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What Is an Error? Wittgenstein’s Voluntarism

Datum:03 november 2017
Auteur:Martin Lenz
Philosophers lamp made by Lukas Wolf
Philosophers lamp made by Lukas Wolf

Imagine that you welcome your old friend Fred in your study. Pointing at the door, he asks you whether he should shut the window. You’re confused. Did Fred just call the door a window? He’s getting old, but surely not that old. You assume that Fred has made a simple mistake. But what kind of mistake was it? Did he make a linguistic mistake by mixing up the words? Or did he make a cognitive mistake by misrepresenting the facts and taking the door to be a window? “Fred, you meant to say ‘door’, didn’t you?” If he nods agreement, everything is fine. If he doesn’t, you will probably begin to worry about Fred’s cognitive system or conceptual scheme. You might wonder whether his vision is impaired or something worse has happened, unless it turns out that you, in turn, misread Fred’s gesture, while he did indeed mean the window opposite the door.

This example can be considered in various ways.* We usually take such mistakes to lie in an erroneous use of words rather than in a misrepresentation on part of the cognitive system, such as a hallucination. The latter case seems way more drastic. But are the cases of linguistic and cognitive mistakes related? Is one prior to the other? In what follows, I’d like to consider them through the lens of Wittgenstein’s later philosophy of mind, and suggest that his account has roots in theological voluntarism.  

Let’s begin by looking at the accounts of error that suggest themselves. What kind of distinction is at work here? It seems that there are at least two possible ways of locating error:

  • 1) linguistic errors occur on the level of behavioural interaction between language users: in this case an error is a deviation from a social practice;
  • 2) cognitive errors occur on the level of (mental) representation: in this case an error is mismatch between a representation and a represented object.

The distinction between interaction and representation intimates two ways of thinking about minds. Representational models construe correctness and error on the relation between (mental) sign and object. Interactionist or social models construe correctness and error on the relation between (epistemic) agents. On the face of it, the representational model is the more traditional one, going back at least to Aristotle and the scholastics, before being famously reintroduced and radicalised by Descartes. By contrast, the interactionist model is taken to be relatively young, inspired by the later Wittgenstein, who attacked his own earlier representationalism and the whole tradition along with it. This historical picture is of course a bit of a caricature. But rather than adding necessary refinements, I think we should reject it entirely. Besides misconstruing much of the history of thinking about minds, it obscures commonalities that actually might help understanding Wittgenstein’s move towards the interactionist model.

What, then, might have inspired Wittgenstein’s later model? I think that Wittgenstein’s later philosophy of mind is driven, amongst other things, by two ideas, namely (a) that all kinds of mental activities (such as thinking and erring) are part of a shared practice and that (b) the rules constituting this practice have no further explanation or foundation. For illustration, think again of the linguistic error. Ad (a): Of course, calling a door a window is a case of mislabelling. But what turns this into an error is not any representational mismatch. What is amiss is not any match between utterance and object but Fred’s violation of your expectation (that he would ask, if anything, to close the door but not the window). Ad (b): This expectation is not grounded in anything further but the experienced practice itself. If you learn that people call a door a door, people should call a door a door. You begin to wonder if they don’t. There is no further explanation as to why that should be so. Taken together, these two ideas give priority to interaction over representation. Accordingly, Wittgensteinians will see error and correctness in reference to linguistic practice; not grounded in representation.

But where does this idea come from? Although Wittgenstein’s later thought is sometimes likened to that of earlier authors in early modern or medieval times, I haven’t seen that his ideas were placed in a larger tradition. Perhaps, then, straightforward philosophies of language and mind are not the best place to look. But what should we turn to? If we look for historical cues of the two ideas sketched above, we should watch out for theories that construe mental events on the model of action rather than representation. But if you think that such theorising begins only with what is commonly called ‘pragmatism’, you miss out on a lot. Let’s focus on (a) first. We should begin by giving up on the assumption that the representational model of the mind is the traditional one. Of course, representation looms large, but it is not always the crucial explanans of correct vs. erroneous thinking or speaking. Good places to start are discussions that tie error to acts of will. Why not try Descartes’ famous explanation of human error? In the Fourth Meditation, Descartes claims that error does not arise from misrepresentation as such. Rather I can err because my will reaches farther than my intellect. So my will might extend to the unknown, deviating from the true and good. And thus I am said to err and sin. Bringing together error and sin, Descartes appeals to a longstanding tradition that places error on the level of voluntary judgment and action. Accordingly, there is no sharp distinction between moral and epistemic errors. I can fail to act in the right way or I can fail to think in the right way. The source of my error is, then, not that I misrepresent objects but rather that I deviate from the way that God ordained. This is the way in which even perfect cognitive agents such as fallen angels and demons can err.

What is significant for the question at hand is that God is taken as presenting us with a standard that we can conform to or deviate from when representing objects. Thus, error is explained through deviation from the divine standard, not through a representational model. Of course, you might object, that divine standards are a far cry from social standards and linguistic rules.** But what might have served as a crucial inspiration are the following three points: putting mental acts on a par with action, explaining error and correctness through a non-representational standard, and having a non-individualistic standard, for it is the relation of humans to God that enforces the standard on us. In this sense, error cannot be ascribed to a single individual that misrepresents an object; it must be a mind that is related to the standards set by God.

If we accept this historical comparison at least as a suggestion, we might say that divine standards play a theoretical role that is similar to the social practice in Wittgenstein. However, divine standards come in different guises. Not all philosophers who discuss error in relation to deviant acts of will are automatically committed to the thesis that the divine standards have no further foundation. Theological rationalists assume that divine standards can be justified, such that God wills the Good because it is good. By contrast, voluntarists assume that something is good because God wills it. Thus, rationalistic conceptions could allow for an explanation of error that is not ultimately explained by reference to the divine standard. In this sense, rationalism would clash with Wittgenstein’s anti-foundationalism, called (b) above, according to which rules have no further foundation over and above the practice. As Wittgenstein puts it in Philosophical Investigations, § 206: “Following a rule is analogous to obeying an order.”

How, then, does Wittgenstein see the traditional theological distinction? Given his numerous discussions of the will even in his early writings, it is clear that his work is informed by such considerations. Most striking is his remark on voluntarism reported in Waismann’s “Notes on Talks with Wittgenstein” (Philosophical Review 74 [1956]): “I think that the first conception is the deeper one: Good is what God orders. For this cuts off the path to any and every explanation ‘why’ it is good …” Here, Wittgenstein clearly sides with the voluntarists.*** Indeed, the idea of rule-following as obedience can be seen perfectly in line with the assumption that erring consists in violating a shared practice, just as the voluntarist tradition that Descartes belongs to deems erring a deviation from divine standards.

If these suggestions are pointing in a fruitful direction, they could open a path to relocating Wittgenstein’s thought in the context of the long tradition of voluntarism. They might downplay his claims to originality, but at the same time they might render both his work and the tradition more accessible.

* This is my variant of Davidson’s ketch-yawl example in his “On the very idea of a conceptual scheme”. I’d like to thank Laura Georgescu, Lodi Nauta and Tamer Nawar, who kindly heard me out when I introduced them to the ideas suggested here.  

** Thanks to Martin Kusch, who raised this objection in an earlier discussion on Facebook.

*** See David Bloor, Wittgenstein, Rules and Institutions, Routledge 2002, 126-133, who also discusses Wittgenstein’s voluntarism.



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