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Essays on Values and Practical Rationality

Ethical and Aesthetical Dimensions


Edited By António Marques and João Sàágua

The essays presented here are the outcome of research carried out by members of IFILNOVA (Institute for Philosophy of New University of Lisbon) in 2016.

The IFILNOVA Permanent Seminar seeks to show how values are relevant to humans (both socially and individually). This seminar is the ‘place’ where different research will converge towards a unified viewpoint. This includes the discussion of the following questions: What is the philosophical contribution to current affairs and decisions that depend crucially on values? Can philosophy make a difference, namely by bringing practical reason to bear on these affairs and decision? And how to do it? Which are our scientific ‘allies’ in this enterprise; psychology, communication sciences, even sociology and history?

This volume shows the connection between practical rationality and values and covers the dimensions ethics, aesthetics and politics.

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Rules and personal changing (Regina Queiroz)

← 82 | 83 →

Rules and personal changing



Even if Cavell (1990) admits the socio-political nature of rules, those who suffer political and social injustices see themselves as excluded and not represented by the rules of society. Consequently, since the existing rules neither represent them nor allow them to expose the political injustices, thus satisfying their claim to justice, people are voiceless and unable to show how certain institutions are unfair. A persons’ recovery of their voice depends on a personal changing, understood as a miracle. Prior to a subjective judgment without rules, formulated in a conversation of justice (Cavell 1990), this personal changing seems to correspond to the private approach to rules depicted by Wittgenstein in Philosophical Investigations (1953).

Although we acknowledge the contribution of Cavell’s exegesis of Wittgenstein to expose the existential issues underlying Wittgenstein’s philosophy (Cavell 1969, 1979, 1990; see Mulhall 1994, 2007) in addition to his original interpretation of Wittgenstein’s private language argument (Cavell 1969, 1979, 1990; see Mulhall 1994, 2007), we argue that any personal changing requires the mediation of political rules, following criteria, even though these rules are in the end abnormal rules. We recognize the research on Wittgenstein and Cavell (Bernstein 1981; Conant, 2005; Eldridge 2003; Fleming & Payne 1989; Hammer 2002; McGinn 2004; Mulhall 1994). However, neglecting neither that research on Wittgenstein and Cavell nor Cavell’s original interpretation of Wittgenstein’s private experience, the relationship between the private language arguments and the miraculous personal changing has not received enough attention. ← 83 | 84 →

We are also aware of the widespread disagreement on Wittgenstein’s private language arguments (e.g. Baker and Hacker 1985; Canfield 1986; Cavell 1979; Hacker 1990; Kenny 1984; Malcolm 1977; 1989; Mulhall 2007; Nielsen 2008) and on rule-following (Cavell 1990; Cook 1965; Fogelin 1976; Kripke 1982; McDowell 1984). Nevertheless, our main aim is not to provide a personal judgment on those challenging and proficient interpretations of Wittgenstein’s philosophy of language. Our main aim is to use Wittgenstein’s main intuitions and concepts embedded in his later philosophy of language for the understanding of some political life issues, namely the understanding of individual and political changing. Thus, in spite of the controversy about the explicit political content of Wittgenstein’s philosophy of language (Pitkin 1972), and also acknowledging that some authors have already given that contribution (Bloor 1997; Cavell 1979, 1990; Holt 1997; Pitkin 1972; Taylor 1992; Temelini 2015; Tully 1989), we aim to show that personal changing requires the mediation of political rules, following criteria, even though these rules are in the end abnormal rules.

From these premises, in the first section we will present Cavell’s description of the miracle of changing, explaining its emergence from Cavell’s existential exegesis of Wittgenstein’s private language arguments.

In the second section we present some of Wittgenstein’s arguments against the private language argument as well as Cavell’s perspective on the private experiences issue, and we argue that no personal changing can dispense with political criteria and rules. We also distinguish normal from abnormal rules. We conclude that no one changes without explicit or implicit rules framed by criteria.

Following Cavell’s use of Ibsen’s play, A Doll’s House (1879 [1981]), we also illustrate our arguments by using the same play.

