Attributes  I  Foundations  I  Role of Rules  I  References  I  Comments


Attributes of adopting a practice

“In our view, the crucial concept in Wittgenstein’s later work is practice. He says that it ‘it is not certain propositions striking us immediately as true, i.e. it is not a kind of seeing on our part; it is our acting, which lies at the bottom of the language game’ (#204). The concept of practice is given shape in this notion of language-games: the interwovenness of utterances and actions and how language finds a home within a ‘form of life.’” (Burbles and Smeyers, 2010, pg 170-171)

“One can distinguish activities, games, practices and rituals ... As different way to think ‘practice’ might consist emphasising (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)

“At the very least, practices in those terms alone fail to do them justice. At the very least, a practice is something people do, not just once, but on a regular basis. But it is more than just a disposition to behave in a certain way; the identity of a practice depends on not only on what people do, but also on the significance of those actions and the surroundings in which they occur. This is only to begin to answer the question how we are to understand ‘what people do’ when they are engaged in a practice or just what a practice amounts to. ... [Related terms] include: activity, praxis, performance, use, language-game, customs, habit, skill, know-how, equipment, habitus, tacit knowledge, presupposition, rule, norm, institution, paradigm, framework, traditional, conceptual scheme, world-view, background, and world picture.” -- (Stern, 2004, pg 166) 

“The conditions that make a practice, any practice, possible, are not arbitrary ... (for example, 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)

“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)

“A necessary support both logically and physically for the novice’s action is the structuring provided by a community or practice. It is logically necessary because it provides a system of background beliefs, actions and competencies; this complex patterns is necessary for the token utterance or action to have significance. It 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)

“Another dimension of the relation that a practice encourages or discourages through different ways of learning or enacting it is how it is intertwined with our self and sense of identity, on the one hand, and our relations and ways of interacting with other people, on the other hand.” -- (Smeyers and Burbles, 2010, pg 196)

“Such performative abilities are typically learned through observation and emulation, trial and error, making and learning from mistakes, not through explicit instruction or explanation. Novices must watch and participate in activities with experts, as gradually over time they begin to “get it” until they reach a point where, again, they can “go on” on their own.” -- (Burbles and Smeyers, 2010 pg 173)

Part of learning a practice involves practicing. But here, too, the matter is complex. Although sometimes it is clear what belongs to a practice, in other cases it is not. For instance in learning to play the piano one might have to practice certain boring and repetitive drills that are in no way ‘musical,’ but that are essential to learning how to produce musical sounds. Practicing needs to be handled carefully, because too much of these technical exercises might endanger seriously one’s enjoyment of the practice and kill off one’s motivation for playing.” -- (Smeyers and Burbles, 2010, pg 194 - 195)

“[First], a certain kind of know-how 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’. [Second], one sometimes tries to demonstrate the correct way of doing something by at least being able to point out when it is being done incorrectly. Over time this can result in a kind of indirect approximation, approaching what is something is by eliminating what it is not. [Third], and similarly, sometimes teaching through questions can lead thought toward important inferences and connections, without saying explicitly what they are -- this kind of teaching can provide a kind of scaffolding that guide the learner to formulate their own version of understanding, against their background knowledge, experiences and point of view.” -- (Burbles, 2010, pg 208)

This still leaves us with the case of 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. Is that agent now following those rules "unconsciously", or should we say, as is perhaps more plausible, that his action has become so "habitual" or even "mechanical" that he no longer follows a rule but has learned to merely act in a manner that accords with the rule? (Sluga, 2011, 116)

“She can employ the concept in a variety of contexts. In her teaching, she is trying to imbue her student with these same skills and abilities. She is not holding anything back. She is not in possession of a secret key that she is trying to pass on to her student that, when successfully transmitted, will successfully complete the training.” -- (Fogelin, 2009, pg 37 - 38)

“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)

“Students, thrown back one more autonomous learning, develop 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; and , in many online programs, social skills such as team-building and collaborative learning.” -- (Smeyers and Burbles, 2010, pg 191)

PI 208: Then, am I defining “order” and “rule” by means of “regularity”? -- How do I explain the meaning of “regular”, “uniform”, “same” to anyone? -- I shall explain these words to someone who, say, only speaks French by means of the corresponding French words. But if a person has not yet got the concepts, I shall teach him to use the words 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 the same colours, the same lengths, the same shapes, I shall make him find them and produce them, and so on. I shall, for instance, 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.

