Living with Rules

Wittgensteinian Reflections on Normativity

by Ondřej Beran (Author)
©2018 Monographs 232 Pages


The book proposes to see the talk about rules-following as a way of giving an account of particular people’s characters and their lives. This focus on understanding others as variously coping with the claims of particular rules attempts to specify the variety of "attitudes towards a soul" as discussed in the Wittgensteinian tradition. The book derives from the philosophical tradition that considers human beings as rule-following creatures. It suggests that rules followed by other people allow for understanding and sympathising with them. Coping with rules is explored as a complicated lived practice, with respect to: particularised rules holding in relation to a context or to individual people, the variety of our responses to rules we are subject to, or our failure in coping with them.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • 1. Introduction: The World of Rules
  • 2. Rules and the Particularity of Agents
  • 2.1 The Sellarsian-Brandomian Framework
  • 2.2 Some Criticisms and Alternatives
  • 2.3 The “Thrownness” of Normativity
  • 2.4 Normative Expectations Blending with “Biology”
  • 2.5 A Messy Complexity: Gendered Languages and Rape Trials
  • 2.6 Another Messy Complexity: Body-Bias and Embodied Skills
  • In conclusion
  • 3. The Orientation Turn
  • 3.1 Attitudes Recognising Souls
  • 3.2 Miss Marple: the Art of Moral Detection
  • 3.3 Situation is Included
  • 3.4 Examples in the Wittgensteinian Ethics
  • 3.5 Appreciating a Rule
  • In Conclusion
  • 4. Rules and Persons in Morally-Loaded Situations
  • 4.1 The Collision of Rules and Their Specification
  • 4.2 Considerate Acts and Lives
  • 4.3 The Rules of “Being Nice” and Their Point
  • 4.4 The “Engineer Solutions” to the Trolley Problem
  • 4.5 Treating a Dilemma
  • 4.6 Rules Personalised and Involving Those Who Matter
  • 4.7 The Personal Source of the Normative
  • In Conclusion
  • 5. Excursus: Addiction, a Normative Disorder
  • 5.1 The Many Theories of Addiction
  • 5.2 The Equivocation of Addiction
  • 5.3 The Equivocation of Weak Will and Akrasia
  • 5.4 The Way of Life and Ways Out of It
  • 5.5 Addiction and Flourishing
  • 5.6 Addiction and Normativity
  • In conclusion
  • 6. Beyond Perspective, Towards a Story
  • 6.1 Individuals and “Human Types”
  • 6.2 Problems with Perspective
  • 6.3 Reasons and Stories
  • 6.4 What Stories Talk about
  • 6.5 Responding to Persons
  • 6.6 Impersonality of Rules and Conveying What Matters
  • In Conclusion
  • 7. Conclusion: The Difficult Blessing of Being a Normative Creature
  • References

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This work was supported by the grant No. 13-20785S of the Czech Science Foundation, “The Nature of Normativity”.

I owe thanks to many people whose contribution has helped the book on its way. At the first place, it is David Cockburn, Jaroslav Peregrin and Vladimír Svoboda who read the whole manuscript or its considerable portions, giving me an extensive and in-depth feedback. Several of my friends and colleagues have affected the final “product” in a more subtle way, through their work and/or the various philosophical interactions that we had and that were, more often than not, not directly related to this book. I would like to name here at least my grant fellows Vojtěch Kolman and Ladislav Koreň from whom I can still learn a lot about rules, Kamila Pacovská whose insight into problems of ethics and theory of action reaches far deeper than mine and who helped me see the way of my argument more than once, and Jan Trnka who has influenced my thinking about addiction. I have also had the opportunity to discuss the “publication strategies” with Michael Campbell, Jakub Mácha and Tony Milligan (or to think aloud in their patient presence) and thanks to these conversations, I came to see more clearly what to do with the book project. Last but not least, I would like to thank Greg Evans who proofread the manuscript for language and often added kind words of support and intriguing comments on various places of the text. ← 7 | 8 →

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1.  Introduction: The World of Rules

Abstract: The introduction summarises the structure of the book, the leading normativistic intuitions about human beings as “normative creatures” and the common points of reservation towards them: the particularity of rules, the heterogeneity of human motivation and the foundational status of human lives and characters, rather than actions.

