A Review of Chomsky's Criticism of Kripke's Wittgenstein

1.0 Some Introductory Notes

Kripke brings Chomsky's distinction of COMPETENCE and PERFORMANCE into his exposition of Wittgenstein's dialectic on the notion of rule-following and comments that the dispositionalists can gain no help from the concept of COMPETENCE in replying to the challenge of the rule paradox. In a footnote, Kripke indicates the relevance of Wittgenstein's SCEPTICAL CRITIQUE to MODERN LINQUISTICS (by this term, Kripke obviously refers to Chomsky's enterprise):

...it is clear that if Wittgenstein's standpoint is accepted, the notion of COMPETENCE will be seen in a light radically different from the way it implicitly is seen in much of the literature of linguistics. The reason is that if statements attributing rule-following are neither to be regarded as stating facts, nor to be thought of as explaining our behaviour ..., it would seem that the use of the ideas of rules and of competence in linguistics needs serious reconsideration, even if these notions are not rendered MEANINGLESS.

( Wittgenstein on Rules and Private Language , p.31n)

In Knowledge of Language (that means COMPETENCE ), Chomsky responds at length to Wittgenstein's sceptical paradox and solution put forward by Kripke. Chomsky writes,

Of the various general critiques that have been presented over the years concerning the program and conceptual framework of generative grammar, this seems to me the most interesting.

(Knowledge of Language (henceforth, KL), p.223)

We find that on the whole Chomsky's criticism of Wittgenstein is not to the point. However, it raises some urgent questions concerning the the crucial notions of FORM OF LIFE and COMMUNITY in Wittgenstein. In order to answer these questions along the line of Wittgenstein's argument, these notions must be developed. But in this article we will first give a summary of the sceptical argument of Kripke's Wittgenstein on following a rule (i.e., the sceptical paradox and its solution) and secondly, consider Chomsky's reply to the paradox and its problem, that is what Chomsky calls the WITTGENSTEINIAN PROBLEMS, and counter-critique of Wittgenstein's position.

Here is the conclusion which the rule paradox is supposed to reach: there is no meaning-constituting FACT of or about an individual rule-follower corresponding to his intention of following a particular rule. Attributions of rule-following in this light will be regarded as essentially social activities, since the criteria of correctness do not belong to individuals but are shared by the community members. These normative activities and standards have their significance in playing some roles in a form of life. So when I say, " By PLUS Jim means addition ", I do NOT state a fact about Jim's mental state or behaviour, assuming it to be the UNDERLYING REALITY of his meaning. (2) .

It is the end of the sceptical paradox to subvert this set of philosophical assumptions. Wittgenstein attempts to show that there is no autonomous, factual norm of an individual, which UNDERLIES his following a rule. In Kripke's interpretation of Wittgenstein, the rule paradox is highly regarded by Wittgenstein, taken as the core problem in the thoughts of the later Wittgenstein. (3)

Jim's concept of rule-following was subject to the challenge of the sceptical paradox. He was willing to seek for the meaning-constituting fact. This indicates that he also presumed the presence of such a FACT. In addition, he alleges that the fact by virtue of which he meant addition is concerned with himself, as his linguistic intention is of his own. It follows from these preconceptions that the answer to the sceptic would not be other than whatever fact about either his mental history or overt behaviour. We will not go into details in presenting how Kripke's Wittgenstein considers all the candidate facts, but rather focus on the overall reasons of why these candidate facts are not qualified.

Let us have a closer look at the requirements of the proposed target SUBJECT MATTER, i.e., the fact which constitutes Jim's meaning PLUS, so that we can understand better why a candidate fact is rejected owing to its failure to fulfill the sceptic's demand. Earlier we mentioned that this grounding fact should be justificatory. It is crucial to see that the grounding fact is more than whatever brings about a linguistic intention, i.e., more than a hypothetical fact in a causal explanation. It should contain a criterion of correctness, a norm, by appeal to which Jim ought to (rather than will) give a certain answer to the mathematical problem. So the conception that Jim's disposition is the normative, factual ground of his meaning cannot hold. At most, because of such a disposition, we can explain (not justify) or predict that Jim will respond in some way. Likewise, if an inner experience is taken as merely generating Jim's intention, the sceptic will not accept it to be the justificatory ground in question.

Further, it is thought that the FACT justifies an infinitely many instances of the intention, not only those Jim had experienced in the past, but also what he will experience in every future situation. Jim is a man, a finite being, whose mind is physically and historically conditioned, how can a mind of limited capacity determine unlimited applications of a rule? Dispositions are finite; man does not have a brain, for instance, which is big enough to formulate and calculate within a certain limit of time a mathematical problem of extremely huge numbers. Platonic Ideas are infinite but themselves have nothing to do with Jim's intention. According to Frege, a sophisticated Platonist, the sense of a word (e.g., PLUS) logically or intrinsically determines the word's referent (i.e., addition) but this sense stands on its own and does not belong to Jim. True, Jim can have an idea of it; however, having the idea (or grasping a rule) is just the relation between the finite being, Jim, and the rule (i.e., the Idea). Jim's understanding of the rule, though not the rule itself (conceived as a Platonic Idea), will be under the sceptical doubt.

