Encyclopedia of Educational Philosophy and Theory

2017 Edition
| Editors: Michael A. Peters

Wittgenstein, Language, and Instinct

Reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-287-588-4_407



The piece has been designed to draw the reader in with this opening paragraph. I don’t want to set out an introduction along the lines of “I shall address the topic of X. I shall first do A, then B, then C.” The reason is that I want to lead the reader more carefully into seeing the connections here.

Causation and Thinking

One thing causes another. This simple thought is basic not only to science but to our ordinary understanding of the world. But where does the concept of a cause come from? It has become mainstream to the philosophy of science that causation is not something discovered through experimentation but rather a principle according to which phenomena are interpreted. What, then, is its basis? Clap your hands in front of the face of the baby and her eyes will shut. The same happens with the adult. This is not the application of the concept of a cause. It is an instinctive reaction, and causation is inherent in this. One can build up from such examples to the developing infant’s being pushed off balance by someone and naturally pushing back, or to her noticing that the piece of string that is wriggling on the floor in front of her is being pulled at the other end by the cat.

“That this is the case is at the heart of “Wittgenstein: the relation of language to instinctive behaviour,” an influential paper by Norman Malcolm, Wittgenstein’s student, interpreter, and friend” (Malcolm 1982). The fallacy that Malcolm identifies is that of thinking that there must be a universal rule, in conjunction with which, at each instance of its application, a potential doubt arises as to whether the rule is satisfied by the events in question, and that this rule must be present from the start in our use of causal expressions. The target is, more or less, the fantasy that in our thinking we are like super-scientists, meticulous in removing any doubt that might jeopardize the identification of a causal process in any particular instance. In fact, not even meticulous scientists operate like this – not because they are not meticulous enough, but because thinking in terms of causes could not operate in this way. And we could scarcely think without a notion of causation.

How, then, are we otherwise to account for what is happening? The crucial move for Malcolm is to put emphasis on instinctive or primitive reactions, and this achieves two things: first, it shows that, in seeing things in causal terms, there is “no uncertainty, guessing, conjecturing, conferring, concluding,” and, second, it drives home the point that such reactions are actions, with causal expressions such as “He knocked me down” grafted onto these immediate reactions. In other words, our ordinary perceptions of the world are not of pixelated instants seen cumulatively such that they add up to a picture or snapshots grafted together after the event. They are instead holistic from the start, such that perception is thematized or given a certain narrative structure, minimal though this may well be: the cat is pulling the string. In fact, to see the cat is already to react in thematized or narrative terms: cats are playful; they are living creatures capable of pain; they are pets to be cherished and stroked, etc. Something similar could be said of the string. Moreover, one cannot give any coherent account of action without this structure being, as it were, built in. There are occasions, perhaps many, where we are uncertain how to act. But all this occurs on the basis of a vast range of reactions in which hesitation and doubt play no part. “The primitive form of the language-game is certainty, not uncertainty,” Wittgenstein writes. “For uncertainty could never lead to action. The basic form of the game must be one in which we act” (Wittgenstein 1969, §421; hereafter referenced as OC §). So it is also with names. At the start of the Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein quotes from St Augustine’s Confessions where the idea is expressed that initial language learning takes place through ostensive definition: someone points to the cat and says “cat,” and the child picks up the expression; the child associates the name with the thing. Now this is indeed what partly happens – more obviously in second-language learning. But in first language learning it can be at most part of the picture: so much else needs to take place, for without this how can the child begin to know what the point is of pointing and naming (how can they learn what pointing, etc., is?). Wittgenstein’s answer, as is well known, is that the child must be initiated into a variety of language games, where “language game” is taken to refer not only to the language but to the actions into which it is woven (Wittgenstein 1968, §7; hereafter referenced as PI§, or PI, pg.): the basis of the language game lies in action. It is worth reflecting on the fact that the small child does not learn words such as “cup” and “spoon” first as names for objects but rather in a more imperative form – that is, as compressions of “bring me the cup,” “use the spoon,” and so on. The holistic nature of this, in the broader context of eating, for example, is such that it is far from being a frozen moment but is dynamic and structured already by assumptions of causation. The differentiation and refinement progressively achieved with language emerges from prelinguistic reactions.

