Tolkien’s Bilbo and Jackson’s Bilbo: An Unfavourable Comparison

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (to avoid confusion, I’ll refer to the film as “An Unexpected Journey” and the book simply as “The Hobbit” from here on in) has just been released on DVD here in the UK, which has given me reason to reflect on the successes and failures of the film.

Before I start, I want to point out that overall I think it’s fair to say that I enjoyed An Unexpected Journey. However, in many respects I was also very disappointed, and I think one of the main disappointments I felt is best articulated by means of a comparison between Tolkien’s Bilbo in The Hobbit and Jackson’s Bilbo in An Unexpected Journey. Safe to say, the comparison isn’t particularly favourable to Jackson’s latest film.

The Baggins/Took Dichotomy

Overall, bracketing the additions made by Jackson, the film was fairly faithful to the book. However, probably the most disappointing and inexplicable changes were a series of more-or-less minor alterations to Bilbo’s character that cumulatively made a big (and negative) difference to his overall motivation and character progression. In the books, a key theme is the interplay between the Took and the Baggins side of Bilbo’s character.

The quiet, slightly-priggish, parochial Baggins side predominates for the first few chapters of the book, but as the story progresses, it is eventually ousted by his intrepid Took side, and he learns to love the excitement of adventure. This character progression is both familiar and fairly simple—befitting of a story aimed at children—but nonetheless rewarding, as fables in which a character finds his inner courage (that was, of course, really there all along!) often are, irrespective of the age of the audience.

What is fascinating about The Hobbit, and one of the things that makes it rewarding enough to warrant the devotion it rightly receives, is the subtle interplay of these two elements throughout the novel; the way the character progression is effected by the mutual reinforcement of the two aspects of Bilbo’s character, the way the tensions and contradictions within Bilbo’s character are resolved and the way these resolutions help to drive the plot forward convincingly.

For example, it is largely thanks to his distinctly English, late-Victorian-style politeness, obsession with social decorum, and high concern for the opinions of others that he is swept up on his journey in the first place. The starting point for the whole mess occurs as a result of Bilbo accidentally inviting Gandalf into his house for tea, following the etiquette-challenging exchange that introduces us to the latter of these two characters.

Just as Bilbo doesn’t really mean to ask for Gandalf’s pardon when he (repeatedly) says “I beg your pardon!”, he also doesn’t really mean to ask Gandalf to tea when he does, and immediately regrets doing so. This, as with most of the first interchange between the two characters, is a result of a flustered Bilbo resorting to polite platitudes in the face of someone who actively flouts Shire etiquette. Here is Bilbo at his most Baggins-ish.

I Can’t Get No (Motivation)

Later on, however, after Gloin doubts Bilbo’s ability to complete the task assigned to him by Gandalf—”he looks more like a grocer than a burglar!”—we see the interplay of Bilbo’s two sides start to play out. Tolkien writes:

Mr Baggins turned the handle and went in. The Took side had won. He suddenly felt he would go without bed and breakfast to be thought fierce. As for little fellow bobbing on the mat it almost made him really fierce…
“Pardon me,” he said, “if I have overheard the words that you were saying. I don’t pretend to understand what you are talking about, or your reference to burglars, but I think I am right in believing” (this is what he called being on his dignity) “that you think I am no good. I will show you… I am quite sure you have come to the wrong house… But treat it as the right one. Tell me what you want done, and I will try it, if I have to walk from here to the East of East and fight the wild Were-worms in the Last Desert.”

Significantly, though it is only thanks to the assertiveness of Bilbo’s Took side that he has the courage to challenge the Dwarves, it is Bilbo’s concern with his dignity, and his attempt to save face, that prompts the outburst in the first place. Without his Baggins side, he would have had no wounded pride; without his Tookish side, he would have simply suffered in silence at the insult. As it stands, the two aspects of his character reinforce each other, making for a satisfying motivation for his agreement to come on the adventure, albeit one that his Baggins side often rues in the hard times to come.

In the movie, however, the line about looking like a grocer is transplanted into the mouth of Thorin as the start of a manufactured tension between the two characters, and Bilbo remains meekly silent in response. In fact, right up until the point at which he signs the contract and runs off to join the dwarves, Jackson’s Bilbo shows almost no intention whatsoever to join them on their journey.