A fallible candidate fact, of course, cannot satisfy the requirement as a norm. Jim has a disposition to give a particular answer to a mathematical problem. However, Jim is not free of errors. A lot of factors, psychological and physical, may cause Jim to make mistakes. As a matter of fact, some people are used to forget carrying when they calculate.

One may make the following move: to idealize the candidate fact in question, and claim that if the brain is powerful enough, the person will give a correct answer. Adding the idealized condition will lead to other difficulties. It assumes some indeterminate condition to be possibly true and lurks to hypothesize a norm in the brain without warrant. It can be seen that this move is begging the question. Some mentalists may also idealize (or conceptualize) an irreducible experience of meaning as possessing normative force in every application of a rule. Actually, such a normative force has no substance more than claiming that the irreducible experience is, without further argument, of a particular meaning.

Some candidate fact is neither necessary nor sufficient for a linguistic intention. When Jim calculates, he need not have the inner experience that is supposed to correspond to his understanding of the word PLUS. He could have that experience, but what enables him to say that it corresponds to his intention. By appeal to some HIGHER or DEEPER experience which justifies the link? But then the identity of this higher-order experience will be questioned. Shall we continue positing further experience for it?

Another point concerning the requirement of such a FACT is epistemological. Kripke stresses that the sceptical problem is metaphysical, not epistemological; since the problem is not due to the limitation of human cognition that we cannot find the meaning-constituting fact. Granted that we are omniscient like God, it is still not possible to state the FACT, as the difficulty lies in the incoherence of the conception or perspective of rule-following (i.e., the private model). So Kripke reminds us that the point is not concerned with our inability to know the FACT, but with the misunderstanding involved in approaching the rule-following issue; when the presumption is shown to be wrong, we learn that there could not be such a fact.

However, in considering the candidate facts, Wittgenstein does take care of epistemological issues. For instance, he does not allow mythology to stand. Some mentalists might finally hold that there must indeed be some mysterious, irreducible experience, unintrospectable to the person (on the ground that this is a matter essentially human, for instance). Wittgenstein rejects the mythology of meaning partly on epistemological ground.

Let us epitomize why all the candidate facts fail to satisfy the sceptic. Suppose that what Jim was looking for is F which (1) is the constitutive fact of his meaning PLUS and (2) justifies his answer.

(1) requires that F is:

(i) rule-independent (i.e., being the GROUND of a rule, F has its identity independently of any rule),

(ii) autonomous or self-identical, and

(iii) of a finite and fallible being.

(2) requires that F should:

(iv) explain the normative force that Jim ought to give a certain answer, and

(v) determine the correctness of infinitely many cases, including those in the future about which no one has ever imagined.

Actually there are epistemological problems involved. First, how can we identify F? Only if F has a certain property can we identify it. But its property is supposed to be (i) rule-independent. We have no means to ascertain that what Jim experienced a moment ago is the same as what he is now experiencing. Therefore, it does not make sense to say that Jim has one particular experience. This leads to the second related question: how can we know that F is real? At most, Jim seems to have experienced F. And the experience he has now seems to be identical with that he had in the past.

One may easily reason in a circular way, taking F as 'the ground of the meaning PLUS' to account for the meaning PLUS. An infinite regress will arise if one tries to posit a further fact (experience or disposition) to bridge the original fact in question and the meaning. But if one attempts to stop the regress by assuming that F is an irreducible, non-introspectable state of mind of the person, then there will be no further resources for an illuminating idea of meaning and following a rule. F becomes mysterious. It does not make any sense to assert that such a mysterious fact is real.

The crucial problem lies in the justificatory requirement of F. How can there be a FACT, which contains a criterion of correctness in a finite being determining all--infinitely many--of his linguistic behaviour? Any idealization of a candidate fact will either involve further indeterminacy or commit a fallacy of Petitio Principii. The notion that there should be a justificatory meaning-constituting fact or final interpretation, that is, what a PRIVATE MODEL and INTERPERATIVE THEORY OF MEANINGS presume, is incoherent, for behind the positing of an autonomous factual ground (which is of course epistemologically problematic) of a finite being, there lurks at the same time a mysterious picture that such a fact determines the correctness of infinite cases in the future covered under the same rule. (like a railway leading to infinity, cf. Philosophical Investigations , #218).

