Why We Do What We Do? Part Four

In Part Three of “Why We Do What We Do?”, I attempted to provide the contextual conditions which sustain a practice. In other words, I discussed the material and social factors that foster, maintain and extend ways of acting and knowing. At the end of that entry, I indicate that access to practices and the freedom to practice are not equally distributed. 

“The problem requires specification of the sociological processes which control the way the developing child relates himself to his environment. It requires an understanding of how certain areas of experience are differentiated, made specific and stabilized, so that which is relevant to the functioning of the social structure becomes relevant for the child … What seems to be needed is the development of a theory of social learning which would indicate what in the environment is available for learning, the conditions of learning, the constraints on subsequent learning, and the major reinforcing process.” (Bernstein, 1964, pg. 55)

It is on this note that we launch into Part Four of the series.

It is important that any activity system is open to challenge, “it is, I would argue, an important part of the health at least of large, modern societies, that they have within them members who are not truly at home there, who see with the eyes of the ‘outsider within,’ and that such members are in positions to be listened to and to be intelligible.” (Scheman, 1997, pg. 403 - 404) We must remember that, “only if you adopt Western physics will you be able to fly to the moon. But an Indian may ask what sense it makes to do that, and the discussion of the senses and values is connected to many other issues of a world-picture. The claim that x is better than y in respect of z obviously rests on certain assumptions or convictions - not to say: certainties - concerning the importance of z and is therefore anchored in or dependent on a form of life and its world-picture.” (Kober, 1996, pg. 432) The aggregate of a community’s respected practices come to give shape to the form of life and ideology of its members, and it is optimal when the network of practices is justified within a context in which they are sustainable. The exact nature of respected practices are culturally, historically and contextually conditioned.

Challenges arise when incompatible systems of practices are meant to co-exist, particularly when one system is in a position of political dominance with the power to exert influence over the practices of the Other. 

"It is of paramount importance to recognize that in actual linguistic communities there is no equal access to linguistic resources. There are differences in upbringing, in schooling, in access to higher learning, and more generally in the social environment in which one leads one’s life. And these differences result in the mastery of different vocabularies and rhetorical devices; in different pronunciations, dictions, and writing styles; and in different discursive competences. It is important to note that language is not used in an abstract space of logical relations but in a social space that is structured by power relations.” (Medina, 2008, pg 99)

What occurs when an individual and/or a community does not have the freedom to practice in the manner that it chooses? What occurs when the practices one has chosen to adopt are no longer sustainable due one of many possible changes in circumstances? What occurs when a set of practices is imposed upon a community by a more dominant community?

This presents quite a real dilemma, since to accept a language - a discourse, in this case - and a set of practices is to accept a form of life, as alluded to by Wittgenstein in Part II, Section xi of the Philosophical Investigations. In other words, there is nothing neutral about “just participating in a practice” or “learning to read, write and talk in a discipline”. To become a participant in the practice and the discourse involves an engagement in a whole raft of behaviours, rules, perspectives, and more. To see a language only as sounds, lexicon and syntax is to engage superficially with a cultural artefact that exerts a more powerful force on the speakers of the language and its associated practices. Furthermore, we must acknowledge that entering or adopting a new culture “is not simply a matter of learning the language and customs, but rather it is about finding the self in the Other, of being lost in relation to the self in a way that creates a rupture with familiar things, that shore up ontological security and identity understood as a form of self-knowledge.” (Peters, 2010a, pg 30). Consequently, we must “take the idea of thinking as both a journey and as ‘education’ seriously. The forced or self-imposed journey requires continual readjustment under new and changing cultural traditions without the security or familiarity of ‘home’ and thus, without the normal structures that anchor and prop up identity. (Peters, 2010a, pg 18)

There is a certain critical awareness that does not occur until one challenges the accepted practices of a - let’s say - the dominant community whilst coming to engage in the practices of the Other deeply and respectfully. To consider the challenges of entering foreign practices is to enter what can be referred to as “exilic thought”. “Exilic thought is the thought and ‘education’ of the exile, the wanderer, the stranger. It is a kind of uprooted thought developed away from ‘home’ under conditions of displacement and uncertainty, often in a different mother tongue, language tradition, and culture.” (Peters, 2010a, pg 17) Closely linked to exilic thought is “nomadic thought”. “‘Nomadic [thought]’ is born of the traveler’s education, the exchange of ideas, and acquaintance with new landscapes of thought, born of encounters with the Other, with different cultures often producing new hybridities that are not simply the result of grafted cultural stock.” (Peters, 2010a, pg 18). The most apparent difference between exilic and nomadic thought is the matter of choice. Whilst the exile is forced to enter into the practices of another culture (and to be considered as the Other in that culture), the nomad chooses to expose him or herself to diversity and to find the self within that exploration. In both cases, there is a focus “on the configuration and dynamic of self and other, of encounters with the other, and of oneself as another.” (Peters, 2010a, pg 29) This does require that one escape from the comfort of “home” truths and enter a deep exchange to that which is essential to the practice of existence. In so doing, there is the further risk of alienating those who have not experienced the hybrid journey, since it is the very malleability of practices that come to challenge the security, certainty or coherence of a set of more homogenised practices. 

Perhaps overly optimistically, Hans Sluga does concede that there is the possibility of commonality within pluralism, “Our needs, interests, and ways of seeing are moreover, all grounded in our human form of life and that form of life does not vary easily from one moment to another … [However, Wittgenstein] suggests that there are certain common features of human life on which mythology builds and which we can still identify ... What unites us are certain fundamental givens of the human form of life.” (Sluga, 2011, pg 82 - 83) It is when we can find the common humanity within the diversity of our practices that mutual respects can accommodate the rich pluralism that diversity can offer.


Bernstein, B. (1964), Elaborated and Restricted Codes: Their Social Origins and Some Consequences. American Anthropologist, 66: 55–69. doi: 10.1525/aa.1964.66.suppl_3.02a00030

Kober, M. (1996). Certainties of a world-picture: the epistemological investigations of On Certainty In H. Sluga, H. and D. Stern (Eds.), The Cambridge companion to Wittgenstein. (pp. 411 - 441) Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Medina, J. (2008). Whose Meanings? Resignifying Voices and Their Social Locations. In The Journal of Speculative Philosophy, New Series, Volume 22, Number 2, pp. 92-105.

Peters, M. (2010a). Wittgenstein as exile: a philosophical topography. In M. Peters, N. Burbles, and P. Smeyers (Eds), Showing and doing: Wittgenstein as a pedagogical philosopher. (pp. 15 - 34). London: Paradigm Publishers.

Scheman, N. (1996). Forms of life: mapping the rough ground. In H. Sluga and D. Stern (Eds.) (1996). The Cambridge companion to Wittgenstein. Cambridge: (pp. 383 - 410) Cambridge University Press.

Sluga, H. (2011). Wittgenstein. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.