Notes by RBJ on

Words and Things

by Ernest Gellner

RbJ's preface to notes
My purpose
My purpose in reading this book is, generally, to help me in the development of my own position on the nature of analytic philosophy, and also to see whether I can glean anything from Gellner for my discussion of rationality.
Gellners Perspective
Gellner approaches this subject as a philosophical sociologist well read in "linguistic" philosophy but antagonistic to it. His critique shows little sign of interest in sifting out the good from the bad to make a future for philosophical analysis. His critique is wide ranging, covering not only the later work of Wittgenstein and the Oxford "revolution" which was so profoundly influenced by it, but the earlier work on logical atomism and logical positivism. It is hard to see where this critique might end, and tempting to suppose that most of the other philosophers posthumously co-opted into analytic philosophy (e.g. Hume) might also have been condemned if they had not lived too early to be within the scope of the book.
My Interest
My own interest, by contrast, is constructive. It comes from a transition which I am now engaged in, from sidestep to confrontation. I have hitherto largely ignored those aspects of philosophical analysis which seem to me irrelevant to my enterprise, but I am now seeking to confront the recent history of philosophical analysis. I aim to use this as a lever for articulating my own developing view of what can be achieved by the right kind of analytic philosophy. These notes are intended simply to help me with this purpose.
Gellner v. Hacker
reading them together
Since Words and Things is out of print I had to request a copy from the local library, which arrived when I was half way through reading [Hacker96b]. Because of the limited loan period I read it right away and then finished off Hacker. These two perspectives on essentially the same phenomenon are about as dissimilar as one can imagine, and neither makes much concession to the other viewpoint.
cause célèbre
Hacker describes Words and Things as "a very bad book" which became a cause célèbre as a result of Ryle's refusal to publish a review of it in Mind. He says it had little impact on professional philosophers but did some damage to the public perception of their work. And that's all the comment it gets from Hacker, though some of the criticisms made by Gellner are answered later without specific reference to Gellner (possibly only the ones which weren't unique to Gellner).
cynical evasion
Gellner's book exudes through its every pore the sense that "linguistic philosophers" are engaged in intellectual dishonesty on a grand scale and that attempts to confront them are met by an extremely sophisticated kind of cynical evasion. It is impossible to believe that these philosophers thought of their work in this way. The book would have been more credible and more valuable if Gellner had tried a bit harder to understand the merits of the case from the philosopher's standpoint. Even if I believed Gellner's viewpoint absolutely correct then I would still doubt that the linguistic philosophers concurred, and I would be left with a "puzzlement" about what these philosophers were really trying to do and how they could be so mistaken about the merits of their endeavours.
dismissing neither book
I find myself able to dismiss neither of the books, facing the vexatious problem of how to reconcile the two viewpoints. On the whole I am more sympathetic to Gellner's stance, believing with Russell that Wittgenstein's later work catalysed the diversion of an entire profession down an intellectual cul-de-sac. However, they did some nice work down this cul-de-sac, and going down cul-de-sacs might be thought the norm rather than the exception so far as philosophical movements are concerned. I find it impossible to believe that these philosophers consciously employed the kind of cynical evasiveness portrayed by Gellner, but I do believe that their possibly sincere belief in their methods may have had similar consequences.
See also:
The Strange Death of Ordinary Language Philosophy,
a critique of Gellner's attack on "ordinary language philosophy"
by T. P. Uschanov,
Department of Philosophy, University of Helsinki.