1.11 (b) Sceptical solution

By considering the candidate facts, the urge for justificatory factual ground of meaning is shown to rest on a MISUNDERSTANDING. Any rule formulated in a certain interpretation can be reformulated in a non-standard way. That is to say, it is possible to substitute any linguistic expression by another one, which can well fit the mental history and behaviour of the language user (i.e., the rule-follower). Therefore, in order to answer the sceptic, we should no longer give an account of Jim's meaning PLUS based on his interpretation--which is supposed to be an individualistic FACT of or about Jim, i.e., the truth-condition of Jim's meaning--but look for a non-interpretational and non-individualistic account.

Wittgenstein proposes that meaning and rule-following necessarily belong to a practice. This suggests that the phenomena of following a rule are basically patterns of activities in human life and that there is no further ground for these patterns. The rule paradox shows that the PRIVATE MODEL is misconceived. It should be noted that if the phrase PATTERNS OF ACTIVITY makes any sense at all, its meaning should not only belong to one single person. He alone cannot, as the sceptical paradox teaches, have any criterion of correctness. So Wittgenstein's SCEPTICAL SOLUTION (Kripke's term, indicating that it is not simply 'pointing out to the silly sceptic a hidden fact he overlooked, a condition in the world which constitutes [Jim's] meaning addition by PLUS' but concedes to the sceptic that 'there is no such fact, no such condition in either the INTERNAL or the EXTERNAL world.') i.e., his positive idea of rule-following, is actually a community-based point of view, established mainly by rejecting the private one. It is a surview of ordinary life. We may call it a standpoint of FORM OF LIFE.

Now we look at ordinary life where normative activities take place, without being led by our philosophical assumption to seek for some corresponding, ultimate ground, concerned with the rule-follower alone. So far we have made one step. Our account of rule-following is required to account further, in particular, first, how a norm or criterion of correctness of following a rule operates in daily life, and second, in virtue of what, in ordinary life, such a norm or criterion has its force or legitimacy. The first issue is about rule-following attributions, which themselves are rule-governed and patterned in a certain way in a community. But let us deal with the second issue first.

Rule-following activities are a major part of ordinary life, in which they get their significance owing to the role they play in it. In a community, ascribing (or not ascribing) a particular rule to a person who follows the rule is especially important in training. And in fact, without rule-ascription activities, a community cannot maintain its rules. Besides applications of rules, there should be a custom (or we may say MECHANISM) in a community to determine whether those applications are correct or not. These correcting activities are indeed regular and belong to the practice of this community. Actually when people attribute a rule to certain rule-following activities, some criteria of correctness are definitely functioning. These criteria do not stand on their own but are in general realized in rule-attribution activities. In other words, the norm in question has its substance in a practice. The determination of meaning is intrinsically due to the form of life, in which activities are carried out and related in a particular way in performing some functions. The sceptic can use his strategy again to give a non-standard formulation to those criteria, if they are thought to be independent of life activities. Wittgenstein's position is immune from further sceptical questions about ultimate ground. It is illegitimate to ask the constituting GROUND of a function in a FORM OF LIFE. The philosophical assumption has been turned down together with any quest for constituting GROUND. We cannot put life in a complete doubt, as every sensible reflection or critical questioning should have played certain roles in life--and thus have presupposed a FORM OF LIFE.

Now let us move to the first issue, concerning the normative activities in everyday life. These activities are of two kinds: (1) we follow some rules consciously or unconsciously to achieve our ends in life like communication and thinking (in the aspect of life we are now concerned with, viz., language) and (2) we apply certain norms or criteria of correctness to rule-following activities by attributing rules. First, both (1) and (2) are necessary in a form of life: activities (1) are realizations of rules, while activities (2) ensure that the rule-following activities of (1) be in accord with the rules. Second, in effect, without correcting activities, the meaning of rules cannot be maintained and so there will be no telling whether activities (1) are genuine rule-following activities.

