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Meaning, Normativity, and Custom

Kai-Yuan Cheng



Wittgenstein's (1958) discussion on rule-following has brought persistent and enormous interest in the question concerning whether meaning and understanding are essentially social, or can be constituted by properties of an individual person alone. Wittgenstein's own position is widely regarded as a communitarian view, in which meaning and understanding are social, or non-individualistic in nature. Kripke's (1982) influential explication of Wittgenstein for the first time makes it lucid why and in what sense meaning and understanding are social. However, as intriguing and clear as it is, the communitarian view Kripke attributes to Wittgenstein has been broadly pointed out as fundamentally flawed. Kripke's Wittgenstein accepts the skeptical conclusion that no fact of the matter about an individual speaker determines meaning and understanding, and proposes that we abandon truth-functional semantics and replace with assertibility condition semantics where agreements and disagreements of community members do the trick of setting up standards of correctness and incorrectness for speakers' relevant behavior. However, once the skeptical conclusion is accepted, communal agreements and disagreements do not form a solid foundation to ground the normativity most crucial to meaning facts.

On the other hand, McDowell (1984, 1992, 1994) offers a quietist position that seems, and attempts, to be faithful to the real Wittgenstein. Given that Wittgenstein is explicit about his meta-philosophy that the only aim of doing philosophy is not to construct theories and explanations, but to dispel misconceptions, McDowell believes that Wittgenstein would not create a skeptical argument leading to the undermining of our rule-following practice. McDowell diagnoses where Kripke goes wrong, and by doing so, he tries to dissolve the skeptical paradox Kripke has left us. In McDowell's view, Wittgenstein would never accept reductionism implicitly assumed in Kripke's skeptical argument, for the assumption amounts to a highly counter-intuitive thesis. What then is McDowell-Wittgenstein's own view on meaning and understanding? According to MW, meaning and understanding are real and irreducible, and at the same time lie in a custom or communal practice. This is a fundamental fact about us, and no constructive effort is needed to illuminate what it means to say that meaning lies in a custom.

The aim of this paper is to examine whether McDowell has really captured the most important points that Wittgenstein attempts to make about meaning, understanding, and rule-following. I will focus on two main questions: 1) Does Kripke's Wittgenstein not contain important material on rule-following that may help characterize some genuine problems and puzzles for further constructive responses, other than what can be merely dismissed as committed to faulty assumptions as McDowell claims? 2) What exactly is the role that is played by communal practice in the depiction of meaning and understanding? Is communal practice necessary, or sufficient, or both necessary and sufficient, in the construction of meaning and understanding, or is meaning-lies-in-communal-practice the most fundamental fact that resists any constructive analysis, as McDowell's Wittgenstein maintains? Wright's writings (1984, 1987, 1989) related to these questions will also be discussed.