Why We Do What We Do: Part Two

"Our philosophical experience now, finding ourselves here, necessitates taking up philosophically the question of practice.” (Cavell, 1989)

I am proposing that if we are to seek an understanding of the grand values and beliefs of an individual, community or culture, we must first seek to observe/describe/reflect upon the very ordinary, everyday and cyclical practices that come to constitute the entity’s form(s) of life. For Stanley Cavell, “[In Wittgenstein], I seemed to find what I could recognise as this space of investigation, in [his] working out of the problematic of the day, the everyday, the near, the low, the common, in conjunction with what [we can] call speaking of necessaries, and speaking with necessity.” (Cavell, 1989) The practicalities of one’s existence “takes place around the aspects of daily life, the ordinary and the everyday events of eating, talking, queuing, exchanging pleasantries, greeting people of different age, sex, and gender, drinking, sleeping, dressing, washing, and so on.” (Peters, 2010a, pg 28).

With the above introduction, I launch again into “Why We Do What We Do”. In today’s entry, I aim to touch upon the conditions under which given practices flourish. Any given practice - let’s say, brushing one’s teeth - is optimally accompanied by a whole raft of practices along with concepts, knowledge and narratives that justify the practice. Let's call them structuring structure which structure structure. In this picture, full participation in the practice of - as stated, brushing one’s teeth - is contingent on understanding the significance of the act within a community that values and engages fruitfully in the practice. And young children are often brought into such activities in an environment in which the physical resources, the know-how and the prevalence of the practice are readily available. Over time the children gain a fuller understanding of the significance of each activity as part of a network of activities that make up - in this case - hygienic practices. However, early stages of engaging in the practice may not involve any understanding at all. It may merely involve training, imitation and the like. Wittgenstein also considered the process in terms of training into the application of particular rules that underlie the cultural acts, “I cannot describe how (in general) to employ rules, except by teaching you, training you to employ rules.” (Zettel #318) Therefore, “every instance of the use … is the culmination of a process of socialisation ... Training differs from explanation in that - at least among children - it is largely non-verbal and it is aimed at producing certain actions.” (Phillips, 1979, pg 126).

The picture presented above can be quite unsettling for some, since it highlights the need for certain conditions (such as a community of practitioners or at least one other practitioner) to be in place if a practice is to take root. Acquisition is not solely determined by the individual will, though the agency of the learner is a significant factor in learning. A certain amount of regularity and role modelling needs to be in place for a practice to take root. Over time those who are more experienced will be able to make explicit certain implicit assumptions which must be understood for details of a practice to make sense. For the time being, training and regularity and encouragement are key.  Inthe words of Moyal-Sharrock (2010), and in reference to language she emphasises how "acquiring language is like learning to walk: the child is stepped into language by an initiator and, after much hesitation and repeated faltering, with time and multifarious practice and exposure, it disengages itself from the teacher's hold and is able, as it were, to run with the language." (2010, pg 6)

The simple matter of experience is required through which the salient details of a practice are deepened:

Then, am I defining “order” and “rule” by means of “regularity”? -- How do I explain the meaning of “regular”, “uniform”, “same” to anyone? … If a person has not yet got the concepts, I shall teach him … by means of examples and by practice. -- And when I do this I do not communicate less to him than I know myself. In the course of this teaching I shall shew him … get him to continue an ornamental pattern uniformly when told to do so. -- And also to continue progressions. And so, for for example, when given . .. ... to go on: .... ...... ……. I do it, he does it after me; and I influence him by expressions of agreement, rejection, expectation, encouragement. I let him go his way, or hold him back; and so on. Imagine witnessing such teaching. None of the words would be explained by means of itself; there would be no logical circle. (Philosophical Investigations, #280)

What - then - are the conditions that make a practice possible? “The conditions that make a practice, any practice, possible, are not arbitrary … They must be replicable from generation to generation of practitioners, and this entails ... processes by which ... teaching will be possible.” (Burbles and Smeyers, 2010, pg 176 - 177). Whether we are speaking about artistic practices or religious practices or ethical practices and more, the child is often initiated into both the activities of the practice and the value of the practice in the community in which one lives. In this way, practices can be defined by “(1) how they are learned - for instance through imitation, initiation, instruction and so forth; and (2) how they are enacted.” (Smeyers and Burbles, 2010, pg 193 - 194). They are learned through initiation and are enacted on a regular basis in a particular valued way with a clear place in a form of living amongst others. Part of the aim is that the initiated comes to internalise the practice, “what we want to focus on is people’s willingness to engage with such activities in a particular way, thus changing ‘mere’ activities into practices where standards of excellence do matter.” (Smeyers and Burbles, 2010 pg 196). Teaching by any other name, otherwise described as “the structuring provided by a community or practice, [which is] physically necessary because the very possibility of any learning at all is the presence of exemplars and models.” (Smeyers and Burbles, 2010, pg 186).