In this view, normative activities cannot be private; activities (1) presume the presence of rules which require activities (2) to sustain them. In Kripke's exposition of Wittgenstein, activities (2) are highlighted. More importantly, what is at stake here is not simply the requirement of rule-attribution activities in a community. What is the point of these activities? When we say 'Jim means addition rather than quaddition', we of course apply a criterion of correctness in judging whether Jim follows the rule of addition. However, what we apply is not a norm EXTERNAL to us, in a sense of being independent of our form of life, which will be subject to the sceptic's reinterpretation, but INTERNAL to us, so to speak. We judge that Jim's answer is correct, normally not by comparing his sum to a table of mathematical sums and answers. We use the mathematical function + in our life without having an a priori determination of its extension. There are always new situations where we must decide upon how a rule should be applied. Our judgment has to do with our inclination of how to interpret a given rule. This judgment or inclination is by no means individualistic but shared by the community members. This is precisely the agreement Wittgenstein has in mind and stressed in Kripke's essay. It is not an agreement of opinions, but of shared judgments intrinsic to a FORM OF LIFE. It is not an incidental consent, but characterizes a community's life. Our ascription of rules is finally based on this agreement, which is not interpretable. This is what Wittgenstein calls the BED ROCK of a FORM OF LIFE. No more justification can be given about this basic agreement. Meaning is determined by our internalized, shared, judgments, which manifest in our rule-attributing activities. We assert that Jim's answer is correct by appeal to a rule called ADDITION--a rule the meaning of which is fixed owing to the fact that we share the same judgments or inclinations. In Kripke's Wittgenstein, this is an ASSERTIBILITY ACCOUNT OF MEANING (a term borrowed from Dummett). In situations of teaching and learning, a teacher normally corrects a student's answer by considering whether that is the answer he would give. Generally speaking, saying that someone is following a rule or grasping a meaning, etc., we finally compare the person's behaviour or ability to some norm internalized in us; and any reference to rules is in effect reference to the community-based judgments that we share. In this perspective, rule-following is not constituted but LICENSED. We are warned by Kripke not to confuse the agreement of judgments with a social disposition. One should not conceive that what determines the correctness of an action is some commonly possessed disposition, from an individualistic point of view. The term AGREEMET OF JUDGEMENTS excludes an incidental accordance of private inclinations but suggests that the pattern, or better, orientation, of a community's life, or still better, what gives such a life a dynamic form determines the correctness of an action.

1.2 Chomsky's Criticism of Wittgenstein: a Reply

We proceed to present Chomsky's response to the challenge of Wittgenstein's sceptical paradox and his counter-critique of Wittgenstein's view on rule-following. In the course of setting forth Chomsky's critical remarks, we shall comment on them in the light of Kripke's Wittgenstein.

Chomsky puts forwards the following three interesting points, among others, in his critique of Wittgenstein (the first two being concerned with the sceptical solution and the last one the sceptical paradox):

(1) Wittgenstein's positive view on rule-following attributions, i.e., a community-based notion of language, is descriptively inadequate.

(2) In Kripke's exposition, Wittgenstein takes attributing rule-following to Robinson Crusoe as assigning personhood to him. This move in effect REINCARNATES what his sceptical argument has undermined, namely, the PRIVATE MODEL on which generative grammar is based.

(3) Chomsky insists that his notion of COMPETENCE is descriptive, about some fact of a language user, rather than as Kripke suggests, normative.

Let us consider them in turn.


Wittgenstein's view of rule-following (or concept) attributions is descriptively inadequate, according to Chomsky. As shown in real life, they are not, as Wittgenstein characterizes,

(a) based on an agreement between the responses of the rule-follower and that of the rule-following attributer,

(b) carried out in such a way that when ascribing a rule to an individual, we take him into our community,

(c) playing some role or achieving some function, and

(d) determined on account of the pattern of the rule-follower's behaviour where a rule is supposed to manifest.

Chomsky argues against these contentions in three steps. First, take it for granted that there is some normative-teleological aspect in our rule-following attribution activities. It is not uncommon that in the process of language acquisition, children make systematic mistakes, for instance, in grasping the past tense form of the verbs like bring and sleep (they say brang instead of brought and sleeped instead of slept). We take this kind of linguistic behaviour as deviated because of the established, social norm. These children's behaviour is said to be IRREGULAR, only in the sense that it is not in accord with the convention. In fact, this deviant behaviour in question has certain patterns and exhibits some sort of rule. We should not disregard this IRREGULAR-REGULARITY, as it is a natural fact in human life; we should not eliminate this ODD pattern simply keeping our eyes on conventional agreement.

Second, the norms of a linguistic community are actually various and complex, unlike the picture Wittgenstein, who highlights agreement, seems to give us. As a matter of fact, we accept linguistic rules other than those inhering in our community or form of life, as having their own right. We allege that both forms of expression 'he went to the symphony' and 'he went to symphony' which belong to two different dialects are correct. Examples of this kind are abundant. We do not expect that there is only one single norm or agreement which determines rule-following activities. As usual, we judge that a certain way of speaking is alright according to the standard of a dialect different from our own. In this way, our attributing rule-following to someone is not entirely rested on some universal agreement. Indeed, the difference between our norm and the other is acknowledged in daily life.

The case is similar in concept attributions. Our concepts are changing. In the past, I mistook a word to be associated with a certain concept; now I understand the word correctly, i.e., differently. (Chomsky uses the word LIVID as his example.) It is justified to denote my past concept, though it is not a familiar one in ordinary life or in accord with the convention. In the same way, we ascribe concepts to foreigners and children, notwithstanding the fact that these concepts might be strange and unexpected to the people in our community.

This kind of attribution, of course, does not involve (b), taking a rule-follower into our community. It is clear that a linguistic community, like English, consisting a variety of conflicting norms, is not homogeneous. Nor does it involve (c), any obvious function or utility in daily life.