The expressions “and so on”, “and so on ad infinitum” are also explained in this teaching. A gesture, among other things, might serve this purpose. The gesture that means “go on like this”, or “and so on” has a function to that of pointing to an object or a place.

Foundations (or conditions) of engaging in a practice  (back to top)

“More generally, one of the main themes of the Philosophical Investigations as a whole is that explicit linguistic acts such as giving an ostensive definition, providing a verbal explanation of a word’s meaning, or interpreting a rule take place on the background of a great deal of practical ability, and that their significance depends both on the particular circumstances in which they take place, and the broader context provided by the ‘weave of life’ (PI II.i, 174/148).” (Stern, 2004, pg 177)

What Wittgenstein brings to our attention, is the nature and extent of the usually unnoticed, background activities constituting the everyday lives we live, as non-intellectualizing, non- deliberating, embodied beings, spontaneously reacting and responding to those around us. For, developmentally, prior to establishing any institutionalized forms of life, with their associated orderly language games, what we just do, unselfconsciously and spontaneously, provides the creative grounds within which such forms can grow. (Shotter, 1984, 1993, 1996)

“Wittgenstein’s interest lies in what precedes meaning, that is, a practice that makes sense for us.” (Smeyers and Peters, 2010, pg 49)

How we 'go out to meet' the activities of those around us, so to speak, with a certain structure of already embodied anticipatory feelings as to how they will respond to us. (Shotter, 1996, pg 2)

“Wittgenstein is reminding himself and us that the fundamental consideration in understanding human being is not linguistic but behavioral. Thus, we cannot afford to ignore the possibilities of living interaction.” (Klagge, 2011, pg 64) 

“The most important point is that the diagnosis and treatment that Wittgenstein finds are attitudinal not cognitive. They have to do with our needs and the direction of our attention.” (Klagge, 2011, pg 28)

“Certain feelings, such as feelings of familiarity and confidence, may often be present when we understand something ... Rather, understanding is more like an ability.” (Klagge, 2011, pg 41)

“Understanding certain human practices may turn out to be equally unattainable, if we are unable to detect any regularities (PI 207; Z, 390; RFM, VI-45; LWII, p. 72) Hence, even the observable actions of one particular person may never become transparent to use (PI, p. 223).” (Kober, 1996, pg 432)

“Wittgenstein writes (April 11, 1951; OC, Section, 509): ‘I really want to say that a language-game is only possible if one trusts something (I did not say “can trust something”).’ And I will that a common language game is possible only where people trust something in common. Trust is developed not so much by discussion but by life in common.” (Klagge, 2011, pg 66) 

The role of rules, rule-following, conventions, customs, experience and routines (back to top)

PI 199: Is what we call “obeying a rule” something that it would be possible for only one man to do, and to do only once in his life? -- This is of course a note on the grammar of the expression “to obey a rule”.

It is not possible that there should have been only one occasion on which only one person obeyed a rule. It is not possible that there should have been only one occasion on which a report was made, an order given or understood; and so on. -- To obey a rule, to make a report, to give an order, to play a game of chess, are customs (uses, institutions). 