1.  The Miracle of Changing

Even if Cavell (1990) admits the socio-political nature of rules, those who suffer political and social injustices see themselves as excluded and not represented by the rules of society. Consequently, since the existing rules ← 84 | 85 → neither represent them nor allow them to expose the political injustices, thus satisfying their claim to justice, people are voiceless and unable to show how certain institutions are unfair. Recovering their voice on justice depends on a subjective judgment without rules, formulated in a conversation of justice (Cavell 1990).

In spite of the linguistic nature of that judgment, Cavell argues that ‘unless something is shown’ (Cavell 1990: 117) the conversation of justice ‘cannot go on – there is nothing to say’ (Cavell 1990: 117). Since victims face an unquantifiable personal misery and social and political injustice – ‘right is not assertible’ (Cavell 1990: 12) – the recovery of any political right depends on an inner changing process, understood as the ‘miracle of changing’ (Cavell 1990: 111). In the context of reflection on the drama of consent, the analysis of which is beyond the scope of our article, Cavell makes use of Ibsen’s character in his 1879 masterpiece A Doll’s House (1879 [1981]) to illustrate this miracle.

Described as resentful, outraged, dishonoured, and a woman shamed by her husband, Torvald, Nora has truly lost her way and is unable to show how unfair the institution of marriage is that treats ‘a grown woman, a wife and mother, as a child’ (Cavell 1990: 114). Indeed, in the play, Nora Helmer once secretly borrowed a large sum of money so that her husband could recuperate from a serious illness. She never told him of this loan and has been secretly paying it back in small instalments by saving from her household allowance. The man from whom Nora borrowed the money, Nils Krogstad, threatens to reveal Nora’s crime, and when Torvald discovers that Nora has forged her father’s name, he is ready to disavow his wife even though she had done it for him. He declares that Nora is immoral, unfit to be a wife and mother, and says he will continue to be married to her in name alone. When Nils says that he no longer wants to blackmail the Helmer family, Torvald rejoices, declaring that they are saved. He then says that he forgives Nora and that he still loves her as his little ‘caged song bird.’ This is a startling wake-up call for Nora Helmer. In a flash, she realizes that Torvald is not the loving, selfless husband she had once envisaged. She also comes to understand that their marriage has been a lie, and that she herself has been an active part in the deception. She then decides to leave her husband and her children in order to find out who she truly is. ← 85 | 86 →

Although Cavell’s evaluation of Nora’s decision as a claim for political justice is not consensual – Nora’s rejection of sacrifice and oppression and her subsequent leaving of her husband and three children has been seen as the expression of an unprincipled, abnormal, neurotic, irresponsible, egoistic, deceitful, manipulative and immoral woman (Templeton 1989, 1997) – her internal changing is exhibited by external and nonverbal signs. For example, contrary to her daily routine, instead of going to bed and taking off her fancy clothes, Nora reappears wearing her outdoor clothes, signalling that she is free and released from deception (e.g. being imprisoned by unfair social and political rules and seeing herself as an accomplished person).

In fact, since Nora’s nineteenth-century political context required women to sacrifice personal liberty and accept paternalistic treatment (Langås 2005; Templeton 1989; Yuehua 2009), the claim for a woman’s personal liberty could be neither heard nor justified under political and social rules. Also, in the face of the main sacrificial and paternalistic rules of Nora’s society, her final decision could not avoid being seen as anything but unreasonable, if not irrational, for whoever would benefit from unfair rules. Additionally, seen as a priori orders (Cavell 1979, 1990), the consequences of which are ‘confined and scored’ (Cavell 1990: 115), rules prevent understanding the quest for the personal recovery of voice.

Thus, the existence of someone completely excluded from the (outside) current (social and political) rules (Cavell 1990) along with an underestimation of the rules does not allow an understanding of the social contribution to personal changing.

In her turn, as a resentful, outraged, dishonoured and shamed woman, Nora has lost her way and cannot achieve an autonomous change. Corresponding to Cavell’s understanding of Wittgenstein’s picture of thinking, i.e. ‘one of moving from being lost to oneself to finding one’s way, a circumstance of personal disorder, a defeat not to be solved, but to be undone’ (Cavell 1990: 21), Nora has lost her way. The existence of someone who has lost their way also implies that the political depression could not be overcome by reference to internal principles either, thereby preventing an autonomous personal changing. Consequently, both exclusions, from the social and the political self, entail personal ← 86 | 87 → changing to be guided neither by external nor by internal rules (Cavell 1990). It is understood as a miracle.