 Forward by Bertrand Russell 
 Introduction: The Saltmines of Salzburg 
IOf Linguistic Philosophy
 2First Approaches
 3A Theory of Philosophy
 4A Theory of the World and of Language
 5A Theory of Mind
IIOf Language
 1The Theory of Language Expanded
 2Language Games
 3The Four Pillars
 4The Argument from Paradigm Cases
 5From Fact to Norm
 6The Contrast Theory of Meaning
 7General Comments on the Three Fallacies
 8The Cult of the Fox
 9Everything is Unlike Everything Else
 10The Best of all Possible Languages
IIIOf Philosophy
 1Activity not Doctrine
 2The Impeturbable Universe
 4Logical Atomism
 5Logical Positivism
 6Logical Constructions
 7Common Sense
 9Appearance and Reality, or Monsieur Jourdain's Revolt
IVOf the World
 1The Secret of the Universe
 3A Special Kind of Naturalism
 4The Bait and the Trap
 5The Turn of the Screw
 6Triple Star
 7De Luxe
VOf Knowledge
 1The Circle of Knowledge
 2Multiplication beyond Necessity
 3Some Constrasts
 4Realism and Idealism
 5What One Looks Like when not Looking
 6"Seeing the World Rightly"
 7The Sages of Lagado
 8Not to Ask the Reason Why
 9The Proselytising Solipsist
 10The Elusive but Comforting Doctrine
 11The Delphic Insight
 12The Argument from Impotence
VIStructure and Strategy
 DDiagram, Explanation and Instructions for Use
 1The Structure of Linguistic Philosophy
 2The Spectrum
 3The Prayer Wheel
 4The Needle in the Haystack
 5Philosophy by Filibuster
 6The Reluctant Centipede
 7The Withering away of Philosophy
 8The Spurious Fox
 9Two-tier Doctrine and Invertebrate Philosophy
 10The Full Circle
 11Solvitur Ambulando
 12Differential Realism
 13The New Koran
 14Saladin's Fork
 15The Indian Rope Trick
 16Philosophy by Frisson
 17Keep them Guessing
 18Insinuation and Taboo
 19Whoever said this?
 20Offensive and Defensive Positions
 21A Sense of Decorum
 22Collective Security
 1What remains?
 2The Circularity
 3Travesty of Thought
 4Failure of Normativeness
 5The Paradox of Passivity
 6The Dimensions of Caution
 7The Dimensions of Empiricism
 8Linguistic Philosophy as an Orientation and a Style of Thought
 9A Collector's Piece
 11The Corruption of Youth
 3The Three Stages of Weltanschauung
 1Philosophy and Sociology
 2An Ideology
 3Some Comparisons
 4The Narodnicks of North Oxford
 5Science, Power, Ideas
 6Internal Organisation
 7Conspicuous Triviality
 8Philosophy as an Institution
 9A Secularised Established Religion
 10Rival Styles
 11Existence Precedes Essence

I. Of Linguistic Philosophy

2. First Approaches

Traditional philosophical problems are pseudo problems which arise from certain kinds of misuse of language. To dissolve these pseudo problems a careful study of the ordinary usage of our language is necessary, recognising the great diversity of usage.

3. A Theory of Philosophy

"The theory of philosophy runs: past philosophy has been mainly abuse of language, future good philosophy will be the diagnosis and elimination of such abuse."

4. A Theory of the World and of Language

"As a theory about the world, Linguistic Philosophy runs like this: The world is what it is, and not another thing. Everything in the world is what it is, and not another thing. (these statements are not as tautological as they seem...)"

5. A Theory of Mind

"The doctrine is, roughly, that the human mind is not an entity or process or class of events or receptacle radically distinct from corporeal events or things, but on the contrary that, very generally speaking, mind is the way we do things."

II. Of Language

2. Language Games

Gellner identifies the four "important features" of language games:
  1. If you break the rules, you are not playing the game.
  2. It makes no sense to question the rules.
  3. You must have a choice of moves, otherwise it isn't a game, its a ritual, charade or farce.
  4. All but the simplest games have categories which govern its conduct, and even govern the statement of the rules. Making a category error is even worse than breaking the rules.

3. The Four Pillars

Corresponding to the four "important features" of language games there are "four pillars" of linguistic philosophy:
  1. The Argument from the Paradigm Case (APC). (in its paradigm actual usages a concept must be correctly applied, for what else could it mean?)
  2. The Generalised version of the Naturalistic Fallacy. (inferring linguistic norms from usage)
  3. The contrast theory of meaning. (any meaningful term must have a possible example and a possible counterexample)
  4. Polymorphism. (Family resemblance and other aspects of the diversity of language)
The first three of these are later called the Three Fallacies.

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