Thirdly, put aside the normative issue on rule-following attribution. In Chomsky's view, it is a wrong assumption that a rule necessarily manifests in the linguistic behaviour of the language user ( i.e., (d)). A person can choose to violate consciously and consistently a linguistic rule. His actions appear to fit the normal pattern but in effect conflict with his own rule at the time. Naturally he tends to be guided by his own rule but it is possible that he can choose to act otherwise, in accord with the social norm which contradicts his own. So from the person's behaviour, we cannot know whether he actually follows a rule or not.


Chomsky first tries to question whether the agreement that the notion of FORM OF LIFE highlights has its true normative force. He seems to remind us that a community's language is only one possible form of human languages and that taking this possible form as a paradigm to exclude all other forms of language, for instance, the children's, is illegitimate. Further, we should appreciate that the deviant behaviour of the children actually has realized some possible rule, that is not nothing, not simply a mistake, but has some status, i.e., being a natural fact.

True, the children's overgeneralization in their language growth may well be said to be a natural fact, which has its regularity. It is possible that, as Chomsky suggests, after a sudden disease, when the old rules passed away, a child's or others' rule could become CORRECT. But why shall we say, the rule in the past being an IRREGULARITY now turns out to be the right one? There must be a new standard--and this standard implies a new form of life. It can be imagined that such a radical change of life might allow an infinitely many possible rules to conflict with each other in a nihilistic state. At that time, no one has any right to claim that a certain rule is CORRECT or WRONG, since there is no longer any common criterion to which one can appeal. What is more, the goal of the sceptical paradox is to show that unlimited interpretations of a rule means the absence of rule. And the paradox is solved in the view (i.e., the standpoint of FORM OF LIFE) that actually in real life, our rule-following activities are not unbounded but patterned in a form. After all, our rules are determined, finally, by our shared judgments or inclinations in life, as noted in the previous section. Therefore, that we follow rules is not a mere possibility--or better, not an accidental realization of a mere possibility. The norm in actual life accounts for the form of life it is.

Chomsky would retort: by what reason shall we uphold a particular form of life and treat it as a paradigm? This query appears to be implicit in the second step of Chomsky's argument. In reality, there are not one, but many norms. In English, there are more than one dialect. And he seems to argue that it is not appropriate to reduce the variety of norms into one single, exclusive, paradigm, which is a false picture of normative activities in actual life.

The point of the sceptical solution is that a rule can only be determined, not by a final interpretation, but by an agreement of judgment that a community shares. This idea can embrace the fact that a linguistic community has a variety of dialects. Within a sub-group of a community, there is a norm shared by their members. But if the sub-groups of this community can communicate with one another, there should also be a trans-norm among the people speaking different dialects. The people who is used to say 'he went to symphony' may accept 'he went to the symphony' as correct and they attribute rule-following to a speaker speaking the dialect other than his own just on the ground of this agreed understanding that there are different dialects in their wider linguistic community. Similarly, when we ascribe a concept to a person whose concept is unfamiliar to us, there should at least be some agreement or a loose criterion of following a rule which covers the strange case.

The third step of Chomsky's argument is that in ordinary life, whether one is following or violating a rule cannot be determined simply on the basis of the rule-follower's behaviour, of an agreement of responses. But how can we judge that a person chooses to violate the rule he naturally inclines to follow and acts merely in accord to--not follow--the social norm, if not on the ground of the person's behaviour in some circumstance? It is not surprising that a person may hide himself in his pretending behaviour. However, an acceptable hypothesis of an individual's mental state must rest on certain empirical evidence and this evidence is somehow about the individual's behaviour.


Chomsky is particularly concerned with the case of Robinson Crusoe in Kripke's Wittgenstein. That we are inclined to attribute rule-following to someone, who is isolated, behaves and experiences differently from us, appears to be a good counter-example to Wittgenstein's community-based view of language. Granting that Wittgenstein's view of FORM OF LIFE (with its implications in normativity and community) can embrace different norms in a variety of dialects, we still find it difficult to extend Wittgenstein's notion to include Crusoe in our form of life. For there is no agreement in responses between such a solitary individual and us, except that he and we share some vague properties of being human or being a person. In Kripke's reading, Wittgenstein does not deny that our community attribute rule-following to Crusoe. From the pattern of his behaviour, we judge that he is a rule-follower or person like us, and in this way, we 'take him into our community'.

The following critical points come from Chomsky.

(a) Since Robinson Crusoe lives alone in a remote island, there is no interaction between him and our civilized community, which means that the agreement on which our attribution of rule-following to him is based has no significance in sharing the same practice.

(b) We do agree with Crusoe in sharing the same SPECIES-SPECIFIC CONSTRAINTS, but this means that Wittgenstein's notion of FORM OF LIFE will not serve as an argument against private language and thus does no harm to the framework of theoretical linguistics based on individual psychology. The PRIVATE MODEL can thus resist Wittgenstein's sceptical argument.

