Some Wittgensteinian Comments on Human Rights
A Response to Dr. Williams


The Lord Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Rowan Williams, has presented his thoughts on human rights and Christianity in a lucid style of writing and, more importantly, using a clear and sensibly pragmatic style of reasoning. As such, his essay is an example for other theologians to follow when they engage in public and political debate.

Dr. Williams deserves credit for correcting the view that Christianity necessarily entails a dualistic conception of bodily existence. Partly due to the misguided efforts of some Christian moralists, it is tempting to connect the Christian heritage to the dualistic conception of bodily existence stemming from Plato’s Phaedrus. According to Phaedrus¹, the human soul or psyche is an eternal substance, its proper mode is contemplative, and its contingent connection to the body is in all kinds of ways a misfortune, to be rectified by death. As is well known, Cartesianism provided a decisive philosophical formulation of dualism, and in many ways it continues to haunt modern thought—especially in the guise of various forms of mysticism or philosophical obscurantism. We should oppose this dualist tradition, as Dr. Williams rightly does, with the teachings of Aquinas, whatever we can derive from an analysis of the Biblical tradition and the writings of the later Ludwig Wittgenstein.

However, what I do want to criticise is the way in which Dr. Williams connects ‘bodily existence’ with the notion of non-negotiable or universal rights. I will do so from a broadly Wittgensteinian perspective—an approach which has the merit of providing an ‘immanent critique’ of Dr. Williams’s straightforwardly Wittgensteinian viewpoints.


Dr. Williams recognises that the discourse of universal human rights faces serious philosophical challenges and makes an approving reference to Alisdair MacIntyre’s argument: the language of rights is the only tool that the individual has to challenge the supremacy and bureaucracy of the state—and, as such, it is inherently embedded in any political struggle; however, to recognise something as a mere tool of political struggle is to deprive it of its claims to universality. This flatly contradicts the universality of human rights.

Dr. Williams, however, applies the following line of argument to (re)establish their universality: a necessary and universal fact about humans is their embodiment. This embodiment brings with it certain imperatives: to respect the fact that others are similarly embodied, to respect this embodiment as a site of meaning and, ultimately, to attribute universal rights to these beings. The very fact that we are embodied is supposed to imply that a certain practice of political language—the language of human rights—is justified.

While I see no reason to doubt this premise, there is good reason to be sceptical about the inference: why would a specific view on bodily existence necessitate any particular political discourse?

Let’s look at the premise: ‘[m]y own relation to my body is not that of an owner to an object; and to recognise another material thing as a human body is to recognise that it is not reducible in this way to an object among others’ . It is not just that my body is absolutely mine in a sense that contrasts with ‘my car’ or ‘my shoes’—rather, it is that the whole idea of ownership is inappropriate. Rather than owning a body, I am embodied. This makes a strict dualism between soul and body à la Descartes untenable. My soul is not a ‘speaking and thinking thing’ that exists alongside my body as Descartes would have it—rather, the body is inherently the vehicle of my soul and thought. My soul is fully expressed in my body; the body is the inherent vehicle of my soul’s communication. The body is the site of meaning.

At least from a Christian-Wittgensteinian perspective, we must concur with the validity of this point regarding bodily existence. But what sort of political content does this idea carry? How is this idea supposed to determine, in any way, the way we perceive human rights? Vague political or ethical content is not enough—Dr. Williams is aiming much higher; he is aiming for a ‘grounding of the discourse’ of rights and to show that ‘rights have to be more than pure assertion or […] necessary fictions to secure a maximal degree of social harmony’. Here, we ought to ask ourselves: how could anything as complex and politically heated as universal political rights follow from a thesis about how we are embodied?