2.  Miracles and private language

Wittgenstein makes explicit references to miracles (Wittgenstein 1965:10–11, 1980: 45; see also Phillips 1993). There is also a philosophical controversy about Wittgenstein’s religious belief (Barret 1991; Cook 1988; Diamond 2005; Moore 2005; Nielsen 2001; Malcolm and Winch 1993; Phillips 1993; Winch 1988). In Wittgenstein’s philosophy miracles are inherently senseless events and he explicitly says: ‘For all I have said by shifting the expression of the miraculous from an expression by means of language to the expression by the existence of language, all I have said is again that we cannot express what we want to express and that all we say about the absolute miraculous remains nonsense’ (Wittgenstein 1965:11). And he adds: ‘I see now that these nonsensical expressions were not nonsensical because I had not yet found the correct expressions, but that their nonsensicality was their very essence. For all I wanted to do with them was just to go beyond the world and that is to say beyond significant language’ (Wittgenstein 1965:11).

However, the fact that miracles are beyond significant language does not mean that they have no place in Wittgenstein’s philosophy even if, controversially, some have shown the importance of ineffability in Wittgenstein’s philosophy (Conant 2000; Moore and Sullivan 2003; Diamond 2005; Hacker 1986; McGinn 1999; Mulhall 2007).

From the ineffable perspective, the communication of a miraculous inner changing translates the senseless miraculous event into a meaningful one. Nevertheless, since the miracle of changing corresponds to an inner personal event – which is firstly an inner personal changing – its individual communication can correspond to Wittgenstein’s description of private experiences (Wittgenstein 1953: §§ 243–315). In Wittgenstein’s philosophy private experiences are also senseless experiences (Wittgenstein 1953: §§ 243–315). However, contrary to miracles, whose essence is to be senseless and ought to remain senseless ← 87 | 88 → (Wittgenstein 1965), private experiences are senseless and ought to be challenged as they result from an absurd private quest for meaning (Wittgenstein 1953: §§ 243–315).

Indeed, in spite of the disagreement over Wittgenstein’s arguments about private language, and along with its undoubted complexity and elusiveness (see Baker & Hacker 1985; Canfield 1986; Cavell 1979; Hacker 1990; Malcolm 1977; Mulhall 2007; 1989; Nielsen 2008), by associating the search for meaning as ‘a [purely] mental state’ (Wittgenstein 1953: § 180), the private approach supposes that agents immediately understand the meaning of their thoughts, feelings and acts (Wittgenstein 1953: §§ 246–8, 251, 272, 280, 294, 358). For example, though not neglecting the differences and similarity between Wittgensteinian and Kantian philosophy (see Engel 1970; Glock 1997; Mosser 2008), in the purely theoretical domain there is in Kantian philosophy no immediate access to our inner representations – they are always mediated by the a priori forms of sensibility, time and space (Kant 1787 [1968]). Nonetheless, in the practical domain, the exclusion of sensibility entails the immediate order of human practical reason. Dispensing with the mediation of space and time, the forms of sensibility, in the practical Kantian domain the inner rational rule commands immediately and unconditionally (Kant 1785/6 [1968], 1788 [1968]). Like any private experience, the immediate and unconditionally commanding rules correspond to private rule-following. This supposes that it suffices to immediately grasp the mental image of the private human soul (Wittgenstein 1953 § 205; see also § 265) and also to immediately behave in accordance with it (or to follow it) (Wittgenstein 1953: § 352; see also McDowell 2002; Kripke 1982).

However, from Wittgenstein’s perspective ‘[it] is not a hocus-pocus which can be performed only by the soul’ (Wittgenstein 1953: § 454). In reality, when refuting the hypothesis of private feelings and thoughts under the broader criticism of the existence of a private language (Wittgenstein 1953: § 265; see also §§ 56, 271; II, xl, p. 207), Wittgenstein argues that from the private approach to feelings and thoughts agents are not able to remember the connection between the images and feelings (e.g. pain). This incapacity is more troubling when viewing the ambiguity of the aspect of the image – ‘The concept of an aspect is akin to the concept of an image’ (Wittgenstein 1953: §§ II, xl, ← 88 | 89 → p. 213). As well as the image of the duck-rabbit (Wittgenstein 1953: §§ II, xl, p. 194) and that of the triangle (Wittgenstein 1953: §§ II, xl, p. 200) – the duck-rabbit can appear as duck and rabbit, and the triangle as a triangular hole, a solid or a geometrical drawing – individuals see the image of the pointing finger as if it were pointing to two different directions. The incapacity to remember the connection between the mental image and lack of the connection between the immediately grasped mental image and the forms means that people are not able to distinguish between competing images of thoughts, feelings and acts, nor to identify and understand them. For example, in the private approach to rules, the lack of connection between the mental image and the rule’s order means that the agents are unable to identify the regular order of the rule, i.e. the regularity of the rule itself (Wittgenstein (1953: §§ 227; see also §§ 208, 223, 225), or to distinguish the right from the good application, thereby preventing agents from following the rule.

