Wittgenstein, Literature, and the Idea of a Practice

British Journal of Aesthetics 50 (4):375-388 (2010)
Abstract
The familiar idea that literature is embedded in social practices that help explain both its existence and its value took a distinctive form in analytic philosophy, drawing on speech act theory and a conception of ‘rules’. A major influence was John Rawls's seminal paper ‘Two Concepts of Rules’ (1955) in which he introduced the ‘practice conception of rules’ according to which certain practices are defined by rules that in turn make possible certain kinds of action. The idea underlies the notion of ‘constitutive rules’ in speech act theory and draws on a comparison with games. The origin of this idea can clearly be traced to Wittgenstein, with his highly original thoughts on practices, rules, and games. Yet the Wittgensteinian influence is not sufficiently acknowledged in this context (that is, the context of literary aesthetics). As someone who holds the idea of a practice or ‘institution’ to be of crucial importance in philosophy of literature, I therefore thought it would be useful to put the record straight and remind ourselves what Wittgenstein says about practices (and games) to see just what the relation is between the roots of that idea (in Wittgenstein) and its current manifestations in literary aesthetics. The results suggest that there is much to be learned from Wittgenstein and that his model might be more fruitful than that of Rawls
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