By eradicating the contradictions in Bilbo’s character, removing the interplay between Bilbo the Baggins and Bilbo the Took, we have no satisfying motivation for Bilbo’s decision to join the party in their journey. The only indication Jackson provides as to why Bilbo decides to join the Dwarves is provided by Bilbo’s unexpected disappointment when he wakes up in the morning to find an empty house.

The transition from Bilbo’s slightly forlorn glance around his empty Hobbit-hole to his sprint through Hobbiton to join the Dwarves is utterly inexplicable, and jarring to boot. I feel as if Jackson fundamentally misunderstood Tolkien’s statement that

To the end of his days Bilbo could never remember how he found himself outside, without a hat, a walking-stick or any money, or anything he usually took when he went out… running as fast as his furry feet could carry him down the lane, past the great Mill, across The Water, and then on for a mile or more.

In context, it’s clear to us, the reader, how Bilbo ended up this way. Out of Tookish pride, he agreed to join the party, and then when Gandalf arrives the following morning and presses him to go meet them, though his Tookishness has subsided, his Bagginsish demeanour leaves him too flustered and polite to refuse. Jackson seems to take this paragraph as an invitation to have Bilbo consistently refuse to join the Dwarves for the first hour of the film, only to unfathomably change his mind at the last moment.

Of Hobbits and Trolls

Similarly, aside from the role that it plays in explaining Bilbo’s initial motivation, the Took/Baggins distinction plays an important role in pushing the plot forward for at least the first half of the novel. Up until Bilbo’s Tookish side has completely taken over, the principal motivation for Bilbo’s continuance is his stubbornness and desire to prove himself. Furthermore, there are a few specific instances where this desire is the explicit motivation for some action.

For example, in the book, the trolls are sitting around the campfire feasting on mutton, and Bilbo is sent in to investigate. He arrives, sees what is going on, but instead of leaving he has an overwhelming desire to try to prove himself as a burglar:

He had read of a good many things he had never seen or done. He was very much alarmed, as well as disgusted; he wished himself a hundred miles away, and yet-and yet somehow he could not go straight back to Thorin and Company empty-handed. So he stood and hesitated in the shadows. Of the various burglarious proceedings he had heard of picking the trolls’ pockets seemed the least difficult, so at last he crept behind a tree just behind William.

This decision, of course, ultimately leads to Bilbo’s capture by the trolls, and the amusing mess that ensues. Jackson, on the other hand, not having this line of explanation available to him, has to change the scene accordingly. In An Unexpected Journey, instead of mutton, the trolls have taken the party’s horses, and since Bilbo can’t untie them, he reaches for a knife attached to one of the troll’s belts, leading to his capture, where the scene more or less continues on as it does in the book.

Aside from the fact that this motivation isn’t as interesting or compelling as the charming picture of a proud Hobbit risking life and limb just to try and prove his (nonexistent) burglary skills to his new friends, it also makes no sense. In Jackson’s version, the trolls capture the horses, which are saddled up and burdened with packs and supplies, but they don’t bother to search for the owners, they’re surprised to find Bilbo, and they question him as to whether there are more like him about. Trolls are meant to be stupid, but they’re not that stupid.

Bilbo the Brit

Most of all, the decision to remove the Took/Baggins theme from the film bugged me not only because it makes Bilbo’s presence on the journey inexplicable, makes his character more simplistic and less compelling than in the book, and leads the film to make sloppy, un-Tolkien-like mistakes of the sort described above, but also because it removes the distinctively English charm that pervades the book.

The Hobbit is, amongst other things, an extended, but affectionate, jab at a distinctively English attitude, and Bilbo is a distinctively English character. Tolkien begins with a caricature of the uptight parochial English countryman he would have been so familiar with, drops him in the middle of an adventure far bigger than he could imagine, and by the end we have a confident, adventurous, legendary burglar ready to creep into the very lair of a dragon itself.

This picture of a reluctant, slightly uptight hero being dragged along on an adventure because he’s a bit too polite to say no is one of the many aspects of the The Hobbit that gives it its charm. Tolkien’s Bilbo is satire on a particularly English sensibility and attitude, satire of the best kind because it’s so astute. To make the point, take the following illustration from the subReddit-cum-Twitter-account “British Problems”*:

I accidentally rang the bell on the bus at the wrong stop, and instead of explaining my predicament to the driver, got off and walked the rest of the way home.