Language and Instinct

Malcolm’s discussion of causation constitutes an important element in his broader account of language’s emergence from instinctive behavior. Let me summarize the argument. A recurrent theme in Wittgenstein’s later writings is that language did not emerge from reasoning (OC, §475) but rather from simple reactions – reactions, for example, to pain. First-person pain expressions (“ouch!” “it hurts”) constitute new pain behavior (PI, §244). They are not the result of reasoning or of thought but are to be understood rather as immediate. This thought is extended in relation to the pain of others, such that tending another’s wound or saying “he’s in pain” is also to be seen as the refinement of instinct: “it is a primitive reaction to tend, to treat, the part that hurts when someone else is in pain, and not merely when oneself is” (Wittgenstein 1967, §540; hereafter referenced as Z §). Such behavior is the prototype and not the result of thinking. Reports of and responses to pain plainly become further refined as language advances, from the advent of temporal expressions (“it hurts less than yesterday”) to the development of precision instruments such as thermometers, which themselves must be calibrated in some way to human natural reactions.

At the heart of Malcolm’s account is a discussion of causal expressions, which stresses the fact that a reaction to a cause can be immediate. It is not a matter of the “second-order” conjecturing, etc., referred to above: it is action. Moreover, it is misleading to say that the child will acquire “the concept” of cause-and-effect: the idea of an “essence of causation” would obscure the variety of uses of causal expressions. Furthermore, instinctive reactions would be one source of the learning of causal expressions. The child does not learn that there are books and armchairs but learns to fetch books and sit in armchairs (OC, §476). Belief in these things’ existence is to be construed in terms not of some kind of conceptual or primarily cognitive grasp but of this behavior in these circumstances. The belief is not a “source” of the behavior.

This account of language that emerges contrasts sharply, then, with such influential theories as those of Noam Chomsky and Jerry Fodor, and indeed with more recent ideas developed in neuroscience. While it is true that the nervous system of a human being is innate, it is a fallacy and ultimately vacuous to suppose that neural processes constitute a “language of thought” or a “representational system” (see also Williams and Standish 2015). No doubt it is true also that the position developed here is at odds with a vast range of thinking in psychology and linguistics that has contributed to ideas of language development.

But Malcolm’s purpose goes beyond this. It is not just that the child’s early language is grafted onto instinctive behavior. In fact, the adult’s complex employment of language embodies, strange though it may seem, something resembling instinct. A step forward can be made with this apparently extraordinary claim if we pause over the Pascalian thought that our nature is convention. If human beings are understood in purely biological terms, this will not begin to approach what it is that constitutes human life. We shall understand human beings on a par with the way we understand other life forms in biological terms. To understand the human being beyond this involves attending to language and culture, and these are matters of convention: biologically, a human being without some kind of initiation into these things is scarcely recognizable as human. This helps to show that the human being cannot be understood in purely naturalistic terms. It shows also, perhaps, that while so much of this will be learned, it later becomes woven into a fabric of reactions and responses that have the spontaneity of instinct. Malcolm’s way of moving the discussion forward here is to focus on such claims of G.E. Moore as that he knows he is wearing clothes or knows he is in a room presenting a paper. The fact that Moore is wearing clothes – given the culture he is in, etc. – might be understood as something of which he has instinctive awareness: it is not something that, under normal circumstances, he could reasonably be said to check. If he were to check, this would be interpreted a sign not of conscientiousness but of mental disturbance. In this sense, then, as Malcolm argues, echoing Wittgenstein, it is not something that he can be said to “know” or to be “certain of.” It is not something he could ordinarily be mistaken about. And here distinctions between the empirical and the conceptual begin to break down. Does our use of words have an empirical basis? In a sense, yes, because we have learned them, and the particular language we learned was a contingent matter. But our relation to that background is not anything we would need to check. Our words are there for us in a way that we cannot ordinarily doubt, as close as our skin, as it were. The words stand fast for us.