It’s a basic flaw of Dr. Williams’s essay that he provides no answer to this question, which makes his argument seem like speculative philosophy at its worst. It is as if the philosopher discovers a hitherto overlooked, yet necessary, fact about humans, and then concludes that certain political measures must be implemented. The basic weakness of such a speculative line of reasoning is that it ignores the inherent friction between necessary facts and historical phenomena: necessary facts are supposedly eternal or timeless, while the emergence of the discourse of universal human rights is a concrete historical phenomenon peaking in 1948 with The Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

What we need here is, in general, an account of how the ahistorical and universal relates to the historical and particular. What we can require, in specific, is at least a sketch of their relation in the special case of human rights—a sketch that Dr. Williams significantly omits.

More important than these omissions is the fact that Dr. Williams’s argument is at odds with a very well founded distinction within philosophy: namely, the fact/value-distinction. This distinction, in its most fundamentally Humean form, states that ought cannot be derived from is. We cannot derive from the fact that such-and-such is the case that such-and-such ought to be the case. We cannot move from the fact that taxes are in fact high to the political imperative that they ought to be lower. And Dr. Williams does, indeed, make an inference of the same form: we are in fact embodied in a particular way and, hence, we ought to respect the universality of human rights.

The fact/value distinction relies on the assumption that factual and moral claims are justified in radically different ways. It has, however, become fashionable to deny this assumption and the ‘moral realism’ which results from such a denial has become increasingly tenable, as is seen in the works of John McDowell in analytical philosophy and Raymond Boudon in contemporary continental philosophy².

Denying the fact/value distinction does not, however, answer the question as to how any inference about human rights can be made from the fact of human embodiment. In the more liberal terms that Wittgenstein employs, which do not respect a rigid fact/value-distinction, we are still left with the question of how the norms surrounding talk about our bodies can imply anything about how we ought to talk about rights. Both are entirely different language games—why should the norms of one language-game affect those of an entirely separate discursive practice?

It is important to note that Dr. Williams is indeed urging us to make a change. In our current discursive practices, it is not obviously nonsense to deny that a person has rights in the same sense that it is nonsense to deny that a person is embodied. To say that “Dr. Williams went for a walk, but unfortunately he had no body” is nonsense. This concatenation of personal pronouns or personal names and the terms designating their bodies has no ordinary use and is in violation of the very meaning of its constituent terms. Conversely, it is seems perfectly sensible to say: “Dr. Williams wants a fair trial, but unfortunately he has no rights”. Such a concatenation of personal pronouns or personal names and the concept of a right has a use. Indeed, its use is widespread: for example in identifying the cases in which the standards of the Western justice system have not been meet. We may disagree with the fact that such-and-such person possess no rights in such-and-such situations, but it is not nonsensical to assert that such-and-such person has no rights in such-and-such a situation. Our expressed disagreement with situations in which persons are not treated with dignity and as possessing rights is very real, but it doesn’t seem to be a necessary fact; rather it seems to be the shibboleth of a certain political stance.

In summary, Dr. Williams’ essay does not answer the puzzles related to the friction between the universally necessary and historically particular, the fact/value-distinction to the supposed connection between two heterogenous discourses, nor does he even mention the problems involved in making the inferences that he does. This is a serious flaw.


I’ve been asking for a justification of the connection between ‘bodily existence’ and ‘human rights’ made by Dr. Williams. However, Dr. Williams seems to think that part of his argument is ‘beyond justification’. And, in doing so, he employs the Wittgensteinian dictum that ‘justification comes to an end somewhere’. Turning to a more exegetical vein, I would like to show how this is a highly misleading reading of Wittgenstein.

In a significant passage, which partially quotes Sabina Lovibond’s interpretation of Wittgenstein, Dr. Williams writes that: ‘‘Justification’, producing reasons for doing this rather than that, comes to an end, she argues, ‘not because we get bored with it, but because rational discourse unfolds within a setting not chosen by ourselves’—a setting which she, with both Wittgenstein and Hegel, associates with the fact of embodiment.’ This setting, ‘not chosen by us’, is what Wittgenstein called a ‘form of life’. Forms of life are connected with justification, since ‘forms of life’ have to be treated as given. And Dr. Williams further states: ‘To speak of non-negotiable rights is to attempt some explication of this ‘not chosen’ dimension of our reality.’

