Open to view

Descartes was the kind of philosopher who thought he could sit alone, think deep thoughts, and genuinely make compelling intellectual discoveries. Using my own inner resources as a sounding board for themselves, howecver, seems like it could be viciously circular: how can I rationally check my ideas? How can I understand my own mind, let alone the minds of others with whom I might want to communicate?

A straightforward idea of representing is pretty akin to resemblance. A represents B by picturing it, as a simple painting might represent a scene. It can be judged as good or bad in terms of how well it pictures it. Descartes, in being an excellent mathematician, knew the power of other sorts of representations, however. Representing a circle by a drawing is fine for certain purposes, but by using the formula 2 π r I can set out to make complex operations that can reveal truths of pure maths as well as have practical applications. The power of the formula as representation is at least in its systematicity. From it other truths are derivable and deducible; structures of truth are discoverable. But the formula as a representation of a circle is not itself circular.

In Descartes’ own thought there are structures of truth in terms of inferences on display. In being fixated upon the objects of the mind, however, Descartes misses out on fully exploiting the structural achievements made possible by accounting for representation in a non-resemblance based manner.

Kant sees the basic structures of the mind, the minimal units of cognitive significance for human minds as judgements, rather than as objects. For him, the relatedness of judgements to one another and to the world accounts for the mind’s ability to be about things. These relations are what permit the significance of thought. The dictates of rationality mean there are reasonable links between one proposition and the next such that we can infer one thing from another. Rather than the mind being an ontologically distinct realm of mental representations it is instead a source and seat of reasons and judgements.

The rightness of a mental representation in other words, is to do with how the content of a judgement squares with what is demanded rationally by rules. It’s nothing to do with resemblance, as this quotation from Kant suggests:

“What experience teaches me under certain circumstances it must always teach me and everybody; it and its validity are not limited to the subject nor its state at a particular time…[]…Therefore objective validity and necessary universality (for everybody) are equivalent terms…”


This changes the critical question about thoughts from Descartes'”is the picture clear and distinct?”, to Kant’s “is the judgement valid and binding?”. Kant is not stuck with a picture of resemblance as Descartes is. His account’s utilisation of rules allows for the contents of the mind and experience to be interlinked. This furnishes us with an account of justification that seemed problematic on Descartes’ apparently imagistic account. Moreover, by introducing judgement into the picture Kant gives us a swift way to defeat the scepticism that animated Descartes’ thought.

If thoughts and experience are cognised in terms of valid and binding judgements that are the outcomes of the application of rules to experience, then by that very fact we cannot be systematically in error. If I am be to be capable of misapplying a rule for judging that S is P, this has to be considered in relation to the opposite case. I have to be capable of being right in order to be considerable as having misapplied a rule. When I misjudge a green apple to be red, I do so presumably because it ‘seemed red to me’. But it is part of the logic of ‘seeming’ that I know the criteria for the ‘being’. If I didn’t know what real redness was, how could something seem that way to me?

I have to have concepts and the competence to apply them in order to be criticised for being in error. This must be so in order to even make sense of a failure to perform to the standards of descriptive accuracy. This means that while I can be wrong about anything, I can’t be wrong about everything. Descartes’ scepticism was too strong, and based in a flawed idea of cognition.

This move Kant makes from Cartesian inner representations to rule manipulation is a move from a focus upon epistemology to semantics. The idea changes from Descartes’ ‘How do I know what I think I know?’ to “What does it mean to represent to oneself?”. This is a step in the history of philosophy, but it remains within the ‘turn to the subject’ inaugurated by Descartes. Also parallel here is a regress like his, but now transposed into Kant’s thought.

By this is meant the following; if I am to apply a rule, I must know how to apply that rule. Hence, the application of the rule is itself a practice governed by rules. At this meta-level of rules for rules, however, it can be seen that rules must again apply. Meta-rules need rules for their application, so we have to look to another meta-meta-level of rules for rules for rules. In no principled way can this regress stop, on pain of inconsistency or arbitrariness, or both. So, if Kant’s account of cognition is notable for its reliance upon rules, it’s in trouble.


