UP

What, if any, is the philosophical point of an appeal to ordinary language?

1. 'What if any is the philosophical point of an appeal to ordinary language?' The answer I propose to offer to this question will be quite brief, but will lead me immediately to a closely related question which will occupy me for the rest of the essay. There are some sorts of enquiry which so obviously require 'appeals to ordinary language' that we need not spend long discussing the relevance of such appeals in these enquiries. These are enquiries in which the principle subject matter is ordinary language. This class of enquiries includes not only work such as some of the work of J.L.Austin, which quite deliberately and overtly sets out to examine various aspects of the workings of our language (or rather, ordinary language), but also many philosophical enquiries which, though appearing at first glance to be concerned with something other than language, turn out on closer inspection to be in part or in whole studies of the (ordinary) language in which their problems are formulated. The extent to which present day 'analytic' philosophy is concerned with language is so great that it is much more diffiult to discover where philosophers are not concerned with language than it is to point our where they are. No doubt many philosophers would wholeheartedly endorse this concern with language, but for myself a closer understanding of language is at most a tool with which I may proceed to a nicer dissection of the problems which lie closer to my heart. It is only a part of philosophy, and not an end in itself.

2. It is therefore of great concern to me to examine why it is that the study of ordinary language has come to such a prominent position in philosophy, and to consider how we might proceed to work on other philosphical problems without being waylaid en route by the problems of ordinary language. The genesis of the problem seems to me to have been in the various attempts to come to a closer understanding of the proper province of philosophy. On the one hand there has been doubt cast upon the value of 'metaphysics', and on the other philosophy has lost ground to the ever multiplying sciences and pseudo-sciences. Central to the whole demarkation dispute have been the three dichotomies, analytic/synthetic, necessary/contingent, and a priori/empirical. Philosophy is concerned with the a priori, science with the empirical and it has become increasingly difficult to support any practically significant differences between the three dichotomies, so that the synthetic, and the contingent become outlawed and the a priori becomes identified with the analytic. Alongside this there has been the growing tendency to resolve disputes about language by reference to common usage, rather than to correct common usage in the cause of precision, thus 'language' becomes identified with 'ordinary language'. If the analytic is taken as the sphere of philosophy then philosophy becomes a study of the meanings of concepts in ordinary language, which meanings are only to be discovered by observing common usage. But common usage is indubitably contingent, so we arrive at the paradox that through seeking to concern itself with the analytic, philosophy has focussed its attention almost exclusively upon the contingent.

3. How do we avoid devoting all our intellectual energy to the vagaries of common discourse? Well the first thing we must do is to make clear that we do not propose to use language in just the same way as the man on the street. As philosophers we can reasonably be permitted to exercise a little more finesse than most. It will be objected perhaps that if we decline to use ordinary language then we cannot expect anyone to understand us. The way to deal with that problem is straightforward, wherever necessary we explain our usage. If we try to avoid problems of ordinary language in this way we will find that many philosophical issues dissappear before our eyes, will we be left with anything at all? To get some idea albeit a limited idea of how such an attempt to get beyond ordinary language would affect philosophy I propose to consider one or two particular areas of philosophy.

4. Let us first look at some problems in metaphysics. Consider the nature of time. It is at least plausible that the use of temporal concepts in ordinary language is such that of any pair of events A and B, either one is before the other, or they are simultaneous. More importantly, for the ordinary man, and indeed for everyone before this century, the temporal relationship between two events is absolute in the sense that it is independent of the observer of the events. That is not to say that the temporal relationship will never appear at first glance to be different to different observers, but it is to say that when account has been taken of the time of propagation of information then two observers will obtain the same result. In particular, as far as ordinary usage is concerned two events either are or they are not simultaneous. The absoluteness of temporal relations is necessary if we understand by the concept of time what the ordinary man means by it. What then of the special theory of relativity? If ordinary language is to be the final court then Einstein's theory, which insists that simlutaneity is not an absolute property of two events, is self contradictory.

