The Autistic Mind in Society. A Wittgensteinian Argument Against the Scientific Method in the Social Sciences

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2014

7 Pages, Grade: 8,0


The Autistic Mind in Society

A WittgensteinianArgument Against the Scientific Method in the Social Sciences

“ The thing about being autistic is that you gradually get less and less autistic, because you keep learning, you keep learning how to behave. It's like being in a play; I'm always in a play. ”

― Dr. Temple Grandin[1]


If we were to drop a stone from a bridge we know it will fall down. We know the cause is gravity and the effect will be the stone hitting the ground. Through observation and induction we got to establish the law of gravity and through the method of deduction we can predict every item we drop will, under normal circumstances, is likely to hit the ground.[2] Some philosophers such as Karl Marx or John Stuart Millfor example believe this way of making laws cannot only be applied in the natural sciences but also in the social sciences. From their deterministic viewpoint, the cause of an individual action is either defined by the economic structure or human nature respectively (Hollis, 1994a). The premise is, there is an overarching law human behaviour responds to.

This naturalistic thinking led many philosophers to argue in social sciences there cannot possibly exist definite laws that explain human actions. Besides, that is not the intention of the social sciences. Rather than predicting behaviour, it is the aim to understand the meaning of individual action and relate it to a societal context. This paper aims at defending this position and will exemplify how the existence and effects of autism can be seen as a strong argument in this debate.

It is not an attempt to claim an understanding of autism or explaining in great detail any scientific findings. More so, it is the opposite and the challenge of giving room in philosophy of science for observations that are not understood by a sometimes too provoking dominance of a single scientific community. Insights on autism that are presented here are predominantly taken from reports of the life of Temple Grandin, by many considered the most widely known autistic person worldwide.

The paper firstly invites the reader to consider briefly some key facts about Grandin’s life. Secondly he will find a philosophical analysis based on Wittgenstein’s concept of Language Games and meaning which will be related to insights gained from Grandin’s life and her advices on education and integration of autistic children. What follows is a brief argument why this reasoning can account better for the lives of autistic people than the scientific method could. The conclusionsummarizes the presented argument.

On Temple Grandin

To more closely illuminate why this woman is a special case and deserves to be the center of this discussion, it should be helpful to give a quick overview over her life. In 1950 Temple was as a four year-old girl diagnosed with autism. At this time causes and treatments concerning this deviation were quite different from what is known today. Her mother for example was stigmatized to have caused the autism of her daughter through a lack of care given to her child and autistic children were not meant to access higher education or productively participate in society (TED, 2010). They were mostly perceived as not being capable of doing so. Until Temple was four she did not talk but later obtained her doctors degree in animal science. Among other things she dedicates her life now to engineering of livestock designs, to teaching and holding speeches on autism around the world. Her biography translated into the Grammy winning drama Temple Grandin.

She is known to be a photo-realistic visual thinker who shows difficulties in understanding ‘our verbal and emotional world’. However, her different talent enabled her to design half of the USA´s cattle production sides, which work now in a more humane way thanks to her understanding of cow´s behaviour. On one of her books a Philadelphia inquirer comments: "Remarkable. . . Displaying uncanny powers of observation. . .[Temple Grandin] charts the differences between her life and the lives of those who think in words." The following section tries to give an understanding of what these differences mean for autistic people.

Wittgensteinand the Rules for Autistic people

Wittgenstein is an interpretivist philosopher who embraces the ideas of holism also referred to as structuralism. The core of his idea about games in society is that any meaningful individual behaviouris rule-governed. In contrast to the natural sciences where explanation in the ‘cause-effect sense’ is sufficient to account for occurrences, Wittgenstein argues that for the social sciences one has to dig deeper and seek to understand the meaning of an action (Hollis, 1994b). Because all individual actions are embedded in the social games society ‘plays’. There exist different rules for every different setting and social institutions represent these rules. For people without autism these rules seem to be naturally integrated into their daily lives and it is far easier for them to learn certain rules. To approach, for example,a teacher in the right language is a behaviour easily understood by people without autism.

However, for people like Grandin, it is arguably quite difficult to recognize these emerging social games with their specific rules. As a dominant visual thinker Grandin did not understand for example how French or Algebra work and she got teased throughout her younger years for her seemingly odd movements. The rules she has for associating concepts in pictures or connecting ideas in a different logical order are quite distinct from the rules people without autism apply. On that matter she explains in one of her books: "I like the really logical way that I think. I'm totally logical. In fact, it kind of blows my mind how irrational human beings are,"(TED, 2010). For Grandin, as for many autistic people, it is difficult to understand that people have different rules and communicate another way. In general, for autistic people it is tricky to recognize other people´s feelings and their needs. To socialize, then, becomes a difficult challenge for them.

Considering Wittgenstein´s theory though, for people with autism it is important to follow the constitutive rules of the societal games to be able to participate therein (Hollis, 1994b). Not understanding these means not playing the game at all and thus most likely social exclusion for that person. For Grandin, it is clear that every autistic child needs to get these constitutive rules taught. Today she is very grateful for what she had to learn in her childhood. Her social environment made her get the important skills, the skills society´s rules define. She mentions today, how grateful she is that her mother always made her learn these societal rules (Grandin, 2008). Part of which were strict rules about eating manners, developing her language skills and to always be in contact with other people through social interaction at work and college for example.

Grandin herself sharply criticizes parents of today who would not introduce their autistic childrento social life because it is not within the child´s comfort zone. She believes, autistic people can learn social rules and participate in society as valuable members if they get the right encouragement and attention. How well they will perform in these games, depends on how well they can follow the regulative rules, as defined by Wittgenstein (Hollis, 1994b). Grandin says herself, although highly intelligent, without the right attention by her mother and specific teachers “I probably would have been a handyman, fixing toilets at some apartment building somewhere," (TED, 2010).