(c) It follows that taking Crusoe into our community exposes an equivocation of Wittgenstein's notion of FORM OF LIFE. Technically, a FORM OF LIFE means an agreement of responses. (This is the narrow sense of the term.) However, as shown in the case of Robinson Crusoe, the FORM OF LIFE which includes him, is by no means an agreement of responses, since he has radically different experiences from ours, but, as noted, refers to the same SPECIES-SPECIFIC CONSTRAINTS of being a human. (This is the broad sense of the term.) Chomsky further construes these two uses of FORM OF LIFE in his terminology:

The technical usage of FORM OF LIFE is at the level of particular grammar (the attained language); in the extended sense it is at the level of UG (So).
(KL, p.232.)

(d) Even though we can call Crusoe a PERSON and attribute rule-following to him, there is no way for us to ascertain what particular rule he is following. Normally our concept of attributing a rule to some normative activities implies that the attributer should be able to identify which rule it is.

(e) Actually in daily life or science, attributing rule-following to Robinson Crusoe

amounts to a factual claim that Robinson Crusoe shares with other persons some actual property--specifically, the initial state So of the language faculty--so that given his experience, he follows the rules of the attained state SL, not our rules.
(KL, p.234.)

The concept of person that ordinary people that is rather vague and not well-defined. Yet, the basic assumption of the common-sensical ascription of BEING A PERSON to Crusoe is identical with that of science: a PERSON is regarded as an entity, having real properties, behaving in a certain way under certain situations. This seems to contradict Wittgenstein's denial of meaning-constituting fact about the linguistic intention of an individual language user in his account of rule-following attribution.


The above critical remarks of Chomsky, in regard to the move of Kripke's Wittgenstein to take attributing rule-following to Crusoe as ascribing personhood to him, constitute the core of Chomsky's counter-critique of Wittgenstein. It is a natural fact that Crusoe is a person. In effect, in saying that someone is a person, we state a fact about him, even though he is an isolated individual. So if Crusoe is thought to have a language, then a private language exists. The PRIVATE MODEL thus persists. However, reasoning in this way shows that Chomsky has not got the point of Wittgenstein. There should be some criterion of FOLLOWING A RULE, BEING A LANGUAGE USER or BEING A PERSON at work, whatever it is like, when we, observing the pattern of Crusoe's behaviour, say that he is following some rules. First, this criterion belongs to our community. It is we who decide whether this isolated individual is a rule-follower. In this sense, we LICENSE personhood to him. Therefore, attributing rule-following to him is not stating a FACT independent of the standpoint of our practice. The claim that Crusoe shares the same constraints of being a human as we do is no more than a theory of our community concerning BEING A HUMAN at a certain time and space. Second, presumably in the practice of our community, the participants interact in some way, and yet there need not be interaction between every member. We ascribe concepts or rule-following to strangers whom we never met before. It can be imagined that someday we shall call those habitants of a distant planet who come to Earth, PEOPLE. But Chomsky would reply: then such a notion of COMMUNITY is in effect not different from that of SPECIES, which has no significance of taking part in a certain practice--by PRACTICE, we mean a regularity of life established through interactions between participants--and further, even though it is not necessary for every member of a community to come into contact with one another, there must be some link, some real causal chain of contacts among these people. However, we should note that when attributing personhood to Crusoe and people from the distant planet, we should have come across them. It is true that the notion of PERSON belongs to our community and does not result from the interaction between Crusoe and ourselves (or those people of another planet). That is why Kripke points out that in ascribing personhood to Crusoe, we TAKE HIM INTO OUR COMMUNITY. Presumably the patterns of life that we, Crusoe and the people in the far-away planet have at least resemble in some way.

In daily life or science, we use the words FACT and PERSON. It should be noted that the meaning of these words is community-based. There should be some standard or criterion to restrict the use of these words. What Wittgenstein rejects is, of course, not the notions of FACT and PERSON in common or scientifically technical sense, but rather, the incoherent notions of FACT or PERSON in a metaphysical sense, presuming the presence of something ultimate, detached from any form of life.

The foregoing points have not been elaborated in Kripke's Wittgenstein. And Kripke's note on transformational linguistics ( Kripke , p.97) is indeed liable to Chomsky's belief that Wittgenstein's notion of FORM OF LIFE somehow embraces the notion of PERSON, which in effect endorses some sort of PRIVATE LANGUAGE Wittgenstein attempts to undermine and consequently, the PRIVATE LANGUAGE ARGUMENT in Kripke's exposition exerts no force on generative grammar. Kripke suggests that some aspects of Chomskys views are very congenial to Wittgenstein's conception. In particular, according to Chomsky, highly species-specific constraints--a FORM OF LIFE-- lead a child to project, on the basis of exposure to a limited corpus of sentences, a variety of new sentences for new situations. (Kripke, p.97n.)