The idea of rule regress is generally brought up in the context of the later Wittgenstein, in some of the most referenced sections of his Philosophical Investigations. However his was by no means the first realisation of the problem. Wittgenstein, using the term ‘interpretation’ for a meta-rule, says the following in paragraph 201 of the Investigations suggesting the problem of rule-regress and a solution;

“It can be seen that there is a misunderstanding here from the mere fact that in the course of our argument we give one interpretation after another; as if each one contented us for at least a moment, until we thought of yet another standing behind it. What this shows is that there is a way of grasping a rule which is not an interpretation, but which is exhibited in what we call ‘obeying a rule’ and ‘going against it’ in actual cases.”
(“Philosophical Investigations”, (Anscombe, Tr) p.201, Blackwell 2001)

Kant, in fact was aware of just this issue. in discussing ‘Transcendental Judgement in General’ at A132/B171 of the first Critique has this to say;

“If understanding in general is to be thought of as the faculty of rules, judgment will be the faculty of subsuming under rules; that is, of distinguishing whether something does or does not stand under a given rule (casus datae legis). General logic contains, and can contain, no rules for judgment. […] If it sought to give general instructions how we are to subsume under […] rules, that is, to distinguish whether or not something does or does not come under them, that could only be by means of another rule. This in turn, for the very reason that it is a rule, again demands guidance from judgment. And thus it appears that, though understanding is capable of being instructed, and of being equipped with rules, judgment is a peculiar talent which can be practised only, and cannot be taught. It is the specific quality of so-called mother-wit; and its lack no school can make good.”
Kant, I “The Critique of Pure Reason”, A132-133/B171-172

Wittgenstein suggests that since the regress happens on the theoretical side of our discussions of rule following, and since that regress is irresistible, a solution must be looked for in practice. A Kantian lack of ‘mother-wit’ is no excuse.

Going public

Part of Wittgenstein’s accounting for our idea of rule use comes from a point about what we do when we follow a rule in practice. His point is that,”…no course of action could be determined by a rule, because every course of action could be made out to accord with the rule.” The parallel is hopefully clear with the Cartesian objection. Placing my hand on my own head no more measures me than calling the grass green amounts to my inner deployment of a rule.

Wittgenstein’s dissolution of the problem is to socialise rule use. The privacy of the rules is the problem here just as the privacy of Descartes’ ideas was for him. In fact, for Wittgenstein, the idea of ‘rule use’ and rule following is an unhelpful abstraction of what is a familiar practice of taking part in ‘language games’.

Essentially, language games constitute a linguistically regulated world of interpersonal relations. An overemphasis of what can be drawn from it in analysis leads to confusion. Generally speaking, for Wittgenstein, philosophy is a therapeutic practice aimed at dissolving confusion. The confusion in also tends to originate with philosophers.


The significance of following a rule lies in its embeddedness within a social practice. Correctly applying a rule amounts to knowing a permission exists that licences the next move. An analogy with chess is apt. Language games taken together constitute a form of life, a rough set of practical agreements that are contingent themselves, none being a priori, none ruling out one another.

Ordinary language is not neat, whereas its analysis is. Unerstanding involves creativity in judgement about the relevance of one action — verbal, gestural, or otherwise — or its omission in order to give ourselves an account of why that person, from their point of view, given all they know, would right now be doing that. Effectively, this means we must focus less closely upon words and sentences, and take more fully into our comprehension their users. This means thinking abour the pragmatic side of communication.

Understanding one another amounts to appreciating action in context – the mind of the other, their intentions, words and actions, are revealed on this public basis. This cashes out what Wittgenstein means when he says, contra Descartes, that inner processes need outward criteria and that in questions of significance everything is open to view.


2 thoughts on “Open to view

  1. Wow, amazing weblog layout! How lengthy have you been running a blog for? you made running a blog look easy. The overall look of your site is magnificent, as well as the content!


    1. Hello Alex! Very sorry for taking so long to reply – I didn’t see a notification that you’d sent a message. The layout I got was one I found within WordPress. I can’t remember the name, and I’m not sure how to find out, but there’s probably a quite easy way to find out. I like it a lot: very simple, neat, and very graphical. I’m not sure how long I’ve been doing a blog. Mainly, I wanted to have a way to write my own ideas. I’m an academic, professionally, and sometimes I have ideas that don’t work professionally, but I like them and don’t want them to disappear. So, I put them on the blog. I’m very flattered that you like the content, thank you. I never quite believe anyone reads any of it. I hope you find a layout that you like, and that you write a blog yourself. I am sure your content would be great too. Good luck!


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