For Wittgenstein, the importance lies with finding what is the influence of a social action, it is not about explaining why certain rules govern (Hollis, 1994a). Equally, for autistic people it may not be essential to investigate why society follows certain rules. In order to contribute to society with their special capacities and be recognized by others, it is crucial for them to participate in the social game by learning their rules. Only playing the same game makes it possible to communicate with each other. The agreement on certain rules enables our social cooperation. However, referring to language Wittgenstein notes here: “a word has no meaning if nothing corresponds to it”(Wittgenstein, 1968, p.2). This is true for our verbal language but also our gesture language for example and interpretations of symbols, science, etc. For Grandin, these rules were much harder to grasp as her thinking works on a different level than those of the ‘normal minds’.

In language, we use rules for meaning where ostensive or explicatory methods do not suffice to define a word. The meaning of a word can only be understood in the situational context. Yet, Wittgenstein states that meaning can only exist if the person is capable of using it. Grandin, then, associates a word not with the same rules of the language-game normal minds play. Her association is dominantly visual and thus gives a different meaning to a word. Sayings such as ‘it is raining cats and dogs’ do not evoke the same meaning for her as it does for people without autism. Further, her perception of the form of life of others is strongly limited, observations she does are not concerned with her social environment but more of a structural pattern (Temple Grandin's Official Autism, n.d.).

However, she managed to bring her individual rules step by step in line with those of the dominant society. With the help of the scientific method of proof and following the correct constitutive rules, she could bring her thinking to the broader audience. Conducting experiments in animal care and communicating the results in a rule-defined way made her eventually a credible and respected person. Grandin was lucky to quickly enough learn the right rules of how to make science and integrate her intellectual capacity into what the epistemic community defines as knowledge. The question remains, how can the scientific method explain this development of integration?

Autism and the scientific method

Surely, there might be neuroscientific elements of autism that can be proven or disproven by the scientific method, however, that does not account for how the autistic person is part of society or not. We might here refer back to the aforementioned two naturalists that seek to merge sciences with social sciences. Marx describes economic forces and Mill the individual human nature as the cause for human actions (Hollis, 1994a). Yet, firstly how is the autistic person influenced by economics if its main problem is the mimicking of social norms? Something Wittgenstein describes with the general expectation to conform ones actions to the form of life in question (Hollis, 1994a).Secondly, if to speak of a human nature in general, what is the law for autistic people? Does the scientific method only work for the ‘normal’ kind of people?

The problem pointed at here is the too ambitious attempt of the naturalist thinkers to account for any possible factor in the social sciences to eventually reach a cause-effect-equation such as in the sciences.Wesley Salmon (1992) speaks of the necessity of causality in the natural sciences where an explanandum is explained by its explanans, what is known to be the scientific explanation. In the case of Temple Grandin, what are then the explanans, the premises under which the explanandum gains scientific validity? One might be tempted to boldly establish a law as follows: Learning social rules (explanant) leads to a social integration of the autistic person (explanandum). Yet, this argumentation is flawed on the basis that not every autistic person is able or willing to learn the respective rules, environmental factors are so numerous that a clear causation cannot possibly empirically be proven andautistic minds react in every social environment differently and show different forms of thinking.

If the scientific reader is still convinced by the scientific method´s power to explain the social sciences, he is invited to establish a law of behaviour for autistic people which leaves no room for exceptions.


The foregone arguments tried to show how dependent individual behaviouris on the social rules their acting is evaluated in. “It is what human beings say that is true and false; and they agree in the language they use. That is not agreement in opinions but in the form of life.” (Wittgenstein, 1968, p.4). For autistic people like Grandin it is then the task to decode these language and meaning rules to conform to these expectations and participate in society.

Boldly summarized, the scientific method seems to be about the establishment of laws and predictions. Yet, investigating the case of Grandin, the approach to understanding Wittgenstein uses seems to yield far more insights on the behaviour of autistic people than what theories by Marx or Mill could produce. To establish a general law for the behaviour of autistic people seems unreachable. Behaviors are too complex and too interwoven in social dynamics.


Grandin, T. (2008, February 7). My Experience with Autism [Video file]. Retrieved from

Grandin, T. (2014, February 21). Temple Grandin On Why The World Needs All Kinds Of Minds | WGBH News [Video file]. Retrieved from

Hollis, M. (1994a). Introduction: Problems of structure and action. In Philosophy of the Social Sciences: An Introduction. UK: Cambridge University Press.

Hollis, M. (1994b). Understanding social action. In Philosophy of the Social Sciences: An Introduction. UK: Cambridge University Press.

Salmon, W. C. (1992). Scientific Explanation. In Introduction to the Philosophy of Science.

TED (2010). Temple Grandin: The world needs all kinds of minds | Talk Video | [Video file]. Retrieved from

Temple Grandin's Official Autism Website(n.d.). Welcome to Temple Grandin's Official Autism Website. Retrieved May 12, 2014, from

Wittgenstein, L. (1968). Language games and meaning. From Philosophical Investigations. Basil Blackwell.


[1] Taken from: Barri, W. (2010). Life Among the 'Yakkity Yaks'The renowned inventor on how the insights she gained from her own autism fueled her career.Wallstreet Journal.

[2] Under normal circumstances might understand the absence of a severely confounding condition such as for example a powerful magnetic field.

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The Autistic Mind in Society. A Wittgensteinian Argument Against the Scientific Method in the Social Sciences
Maastricht University  (University College Maastricht)
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wittgensteinian, argument, against, scientific, method, social, sciences
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Ronja Strauch (Author), 2014, The Autistic Mind in Society. A Wittgensteinian Argument Against the Scientific Method in the Social Sciences, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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