In a way, Bilbo’s journey is one giant walk home from the bus stop. He accidentally invites Gandalf over for tea because he’s trying to end an awkward conversation and it’s the first thing that pops into his head. He then allows an entire troupe of Dwarves into his home and proceeds to feed them and find them places to sleep because he’s too polite to kick them out. He volunteers for a dangerous mission out of a sense that his dignity has been insulted, and then spends a good portion of his journey doing things that nearly get him killed because he doesn’t want to disappoint his compatriots. Eventually, he gets a taste for adventure, and the mask becomes his real face.

The transformation from stuffy Baggins to proud Took is what gives The Hobbit its heart, and by removing the Baggins/Took theme in the film, Jackson has made Tolkien’s tale less endearing and less charming than the original.

[[*Incidentally, I’m convinced that the person that started this subReddit wasn’t actually British, since it would more aptly be called “English Problems”. An obsession with etiquette, politeness, sarcasm, and tea aren’t stereotypes of the Scottish, Welsh, or Northern Irish, after all. I think this is probably another instance of the mistaken habit of treating “British” and “English” as interchangeable (see “British accent”).]]

What Philosophy Can Teach Us

There have been a few articles and discussions on the philosophy blagosphere and Twitter community recently concerning the justification of academia, and of philosophy more specifically. One of the common suggestions that crops up in this discussion whenever it occurs is the idea that philosophy, to put it crudely, helps people think better.

In my experience it is typically assumed that this improvement (whatever it amounts to) arises as a result of the training itself—through the constant exposure to criticism, practice analysing the structure and form of arguments, identifying hidden premises, assessing the validity of general forms of reasoning and so on that forms the bread-and-butter of undergraduate philosophy training—rather than a result of knowledge of the subject-matter itself.

In fact, it is often claimed that what is distinctive about philosophy is that it has no particular subject-matter, so the forms of reasoning and analysis learned by students—at least at an undergraduate level—will be applicable to any and all fields concerned with arguments and reasoning, from law to business to journalism.

I don’t want to touch on whether this is sufficient justification for the existence of philosophy, or whether esoteric academic research even needs to be justified, but I do agree that in some sense studying philosophy makes you a better thinker than you would be otherwise. What exactly this improvement consists in is, no doubt, complex, but I don’t necessarily think that one has to build up practical competence in philosophical argumentation before one can reap the benefits that philosophers offers.

An oft-bemoaned aspect of contemporary analytic philosophy is its excessive preoccupation with technical terms and subject-specific jargon. Whilst I think many of the criticisms of this pervasive feature of the discipline are spot-on, I also find (and I imagine I’m not alone in this as a philosopher) that when I think about non-philosophical topics I do so in a way aided by certain philosophical notions—I think about them through and with the aid of philosophical distinctions and terms. When I do, I find that I understand the issues, arguments, or language much more clearly than I would have without the aid of these notions.

This doesn’t (yet) amount to being able to assess arguments better or analyse positions in (say) a debate, so in this sense it doesn’t replace the practical competence mentioned above, but it provides a benefit in that, so to speak, the data are clearer than they would be without the aid of such notions, making such assessments easier.

I think that this illustrates another way that philosophy can enrich one’s thinking that doesn’t reduce to the practical know-how gained by taking philosophy courses and having to sharpen one’s critical reasoning skills (though I don’t deny that the two are intimately interrelated). In order to try and get a discussion started on this point, I’ll try to illustrate my point by providing some examples of distinctions and technical terms that I think aid clarity of thought.

Given my interests and background, most of the examples of distinctions and ideas that I often apply in non-philosophical contexts were typically linguistic or logical in nature, and their relationship to critical thinking should be clear. Suggestions of other examples (for example, there’s only one ethical/political distinction, but I imagine that those more familiar with these areas could provide more), criticisms (either of my examples or of this whole idea itself), and general discussion are encouraged.

  • Necessary and sufficient conditions.
  • Modus ponens, modus tollens, and the relationship between the two.
  • The distinction between soundness and validity.
  • Begging the question.
  • The difference between positive and negative liberty.
  • Equivocation.
  • Connotation and denotation.
  • Scope, and the de re/de dicto distinction.

