Learning Code from Wittgenstein [Part 1]


Code goes beyond mere language. Code is simpler than language. But, like all language, all code consists in a rule. Ludwig Wittgenstein offered explanations of how signs and rules of language learning to some extent mitigate inevitable problems of misunderstanding. From his observations on the subject it is possible to conclude that language perplexes greatly only if one thinks too hard about what is going on inside the human mind. In practice, we usually obey the rule we have learned by repeatedly experiencing the context in which words and sentences have been used. 

I will draw a small number of general lessons from Wittgenstein's influential writings on language rule-learning, and adapt them for the purpose of highlighting the domain-specific rule-learning processes encountered in the evolutions of governance. His observations also suggest methods of overcoming the risks of misunderstandings associated with interactional double contingency.

I take from him a lesson that we should be pessimistic about the prospects for understanding true meaning in the minds of individuals, but optimistic about compensating for this deprivation by honing a capacity to learn rules of language. Wittgenstein does not argue that rule-following in language is a surrogate or substitute for real understanding. He offers countless and amusing examples of sources of misunderstandings of meaning in language. The reality faced in everyday operations of interpreting the flow of human utterances is that the mind, which processes the language, is truly impenetrable. 

He says it repeatedly: “The mental process of understanding is of no interest to us”; “After all, you can't expect a human to be more transparent than a closed crate”; “Language is a labyrinth of paths. You approach from one side and know your way about [but] you approach the same place from another side and no longer know your way about”; “Our behaviour is damned complicated, after all”; “Mental processes just are queer”. “We mustn't expect to understand how [these mental] things work”. 

Wittgenstein’s simplest analogy for explaining the rule by which language is learned is referred to in the following passage about chess games. The passage offers more than just guidance on chess. There is in it an entire schema for explaining the role of signs and rules in language, and our obedience to intangible rules that have been learned by usage through experience. 

Wittgenstein: “I have been trained to react to this sign in a particular way, and now I do so react to it … a person goes by a sign-post only in so far as there exists a regular use of sign-posts, a custom … Is what we call "obeying a rule" something that it would be possible for only one man to do, and to do only once in his life? … It is not possible that there should have been only one occasion on which someone obeyed a rule. It is not possible that there should have been only one occasion on which a report was made, an order given or understood; and so on. To obey a rule, to make a report, to give an order, to play a game of chess, are customs … To understand a language means to be master of a technique … Following a rule is analogous to obeying an order. We are trained to do so; we react to an order in a particular way.”

Thus we learn the rules of chess and other games, including language games, through repeated encounters with the game, its language, the settings where it is played, by seeing the shape of the pieces and watching the moves, by asking, by being told how it is done, by naming things, by thinking of symbols and signs for ‘moves’, and by associating what we see with a sensation. You could change the shape of the pieces, or call them different names, in any language, but the rules stay the same. 

In the end, you just obey the rules without thinking too much about it at all. After all, chess can only be defined by its rules — “chess is the game it is in virtue of all its rules”. 

Wittgenstein focused almost exclusively on the signs and grammar processes of language and mathematics. The rules of society, interaction, and governance were not his concern. Yet his examples of difficulties of understanding in language, and statements, such as “you can't expect a human to be more transparent than a closed crate”, illustrate the commonest symptoms of double contingency. Wittgenstein tolerates the complexities of meaning and understanding because he sees them as an infinite number of peculiar difficulties intrinsic to rules of language in specific situations.

It should be emphasised that Wittgenstein did not believe there is a single overarching difficulty of interaction in the formation of social order that is within our ability to repair: 

Wittgenstein: “Who knows the laws according to which society unfolds? I am sure even the cleverest has no idea. If you fight you fight. If you hope you hope.” 

Social scientists cannot be as complacent, however. A society’s survival relies on governance. Governance depends on some remedy to the messiness and confusion of interaction. Many a social scientist would say — Yes we can know the laws according to which society unfolds. If we do not yet know them, we must persevere with the investigation. 

This is what I propose to do with help from Wittgenstein’s innovative pathway through language games — his insights on inference, rules, intuition, and decisions — and by incorporating it in analyses of governance code. 

Michael G Heller  ©2021

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