In fact, as Malcolm goes on to say, such absence of doubt is there in any learning: there is necessarily this background of spontaneous reaction to a cause. Contra Jerry Fodor, for example, one does not need to form a hypothesis before one acts. You learn words (“Sit on the chair”) before you can employ them. The absence of doubt can be called instinctive because it is not learned. Standing on two feet was something that at one time one learned, but when one rises from a chair, one does not first check that one has two feet. Hence, there is an outgrowth from unthinking behavior that permeates and surrounds all human acting.

Animal and Beyond

Wittgenstein conceives of the absence of doubt as “something that lies beyond being justified or unjustified; as it were, as something animal” (OC, §358–359). To speak of knowledge or conviction or acceptance, etc., is not really appropriate in these circumstances as these expressions have their roles within specific language games: they are not appropriate when it comes to explaining the basis of all language games. In fact all such psychological terms lead us away from what is important here, from this “unthinking, instinctive behaviour” that, as Malcolm puts it, underlies all language games (p. 17). Wittgenstein makes the point in terms at once more stark and more graphic: “The fact that I use the word ‘hand’ and all the other words in my sentence without a second thought, indeed that I should stand before the abyss if I wanted so much as to try doubting their meanings – shows that the absence of doubt belongs to the essence of the language-game…” (OC, §370). This instinctive behavior is like the squirrel’s gathering of nuts or the cat’s watching a mouse hole. Can the child who is told to sit on a chair and responds appropriately be said to know what a chair is? What of the dog that is told to sit? Learned discriminative behavior does not depend upon mental states that “explain” the response: mental states are not the basis of mastery of language, for all psychological concepts have their basis in ways of acting.

It is plain, then, that Malcolm’s Wittgensteinianism militates against the Cartesian legacy – against mentalistic accounts of human being and against cognitivism as it has been found in psychology and education for most of the past century. There is every reason to support the broad direction of this critique, and certainly the emphasis on reactions and on the animal is a powerful driving force. But this position is open to question on grounds of a quite different kind.

It was suggested earlier that the above account gains plausibility if it is acknowledged that, paradoxical though it initially sounds, the nature of the human being is convention. But the account naturalizes convention. In its sustained attack on mentalistic thinking, it frames language within the terms of the animal – that is, as a refinement of natural reactions, from the blinking of an eye and the adjustment of one’s balance to primitive reactions of sympathy when others are in pain. There is some truth to this, perhaps especially in phylogenetic terms. It understands the rule-following of language and so much ordinary behavior in terms of knowing how to go on in the same way; there is truth to this too, especially in the light of the vast background of consistency in our linguistic and social behavior. But there is no need to deny this in order to recognize something else – something that is of unique importance for education but also, in fact, for the understanding of human lives as a whole. This is that the signs human beings produce, with which and through which they live, are of a different order from those made by other animals. The signs of animals in general (and clearly we are speaking primarily about the higher animals) operate with a kind of push-pull regularity, sophisticated in varying ways but limited in the range of their possibility. Lions roar at one another in different ways, and their young learn this behavior. It is passed on from generation to generation. The lions roar, reproduce, eat, and sleep, and over time things remain the same. Human beings communicate through signs also, but their signs are of a quite different order. Human signs – words and gestures – are such as to admit open possibilities of response: chains of association and connection, and infinite possibilities of interpretation. The human sign is not of the order of a here-and-now but depends upon a distancing from things that can refer precisely to what is not present here and now, which in turn conditions what “here” and “now” can mean. And it is crucial that it can refer: language is generated where it is possible to say things about the world. Indeed, it is through language that the world comes into view. World, in the sense that we ordinarily mean it, is language dependent, and so too, of course, is the human being. Being open to association and connection in the way indicated, words do not remain within a closed circle of exchange: On the contrary, they become the engine of culture, the very possibility of new departure, and in a sense the essence of education; and such can be seen in ordinary conversation, which can take directions that are not anticipated and produce effects as yet unknown.