5. It may well be that Einsten's theories are inconsistent, but it will take more than the prejudices of the common herd to carry through this indictment. It is clear that Einstein was not using the notion of time in the same way as the ordinary man, it was part of his purposes to change our concepts of time on the grounds that they break down under certain circumstances. Now let us consider the spatial concepts we use. If it were the case that ordinary people used their spatial concepts with impeccable precision and consistency in such a way that by hook or by crook, even at the cost of overthrowing every other common belief about the workings of the universe, space just had to be Euclidean? Would it then be proper for the philosopher to say that space necessarily is Euclidean, and to condemn Einstein's General Theory of Relativity as nonesense? There do seem to be real and interesting problems about the nature of space and time which do not depend in any obvious way upon ordinary usage. The same questions arise with the problem of multiplicity of spaces and times, maybe our concepts are rigidly oriented around the one-time one-space scheme, but maybe we will find reason in the future to adjust these concepts. There are of course other ways of testing our the consistency of a theory of space and time. We do not have to test it against ordinary usage, we can test it just for internal consistency. SUch a change of conceptual schemes in the future, its relationship with our present schemes might be remote, but it would nevertheless represent a possibility to which we would remain blinkered if we concentrated to closely on ordinary language.

6. There are many other problems of interest in Metaphysics which have little or no dependence upon ordinary language, however metaphysics is not the whole of philosophy and I would like to try and make something more palatable of some of the other flagging branches of philosophy. Let us try a bit of political philosophy. I'm rather partial to Hobbes' methodology myself, though it needs to be adjusted slightly before we try it out again. Hobbes, like Descartes, was deeply impressed by the precision and rigour of mathematical demonstrations. He thought he would emulate this in political philosophy by putting forward the principles of human nature and deducing from them his whole political philosophy. The principles defects of his system lie firstly in his premises, and secondly in his manner of deduction (and hence in all his conclusions, which seems to cover everything). Not being fully congnisant of the distinction between science and philosophy his premisses are put forward as facts, which rightly in a work of philosophy they should not, they should be presented as hypotheses, leaving their establishment if they are true, to the scientist. The second notable defect in his premises is that they are simply not capable of supporting the cast edifice he attempts to erect upon them, as a consequence of which the manner of derivation, which supplies the shortcomings of the premises, fails to be better than a poor imitation of pure logic. At every stage in the argument it is necessary to supply additional premisses to obtain the various results. These defects could be corrected, and the way would be open for a work of philosophy which explored the relationship between human nature and the political structure of society without either trespassing upon science or making a mockery of logic. The conclusions of such a work would not be contingent facts about politics, but logical relationships indicating the limits that certain hypotheses about human nature impose upon the structure and workings of society. I don't want to suggest that thisis the only proper way to do political philosophy, and moreover, that to make any progress in such an enterprise it would be necessary to closely define the concepts being used, in such a way as is bound to render them not exactly, and perhaps not even nearly, the same as the corresponding concepts in 'ordinary language'. If these specially defined concepts were not used then it would be very difficult to establish any inferences at all, for there is a paucity of hard and fast logical relationships between the concepts of ordinary language. (this is very likely to be the case, for the ordinary man is not renowned for his logical precision and hence does not exhibit it in his language)

7. Consider also Moral Philosophy. There just has to be some real issues for the philosopher in moral philosophy, morals, surely, even for the philosopher are not just a matter of words. Indeed there are minute traces left in twentieth century moral philosophy of something other than analysis of language. Utilitarianism has staggered on through quite a bit of this century, though it has lost all its vitality and credibility, and has elevated itself to fit as closely as possible into the standards of present day philosophy. I think it would be a very fine thing in this area of philosophy if philosophers actually put down their analytical caps and penned some nice contentious moral opinions. Not philosophy, they would cry, well its time philosophy was broadened a bit.

8. I'll just make one or two more suggestions to help philosophers escape from their deadly embrace with ordinary language. How about a look at existentialism. I know this is an old cry, but surely noone profits from the cast chasm which separates continental philosophy from 'analytic' philosophy. A little farther from home there is, to quote a trendy example, Zen Buddhism, and there are doubtless many other worthy causes. Were these people actually saying anything or were they not, and if they were wouldn't it be a good idea for Western philosophers to have a little look at it? I'm sure I don't need to go on. We all know what a fascinating place the world is, and if we only raise the energy to say Boo to the grand corpus of Analytic Philosophers we can go right on to occupy ourselves with something more entertaining than the conversations on Clapham omnibusses.


up home © RBJ written early 1975, edited into HTML 1997/4/24 last edited 1997/4/24