I hope that the usefulness of most of these notions is self-evident, but if not I’d be happy to explain and justify my choices. However, as short and non-exhaustive as the list is, I’m not even sure about the worthiness of all of the examples. It’s not clear, for example, whether the distinction between modus ponens and modus tollens adds anything to the reasoning skills that any competent user of language already  has (aside, that is, from an extra piece of jargon with which to talk about them).

For example, a common form of reasoning, whether explicit or implicit, goes as follows: if I do X then Y; I don’t want Y to happen; therefore, I shouldn’t/won’t do X. E.g. If I go on the roller-coaster then I’ll be sick; I don’t want to be sick; therefore I won’t go on the roller-coaster. Given that people already engage in this sort of reasoning, which is structurally similar to modus tollens (if not technically a case of it), the distinction itself may not add anything to the clarity of thought that most non-philosophers already have.

However, as I said, the examples are, as much as anything, a way to get a discussion started, and I’m interested in hearing what people think, so comment away!


John Langshaw Austin (1911–1960) was White’s Professor of Moral Philosophy at the University of Oxford. He made a number of contributions in various areas of philosophy, including important work on knowledge, perception, action, freedom, truth, language, and the use of language in speech acts. Distinctions that Austin draws in his work on speech acts—in particular his distinction between locutionary, illocutionary, and perlocutionary acts—have assumed something like canonical status in more recent work. His work on knowledge and perception places him in a broad tradition of “Oxford Realism”, running from Cook Wilson and Harold Arthur Prichard through to J. M. Hinton, M. G. F. Martin, John McDowell, Paul Snowdon, Charles Travis, and Timothy Williamson. His work on truth has played an important role in recent discussions of the extent to which sentence meaning can be accounted for in terms of truth-conditions.

Here are some of my attempts to say something about…

View original post 55 more words

The Combadge: “Captain to Bridge—We Have a Problem Here”

A quick diversion from the usual heavy-going philosophy posts. This is one for my Trekkie readers.

I couldn’t think of a clever visual quip for this post, so here’s a picture of a combadge instead.

For a while now, something has been bothering me about the combadge on Star Trek. In theory, the combadge can be activated with a single tap and deactivated with a double tap. The problem is that frequently characters will segue into and out of discussions on the combadge at will without tapping the badge itself to start or end conversations.

Now this is the future, and we are talking about the Federation. We also know from computer use elsewhere that the parsing and interpretation capabilities of most technology is extremely sophisticated, and that a great deal of the interaction with computers is conducted through verbal commands alone.

With this in mind, it seems more than reasonable to assume that combadges analyse the speech of their wearers and execute their commands in much the same fashion, and that a verbal order (e.g. “Captain to engineering”) works just as well as a tap of the badge to get a combadge communication going. But here’s the rub: To perform its task as it does on many occasions, the combadge wouldn’t just have to be capable of perfect semantic analysis, it would have to be practically prescient.

One sort of case in particular springs to mind as being particularly blatant and egregious. Transitions out of combadge conversations are genuinely remarkable. Some people (I’m looking at you, Sisko) will simply stop their combadge conversation and immediately move to a face-to-face conversation, without so much as a tap of a badge or a courteous “Captain out”. Even watching the person one’s only clue at first is typically that their gaze will shift from that vacant, listless stare that people get when they use the combadge to instead focusing on the target for the new conversation.

Sisko and O'Brien illustrating the cold, dead stare of the combadge communication quite well.

Sisko and O’Brien illustrating neatly the dormant stare brought on by a combadge communication.

Even the fastest computer with perfect linguistic understanding couldn’t work out whether the first few words of a sentence are a continuation of the combadge conversation or the beginning of a new, ‘offline’ one. Despite this fact, there are never snippets of conversation accidentally transmitted by the combadge. It somehow miraculously knows when a combadge conversation is over and ceases transmission.

Clearly this is just sloppiness on the part of actors/directors, but any suggestions for in-universe resolutions are welcome in the comments.

[Related: we are living in the future!]

How To Be A 21st-Century Wittgensteinian Ordinary Language Philosopher

Over the last few posts, I’ve been discussing some philosophical influences of mine, mostly philosophers following in the tradition of Wittgenstein and/or Austin, focusing on the unusually cold reception they’ve received in mainstream contemporary analytic philosophy, and in the last post I tried to detail a few of the barriers I thought needed to be overcome by anyone aiming to successfully integrate these two philosophers into contemporary debates in the philosophy of mind, language, epistemology, and metaphysics. In this final post on the subject I want to explain how it is that I think that the contemporary philosophers I mentioned as influences have managed to do just that.