Rules play an indispensable part in our lives. We know them as laws, regulations, and technical instructions, as prudential and moral principles, as the rules of games, fashion and ettiquette, and also, of course, as logical, mathematical, and grammatical rules. For all that, a history and philosophy of rules - how we devise and use them, how they gets taught and justified, what place they occupy in our practices, of how they have come to be so pervasive,of their status as divine commandments, principles of rationality, as built into the nature of things or as mere conventions - is still to be written. (Peters, 2010b, pg. 112)

Just as important is that many of our social undertakings (whether financial, economic, cultural, or political) would not be possible without our possession and use of rules. The law, systems of regulation (such as those that regulate traffic and those that tell us how to assemble things) and all kinds of institutions, from religious to political, exemplify this point. Rules help us to standardise our actions, that is, to make them more uniform and hence more calculable, more predictable, and thus more transparent to others. They help us, in this way, and also coordinate our actions more effectively and to engage in large-scale and long-term undertakings. (Peters, 2010b, pg. 119)

"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)

“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. The consensus is grounded, as Wittgenstein puts it, in facts concerning our natural history.” -- (Fogelin, 2009, pg 28)

Z 318: I cannot describe how (in general) to employ rules, except by teaching you, training you to employ rules.

“It should be noted here that not only do we take over certain ways of judging the world, as we experience it, from earlier generations, but that, in this context, judging is also a way of acting ... This is why the practical aspect of rule-following cannot be taught on the basis of rules alone; it has to be picked up by examples and training.” -- (Smeyers and Burbles, 2010, pg 186)

“Rule-following presupposes standards, and standards presuppose a community of rule-followers.” -- (Stern, 2004, pg 159)

“There is no reason to assume that our processes of thought and action will work in the same way in all these situations, in ethics as in other complex practices. Sometimes the situation is highly familiar and our responses are well rehearsed; sometimes it is a novel situation, but one in which we have an established repertoire of ways of coping with it; sometimes it is a highly problematic, confusing, or difficult situation, in which our ordinary repertoire either does not seem to apply, or does not work in the way we expect; and sometimes we are consciously in a situation in which we are thinking not only of our own processes of deliberation and action, but also of enacting these in such a way that others might learn from us.” -- (Burbles and Smeyers, 2010, pg 174 - 175)

“Though we follow rules, they cannot be fully made explicit; it is always necessary to take into account all the elements of the new situation one finds oneself in, which implies, among other things, communication, dialogue, and, above all, commitment. One can only be “certain” of the frame of reference itself; this is part of the life we have inherited, not the result of systematic (rational) teaching.” -- (Burbles and Smeyers, 2010, pg 171)

References  (back to top)

  • Burbles, N. (2010). Tacit Teaching. In M. Peters, N. Burbles, and P. Smeyers (Eds), Showing and doing: Wittgenstein as a pedagogical philosopher. (pp. 199 - 214). London: Paradigm Publishers.
  • Burbles, N. and Smeyers, P. (2010). The practice of ethics and moral education. In M. Peters, N. Burbles, and P. Smeyers (Eds), Showing and doing: Wittgenstein as a pedagogical philosopher. (pp. 169 - 182). London: Paradigm Publishers.
  • Fogelin, R. (2009). Taking Wittgenstein at his word: a textual study. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
  • Klagge, J. (2011). Wittgenstein in exile. Cambridge: MIT Press.
  • 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.
  • Peters, M. (2010b). Philosophy, therapy and unlearning. In M. Peters, N. Burbles, and P. Smeyers (Eds), Showing and doing: Wittgenstein as a pedagogical philosopher. (pp. 101 - 130). London: Paradigm Publishers. 
  • Shotter, J. (1984). Social accountability and selfhood. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.
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  • Sluga, H. (2011). Wittgenstein. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.
  • Smeyers, P. and Burbles, N. (2010). Education as initiation into practices. In M. Peters, N. Burbles, and P. Smeyers (Eds), Showing and doing: Wittgenstein as a pedagogical philosopher. (pp. 183 - 198). London: Paradigm Publishers. 
  • Smeyers, P. and Peters, M. (2010). ‘Perspicuous representation,’ genealogy and interpretation. In M. Peters, N. Burbles, and P. Smeyers (Eds), Showing and doing: Wittgenstein as a pedagogical philosopher. (pp. 35 - 64). London: Paradigm Publishers.
  • Stern, D. (2004). Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations: an introduction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
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