Much has been said and written, both recently and in older scholarship, about the rule-governed nature of human existence and, of course, of human societies. These analyses ramify in great width and depth and offer interesting crossovers with other disciplines, such as game theory, evolutionary psychology, primatology, economy and cognitive science.

The departure point of this book springs from this discourse of rules and normative structures (ought) in human lives. Its ambition is slightly narrower: ultimately, to consider what it means to understand our lives from the viewpoint that there are right and wrong (good and bad) things to do in them, what this viewpoint looks like and what forms this presence of right and wrong things to do can take.

The scope of the book is, first and foremost, philosophical; though the contributions from outside fields are interesting and their value must not be denied or ignored, the job of philosophy is not to replace them (nor, I believe, should it be the other way round). Philosophical exposition inevitably stems from reflection on some of the most “trivial” and common intuitions and observations and its focus is to elucidate what these mean to the people in whose lives they have a place. It must make certain that it doesn’t end up in a misplaced attempt at the “discovery” of (previously unknown) facts, while at the same time either lacking empirical data or, even, ignoring the fact that the same work has already been done properly by science.

The most complex philosophical contribution to the normativistic discourse of today is that of Robert Brandom, who has reached back to thinkers such as Kant, Hegel, Wittgenstein, or Sellars. I will try to argue that there are some good reasons for adopting a cautious attitude toward his approach and keeping a certain distance from it. Although I do not want to treat it as being misplaced as such (I don’t think it would be fair to call it simply misplaced), I would like to show that the picture it offers does not always reach sufficiently far or deep enough to adequately explain our complicated life practices. ← 9 | 10 →

A part of my reservation about this approach is founded upon a certain discrepancy I sometimes sense within the philosophical accounts of rules. It is possible to start by asking the question “what is a rule?”, continue by offering a simple, rather abstract definition of a rule, and then develop it by arguing that human reality is rule-governed through and through and that all (imaginable) rules pervading it share this-and-this form. I believe, however, that to do justice to the assumption that human reality is rule-governed means, at least partly, to attempt a certain phenomenology. By “phenomenology” I mean an attempt to explore what life within the “space of rules” looks like “from inside”, as it were – what various consequences the reality of the normative has, or can have, for its inhabitants. And it is vital to take into account that life within such a space consists, in the first place, of encounters and interactions with other people.

The normativistic intuitions outlined below, which I will discuss more broadly in the opening sections of the following chapter, come most importantly from the analytical tradition. I will, however, pursue them with an aim that is, in the above sense, phenomenological: to say something about the various roles that rules play in human lives and about what their existence means or can mean to us. My objective is thus perhaps closer to that of Wittgenstein’s philosophy or some strands of the Wittgensteinian tradition than it is to the philosophy of the normative as represented by Sellars or Brandom.

Some of these leading normativistic intuitions are:

i) Rules are entities providing a standard in relation to which a meaningful distinction between right and wrong (correct and incorrect) courses of action is determined: a (rather) stable, repeated or long-term, as opposed to one-shot orders. Either rules exist as kinds of “facts” – actual (typically implicit) expectations, pressures, sanctions, etc., enforcing certain behaviours or actions and prohibiting others – or they can have the linguistic shape of propositions expressing certain oughts. These are often two parallel forms of what is, in a sense, the same rule but not always – implicit normative arrangements can be observed even without there being a corresponding, explicit linguistic rule. And there are also often explicit propositions expressing a (quite meaningful and intelligible) rule that is not, as a matter of fact, followed – or its authority acknowledged – by any single person.

ii) Every human being is capable of understanding and following a rule. “Understanding” is a somewhat elusive and ambiguous term and I will let it remain so. We can imagine understanding as whatever enables one to respond to a rule (both rules-facts and rules-propositions) in a way showing that she knows what the rule means. Without understanding in this sense, not only ← 10 | 11 → can’t the rule be followed, it could not be explained, criticised, commented on, wilfully (meaningfully) ignored, manipulated to one’s profit, etc. A credible justification why one is not capable of actually following a rule (because, for example, it is too demanding) is also a form of expressing its proper understanding.