In the last post on this topic, I mentioned three common responses to this sort of philosophy—an assumption of outdatedness, segregation, and domestication—which lead to three corresponding challenges faced by philosophers aiming to engage with contemporary philosophy in a way faithful to Wittgenstein and/or Austin:

  1. Unearthing and challenging the reasons for the belief that the style of philosophising exemplified by Wittgenstein and Austin has been discredited or refuted in some way.
  2. Showing the relevance of the issues dealt with by these philosophers to contemporary debates in the philosophy of mind, language, epistemology, and/or metaphysics.
  3. Doing (1.) and (2.) in such a way that the meta-philosophical assumptions underpinning the views of these two philosophers are not domesticated in any way.

Whilst these are relatively superficial categories derived from the points touched on in the last post, nonetheless they seem like a good way to structure an exploration of what it means to be a Wittgensteinian Ordinary Language Philosopher almost half a decade after the heyday of both Wittgenstein and Austin. As in the last few posts, I’m going to try to avoid actually doing any philosophy insofar as it’s possible, and instead I’ll try to simply précis the approaches taken by the philosophers mentioned, link to a few relevant papers, and flag any philosophically significant points for future exploration.

No Style Without Substance

The philosopher that most naturally springs to mind as an example of meeting the first of these challenges head-on is Avner Baz. In his book When Words Are Called For: A Defence of Ordinary Language Philosophy, Baz makes a case for the relevance of ordinary language philosophy (OLP) to contemporary analytic philosophy, arguing that its premature demise was philosophically unwarranted.

Avner Baz: Ordinary Language Philosopher extraordinaire.

As the name indicates, when confronted with a sentence that is the source of some philosophical perplexity, Baz’s ordinary language method explores the uses that these words might reasonably be put to in actual (non-philosophical) situations. Baz hopes to show that the apparent problems caused by philosophical claims disappear when the words are actually put to use for some purpose, rather than being left ‘idling’, as is often the case in philosophical discourse. (Whilst there’s obviously much more to OLP than this sentence indicates, this is one of those times I’m going to have to flag the issue and move on. If you’re interested, wait for a future post; or better still—read the book!)

Baz points out that the most common accusation against OLP’s method is that such appeals to ‘ordinary language’ confuse meaning and use, violating the distinction between semantics and pragmatics. Establishing that we wouldn’t typically use (e.g.) the word ‘real’ in the way that the metaphysician does is a purely pragmatic fact and not one that bears on the truth of their statements. The point can be put, slightly crudely, by saying that whether there are ordinary situations in which we would, as a matter of fact, make the sorts of statements that philosophers are apt to make (“Jones knows that he has two hands”; “numbers really exist”; “you ought to keep promises”) has no bearing on whether their statements are true. Thus, philosophers can pursue the latter question without worrying about the former, since they are only interested in the truth of their claims, not their propriety or impropriety.

Baz’s insight is to emphasise that OLP’s method rests on a denial that

our words by themselves—irrespective of how, if at all, we are using them on some particular occasion—may express thoughts and thereby carry commitments sufficient for generating and sustaining [genuine problems].

According to OLP, if we produce words without any definite purpose, relying on their meanings alone to ensure the determinacy of what is being said, we will not produce anything assessable in terms of truth or falsity at all (this way of phrasing the point is closer to Travis than Baz in the role it assigns to the meaning of words, but more on that some other time).

This is merely a gesture towards the sort of account that Baz puts forward, and one that I hope to elaborate on at a later date, but for the purposes of explaining how he deals with the first of the challenges above, it is enough. The crux of the matter is that one cannot assess the validity of the method of OLP without first assessing the validity of the view of meaning that underlies it. One cannot dismiss the ordinary language method on the grounds of confusing semantics with pragmatics because it is precisely this distinction that the ordinary language philosopher rejects.

Wittgensteinians are Philosophers, Too!

Arguably one of the biggest challenges is showing how the issues dealt with by Austin and Wittgenstein are relevant to the concerns of modern philosophy. Neither philosopher could have fully anticipated the developments that occurred in Anglo-American philosophy after their deaths, not least of all the explosive revival of metaphysics. As such, it is typically supposed that the problems dealt with by people working on or in the tradition of these philosophers will have little to no bearing on the concerns of contemporary analytic philosophery, as the discipline has simply moved on.

