Ask Amma


In Poems on 5 January 2014 at 11:55 am

Following my meditation on the implied reader of the if-then statements proposed in Dorothy Law’s poem Children Learn What They Live, I recognized that the doubt I encountered as a child, peering into the gap between the apparently interlocked puzzle pieces reached to the heart of inference itself. 

Only much later I found my kindred spirit while reading Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations.  A child – I imagine, in his scenario – wedges apart the logic holding together a simple rule, revealing that for any given rule, you need a further rule that tells you how to follow the given rule.   Even if I use neither words nor mathematical symbols and simply point with my finger you need a rule to interpret the gesture.  

If you have ever found room for an misinterpretation  divergent interpretations where you thought there was none, if you have ever *almost* been tempted to say that s/he has understood wrong, when someone failed to follow your instructions, you may wish to consider the case Wittgenstein presents in §143 of a person B whom you have instructed to write the series of natural numbers.  But what if:

 he copies the series 0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, …. like this: 1, 0, 3, 2, 5, 4, ….. Here we shall almost be tempted to say that he has understood wrong.

Giving further examples in §185, Wittgenstein asks us to consider this:

Such a case would present similarities with one in which a person naturally reacted to the gesture of pointing with the hand by looking in the direction of the line from finger-tip to wrist, not from wrist to finger-tip. 

Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, translated by GEM Anscombe
Available online with many OCR errors – please do get the published version.
 I offer this simply as a point to ponder.  Perhaps it will come back to you sometime and resonate with something in your experience with following or not following rules.
Wittgenstein's Dissertation in the Card Catalogue in Cambridge

Wittgenstein’s Dissertation in the Card Catalogue in Cambridge University

 Related:  On Being Guided.  §172.

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