Random thoughts on random topics


Rules as attitudes

Viewing rules as certainties is viewing them as attitudes. (Cf., ethics and religious belief as attitudes.) Such a view resolves a certain tension, one that can be the ground for reductionist approaches. The tension comes from an opposition between a rule as norm and the application of a rule as fact. If we view both as belonging to the same ontological or epistemological category (because of monistic assumptions), the tendency to reduce the first to the second is hard to avoid: for what is a ‘normative fact’? How can a norm be a fact in the same way as the application is a fact? (Note that what is not at stake is the fact that something is a norm: that is a social fact, or the same order as factual applications.) But also if we do not assign norm and application to the same category, but make a categorial distinction between the two, a certain tension remains. To view norms as a separate, independent category of entities, distinct from the category of facts, raises the question how the category of norms and that of facts are related. A tendency to reductionism then might be motivated by ontological parsimony, or a need to come up with a hierarchical ordening of categories. And there is the issue that a categorial distinction raises the question how entities from one category, that of norms, are related, or can be related, to those in another category, that of facts.

To view a rule, not as fact of the same order as an application of it, nor as a fact of a different (higher) order that maintains a special relation with its application, but as an attitude towards certain actions, may help oppose the tendency to found or reduce rules.A rule is an attitude towards actions, a way of viewing them, of seeing them in a certain light. Thus viewed, a rule is the result of a decision to consider certain actions as correct and others as incorrect. (Cf., Wittgenstein in Philosophical Investigations 186: ‘ […] It would almost be more correct to say, not that an intuition was needed at every point, but that a new decision was needed at every point.’) Only given that attitude do these actions become applications of a rule. Then there is no division, neither ontologically, nor epistemologically. There is not on the hand hand the rule, on the other its applications, there are actions that are viewed in a certain way, that are considered part of a particular network of actions.

Think of Wittgenstein’s wallpaper manufacturers (cf., Wittgenstein’s Lectures on the Foundations of Mathematics, Cambridge, 1939, Lecture III). They perform the same actions as competent mathematicians. Yet, only the latter follow a rule, because only they have a normative attitude towards what they do.

Martin Stokhof
from: Aantekeningen/Notes
date: 14/10/1993