I chose this picture because it looks like Travis is really shocked by what I’ve written, and that’s amusing.

Though practically any of the philosophers previously mentioned could be cited in connection to this challenge, I’ll focus on Travis as perhaps the clearest illustration. For example, Travis’s collection of essays Occasion Sensitivity is split into two halves. The first explains what occasion sensitivity is and, importantly for present purposes, often explains its connection to Austin and Wittgenstein. The second draws out the consequences of this position for various debates in contemporary philosophy: propositional attitude ascriptions, vagueness, intuitionism, bivalence, identity, and knowledge, to name a few—often pitting Wittgenstein and Austin directly against (more or less) contemporary philosophers such as Williamson, Evans, and Dummett to make the point.

Perhaps more well-known are Travis’s forays into the philosophy of perception, which I think provide a particularly apt example to focus on, and one that’s close to my philosophical heart. It is typically assumed that the sort of issues with perception that concerned philosophers of the generation of Wittgenstein and Austin are now irrelevant and hence that to work on them is, to quote John McDowell, to indulge

a parochially British concern with an outmoded problem, that of overcoming an empiricistic veil-of-ideas scepticism.

[See footnote 40 of Tyler Burge’s “Disjunctivism and Perceptual Psychology” for the source of McDowell’s paraphrase, and the explicit link to Austin. Also see Travis’s wonderfully-named “Desperately Seeking Ψ” for a response.] Both McDowell and Travis have, in their own ways, tried to battle against this idea that the concerns of this sort of approach to the philosophy of perception are irrelevant to or superseded by contemporary concerns with representational theories of perception.

In what is probably his most widely-read paper—”The Silence of the Senses“—Travis shows how linguistic concerns of the sort Austin had about sense-data theories of perception apply almost without alteration to contemporary representationalist theories. In fact, in a footnote to the article, Travis even states

the points I will make here against the representationalist view differ little, if at all, from points Austin makes in Sense and Sensibilia… a remarkably rich work. Were Austin not so thoroughly ignored, perhaps I would not have written this.

By showing in this way, issue-by-issue, the relevance of Austin and Wittgenstein (or of an approach to philosophy heavily indebted to them) to contemporary philosophy, philosophers like Travis are slowly chipping away at the common misconception that the ideas of these philosophers can be safely ignored because they were working on outdated issues irrelevant to modern concerns.

Meta-Philosophy and Methodological Authenticity

The success in meeting the last of the challenges mentioned—refusing to compromise one’s meta-philosophical stance when trying to engage with mainstream contemporary philosophy—is hard to judge, and even harder to convey, since it is tackled differently by each of the philosophers, in a large part due to the fact that they each conceive of the meta-philosophical implications of the work of Austin and/or Wittgenstein differently.

However, I’ll briefly mention the approach taken by McDowell, since I think his approach shares a common core with almost all of the philosophers I mentioned. McDowell is fairly explicit about what he takes to be the meta-philosophical stance made compulsory by a commitment to staying faithful to Wittgenstein. He takes the appropriate methodology to be a ‘therapeutic’ approach to philosophical problems, and his meta-philosophical asides are steeped in such terminology.

The most obvious examples of this approach come from his treatment of scepticism. For example, from “The Disjunctive Conception of Experience as Material for a Transcendental Argument“:

the way to take scepticism seriously is not to try to disprove the sceptical scenarios. We take scepticism seriously by removing the [intellectual] prop [that gives the sceptic’s questions their seeming legitimacy], thereby entitling ourselves to join common sense in refusing to bother with the sceptical scenarios.

And another, this time from “Knowledge and the Internal“:

the thing to do is not to answer the sceptic’s challenges, but to diagnose their seeming urgency as deriving from a misguided interiorization of reason

And again, from “How Not to Read Philosophical Investigations” (this time specifically commenting on rule following, but, as with scepticism, the point generalises):

Wittgenstein is not trying to give an account of norm-governedness as such, for its own sake and independently of any specific difficulty about it… He uncovers a conception that can make… acting on an understanding seem mysterious, and he exposes it as a misconception. That dispels the appearance of mystery, and there is nothing further that philosophy needs to do in this connection… We need to administer what Wittgenstein calls “reminders”… not put forward philosophical theses. Theorizing… would be beside the point. Wittgenstein’s invocations of practice in this context serve not as openings into a theoretical pragmatism, but as reminders for this therapeutic purpose.