Dr. Williams’s argument is, as always, clear: talk of non-negotiable rights is an attempt at bringing out a fundamental feature of being human and being embodied, a feature that stands in no need of justification, since it is an integral part of human form of life. This human form of life contains ‘the imperative to allow the body the liberty to say what it means to say’.

The problem with this argument is that it blatantly misuses Wittgenstein’s concepts: it utilises the features of these concepts that propel Dr. Williams’s argument —the ‘no-need-for-justification’ and the ‘basically-human’ features —and illegitimately attaches talk of rights to these concepts. Importing content pertaining to non-negotiable rights into these Wittgensteinian themes is, quite simply, in error.

Traditional and, indeed, a good bulk of modern philosophy conceived of justification in terms of reference to other statements and, ultimately, to a set of basic axioms, principles or universals. Wittgenstein’s account differs in giving a pragmatic feature to the theme of justification – namely, in connecting it to action. Wittgenstein was fond of quoting Goethe’s reversal of the Gospel—“In the Beginning was the Deed”³—and in a famous key passage of the Philosophical Investigations he states: “If I have exhausted the justifications I have reached bedrock, and my spade is turned. Then I am inclined to say: “This is simply what I do””?. We might wonder how ‘this is simply what I do’ constitutes a justification. Indeed, in what sense actions or activities can justify seemingly different things such as statements or forms of language? Is it not precisely part of Wittgenstein’s aim to give up the philosophical fetish for justification?? In any case, the Wittgensteinian theme of (non)justification is not, as stated by Dr. Williams in the quoted passage, connected with the theme of embodiment but rather with a general notion of activity.

The fact that we are embodied in the ‘no-ownership’ way, as correctly characterized by Dr. Williams, is part of what we may call our ‘form of life’. But the notion of a form of life is much broader than that and yet it doesn’t contain anything like the political notions implied by Dr. Williams: ‘the imperative to allow the body the liberty to say what it means to say’ [emphasis mine].

With regards to a ‘form of life’, Wittgenstein’s emphasis is again on activities: a ‘form of life’ is a bundle of activities. It is, as Wittgenstein suggests in Zettel, “the whole hurly-burly of human action”?. Or, as he more precisely states in Remarks on the Philosophy of Psychology, the notion of a form of life contains “the fact that we act in such-and-such ways, e.g. punish certain actions, establish the state of affairs thus-and-so, give orders, report, describe colours, take interest in the feelings of others.”?

Like Wittgenstein, Dr. Williams also points out that taking an interest in the feelings of others, broadly conceived, seems like something fundamentally human—indeed, such relations to other embodied humans is the basic premise of Dr. Williams’s argument. And surely it might be hard, if not downright unintelligible, to imagine a world in which we don’t take interest of some kind in, say, the severe physical pains of others. There are, however, good reasons not to connect non-negotiable or universal rights with the notion of a form of life.

Firstly, the notion of a form of life does not have a transcendental status. A form of life is not a fixed condition that imposes demands on our actions or cognitions in a universal and transcendental fashion similar to Kant’s. Quite the opposite—the notion is meant to detranscendentalise such conditions by showing their relativity to a fluid human practice, which is subject to change.

Secondly, although a form of life includes very natural activities such as walking, eating, drinking, playing, the notion is not meant to capture conditions that are universally applicable to a human being qua a specific biological species. Rather, the bulk of activities that are included in a form of life are cultural; they are forms of social interaction. Hence, the form of life changes when a culture evolves or when social interaction takes on a new form.

Thirdly, the notion of a ‘form of life’ is to be inflected in the plural: there is no the form of life, but several different forms of life. It is a recurrent theme in the later writings of Wittgenstein to imagine tribes and cultures with radically different ways of evaluating inferences and actions.? That is, the notion is not meant to point out human traits which are cross-culturally invariant.

Fourthly, a form of life is not something that forces us to engage in a specific form of language. There is no necessity about engaging in a specific language game—either we engage a language game or we don’t; either a community of speakers describe colours or they don’t. A form of life is a setting for our language, the setting in which our language acquires significance, not something that forces us to take on a specific form of language.

