Practices and intellectualist fallacies in social science

Charles Taylor’s well-known essay “To Follow a Rule” offers social scientists and theorists an indispensable but still neglected perspective on human agency and norm governed life. The arguments have much in common with those made by James Tully in “Wittgenstein and Political Philosophy”. Like Tully, Taylor’s main resource is the later work of Ludwig Wittgenstein, which he deploys in order to deconstruct a number of persistent intellectualist fallacies. The gist of the argument is that one’s understanding of a norm or rule, as well as deviation from the rule, is in the first instance a bodily understanding of appropriate ways to move and act in relation to others. There is no intellectual formulation – no representation of a practice – that is required for our practical understanding. What follows is a summary of the article. I conclude with a minor point that in addition to bodily know-how being the grounds of following a rule, it is also the grounds of contesting a rule.

Taylor argues that for any principle or justification we do end up articulating in order to explain a rule to someone there are an “indefinite number of points at which, for a given explanation of a rule and a given run of cases, someone could nevertheless misunderstand” (166). Misunderstanding the character of a practice occurs when our interlocutor does not share the appropriate background: “Understanding is always against a background of what is taken for granted, just relied on. Someone can always come along who lacks this background, and so the plainest things can be misunderstood” (167).

What is the nature of this background? Taylor quickly dismisses the notion of an infinite catalogue of resolutions that qualify every possible instance of rule conformity and deviation. No one possesses such a mental compendium. For after all the inevitable exceptions and qualifications that we admit during an interrogation of the principle we’ve mustered to explain or justify, we eventually hit a point where we are unable to provide any further account. In such cases, as Wittgenstein observes, my justifications “have reached bedrock, and my spade is turned” (167). At this point I can only offer that “this is simply what I do” and continue on acting, as it were, “without reasons” (167). Taylor concurs, observing that “reason giving has a limit, and in the end must repose in another kind of understanding” (179).

This contrasts with the notable interpreter of Wittgenstein’s work, Saul Kripke, who has taken this to mean that the notion of justification would never arise because the background, like the mechanisms of physiological reflex, work beyond and below the purview of reasoning and articulation. Taylor takes another course, suggesting that to depict the background as mechanistic and reflexive does nothing to acknowledge it as a form of understanding as well as a space of socially generated, evolving, and norm-governed agency.

The background isn’t located in the subconscious or even in the mind for that matter, but in our adept bodily engagement with the world and others. Thus, understanding is not something that requires representation in language or the intellect; it is already present in the practice itself. Taylor argues that “we easily tend to see the human agent as primarily a subject of representations; representations, first, about the world outside; second, depictions of ends desired or feared” (169). Here, in a model which privileges the monological consciousness of the Cartesian spectator subject, “the body and other people may form the content of my representations” (169), which has the effect of precluding the body and others as constitutive elements of social scientific theorizing. The result is a general methodological individualism and, at its extremes, a crude rational choice theory.

There are contravening forces working to challenge this view. Thinkers such as Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, and Wittgenstein are responsible for recasting the agent “not primarily as the locus of representations, but as engaged in practices, as a being who acts in and on the world” (169-70). For Taylor, our “bodily know-how, and the way we act and move, can encode components of our understanding of self and world” (170). What is significant here is the embodied and social dimensions:

My sense of myself, of the footing I am on with others, is in large part also embodied. The deference I owe you is carried in the distance I stand from you, in the way I fall silent when you start to speak, in the way I hold myself in your presence. Alternatively, the sense I have of my own importance is carried in the way I swagger. Indeed, some of the most pervasive features of my attitude to the world and to others is encoded in the way I protect myself in the public space; whether I am macho, or timid, or eager to please, or calm and unflappable. (171)

If words come at all, they often come after the fact, “coined by more sophisticated others to describe important features of people’s stance in the world (171). Crucial here is the point that “understanding is not, or only imperfectly, captured in our representations.” Rather, understanding a rule “is carried in patterns of appropriate action, which conform to the sense of what is fitting and right,” according to norms that are often “quite unformulated” (171). Representations, Taylor writes, “are only islands in the sea of our unformulated practical grasp on  the world” (170).

Our unformulated practical grasp emerges from our dialogical (though not necessarily language-based) interaction with others. “An action is dialogical,” he writes, “when it is effected by an integrated, nonindividual agent” (172). He provides some examples:

Think of two people sawing a log with a two-handed saw or a couple dancing. A very important feature of human action is rhythming, cadence. Every apt, coordinated gesture has a certain flow. When you lose this, as occasionally happens, you fall into confusion, your actions become inept and uncoordinated … Now in the case of sawing and ballroom dancing, it is crucial that they be shared. They come off only when we can place ourselves in a common rhythm, in which our component action is taken up. This is a different experience from coordinating my action with yours, as for instance when I run to the spot on the field where I know you’re going to pass the ball (171-2)

Following Bourdieu again, Taylor suggests that it is a mistake to take the articulation of a rule as definitive of practice or as revealing its structure. In “defining a rule through a representation of it” we succumb to an appealing but nonetheless pernicious bit of intellectualism by which we posit the newly formulated and idealized representation of a rule as primordial and our actual practical living of the rule as somehow derivative. This mistake “crucially distorts” the nature of rule-following. This should concern social scientists because even a well-meaning preoccupation with normative principles and deliberation over principles can easily lead to the kind of empty formalism and empty talk that, when transposed into politics, tends to stifle rather than promote human agency.

Which brings me, finally, to the friendly amendment I would make to the discussion on bodily know-how and norm-governed life, which is this: norms are contested as well as followed on the register of embodied understanding. To use Taylor’s example of the wood-cutters, it is clear that the two cutters can fall into a rhythm quite naturally and without coordination. Over time this rhythm can become the norm by which they approach sawing in like circumstances, a norm that defies explanation or formulation into some principle. The point I would like to make is that while a contravention of such a norm is no doubt experienced as such, only the grossest of violations would necessitate deliberation. More often than not, one cutter’s contestation of the norm would find its response in the practice itself, not in representations (i.e., arguments, rhetorical appeals, narratives, performances) of the practice.

So, one energetic cutter’s quickening of the pace might be resisted (literally, physically) by the other cutter. This push-and-pull might go on for some time without ever giving rise to a deliberation over the justification or interpretation of the previously established norm. So long as no external restrictions are imposed on the wood-cutters, they are free to establish, contest, modify, and affirm the norms they work by. Most significantly, they do so accordingly to the bodily know-how they cultivated in dialogic interaction with no recourse to representation. Indeed, it’s not clear what is gained in imposing an additional layer of push-and-pull, deliberation, over the practice it purports to articulate. It seems more likely that something is obscured.