McDowell tries to follow in his own philosophy this broadly therapeutic meta-philosophical approach. Rather than setting about answering the questions that trouble philosophers directly, as if they were given legitimacy simply by virtue of being posed, McDowell instead tries to identify the specific reasons for which the problem seems pressing.

Once he has identified these reasons, he typically attempts to show a way of acknowledging their urgency without thereby engaging in full-scale philosophical theory-construction, often by presenting an alternative that assuages the concerns rather than accepting and trying to address them. This distinguishes McDowell from other philosophers such as, for example, Robert Brandom or Michael Dummett, who can reasonably be said to tackle the second challenge above of showing the relevance of Wittgenstein to contemporary philosophy, but who, in the process, do violence to the meta-philosophical assumptions that underlie the latter’s philosophy by engaging in substantial philosophical theorising.

The methodological kernel that is expressed by McDowell in the quotations above, and embodied in his approach to philosophy, is one that I think is shared by all of the contemporary philosophers I mentioned in the first post of this series, and is expressed succinctly by Wittgenstein himself (PI §127):

The work of the philosopher consists in assembling reminders for a particular purpose.

In one way or another, this dictum is adopted and applied by all the philosophers under discussion, including Austin and Wittgenstein themselves. In this sense, a Wittgensteinian style of ordinary language philosophy is essentially responsive. Rather than assuming that we know what ‘the’ issue with a certain concept is—as if philosophical questions dropped out of the sky fully-formed—these philosophers try to work out why a problem seems to have arisen in this particular context. Then, in their various ways, each tries to unearth and undermine the assumptions that seem to lend the problem its legitimacy.

How the assumptions that drive philosophical problems are undermined varies as much as (and in proportion to the extent to which) the personalities of the philosophers vary. Insofar as these philosophers can be described as practicing a form of ordinary language philosophy, the assumptions will be broadly linguistic and the undermining will appeal in some way to typically un-philosophical uses of language (which is one reason to suppose that McDowell satisfies the ‘Wittgensteinian’, but not the ‘ordinary language’ aspect of the appelation, since his approach is not typically focused on undermining the linguistic assumptions that give rise to philosophical problems).

By sticking to the dictum in some form or another, however, Cavell, Baz, Conant, McDowell, and Travis all show that there is a way of doing contemporary philosophy that stays faithful to Austin and/or Wittgenstein, making it possible to be a Wittgensteinian ordinary language philosopher even in the 21st century.

Aside: A Brief Comment on Philosophical Blogging

Reading a friend’s blog recently, the following aside made me think about the purpose of philosophical blogging (and, of course, of this blog in particular):

I’ve been obsessing over a paper and all my free time has gone into writing that. What is that paper? Well, maybe one day I’ll talk about it on here, but I am keen to make it clear that what I write on here is distinct from my actual academic work, so you’ll only hear about it if I ever publish it. Sorry!

I get the impression that many academic philosophers use their blog as an online soapbox to get comments on ideas they’ve had, before shaping them for publication. In this sense, blogging functions as an extra route for feedback, in addition to (say) posting draft papers on faculty pages, or the more traditional methods of delivering talks or speaking at conferences.

As far as this blog goes, I stand on the side of the Last Positivist in distinguishing my use from such activities. For now, I’d rather stick to the more traditional methods, and make a clear distinction between my genuine academic writing and my online writing, at least until I’m a bit further in my career!

This, of course, raises the question, however, of exactly what the purpose of a philosophical blog is if not to disseminate and seek feedback on new ideas. Well, for me at least, one of the primary reasons that I write on this blog is for self-clarification. In keeping with the old adage that you understand an idea best when you’ve had to explain it to someone else, I find that writing this blog crystallises the sometimes nebulous understanding that I have of certain philosophers, ideas, and arguments.