The novice proceeds to quite literally practice “a certain kind of know-how [that] is gained through repetition: watching and doing the same thing over and over again, under the watchful eye of a skilled practitioner. Over time, proper performance becomes habitual in ways that might be almost entirely tacit and inexpressible. It is no accident that such repetition is sometimes called ‘practice’.” (Burbles, 2010, pg 208) This is done in the hope that “an agent who at first applies certain rules in order to carry out a task but later on becomes so adept at his job that he no longer needs to invoke any rules.” (Sluga, 2011, 116) According to Vygostsky (1978) “learning starts when learners are first able to accomplish with others through participation in interaction what they cannot yet accomplish on their own. Such skills are said to be in the learner’s Zone of Proximal Development, and these are the skills that will soon become individual accomplishments … These skills, in this sense, retain a social element.” (as referenced by Gee, 2008, pg 93 - 94) This is also described as a process whereby, “newcomers pick up both overt and tacit knowledge through a process of guided and scaffolded participation in the community of practice, a process that has been compared to apprenticeship.” (Gee, 2008, pg 91 - 92)

Over time, it is anticipated that the instruction and further conditions allow for the novice to become both a practitioner and a contributor to the practice, which means that, “she can employ the concept in a variety of contexts,” (Fogelin, 2009, pg 37 - 38). Such experience in employing a practice and seeing the consequences of such employment are essential, since “rules are insufficient for establishing a practice, one also needs examples. Our rules leave loop-holes open, and the practice has to speak for itself.” (Peters, 2010b, pg. 117) 

Training is not successful until the learner can employ the practice sustainably in a range of contexts beyond anticipated cases or circumstances. The true tests of whether a practice has been adopted occurs when the learner is required to exercise independence, act in accordance with the practice in new circumstances, and find ways to reflect upon and contribute to the practice. In other words, “training is successful if it results in the initiated learner eventually becoming a skilled and autonomous practitioner and subsequently performing within, and thus adding to, the practice - perhaps even contributing to a further change in it.” (Smeyers and Burbles, 2010, pg 186). Through this journey, the learner “develop[s] an impressive variety of skills essential to studying in such a context: cognitive and metacognitive skills; the ability to access, retrieve, evaluate and select information; the ability to create, transpose and transfer knowledge, etc” (Smeyers and Burbles, 2010, pg 191). The rules, concepts and standards of the practice gain fuller coherence, so that “in rule-following, we join a consensus in action - a consensus grounded in the kind of training that we, as humans, can successfully undergo and the kind of training that we actually do undergo in the community in which we are reared.” (Fogelin, 2009, pg 28) To sum up, “through participation in common activities with already adept others, people internalize the workings of their culture, their language, and various symbols, artefacts, norms, values, and ways of acting and interacting. The furniture of the human mind first exists publicly in the world of social interaction and participation.” (Gee, 2008, pg. 89)

The previous paragraphs may present some interesting summarises; however, they serve to reinforce what we already know. That is, one is able to a adopt a practice given the right instruction, regular practice and opportunities to extend and perfect skills. What is not addressed is the primary issue of engagement and motivation, which is essential given that “acquisition requires interventions that address attitudes and beliefs as much as interventions that assure cognitive changes in the learner.” (Verhoeven and Snow, 2001, pg 2). Whether or not one is able to engage in a practice fully and operationally depends on what one might call the existing “background of a great deal of practical ability.” (Stern, 2004, pg 177). Consequently, the “background activities constituting the everyday lives we live … [or] what we just do, unselfconsciously and spontaneously … provides the creative grounds within which such [practices] can grow.” (Shotter, 1984, 1993, 1996). It is easier for a practice to be adopted when the practice shares an affinity with “the informal practices [people already] find themselves involved in.” (Smeyers and Burbles, 2010, pg 196 - 197). Consequently, “it is easier to be a ‘tacit teacher’ within an ongoing community of practice, where one is not the only influence drawing learners into reflective participation; conversely, it is harder to be a ‘tacit teacher’ when a cacophony of other influences distract and compete with one’s own influence.” (Burbles, 2010, pg 212). 

Therefore, the first steps “are attitudinal not cognitive. They have to do with our needs and the direction of our attention.” (Klagge, 2011, pg 28) Our next steps are emotive whereby “certain feelings, such as feelings of familiarity and confidence, may often be present when we understand something” or are prepared to understand something. (Klagge, 2011, pg 41). These notions of familiarity significantly illustrate how our engagement in a practice is linked to how successfully we can imagine what it means to be successful in the practice, even if this image changes as one navigates toward mastery. “We build our model simulations to help us make sense of things and prepare for action in the world. We can act in the model and test which consequences follow before we act in the real world.” (Gee, 2008, pg 85) And furthermore, a practice is only possible if one trusts something.” (Klagge, 2011, pg 66) Put together, the learner must be "a biologically and socially adept human being ... susceptible to training ... [with] fundamental trust [in] the authority of the teacher ... [engaged in] socio-linguistic interaction ... transmissible ... through enculturation" (Moyal-Sharrock, 2010, pg 6 - 7).

In an age of individualism and standardisation, there are some important implications that a culture must be aware of. If it is the case that the practitioners must come into the practice as a member of a community with its own history, then attention must be paid to (a) providing equity of access to the enabling opportunities required to grow into a practice and (b) respecting that any practice makes certain assumptions as to its value and how people should engage in the practice in the past, present and future tense. This does bring to mind the Australian novel Maestro by Peter Goldsworthy. In the novel, the adolescent protagonist is a talented pianist growing up in Adelaide and - subsequently - Darwin. His parents provide the optimal conditions and support that allow the young man to develop into a technically sound and accomplished young musician in Australia. It is only when he encounters a new teacher - a pianist from old Europe - that the young man comes to realise that there is something missing in his repertoire that will limit the possibility for his talent to be fully realised. He is missing culture. The Australian culture lacks the depth of connection to the music, and so the young protagonist because an adept pianist but not a profound one. At first, he rebels against this realisation, since all signs in Australia point to his technical and musical prowess. However, it is clear as the novel unfolds that the young man lacks access to the culture and the temperament behind the music to really understand the depth of its practice and the role that the music plays for those who are immersed in its history. He has the capacity to alter the musical practice, but that might require an initial act of submission.

We should not forget that there is a broader canvas to take into account when examining “Why We Do What We Do”, and this broader canvas will be explore in Part Three of this discussion.



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