA/SLA, and the literature is extensive. Obviously there is no way to examine all the relevant positions and arguments in one paper. In what follows, however, I hope to cast some additional light on the discussion of communalism by doing two things. First, I will examine several distinctions among types of communalism, and argue that the most important version of the view is the version I call communalism simpliciter (or unconditional communalism), the view that it is logically impossible for a solitary individual to follow rules (e.g. use language) no matter what s/he does. Second, I will examine the crucial role of interpersonal interaction in SRAs—efforts by one individual to condone, condemn, and/or correct the actions of another individual.

Communalism, of course, remains unproven—but it continues to tantalize philosophers who are inclined to believe that communities play not merely an important role, but an essential one, in thought, rule-following, and language-use. I will argue, however, that the prospects for communalism are dim, largely because there is reason to doubt that both conjuncts of the Asymmetry claim can be true. Once we fix the type of communalism that is under discussion, and limit our attention to the genuinely important version of the view, and once we reflect a bit on similarities between self-correction and correction by others, we can see that it is implausible that the conjuncts of AC can both be true in any given possible case.

3.2 Strategic and Dialectical Considerations

3.2.1 The Burden of Proof

There is at least one relevant issue in this vicinity that is easily settled, and that is the issue of the burden of proof—there is no doubt that communalism has it. Communalism is the view that makes the relevant positive claims, and claims that deviate significantly from common sense. It is the communalist who claims that something that seems prima facie logically possible (solitary rule-following … and, on some versions, all actual rule-following …) is logically impossible. One might, of course, question whether there is a burden of proof in philosophy (as Peirce does), or one might, I suppose, propose new criteria for establishing where the burden lies. However, in the absence of some non-standard theory of the matter, it seems that even communalists should agree that they are the ones with the case to prove. There is no reason to agonize over this point. However, since it is common for both communalists and anti-communalists to err with respect to this issue, it is, I believe, worth mentioning.

3.2.2 Anti-communalists’ Common Strategic Errors

Anti-communalists often choose a strategy that is philosophically ambitious but strategically imprudent. Such critics typically also reject rule nihilism,1 and are eager to defend more traditional conceptions of meaning and rule-following. In fact and unsurprisingly, they tend to be more concerned with rule nihilism that with communalism. Nihilism, after all, represents the more important challenge to our traditional understanding of rule-following and language-use. The overall situation here is a rather common one: skeptical/nihilistic arguments are directed against a traditional (realist or rationalist or objectivist) position. An ersatz or relativistic alternative is proposed. Defenders of the tradition as well as relativistic opponents of the tradition falsely assume—or, at least, act as if they assume—that defenders of the tradition must defeat the skeptical/nihilistic arguments in order to defeat the ersatz or relativistic alternative.

But this is not true, and, given that skeptical/nihilistic arguments tend to be particularly difficult to defeat, it is not a shrewd strategy. It is generally easier to attack positive views directly. People on both sides of the dispute apparently tend to forget that communalist positions, like relativistic ones, are positive positions. As such, they cannot win the day on the strength of skeptical/nihilistic arguments—and, in fact, such arguments pose the same threat to them as to more traditional positions. Since communalism itself is a perfectly legitimate topic/target, and since it should be the actual target of anti-communalist arguments, and since it is, furthermore, easier to defeat (in part because it can be defeated simply by showing that communalists fail to carry their burden of proof), the best and more prudent way to criticize communalism is, well, to criticize communalism. And that is what I will do here.

3.3 Sundry Considerations and Distinctions

3.3.1 The Asymmetry Claim

The essence of rule-communalism is the asymmetry claim—the claim that AC (i) and AC (ii) are both true, that rule-following is logically impossible for solitary individuals, but possible for communal ones. Rule communalism simply is the position that accepts AC, and SRAs are arguments that attempt to establish AC. The simplest, most direct route to refuting communalism is showing that communalist arguments fail to establish AC. A route that is, in some sense, more efficient or economical involves showing why AC is likely to be false, i.e. showing why arguments of a certain type for AC are not likely to succeed. That is the route I will take in Sect. 11.5.1, where I will explain why appeals to intersubjective correction are extremely unlikely to provide communalism with a route to the asymmetry claim.

Before we’ll be in a position to see why this is so, we’ll have to discuss several more preliminary considerations.

3.3.2 Possibility

It is not possible to make sense of the SRA unless we take the type of possibility referenced by AC to be logical possibility.2 The SRA, like more orthodox versions of the PLA, does not seek to establish that there is some merely medical limitation of human beings that typically prevents them from following rules in isolation. Everyone believes that claim, communalists and non-communalists alike. No one thinks that a human being, isolated since birth, is likely to develop the ability to follow rules/use language. In order for communalism to be the astonishing philosophical discovery that it purports to be, it must be surprising. It must deny common sense and philosophical orthodoxy in some way. And it does—but only if it denies the logical possibility of solitary rule-following.

