published on December 22, 2018
Mark Thomas Young
Artifacts as Rules
Wittgenstein and the Sociology of Technology
My goal in this article is to explore the extent to which the conception of rule-following which emerges from Wittgenstein’s later works can also yield important insights concerning the nature of technological practices. In particular, this article aims to examine how two interrelated themes of Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations can be applied in the philosophical analysis of technology. Our first theme concerns linguistic practice; broadly construed, it is the claim that the use of language cannot be understood as determined by a system of context independent rules. The second, interrelated theme emerges as a consequence of the first; that the meaning of language is rendered indeterminate when analyzed in isolation from contexts of practice. Following the common tendency in the sociology of technology to draw analogies between language and technology, I aim to show how the arguments that Wittgenstein makes for these two claims concerning language can also help us to understand the relation between technical artifacts and technological practices. For, similar to Wittgenstein’s account of rules, it will be shown how artifacts cannot be adequately understood in isolation from a wider background of skillful practice and interpretation. To illustrate this idea, we will examine the case of the Geiger counter, with a view towards illustrating how important aspects of the function of the device are rendered indeterminate when assessed on the basis of physical design alone.