The world the child comes into is not a world of similar beings, all making early moves in the refinement of natural reactions. It is a world where there are grown-ups with language full-blown. A consequence of this is that when the child is told to sit on a chair, their early understanding, which produces the correct behavior, occurs against a background that is at present, so to speak, above them. It occurs against refined cultural practices of sitting on chairs and having dinner or watching television or attending to a lecture… Without this framing from the top down, as it were, how could such practices be rightly understood? On this account then, the child’s developing reactions, behavior, and language can be understood only in limited terms from below. This is not so much the case for the lion-cub for which the relevant signs are finite and circumscribed in their usage, as are the activities to which they relate. Not to mark this distinction between the animal and the human is to submit to a naturalism that falls short of what it is to be a human being. It is certainly the case that Wittgenstein said much in his last writings that would support such a view – perhaps because of the vehemence of his condemnation of Cartesianism and of the mentalistic philosophy of mind that persisted so stubbornly during his lifetime. But it is a mistake to confine the interpretation of his work to these passages, and there is much elsewhere in what he says that gestures towards a less naturalistic view. “My attitude to him is an attitude towards a soul. I am not of the opinion that he has a soul” (PI II, iv, p. 152). “The human body is the best picture of the human soul” (Ibid.). What is to be made of remarks such as these, or of the following from a few pages earlier in the same text?

One can imagine an animal angry, frightened, unhappy, happy, startled. But hopeful? And why not?

A dog believes his master is at the door. But can he also believe his master will come the day after to-morrow? – And what can he not do here? – How do I do it? – How am I supposed to answer this? (PI II, i, p. 148).

In the face of such questions, the emphasis on language as a refinement of natural reactions seems of limited use, to say the least. In fact, however cogent its rejection of mentalistic pictures of psychological states, it seems here to miss the point.

Saying Things

A further question can also be raised against Malcolm, and perhaps against Wittgenstein, about how far the overemphasis in the account teeters on the brink of being wrong. Our everyday relation to words is such, it is said, that they stand fast for us and we do not call them into question. Yet this is plainly not true for everything we say. It is a common experience to find oneself at times unable to choose one’s words well or simply at a loss as to what to say. Moreover, there is the eerie experience of repeating a word over and over again until it becomes difficult to connect it with its usual reference or at least until that connection no long seems as natural as it did. Not to acknowledge this is to fail to recognize a degree of violence that exists in our coming into language, which both distances us from our animal-like, prelinguistic, seamless involvement in things present and opens for us a kind of alienation, the condition for entry into the world of human beings. Wittgenstein surely had some sense of this, with his remarks, for example, about the physiognomy of words (PI, §568; p. 155, 179, and 186), strange and surreal as these to some extent are, and with his respect for the human tendency to run up against the limits of language. But the philosopher who has most extended this line of thought is surely Stanley Cavell, whose purpose is other than the skeptic’s but whose concern is with the all too human tendency to call into doubt the human condition. Language seems as close as one’s skin, but at times one can feel oneself to be in the wrong skin, or perhaps find that the clothes one is no doubt wearing are not in fact one’s own.

There is, however, a further, more powerful reason to resist the above account, and here the criticism may be leveled not only at Malcolm but at Wittgenstein himself. Rush Rhees, also himself a student, interpreter, and friend of Wittgenstein, took issue with Malcolm over the paper that has been the main subject of this discussion but also criticized Wittgenstein more broadly in respect of his account of language. For all the brilliance of his understanding of language, Wittgenstein had failed to pay attention to the fact that, when the child learns to speak, she can say things. She discovers that she can say things about the world. In a sense, as was indicated earlier, it is only through this that the world comes into view. In learning that she can say things, she learns also that this is something she can share with others. She participates, perhaps clumsily at first, in this possibility: she can make judgments and test them against others; through this she comes to see that we have a common world, contested though its nature will continually be. No amount of attention to “knowing how to go on” or to what it is to follow a rule will account for this aspect of language, which Rhees understands as something that conditions language as a whole and makes it a whole. The emphasis on language games rightly stresses the variety of things we do with words, but it risks hiding this unique importance of language for human beings. Overemphasizing the basis of language in the primitive reaction can only hide this some more.


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© Springer Science+Business Media Singapore 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.UCL Institute of EducationLondonUK