It is by now clear that if the notion of a ‘form of life’ is not transcendental, not universally species-specific, culturally variant and does not force us to adopt a specific form of language, then Dr. Williams’s connection between this ‘form of life’ and non-negotiable and universal rights is highly inappropriate and misleading. The idea that there is a sort of basic and universal ‘setting’, which can make us take on a particular form of language—the language of rights in this case—is utterly wrong.

In fact, I hope to imply a more substantial point. Namely, that if the Wittgensteinian notion of a ‘form of life’ and its constitutive and grounding nature is to be accepted, then the notion of non-negotiable and universal rights is suspicious tout court. If what has to be accepted as given for language to function at all—i.e. forms of life—does not display the feature of being universal and cross-culturally invariant in content, then there is no reason to think that we have to adopt a language of human rights that has a cross-culturally invariant and universally valid content in the first place.

As a final remark, I want to prevent a possible objection that can be made to the sceptic line of argument about forms of life and human rights just elaborated: “Forms of life may be and are indeed different across cultures. No one needs reminding that cultures in which caste-systems are integral find it very natural to treat people of different castes very differently in terms of rights; even the people belonging to lower castes may accept this as perfectly natural. But arguing from the actual differences between cultures is no good, since this does not preclude a rational procedure in which these differences might be settled and oriented towards universal human rights.” The objection is perfectly valid as it stands; de facto divergences in forms of life do not imply de jure divergences of forms of life. What needs to be seen, however, is that this argument is a double-edged sword, since if actual divergences in forms of life or values are irrelevant, then so are the actual convergences of values and the similarity of forms of life. In fact, this objection puts the proponent of universal human rights worse off than he started.


¹ Plato, Phaedrus, esp. 229-30, 245-6. I am here heavily relying on the aspects of Phaedrus and The Republic brought forward by Cameron 1979, esp. p. 60
² See McDowell 1979 and Boudon 2001
³ E.g. Wittgenstein 1980a: 65: “The origin and primitive form of the language game is reaction, only from this can the more complicated forms grow. Language – I want to say – is a refinement; ‘in the beginning was the deed’.”
? Wittgenstein 1953: §217
? E.g. Wittgenstein 1953: §289: “To use a word without justification does not mean to use it without right.”
? Wittgenstein 1967: §567
? Wittgenstein 1980b: §630
? See for instance, Wittgenstein 1978: 91-4


Agamben, Giorgio 2005: The State of Exception, United States of America: The University of Chicago Press
Boudon, Raymond 2001: The Origin of Values, New Jersey: Transaction Publishers
Cameron, J.M. 1979: ‘Bodily Existence’ in Proceedings of the Catholic Philosophical Association, vol. 53 (1979), p. 59-70
McDowell, John 1979: ‘Virtue and Reason’ in Monist (1979), vol. 62, p.331-50
Putnam, Hillary 1995: Pragmatism – An open question, Oxford: Blackwell
Schmitt, Carl 1922: Politische Theologie, Munich-Leipzig: Duncker & Humbolt
Wittgenstein, Ludwig 1953: Philosophical Investigations, Oxford: Blackwell
Wittgenstein, Ludwig 1967: Zettel, Oxford: Blackwell
Wittgenstein, Ludwig 1978: Remarks on the Foundations of Mathematics, Oxford: Blackwell
Wittgenstein, Ludwig 1980a: Culture and Value, Oxford: Blackwell
Wittgenstein, Ludwig 1980b: Remarks on the Philosophy of Psychology – Volume 1, Oxford: Blackwell

  • About

    Thomas Presskorn was educated at the Copenhagen Business School, where he received a BA in Economics and Philosophy. He received his MSc in Philosophy of Social Sciences from the LSE. He now teaches Linguistics and Philosophy of Science at Copenhagen Business School and is an Editor for Bedeutung Magazine.

    His essay 'Some Wittgensteinian Comments on Human Rights' appears in Bedeutung Magazine Issue 2/ Human & Divine, available here for purchase.