It is actually a reasonable expansion of Wittgenstein's view of FORM OF LIFE along the line of reading Kripke himself proffers which leads us to see that the basis of normativity lies in agreement of judgments in real life. If there is any mutual understanding between industrialized and exotic communities or between a modern man and Robinson Crusoe at all, they must at least share some similar natural ability and tendency, which amounts to what Kripke calls HIGHLY SPECIES-SPECIFIC CONSTRAINTS, governing their diverse behaviour. However, if Wittgenstein's sceptical argument can stand, the notion of norm cannot be purely based on some fact of an individual. The term HUMAN CONSTRAINTS makes sense only in a social practice--a social practice, rather than an entity of biological structure, being the central meaning of a FORM OF LIFE. One might object: granted that we, the civilized people, share with Crusoe some form of life, but there seems to be no practice in which we and Crusoe participate; what we have in common are nothing but a physical body of similar structure and some sort of instincts and responses. The answer is: first, HUMAN AS SUCH, in a sense of 'human as a bare fact, independent of any perspective of social practice' is problematic in just the same way as the conception of MEANING-CONSTITUTING FACT, which takes such a FACT to be certain autonomous ground; second, the sentence 'Crusoe is a human being' is descriptive, involving the term HUMAN BEING, which, if meaningful, must belong to some community; third, we and Crusoe, to some extent, do share a similar practice, do behave in a certain pattern; otherwise we would not call him a MAN; fourth, making hypothesis or stating a fact is normally a scientific activity, but anyway such an activity is performed in a community.

So Chomsky's construal of the notion of FORM OF LIFE in two senses corresponding to its two levels disregards the point of the sceptical argument. In his terminology, a FORM OF LIFE may stand for an acquired state of mind in regard to a person's knowledge of language (i.e., the attained state of a particular language), and may stand for the biological, innate constraints of the person's linguistic capacity of human language, UNIVERSAL GRAMMAR). This modification of the term, however, is still acceptable to Wittgenstein, if the term is not supposed to be used to denote some self-identical entity, but with an awareness of its function as indicating a scientific hypothesis or theory.


First, Chomsky insists that he is justified to put forward a descriptive account of competence. He agrees with Kripke that such an account is neither dispositional (for it is mainly not concerned with how an individual is disposed to give linguistic responses in certain circumstances), nor CAUSAL in neurophysiological or functional senses (for it does not say that a person's competence determines his linguistic behaviour in a way like the physical structure of water determines its properties; nor does it say that the linguistic competence is in every aspect like a machine; if so, the creative characteristic of language use will be denied). However, Chomsky cannot accept that in explaining a language user's following some linguistic rules, what a linguist is concerned with is not some fact about the person-- i.e., the initial and attained states of the faculty of mind responsible for his learning and applications of language. In Chomsky's view, a linguist's task is to offer the BEST THEORY of this particular psychophysical fact of the individual on a comprehensive empirical basis, including evidence concerning the person's history and concerning speakers of other languages, and in principle much else: physiology, psychological experiment, brain damage, biochemistry, and so forth. He contends that admittedly a scientific theory is always subject to a sceptical doubt in regard to INDUCTIVE UNCERTAINTY but this is simply a general problem for any kind of scientific research; even though science lacks absolute ground, it does not follow that there is no fact.Which serves as relevant support for a scientific theory.

Second, it follows that Chomsky could not accept a normative notion of competence as Kripke takes it to be. Chomsky further argues that the related thesis of machine Kripke propounds is too strong. According to Kripke, the distinction between competence and performance does not help to back up the candidate fact in the sceptical-paradox considerations, viz., disposition, whose nature is finite and fallible. No doubt a disposition to give the true sum in response to each addition problem is part of my COMPETENCE, if by this we mean simply that such an answer accords with the rule I intended, or if we mean that, if all my dispositions to make mistakes were removed, I would give the correct answer. ...To presuppose this concept in the present discussion is of course viciously circular. ( Kripke , p.30.)

The notion of competence is not PRIOR TO and cannot explain following a rule, since a norm of a certain rule is implicitly contained in the account of competence. That is why Kripke suggests that owing to the Wittgenstein's rule paradox, this basic concept of linguistics seems to require SERIOUS RECONSIDERATION.

In regard to the notion of machine, Kripke notes that the CORRECT answer that is mechanically put out by a machine also presupposes an intention of the designer of the machine's program and this intention is subject to the scepticís reinterpretation. Of course, this conception is in conflict with Chomsky's. It is the goal of Chomsky's linguistics to give an account of how a language user is built up, 'of the kind of MACHINE he is, if one likes.' Admittedly, it is not entirely like a physical machine, as mentioned earlier. But the person under the linguistics's scrutiny is supposed to be innately PROGRAMMED. And this biologically-endowed program need not be a design of someone.

