The Autistic Mind: a Wittgensteinian Account

Robert Chapman

14 May, 2018

@ 6:15 pm - 8:00 pm

Bloomsbury, 50 Bedford Square

London WC1B 3DP


About the Speaker
About the Reporter

About the Speaker

Robert Chapman has recently submitted his PhD thesis 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.



Richard G T Gipps

Robert Chapman describes himself as ‘a “neurodivergent” academic with an interest in emancipatory politics.’ His lecture for the British Wittgenstein Society made apparent the powerful clarity of his reason, his political courage, and his keen instinct in applying Wittgenstein’s late philosophy to the question of the apt conceptualization of autism. What follows is a summary and critique organized around the Wittgensteinian themes upon which he drew.

Mind as Inner

Cognitive accounts of autism attempt its elucidation in terms of maturational failures of innate inner cognitive mechanisms with which we individually make sense of the world. Such cognitivist theorists (e.g. Uta Frith, Francesca Happé and Simon Baron-Cohen) stress individual psychological difficulties with:

  • inferring the mental states of others
  • central coherence
  • context shifting
  • gist getting
  • seeing the wood for the trees

Despite a large amount of research into ‘underlying cognitive mechanisms’, it appears – Chapman told us – that no single cognitive deficit can be found in even the majority of autistic people. This result casts doubt either on:

i) the validity of the diagnosis of autism – something suggested by such neurocognitive researchers as would have the very validity of our psychological concepts be beholden to their cognitivistic explication

or on

ii) the assumption that our mental lives are aptly theorised in such terms.

Opting for the latter, and suggesting that we have now reached 'peak cognitivism’, Chapman directed our attention instead to Wittgensteinian approaches to developmental psychology which see its structures not as innate modules which mature but as capacities which themselves develop through social interaction.

Form of Life

On this alternative (from e.g. Peter Hobson, Colwyn Trevarthen, and  Michael Tomasello) approach, what enables our mental development is our participation in inter-corporeally attuned attachment relationships. These relationships entrain our sensibilities such that we progressively instantiate such routes of interest and social habits as constitute the human form of life. The cognitivist tends to see us as solitary sense-makers trying to:

  • develop ‘theories of mind’ to understand others,
  •  master language through coming to know its putative underlying rules, implicitly master generalisations and particulars to help negotiate our worlds.

(On this approach our explicit or implicit knowing-that is taken to underlie our knowing-how, and weak implicit knowledge may be corrected by learning explicit knowledge.)

The Wittgensteinian alternative, however, sees the neurotypical infant as possessing a disposition to empathic attunement which enables further induction into such non-propositional know-how as constitutes our growing participation in the human form of life. (On this approach our knowing-how is understood to underlie our knowing-that, and the concept of implicit knowing- is foresaken. Correlatively, the task of compensating for lack of know-how with a large amount of know-that will have its limits and pitfalls, on which more later.) This participation further attunes and scaffolds the development of the neurotypical child’s mind. The autistic child, however, cannot ‘connect to the internet and so cannot receive software updates’.

Seeing Aspects

Against such approaches, and following the lead of Victoria McGeer and others, Chapman recalls for us the significance of that version of the concept of ‘form of life’ which takes the plural. Perhaps, that is, the autistic person is not so much as to be understood as failing to enter the human form of life, but as having a form of life which is incompatible in certain ways with the form of life of neurotypical people. This point has a powerful political dimension, suggesting that autism is to be seen not as disorder but as difference. By way of motivating the proposal Chapman drew our attention to the ‘double empathy problem’ (as elucidated by Damian Milton, Luke Beardon, Ian Hacking et al.). This proposes that the disturbance in empathic attunement between autistic and neurotypical individual is bidirectional: the neurotypical person also typically struggles to find his or her feet with the autistic person, whilst autistic people are able to find their feet with one another. Furthermore, especially in a world characterised by online forums, autistic people are increasingly developing their own cultures, and finding themselves with a relieving sense of being ‘in the same tribe’ or ‘living on the same planet’. Examples given were of waving instead of clapping by way of applause, and the use of neologisms such as ‘stimming’ to describe certain autistic behaviours. Such foot-finding was illuminatingly articulated by Chapman in terms of the concept of aspect perception. For example, an autistic person may be able to see certain (humour-registering) aspects of a particular smile, yet fail to grasp others (e.g. the cruelty which underlies it). Another feature of this ‘autism-as-alternative-form-of-life’ approach which distinguishes it from traditional Wittgensteinian approaches is the attention it pays to what autistic people themselves say of their experience.

Epistemic Trust

If someone develops in the ‘wrong’ form of life (an autistic person brought up by neurotypical parents, or vice versa), we can readily understand how it will be hard for them to internalise a repose and trust in their intuitions as to what is, and what is not, secure, salient and significant – in short to be confident in their intuitive point-getting. As Wittgenstein described in On Certainty, our epistemic relations to the world bottom out not in further justified belief but rather in a secure practical engagement with the world and with one another which is not marked by doubt - which in fact must be in place before doubt is even intelligible. Chapman referred to this certainty as ‘epistemic trust’, and its troubling absence as ‘epistemic anxiety’, although in later discussion the term ‘pre-epistemic’ was offered as more apt. A telling example was given of such (pre-)epistemic anxieties in a young girl who was castigated for not thanking her hosts for her food - but who was instead anxiously preoccupied with what for her was the prior question of whether or not her soup even counted as ‘food’.

Bewitchment of Intelligence by Means of Language.