Wittgenstein clearly argues that ‘The essential thing about private experience is really not that each person possesses his own exemplar, but that nobody knows whether other people also have this or something else’ (Wittgenstein 1953: § 272; see also 269). Moreover, besides the intersubjective obscurity of the private experience, the private thing cannot be exteriorizable. Wittgenstein’s approach to private experience goes further and sustains that when the intersubjective understanding is lacking, there is nothing to be exteriorized – ‘[The] private exhibition is an illusion’ (Wittgenstein 1953: § 311; see also §§ 376, 377, 378, 382, 347) or chimera (Wittgenstein 1953: II, xi: 27; see also 81, 97, 177). For example, a private rule prevents others from understanding if and how the agent is following a rule (e.g. is obeying or disobeying the rule) because there is nothing to understand. ‘It is not possible to obey a rule ‘privately’ (Wittgenstein 1953: § 202).

Accordingly, accepting that private exhibitions are illusions or chimeras, when instead of going to bed and taking off her fancy clothes, Nora reappears with her clothes signalling her inner changing, not only could the others understand it as the exteriorization of her inner changing, but also even she would not understand what she was doing, i.e. what was happening inside her. Nora returning with her outdoor clothes would be an arbitrary and senseless gesture not only for Torvald but also, and mainly, for herself. For instance, the incapacity to remember ← 89 | 90 → the connection between the mental image and lack of the connection between the immediately grasped mental image and its exhibition allows for neither identifying (understanding) nor communicating the personal changing.

It is true that Wittgenstein’s reflection on language, mainly on rule-following, explicitly mentions the experience of the immediate grasping of the meaning of a word in accord with a use (Wittgenstein 1953: §§ 138, 139, 191, 197) to understand the whole thought in a flash (Wittgenstein 1953: § 319) and to ‘grasp the rule’ (Wittgenstein 1953: § 155, 179, 184, 321, I, 176). For example, occurring during the application of rules, suddenly grasping the rule corresponds to the awareness of the (right) direction to follow. For instance, someone can be in doubt about the direction to take when suddenly the agent realizes under that ‘Now I know how to go on’ (Wittgenstein 1953: § 179), i.e. ‘I know or understand how to follow the rule’.

Nonetheless, Wittgenstein asserts: ‘‘What happens when a man suddenly understands?’ – The question is badly framed. If it is a question about the meaning of the expression ‘sudden understanding’, the answer is not to point to a process that we give this name to. – The question might mean: what are the tokens of sudden understanding; what are its characteristic psychical accompaniments?’ (Wittgenstein 1953: § 321; see also 155, 179; see Addis 1999; Hunter 1977). Lacking these tokens, the non-assertible internal miracle of changing, together with the purely mental and private experience of grasping this change, allows understanding neither the images of thoughts, feelings (Wittgenstein 1953: § 243–315), or rules (Wittgenstein 1953: § 202) nor their significant exteriorization.

As Wittgenstein clearly puts it: ‘An ‘inner process’ stands in need of outward criteria’ (Wittgenstein 1953: §§ 243, 272, 280, 294), i.e. without external, intersubjective and public criteria the inner private image is mute, and the private image is meaningless. The outward criteria, which address the problem of the communication of our personal (but not private) experiences (Wittgenstein 1953 §§ 380, 378), require a valuable justification for one’s own and others’ criteria, making individual experiences common (Wittgenstein 1953: § 378). Notwithstanding their oracular formulation in Philosophical Investigations (1953) – there are only five allusions to the concept of form of ← 90 | 91 → life (see Wittgenstein 1953: §§ 19, 23, 241, II, i, p. 174 e II, xi, p. 226 e) – Wittgenstein’s philosophy of language established the agreement on forms of life as the last criterion allowing common individual experiences. Thus, regardless of the debate on the nature of those forms (e.g. unity (Garver 1990) vs. plural (Haller 1988); linguistic (Garver 1990), biological (Hunter 1968) or anthropo-socio-cultural (Cometti 1996)), as criteria, customs, institutions and practices allow us to communicate our internal experiences. Accordingly, personal changing communication depends on criteria.