Suppose that a machine fell from the sky, say an IBM PC with a particular program stored in machine memory. Could we distinguish hardware, operating system, particular program? It seems that we could learn something about the matter by investigating input-output properties. ... We could develop a theory of the machine, distinguishing hardware, memory, operating system, program, and perhaps more. It is hard to see how this would be crucially different in the respects relevant here from a theory of other physical systems, say the interior of the sun, an internal combustion engine, or the organization of neurobehavioral units (reflexes, oscillators, and servomechanisms) that explain how a cockroach walks.
( KL , p.239.)

So in Chomsky's view, we can well conceive a machine program without a designer as we do in usual scientific accounts.

Finally, Chomsky queries the notion of normative in Kripke's Wittgenstein. A linguistic rule, which is supposed to have a prescriptive meaning, is not to be confused with an ethical one, whose normative force is different. We never say that a person ought to--in a moral sense- understand or make a sentence in a certain way.


In response to the first point, we need to reiterate what kind of FACT Wittgenstein rejects. It is supposed to be that of an individual rule-follower, which corresponds to his linguistic intention and justifies his following a particular rule. In other words, this FACT, if any, is the basis for determining the meaning of the person. A rule-following activity is thought to be dependent on such a FACT, which provides a norm for it, that means, by virtue of which a rule-follower is reasonably attributed a certain rule and his action can be known to be correct. However, that meaning-constituting and justificatory FACT cannot be found. Earlier we have discussed the point that what Wittgenstein in effect turns down, through the rule paradox, is the PRIVATE MODEL of accounting rule-following, which is rested on an incoherent metaphysical notion of autonomous, self-identical FACT. Therefore, Wittgenstein's sceptical argument should be distinguished from those questioning whether there is adequate inductive evidence for establishing any scientific theory. Once such a notion of FACT is shown to be logically flawed or in Wittgenstein's word, a MISUNDERSTANDING, it does not matter how much empirical support we have in tackling the sceptical problem of rule-following.

However, there seems to be no evidence showing that Wittgenstein is not willing to accept a notion of fact about an individual, which carries no sense of being a norm for the rule he follows, but merely answers the issue of why he will, rather than ought to, behave in a certain manner. Wittgenstein does not deny the value of making scientific hypothesis. A BEST THEORY makes sense to him, if it is taken as a scientific product and also the pregiven condition of science, i.e., the fact that science is a practice or part of a FORM OF LIFE is not forgotten.

Now let us go on looking at the second point concerning whether a machine program is presumably intended. Chomsky claims that a natural program, which a scientist studies, does not imply any designer. In the first place, he seems to conflate the program which is supposed to constitute a person's linguistic competence (which is concerned with meaning production and reception) and those of other physical systems (which has nothing to do with meaning), while at the same time, he makes explicit that a person is essentially different from a physical object since his linguistic behaviour is not entirely determined by his bodily structure and yet an inanimate entity is.

Granted that Chomsky has constructed a BEST THEORY of a linguistic program in a natural object, i.e., a person, he can at most explain and predict the output of the language user, not justify on the physical basis which rule he is following. As we have shown that the notion of FACT as the justificatory ground of meaning is misconceived, what remains is another neutral conception of physical fact in the causal world. What the BEST THEORY accounts for is simply this factual ground, which is finite, fallible and thus itself does not provide the criterion of correctness. But if this factual ground is idealized as a program of a machine, then the intention of the theorist has already come in. Chomsky may successfully find out some regularity of an IBM PC fallen from the sky, and in scientific terms describe the components of its hardware and software. However, any formulation can be reinterpreted in a non-standard way. That is, the lesson of the rule paradox.

At last, notwithstanding the fact that the normative force in language is different from that in ethics, the linguistic rules as well as the ethical ones have their norms, not to be found in a single person, but in a FORM OF LIFE.

In sum, Chomsky's major point in his criticism of Wittgenstein is that by virtue of a BEST THEORY based on all the available evidence of individual language users, a linguist is entitled to claim that some fact can be found for explaining the origin and acquisition of a particular language. This seems to be in conflict with the conclusion of the sceptical paradox that there is no such FACT. Chomsky fails to notice that Wittgenstein's sceptical argument actually collapses an incoherent notion of meaning- (or normativity-) constituting FACT and consequently the sceptical paradox of rule-following is unlike the other sceptical arguments putting a scientific theory in doubt in view of the insufficiency of inductive ground. In effect, the rule paradox does not urge for more epistemological support, but rather, indicates the problematic character of the ordinary notion of rule-following resting on a misconceived presumption.

Kenny Huen

Daniel Barbiero's essay,CHOMSKY v. KRIPKE, ROUND TWO: METHODOLOGICAL COLLECTIVISM AND EXPLANATORY ADEQUACY , continues the discussion of many themes raised in this essay.

This essay is a contribution to the ongoing Huen-Barberio exchange. It is continued in Part 2.

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