Cognitivist approaches can encourage compensating for what they view as deficits of alleged ‘implicit knowledge’ through explicit rote learning (e.g. Simon Baron-Cohen’s educational DVD of 412 facial expressions of distinctly labelled emotions). Whilst such approaches may sometimes be used to good effect by autistic individuals, Chapman also pointed us to their exhausting and sometimes spiralling costs. For example, it’s possible to be captivated by a conception of language as governed by strict, non-particularistic, rules, and to aim for strict definitions of one’s terms which are to work regardless of context. This, however, is to presuppose a conception of language in which meaning and definition are treated as context-independent. Yet as Wittgenstein noted (think too of Dreyfus’ critique of AI), many of our words are not aptly captured through lists of necessary conditions, and the task of turning implicit context into explicit rules can itself be endless, exhausting, and inspiring of more rather than less anxiety. (In this way Chapman’s account of autism parallels Louis Sass’s Wittgenstein-inspired account of the hyper-reflexive predicament of the schizophrenic person.)

Don’t Think But Look!

To help the autistic individual intuit and see - rather than endlessly and exhaustingly attempt to fathom, infer and systemise - Chapman proposed Wittgenstein’s motto ‘don’t think but look!’ (think too of Stafford Beer’s ‘think before you think!’ maxim). An audience member with experience of autism offered the complementary maxim ‘embrace the chaos’. Tolerating the anxiety of not-getting, whilst waiting for an aspect to dawn at which point the anxiety will settle, rather than reflexively opting for a backfiring anxiogenic attempt at systemising, may sometimes be the preferable strategy.

Critical Reflection

Chapman’s lecture was highly informed, extremely well thought-through, engaging and humane. Questions arose for myself, and in one way or another for certain other audience members, over what emerged as a central issue: whether we do in autism truly meet with one or more alternative forms of life, or instead with a difficulty in entering the human form of life.

The political significance of stressing the former is apparent: by continuing to simply presuppose the latter one may be slighting the humanity of the autistic individual and, in a self-fulfilling manner, preventing the emergence of genuinely alternative cultural practices. Yet the articulation of the mere form of an explanation (autistic people have, or if given the chance can develop, alternative forms of life; they are different, not disabled) should not be mistaken for the provision of an explanation. What we need are a variety of examples which intuitively strike all of us as exemplifying a different way of going on, rather than as exemplifying a way of not really going on at all.

Some of the examples that came up in the talk or in the discussion were not for me yet fully convincing on this point. For example, it was offered that autistic individuals may show a greater preference compared with neurotypical individuals for modern discordant music over classically structured music. However, preference does not equal appreciation grounded in understanding, and it remains unclear that one could grasp the music of, say, Schoenberg unless one already had a living appreciation of the forms it is challenging. (My point is not that autistic people could not have such an appreciation, but rather that whether or not difference counts as more than deficit is not something to be settled merely by appealing to preference!) The same goes for the example of an autistic practice of waving instead of clapping at the end of a performance: is this alternative more than a mere desire to avoid making sounds uncomfortable to the autistic ear yet still to express appreciation – does the sea of waving hands produce a unitary whole which transcends the sum of its parts in a manner equivalent to the clapping for applause of a neurotypical audience? Does a collection of autistic neologisms (‘stimming’ etc) truly constitute an alternative idiolect, and does a desire for certain sensory pleasures (e.g. repetitive stroking) constitute something that truly dignifies designation as an alternative aesthetic? Does the sense of solidarity experienced by autistic members of autistic groups consist in more than the mere relief of now not having to endlessly fathom the alien neurotypical world? Does the awkwardness experienced by neurotypical individuals on entering an autistic space (e.g. an online forum), and not knowing what the rules and conventions are there, remain in place for as long as the discomfort experienced by autistic individuals in a neurotypical environment – or is the informed neurotypical person able to grasp the autistic world in a way which is not so readily reciprocated? Given the way in which a capacity for humour and irony partly constitute one’s humanity and make for character, do we meet with genuine alternatives of these in the autistic person, or with other alternative constituents of what intuitively would be considered bona fide character which are yet uninstantiated by neurotypical individuals? Important and deep philosophical issues to do with the ‘transcendental ‘we’’ lurk here – concerning who is to say, and how we are to tell, whether some particular behaviour counts as a different or instead a failed way of going on.

The power of Chapman’s approach is that it reminds us that, in many cases, we will have to wait and see. As he said, autistic culture is today a much more substantial and emancipated force than it was twenty years ago, and who knows where it will be in twenty years time? The value of his conception of autism as a different form of life is that it helps keep the door to the future open, rather than having it shut by those who can see only deficit. Keeping that door open is of course not merely a practical, but also a profoundly ethical task, since letting it fall back on the face of autism risks dehumanising the autistic person. On the other hand, we may also do well to keep open the idea of autism as a difficulty in fully instantiating the human form of life. By distinguishing between the concept of ‘human’ as an ideal type, and the term ‘human’ as a species designator, a space is cleared for thinking about the ways in which many of us qua species members struggle in different ways and to different degrees to instantiate the human qua ideal type. Yet the humanity of both the witness and the honest and dignified subject is maximally revealed by a perspective shaped by humility and lovingly shown understanding, regardless of the extent to which the witnessed individual struggles to always instantiate the full form of the human.

about the reporter

Chartered Clinical Psychologist

Philosopher – BA/MA(Oxon); PhD (Warwick); Associate of Faculty of Philosophy, University of Oxford.

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