3.  Criteria and the fantasy of the private language

Nevertheless, Cavell also refuses the fantasy of the private language argument – it underlies ‘the wish to deny the publicness of language’ (Cavell 1979; 351). As a fantasy, a private language ‘can be understood as an attempt to account for, and protect, our separateness, our unknowingness, our unwillingness or incapacity either to know or to be known [and its failure] signifies: … that nevertheless there is no end to our separateness. We are endlessly separate, for no reason’ (Cavell 1979: 369; see also 461). A private language denies the ineradicable gap (or separateness) between the self and the others, and the self itself (Cavell 1979, 1990; see Mulhall 1994).

From this perspective, which affiliates Wittgenstein’s philosophy to the existential philosophical tradition of Pascal (Cavell 1969), Kierkegaard (1969, 1979, 1990) and Camus (1969), and without mentioning the tension relationship between the claims of publicity and expressiveness (Cavell 1979; see Mulhall 1994), Cavell stresses Wittgenstein’s appeals to criteria. These assess the public value of people’s words towards others and themselves (Cavell 1969, 1979, 1990), allowing them to overcome the denial of separateness. Therefore, although people are irremissibly separated, they can share the public content of their words. The appeal to criteria corresponds then to a claim of community because we have to prove to others that we are not wrong, or that our personal convictions neither isolate us from the others, nor from ourselves ← 91 | 92 → (Cavell 1979, 1990). The appeal to criteria is also a claim of rationality because the ‘intelligibility of others to himself or herself, and of himself or herself to others’ (Cavell 1990: xxxi; see also 1979) is based on a rational speaking. Also, to be rational implies the ability to speak for oneself from a requirement of mutuality. For example, when Nora explicitly decided to abandon her husband she was challenging nineteenth-century social and political institutions and customs or criteria that defined the ‘right or the good woman’ as a woman who sacrifices herself for her husband (Langås 2005; Templeton 1989; Yuehua 2009). Nora’s final decision later referred to a new criterion (e.g. the right and the good woman is a free person), which allows justifying to herself and to society why she cannot maintain support for an institution that fostered her irresponsibility and dependence.

Although Cavell is seriously committed to the claim for community since the search for criteria (reasons or explanations) comes to an end – Cavell’s (1979, 1990) exegesis of Wittgenstein emphasizes the fact that ‘Explanations come to an end somewhere.’ (Wittgenstein 1953: §1; see Cavell 1979, 1990) – human communication towards others and oneself always risks disagreement, incomprehension, obscurity, scepticism and absurdity (e.g. ‘I fail to manifest our criteria accurately or that the other fails to read them accurately’ (Cavell 1979: 477)). Indeed, although a private language is a fantasy, refusing individuals’ separateness, and criteria challenge this fact, allowing the publicity of experiences, it does not mean that criteria fulfil absolutely the gap between persons, i.e. that the publicity of ‘images’ is exempt from disagreements, misunderstandings and conflicts (e.g. the conflict between persons’ claim of expressiveness, the claim of community and rationality, the inner and the outer, the self and the others (Cavell 1979).

Moreover, in spite of the complex relationships between the personal inner self and the outer others, and even the complex relationship between the self itself (Cavell 1979, 1990; see Mulhall 1994, 2007) or the double opaqueness – towards others and towards oneself – the underestimation of rules does not allow understanding the social contribution to personal changing, as stated above. Indeed, viewing that the claim of community and reason is seen as a radical subjective experience for publishing inner thoughts or feelings – ‘the soul’s investigation of itself’ (Cavell 1979: 15) – Cavell dissociates rules from personal explanations or reasons in this ← 92 | 93 → investigation. ‘The soul’s investigation of itself’ would be challenged by a guiding rule, mainly when someone lost their way. As also stated above, seen as a priori orders (Cavell 1979, 1990), the consequences of which are ‘confined and scored’ (Cavell 1990: 115), rules prevent understanding the quest for the personal recovery of voice.

