Frames /sing


What the Right Hand Giveth…

Anarchic Hand Syndrome and Wittgenstein’s notion of Subject and Privacy

N. N., a thorough going defender of Wittgenstein over at Methods of Projectionbrings up a supposed “refutation” of Wittgenstein offered by Barry Smith, in the example of Alien Hand and Anarchic Hand Syndromes. These medical examples seem to run counter to our main intuitions about the conceptual integrety of our bodies, and thus our identities, and as such produce tension in some of Wittgenstein’s Grammatical arguments which depend on a certain logic of Self.

This was my response to Smith’s examples, and some of the comments that followed. Apart from the points being made at that site, it seems that Anarchic Hand Syndrome (a form of apraxia wherein one’s hand is experienced to have an mind of its own) reflects most directly upon Wittgenstein’s section 268, from the Philosophical Investigations:

Why can’t my right hand give my left hand money? — My right hand can put it into my left hand. My right hand can write a deed of gift and my left hand a receipt — But the further practical consequences would not be those of a gift. When the left had has taken the money from the right, etc., we shall ask: “Well, and what of it? ” And the same could be asked if a person had given himself a private defintion of a word: I mean, if he has said the word to himself and at the same time has directed himself to a sensation

PI section 268

Here Wittgenstein (mysteriously) ties his Private Language argument to a supposedly meaningless exchange between hands (an impossibility that we take to be grammatical, I suppose). In anarchic hand syndrome the full silliness of hand-to-hand exchange becomes less obvious. Indeed there are consequences for such exchanges, which could read as a “gift” (imagine someone with multiple personalities). When the logic of the Private Language argument is foregrounded in the assumed impossibility, the ultimate question of the integrity of the “subject”, even at the grammatical level, is opened up.

What is one do to when Wittgenstein uses an example which prima facie is supposed to be taken as an absurdity (a frequent rhetorical tool of his), and this absurdity is meant to establish or make clear an “argument”; yet upon looking closely one finds that it is not so absurd in all conditions? Is Wittgenstein “refuted”? This would seem to be a odd thing to say, since he does not present direct arguments per se. What it does say is that if you look closely at the substantive, real-world examples that surround his proposed absurdities, his grammatical arguments become thinner and thinner.

“Come on” Wittgensteinians might say, “you have to read him with charity, you know what he means.” Look closely, but not too closely.

If indeed one can have instances where your right hand can MEANINGFULLY give money to your left hand, and if we are to read the above section on its own terms, does this mean that a Private definition of a word is possible, although unlikely? If not, if counter examples to Wittgenstein’s illustrations don’t count against his arguments, what really is the substances of these arguments anyway?

As for “consequences” we certainly can imagine that in a court of law someone could be held “not guilty” of murder, having stabbed someone with their anarchic hand, while it still could be considered their hand in many legal ways (amputation?). A rougue left hand also might also give food to the right hand, or directly to the mouth, with consequences that have strong interpersonal meanings.


Upon reflection, I would say that Wittgenstein (or Wittgensteinians) do not fully embrace the radical historical contingency of Wittgenstein’s notions of grammar, in a trade off which allows a certain degree of normative argument and logical force. What grammar does, in the sense that Wittgenstein uses it, is unseat even the most assured intuitions of sense, since our conditions of use ultimately are those which establish our categories, even categories of Privacy and Self.

3 responses to “What the Right Hand Giveth…

  1. Pingback: Keller’s “Water” and Anarchic Hand Syndrome « Frames /sing

  2. ktismatics November 21, 2008 at 4:26 pm

    This reminds me something I just read last night in Elizabeth Roudinesco’s 2002 Why Psychoanalysis?, in a chapter entitled “Freud is Dead in America.” The story, perhaps apocryphal though footnoted by the author,

    is that of a woman who, with the help of the DSM, had been diagnosed with multiple personality disorder. When she was sexually attacked by a man and took the case to court, the lawyer for the prosecution maintained that she had twentyone personalities and none of them had consented to having sex. The jury and the psychiatrists then had a discussion to ascertain whether this woman’s different personalities would be capable of testifying under oath, and whether or not each of them had her own sexual adventures. In 1990 the man was found guilty because three of the victim’s personalities had testified against him. But following a counterreport, a new trial took place. What had happened was that a number of psychiatrists had claimed that the lady had forty-six personalities rather than twenty-one. So it was necessary to find out whether these new personalities would also testify during the trial. . . .

  3. kvond November 21, 2008 at 6:44 pm

    Yes. Some time ago I read a book by Daniel Keyes, “The Mind of Billy Milligan” , which if I recall tells the tale of the first American court finding of innocence due to multiple personality. SPOILER ALERT:

    The book has remarkable “portraits” painted by each of the personae, OF the other personae, which is really striking. As it turns out, the persona that committed the rapes (in a male body) was actually determined to be a lesbian woman, again, if I recall, as evidenced by her lazy eye (something that only she manifested).

    The point is that despite a philosopher like Hacker’s claim that LOGICALLY only a whole person can be an agent or act, there are many working theories and their sub-divided language games which meaningfully talk about action in OTHER ways. Whether these ascriptions and their theories end up being the “correct” ones, isn’t the point. What the point is is that there are meaningful ways to use language that sub-divide an agent into parts.

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