iii) Rules are reflected upon by human reason – a capacity that has established itself along with the human kind of rules (more complex than the primitive rules we can observe in some non-human animals). Rationality is a unique marker rendering humans as beings whose niche is exclusively the space of reasons. It is, rather than a result of a thorough and intensive empirical study, an assumption expressed by our spontaneous responses to those we recognise as “people” as to those with whom it makes sense to “reason” (this observation is perhaps Wittgensteinian rather than Brandomian). Of course, there are people whose capacity to move within the space of reason is crudely limited. But the meaning of the term “people” involves the assumption that all people are rational beings and have the right to participate in rights and responsibilities articulated within the space of reasons (e.g., legal rights and obligations). These are unique to people and not shared by animals, for instance, even though in some contexts it makes good sense to also speak of (some) animals as rational creatures.

Rules, as far as they are facts, are normative because they act as norms determining what is right to do, under given circumstances, and what is not; and we are subject to these norms. The dynamics of the actual interplay between the defining situation (what counts as “politeness” towards “strangers”), the appropriate rule and the subject agent (what it means that I am subject to the rule, under what circumstances, to what extent, etc.) are, however, quite complicated.

These intuitions, if carefully phrased, may almost seem to be platitudes (even though quite a few philosophers would dispute this), and I do not aim at bluntly denying them. They doubtless capture something important and they will lay out for us an initial framework within which we will remain, more or less. What I will offer in the following book is an exploration of a particular viewpoint – one that I think is not widely discussed – from which the important truth they express might be acknowledged and read. I will also suggest that this viewpoint provides a foundation for making sense of some of the contexts or examples in which the normativistic accounts seem to face certain problems (to manifest their limitations) or become difficult to reconcile.

In Chapter 2, I quickly summarise the philosophical context of these intuitions. I introduce some core ideas of Sellars and Brandom and their broader ← 11 | 12 → background, as well as the alternatives offered by the contemporary Neo-Kantians or pragmatists like Kukla and Lance. The importance of agent-relativity and agency stressed by the latter – to the effect that it cannot be explained away – opens space for considerations of the particularity of rules. The chapter further explores the situated nature of rules – how local facts of geography, culture or politics not just influence that rules are followed or violated, but that for particular rules this distinction holds in some places while elsewhere it is pointless. It also discusses more complex factors affecting the local and particularised range of rules – mostly social roles and practices connected to gender and other body related-phenomena. Chapter 2 thus descends, as it were, from general intuitions about normativity down to highly particularised and context-, most importantly agent-, specific rules, difficult to make explicit perspicuously.

Chapter 3 introduces examples from mystery fiction (primarily that of Agatha Christie) and suggests that a survey of local normative practices may be equally (or even more so, and firstly) guided by an insight into the personalities and character of the agents, and conversely can serve as a tool for their illumination. In this context, particularised rules no longer seem derived from, and secondary with respect to, more specific rules: they represent, just as they are, a primitive and natural form of our orientation in the situations and persons with which we are confronted. We view them in terms of rules. The chapter thus marks a certain turn, from attempts at a still more detailed specification of rules to rethinking the nature and meaning of such an endeavour, which allows for a return to more general rules being used in a specified way.

This is discussed more thoroughly in Chapter 4, mainly in the context of moral rules. It shows that to account appropriately for the normative dimension of human lives, we may need to “zoom” in on rules holding for particular persons, with their authority backed up by particular persons as well. It may, though not always, mean their explicit form involving statements of the particulars of the situation or the respective persons. I will suggest, however, that rules often play the role of a tool for reflection upon particular agents’ lives and the spirit in which they act. They orient us in who the people are that one has to do with. In order to explain both the range of a rule and its perceived authority, the perspective of the agents subject to it should be taken into account (as suggested already in the end of chapter 3).


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2018 (October)
Rules Understanding Persons Failure Particularity Story
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2018. 232 pp.

Biographical notes

Ondřej Beran (Author)

Ondřej Beran is a researcher, currently based at the Czech Academy of Sciences and the Centre for Ethics, University of Pardubice. His publications and areas of research interest include the philosophy of language, ethics, the philosophy of religion and feminist philosophy.


Title: Living with Rules