Nevertheless, admitting that rules are not forcibly a priori (Wittgenstein 1953 §§ 68, 84, 94), one may not dissociate personal changing from rules, even if abnormal (moral) rules. Moreover, besides the fact that there is no criterion for defining criteria (Wolgast 1964), the unavoidable criteria are also not immediately and internally followed by individuals. Otherwise we would translate the structure of the private experience into the relationship between agents and forms of life. For that reason, even if, as Cavell (1979, 1990) has clearly asserted, criteria are in Wittgenstein’s philosophy of language the judges of rules’ application (Wittgenstein 1953: §§ 56, 185, 692), challenging the private experience of rules – application of rules requires criteria that offer reasons for choosing them and for establishing their public validity (Wellman 1962) – the search for criteria is not dissociated from the establishment of rules. More accurately, the common agreement or understanding on forms of life, which distinguishes the wrong from the right rules’ application, cannot be verified without that application. Thus, beyond any concrete rule application in a concrete case (e.g. the rule of remaining in a marriage that requires sacrifice for women in the nineteenth century in Europe), political criteria (e.g. equal liberty) can be seen as a pious vote or an empty concept. We argue then that persons cannot communicate (their change) without a (common and agreed) rule (Brown 1988; Johannessen 1988; Tymoczko 1984) following criteria (Canfield 1974).

4.  The social scope of personal changing: the role of criteria and rules

Seen as socially transmitted and customary normative injunctions or immanently normative dispositions, rules are prescriptive and are understood by analogy with the obedience of an order (Wittgenstein 1953 ← 93 | 94 → §§ 202, 228, 230) in spite of the distinction between right and wrong rule, and since rules are differently applied, one may distinguish between abnormal and normal rules (e.g. the student rule of natural numbers written as integers 1, 0, 3, 2, 5, 4 (Wittgenstein 1953 § 143; see also 141, 142)). Following logical consistency, this abnormal rule is also based on a shared form of life. Otherwise it would not be a rule. Thus, neither does the abnormality of rules forcibly entail the refusal of any rule, nor is an abnormal ambiguous rule a senseless (private) rule. For example, albeit in the context of the nineteenth century, Nora’s rule to leave her marriage can be seen as an abnormal rule. This rule is not forcibly senseless. The fact that in the nineteenth century political legislation could hardly include a woman abandoning her husband did not refute that human history was full of similar decisions, and there was still a shared moral agreement on human liberty and equality (Locke 1679 [1960]; Kant 1787 [1968]).

Furthermore, in spite of the different meaning of criteria in Wittgenstein’s philosophy (Albritton1959; Canfield 1974; Cavell 1979, 1990), one may not dismiss the fact that before A Doll’s House was written by Ibsen in 1879, political philosophy had already stressed the universal value of human dignity (Kant 1787 [1968]) and the universality of human rights (Locke 1679 [1960]). So, in spite of explicit discriminatory statements, for example against women (e.g. Kant’s (1784 [1968]) judgment on the avoidance of liberty by the ‘fair sex’), its starting principles (or criteria) were, and are not, compatible with human discrimination (e.g. gender or discrimination). For that reason, although current political society was still not ordered under there being equal political rights for every human being, it does not mean that there is not a shared moral understanding of the refusal of women’s treatment as foolish children. The abnormal rule did not lack a criterion, i.e. a reason or explanation for its use.

However, the political (and ethical) value of the rule ‘leave the cage of dolls’ depends on different criteria. For instance, under the criterion ‘the right or the good woman is a woman who sacrifices herself for her husband’, ‘leave the cage of dolls’ can be seen as an unprincipled, irresponsible, egoistic and immoral rule. Conversely, under the criterion ‘the right or the good woman is a free and autonomous woman’, ‘leave the cage of dolls’ can be seen as a fair rule. Similarly, the rule ‘remain ← 94 | 95 → in the cage of dolls’ can be seen under ‘the right or the good woman is a free and autonomous woman’ as an unprincipled, irresponsible, egoistic and immoral rule and a moral one under the criterion ‘the right or the good woman is a woman who sacrifices herself for her husband’. For that reason, besides constituting what Cavell names the argument of the ordinary (Cavell 1979, 1990; see Mulhall 1994, 2007), Nora’s repudiation and acceptance of criteria always entails the choice of rules. Choice of rules shows that they are not forcibly a priori limiting the personal free quest for a personal voice. Consequently, rules do not limit personal liberty nor can personal change following criteria be understandable or exteriorizable beyond concrete, even if abnormal, (moral) rules.

