The Autistic Mind: a Wittgensteinian Account

Robert Chapman

14 May, 2018

@ 6:15 pm - 8:00 pm

Bloomsbury, 50 Bedford Square

London WC1B 3DP

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About the Speaker
About the Reporter

About the Speaker

Robert Chapman is currently writing a PhD at the University of Essex whilst teaching part-time at King’s College London. He primarily works on the philosophy and ethics of autism and neurodiversity, and is working on developing a notion of autistic thriving in his thesis. Beyond the notion of autistic thriving, he draws on feminist philosophy, critical theory, and the phenomenological tradition in order to develop new methods for framing neurodiversity as well to work towards therapeutically dismantling the notion of mental disorder. Beyond his work on neurodiversity, he is also interested in Wittgenstein, Nietzsche, emancipatory politics, and any combination of the above. He mostly teaches ethics but has also taught courses on Wittgenstein, the philosophy of gender, and political thought.



Autism is often seen as a mysterious condition, primarily identified by behaviour but in turn stemming from a different kind of mind. Given this, scientists and philosophers have often tried to clarify its nature by theorising about the nature of autistic thinking, and how it differs from neurotypical thinking. On the one hand, the dominant cognitivist approach frames autism in light of tendencies towards being, say, ‘context blind’ and ‘hyper-systemizing’ in regards to how it processes information. According to such accounts, all autistic traits are directly traceable to failures to process vague or context-dependent phenomena (such as facial expressions or group dynamics), as well to accompanying autistic strengths, such as a capacity to think logically and being less constrained by various framing biases.

Against this cognitivist approach, however, Wittgenstein-inspired commentators have argued that autism should be located more at the intersubjective rather than subjective level. Drawing on Wittgenstein’s remarks on the nature of language, meaning, and spontaneous understanding, this alternative framing suggests that autistic differences arise from being less tuned-in to the attitudes and emotions of others, and in turn to a shared world of meaning. Put another way, on the framing, autistic differences do not arise simply because of different processing, but rather due to the autistic mind being less structured by shared norms – making the essence of autistic difference relational rather than stemming from a neurocognitive property.

Both ways of framing autism end up being overly reductionistic, and overlook the strengths of the other – with the former taking an overly “inside out” approach, and the latter taking an overly “outside in” approach. In this talk, I will further draw on Wittgenstein in order to give a middle-ground that helps us understand autistic thinking more fruitfully. In this regard, I draw on empirical research and first-person accounts from autistic individuals, in order to argue that many autistic problems are better understood as the result of what Wittgenstein called ‘the bewitchment of intelligence by means of language’. In being less attuned to the shared world, I suggest, autistic people often experience phenomena in a vacuum, and in turn, they feel compelled to systemize in order to ground their experiences. Rather than autistic systemizing being the basis of autistic cognition, then, I take it to be a reaction to prior cases of language-bewitchment, and the epistemic anxieties that come with this. In light of this I lastly suggest that Wittgenstein’s therapeutic ethics may help autistic people overcome such problems, thus providing them with the means for heightened clarity of expression and an improved mode of life.


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