3.3.3 Conditional and Unconditional Communalism

Some versions of the SRA conclude that it is impossible for solitary, non-communal individuals to learn to follow rules; analogous versions of the SLA conclude that it is impossible for them to acquire/develop language. Such arguments are acquisition arguments. Other versions of the SRA/SLA conclude that it is absolutely impossible for isolates to follow rules/use language no matter what they do. A passably thorough discussion of this distinction alone might take up an entire paper, so, again, the discussion of this preliminary point will have to be somewhat abbreviated. But, to be more precise, the most important rough distinction in this vicinity is between the following two positions:

Conditional/Acquisition communalism:

It is not possible for a life-long isolate to learn to follow rules (e.g. use language); i.e. not possible for such a person to develop rules nor the ability to follow them (e.g. to develop a language/the ability to use it).

Unconditional Communalism/Communalism simpliciter:

It is not possible for a life-long isolate to follow rules (e.g. use language). (Period.) It is not possible for a life-long isolate to follow rules (e.g. use language) no matter what thoughts he has and no matter what actions he performs.

In these pure forms, the views are more accurately characterized when characterized more fully:

Conditional/Acquisition communalism elaborated:

It is not possible for a life-long isolate to develop rules nor the ability to follow them (e.g. develop a language/the ability to use it). In order to follow a rule, it is necessary and sufficient to have certain thoughts/perform certain actions. If it were possible for solitary individuals to think such thoughts/perform such actions, then they could follow rules. But it is not possible for life-long isolates to develop the ability to do these things.

Unconditional Communalism/Communalism simpliciter elaborated:

It is not possible for a life-long isolate to follow rules (e.g. use language) no matter what thoughts he has nor what actions he performs. This is not because there are thoughts/actions such that, could he only perform them, he would be following rules/using language. In principle, a solitary individual can have any thought/perform any action (narrowly construed) that a communal individual can have/perform. However, none of these things constitute rule-following (language-use) in the absence of (or: without reference to) other individuals.3

The ordinary, common-sense view of rule-following (e.g. language-use) goes roughly like so: ordinary humans like you and me follow rules (and use language). We do these things in virtue of some combination of (a) our thoughts and (b) our overt actions, verbal and otherwise—that is, some combination of what we do and what’s in our minds. So, for example, when I follow syntactic rules of English, as I do as I type this sentence, I am having thoughts and doing things with my fingers. On the ordinary view, it is in virtue of these things that I follow the relevant rules. Let’s say that people who follow a rule R have thoughts T and perform actions A, and it is in virtue of thinking/doing T/A (or as we can say: being in state T/A) that they follow R.4 A straightforward acquisition argument concludes that solitary individuals that are not in T/A cannot switch into state T/A—and, therefore, they cannot follow R. If they could switch into/be in T/A, then they would ipso facto be following R, since following R simply is accomplishing T/A. That is: there is something—being in T/A—which constitutes following R. Since being in T/A constitutes following R, anyone who is in T/A follows R, regardless of whether they are in a community or not. In short, if a solitary individual could do the relevant things and have the relevant mental experiences, then s/he would follow rules. But s/he can’t have/do them.5

Communalism simpliciter—unconditional communalism—is an extremely different view. According to this position, solitary individuals can, theoretically, have all the same mental experiences and perform all the same actions as communal individuals. I’m following rules as I write this; I’m having certain thoughts and performing certain actions. Communalism simpliciter is the view that: (a) it is logically possible for a solitary individual (say, my doppelganger) to have mental experiences and perform physical actions which are indistinguishable from the ones I currently have and perform; but (b) in the absence of an appropriate relation to a community, even an individual who had the appropriate experiences and performed the appropriate actions would not follow rules.

In this paper, I will be interested only in unconditional communalism/communalism simpliciter. Some of the arguments here are, in fact, applicable to conditional/acquisition communalism, and I discuss that view more extensively elsewhere—but considerations of space prevent me from considering the position here.6

The decision to focus on communalism simpliciter is not a purely practical one, however. Any acquisition argument will have the form: individual N can only acquire the ability to follow rules by interacting with another individual, N2. Only by interacting with N2 can N move into state T/A, which state constitutes following a rule. However, once we recognize that it is logical possibility that is at issue in the argument, it becomes extremely implausible that there is any such state—that is, a state that it is logically impossible for N to enter without interacting with N2. I acquired the ability to use language as a result of interacting with others, and, consequently, I am now in a mental/physical state that constitutes typing an English sentence. But it is logically possible for there to be a doppelganger of mine, solitary since birth/creation, who has never had any such interaction. There is no contradiction involved in the description of such an individual. Such a being is obviously imaginable—he could pop into existence randomly, or because of some weird cosmic occurrence, or God could make him.7

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