Moreover, since ‘The more abnormal the case, the more doubtful it becomes what we are to say’ (Wittgenstein 1952 § 142), and even Nora’s decision has almost become uncontroversial – at least in certain places in the world – one may not neglect the ‘amount’ of doubt and misunderstanding surrounding someone who, in the nineteenth century, decided ‘to leave the cage of dolls’ and to live according to the Kantian principle (or criteria) of an equal and free human being (Kant 1785/6 [1968]). Nonetheless, and in spite of the social frame of rules, the ‘amount’ of doubt and misunderstanding does not dismiss personal responsibility. Applying rules is in Wittgenstein’s philosophy an intrinsically personal act – ‘Don’t always think that you read off what you say from the facts; that you portray these in words according to rules. For even so you would have to apply the rule in the particular case without guidance’ (Wittgenstein 1953 § 292).

Applying a rule without guidance can entail applying an abnormal rule under a criterion. For example, the rule ‘leave the cage of dolls’ could be understood as an abnormal rule under a moral criterion for women i.e. ‘the right or the good woman is a free and autonomous woman’. Therefore, from our perspective, there is no conflict between politically depressed and deprived persons lacking any political rule, and cruel and despotic persons following unfair political rules. However, there is the conflict between two rules (e.g. the rule of fairness and the rule of inequality), which one may say from Wittgenstein’s point of view is the conflict between a normal and abnormal rule.

It is true that Wittgenstein asserts that ‘Not only rules, but also examples are needed for establishing a practice. Our rules leave loop-holes ← 95 | 96 → open, and the practice has to speak for itself.’ (Wittgenstein 1969 §139). For example, when children are learning a practice, since they do not know the names yet, teachers ought to make use of examples (Wittgenstein 1953 §§135, 208, 210). But the fact that the learner can dispense with explicit references to rules does not mean that practices are anarchic or anomic (Wittgenstein 1969 §139) nor that rules (and criteria) are always explicitly formulated (Canfield 1974).

In sum, since rules are not prior to their application, the process of the inner changing is encompassed by the establishment of a rule under a criterion (e.g. women ought to leave their marriages when their husbands do not treat them as ends in themselves (Kant 1785/6 [1968]). Accordingly, we cannot change without explicit or implicit (Wittgenstein 1969 §95) rules framed by criteria, i.e. any personal change results from the public co-evaluation under a guiding rule.


Even if we acknowledge the contribution of Cavell’s exegesis of Wittgenstein to expose the existential issues underlying Wittgenstein’s philosophy, we stress the social and public frame of any search for personal changing. Inspired by Wittgenstein’s philosophy of language, we argued that any personal changing requires the mediation of political rules, following criteria, even though these rules are in the end abnormal rules. We also argued that although criteria do certify the public content of those rules, criteria and rules are not immediately followed by individuals. Customs are embedded in societies’ rules and institutions are systems of rules (Rawls 1971).

From these premises we concluded that individual changing results from a guiding public rule even if it is an abnormal public rule. We cannot change without explicit or implicit (Wittgenstein 1969 § 95) rules.

Future research could explain the changing of political rules under the Wittgensteinian concept of ‘seeing-as’. Future research could also reassess the understanding of a personal judgment without rules under Kant’s (1790 [1968]) theory of taste judgment. Explicitly articulated by ← 96 | 97 → Cavell (1990), the Kantian approach to rules and judgments can also offer sound arguments to the endless claim for justice.

Finally, future research could also clarify the political consequences of erasing the tragic dimension of politics and further the already existing reflection on the relationship between the philosophical thought of Wittgenstein and Nietzsche (e.g. Bowls 2003; Cavell 1990; Williams 1993). Instead of a political consensus on rules and criteria, the tragic dimension of our political existence warns us about the unavoidable gap between an ideal fair society and the current political injustices (Cavell 1967, 1997) and our political responsibility to demand a decent and fair human society.


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