To me rule-following is a very “homespun” way to explain logic, math, and language. Meaning the social-communicative aspect of “rule-following” provides an explanation for informal and formal language and action. Formal use is defining things in a such a way every single human will know how to follow as step by step rules.

If this is later Wittgenstein, is this “rule-following” explanation of everything supposed to be be a competing ontology to naturalism and theology?

If so, how? Naturalism can say through scientific reduction we can make progress by continually reducing the complexity of problems. And theology that we may become closer to God or something. These are means of “progressing” toward a complete state of knowledge or being.

But how does rule-following assure adherents it isn’t just stuck spinning its wheels, not making progress toward some ultimate explanation? Like instead of inspecting some video display for how it works, the rule-follower spends their time endlessly cataloging what colors came out. Compared to the naturalist actually finding the display mechanism being done. These other ontologies have plausible “terminations”. If rule following is supposed to compete with them, how does it have its own sense of ultimate understanding/progress?

If rule-following means that we can’t understand anything beyond following rules, why bother with anything?

1 Answer 1


'Competing ontology' is an odd phrase, and I'm not sure what to make of it. But that aside, competition in philosophy and the sciences is generally synthetic, not agonistic. In other words, it isn't a head-butting event to see who dominates; it's an effort to integrate disparate theories into a single, more comprehensive theory.

'Rule-following' is such a generalized, synthetic proposition. Science progresses because it follows rules; so does mathematics, and religion, and Olympic sports, and social institutions. Rules are pervasive in the human world. Naturalism focuses on rules it creates as reflections of real-world material systems and structures; theism focuses on rules that are (ostensibly) revealed by a divinity; sports and games and institutions focus on rules that have been generated and handed down by human societies. Rules are more-or-less unavoidable if we want to accomplish anything at all.

However, the question misunderstands the role of a rule. Rules don't define understanding; rules define the limits of action. A complete tyro knows the rules of chess as thoroughly as a grandmaster. The rules are simple; the difference lies in understanding how to use the rules to reach a goal. An undergraduate may know the same rules of scientific investigation that a professional physicist knows; a lay person may know the same rules of moral behavior as a monastic or a minister. But they do not understand the rules, or the particular strategies for applying them.

This is why Wittgenstein talked about 'language games'. In his view, human activities have the character of games: having pre-established, often tacit, and sometimes arbitrary rules within which we try to attain our specific goals. When I run into a colleague on the street, there are social rules that specify how they should be greeted, all part of the language game 'meeting a colleague'. I don't have to follow those rules (smile, say hello, extend a hand), but if I don't follow them to some extent I will either generate confusion, or convince my colleague that I am playing a different language game (such as 'snubbing a colleague' or 'playing a joke') which has rules of its own.

Wittgenstein's main concern is dealing with situations where aren't following the same rules (aren't playing the same language game), which causes confusion and conflict. He isn't offering something that 'competes' with other ontologies; he's offering a method by which competing ontologies can untangle how they are misusing language and come to some kind of mutual understanding.

  • Thanks Ted. I agree philosophers have a mutual goal. But aren’t there standalone theories too? When Chaitin says he hopes mathematical platonism is true, I take it to be at the exclusion of any other ontology. Of course he’d agree rule following is important, but probably not fundamental and not part of the ontology. I mean these abstract objects would exist regardless of rule-following or not. And there still are modern platonists.
    – J Kusin
    Commented Apr 5, 2022 at 16:57
  • If the reply is Chaitin can’t even articulate platonism without rule-following, okay. But rule-following is not enough to capture these platonic objects which exist in this scenario. So the platonist may remain dubious rather than seeing it as a move toward cohesion. And rule-following would only be necessary for humans sharing ideas. Not for why the universe came into existence. It seems to dodge the ontology question in that respect. Where a natural ontology of a Big Bang or theology and God’s will have that. It does not explain at the universe scale
    – J Kusin
    Commented Apr 5, 2022 at 17:08
  • @JKusin: Well, ontology is by its nature singular: there's only one way the world is, whether or not we know it. That's why I found the phrase 'competing ontologies' odd. A philosopher can hope (or assert, or argue) that a particular thing is 'real', and there's a certain kind of competition between differing worldviews, yes. But it's not like fundamentalist religion or partisan politics, where exclusion of contrary views is absolute and unmitigated. One expects analytical reflection from philosophers and scientists... 😄 Commented Apr 5, 2022 at 17:09
  • @JKusin: I don't think it's that mathematical platonism can't be articulated without rule following, exactly. It's more that MP implies certain rules about the behavior and nature of numbers that impact analysis. When we understand what those implied rules are (which I don't think anyone really does, yet), then we can start determining whether MP is the proper way of viewing things. It's like physics: we don't know what 'mass' is, but we know what rules an object with mass follows, so we can intuit the existence of something akin to mass. Commented Apr 5, 2022 at 17:15
  • So is rule-following not an ontology like platonism (which I agree is not fully worked out, few if any ontology I’ve heard of are) but more of statement that whatever ontology there is, humans will use rule following to learn about it? That doesn’t seem right either though. Kind of not sure where rule-following fits in.
    – J Kusin
    Commented Apr 5, 2022 at 17:30

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