In tandem, I hope that this blog can be of help to other people that have struggled with the same issues, perhaps providing a shortcut to understanding that wouldn’t be available if the original text was all that the reader had to rely on. I think this is especially true of some of the philosophers that I have posted about (or plan on writing a post on) whose writing style sometimes makes their ideas slightly opaque on first reading (e.g. Wittgenstein), or those for whom there is relatively little by way of secondary resources to help (e.g. Austin), or both (e.g. Travis).

This last point brings me to two other purposes of the blog. As I have made clear in the last few posts, there are many philosophers whose ideas I think are valuable but neglected. Their neglect online is also typically more noticeable than their neglect in publications (as a search for, e.g., Occasion Sensitivity will testify), and I hope that in some small way this blog might help to disseminate these ideas to more people than they might otherwise reach, simply by giving them voice in a place where (theoretically) anybody can listen. Even though I have no doubt that there are many others that could make the points more clearly, more accurately, or more succinctly than I, unless those people decide to start blogging, I’ll keep writing and do the best I can. In the mean time, I hope that at the very least some of these posts might inspire people to pick up a book or read an article that they otherwise would not, and get the ideas straight from the horse’s mouth (or should that be the cow’s mouth?).

The second point is that I get the impression that there are also a number of misunderstandings or false impressions surrounding many of the philosophers that I find interesting or worthwhile. Often these false impressions are too indeterminate to be the upshot of a genuine philosophical argument or the expression of genuine disagreement. For example, I think the claim that ordinary language philosophy has been discredited comes under this heading, since many philosophers that would assent to this claim either have a vague idea of what ordinary language philosophy is (typically something about ‘appeals to our ordinary uses of words’), or even vaguer ideas about why it’s discredited (typically something about ‘confusing meaning and use’, ‘conflating semantics and pragmatics’, or ‘committing the speech-act fallacy’).

Whilst there are philosophers attempting to make these sorts of false impressions philosophically precise in order to challenge them through philosophical publications, a blog seems like the perfect arena within which to challenge these ideas at the less-than-purely-philosophical level at which they are typically voiced, unearthing the quasi-sociological reasons for their ubiquitousness (see, e.g. “The Strange Death of Ordinary Language Philosophy” for an example)—something which might be out of place in a strictly philosophical publication.

Finally, of course, blogs are havens for navel-gazing, and this one is no exception. Whilst I don’t intend this blog to turn into a public journal any time soon, many of the posts will be quasi-autobiographical in nature—if only forming a sort of philosophical autobiography tracking my interests and beliefs as I try to climb the ladder of professional academic philosophy.

For whatever reason you are reading this blog, whether or not you know me, and whether or not you decide to return, I hope that you find some use for the ideas expressed here. In the wise words of the sage Wittgenstein:

For more than one reason what I write here will have points of contact with what other people are writing to-day.—If my remarks do not bear a stamp which marks them as mine,—I do not wish to lay any further claim to them as my property. I make them public with doubtful feelings.

Perhaps this [blog] will be understood only by someone who has himself already had the thoughts that are expressed in it—or at least similar thoughts… Its purpose would be achieved if it gave pleasure to one person who read and understood it.


Dismissal and Domestication: Typical Responses to Wittgenstein and Austin

In the last two posts, I have been discussing some of my philosophical influences, focusing predominantly on their role within and distinction from the majority of philosophers working within the mainstream of contemporary analytic philosophy.

In the first of these posts, I outlined a (non-exhaustive) group of philosophers who were or are engaging in philosophy of a type that rejects many of the assumptions common to most of contemporary Anglo-American philosophy. In the second, I tried to explain what I meant by saying that the views espoused by these philosophers have not been integrated into contemporary philosophy of mind, language, epistemology, and metaphysics, by focusing in particular on one philosopher: Ludwig Wittgenstein.

In order to finish off this series of related posts, I want to try to explain how it is that many of the philosophers in the original list I mentioned are fighting against this rejection and (more or less) self-consciously aiming to bring a kind of neo-Wittgensteinian ordinary language philosophy back into the fold of mainstream analytic philosophy. Or, more precisely, I want to explain how the more contemporary of the philosophers I mentioned—Charles Travis, James Conant, Avner Baz, John McDowell, and Stanley Cavell—are all working to bring to bear on contemporary philosophy lessons learnt from Wittgenstein or Austin (or, in some cases, both).

However, in order to appreciate precisely how these contemporary philosophers are overcoming the barriers to integration that have plagued Austin and Wittgenstein, it is obviously necessary to understand what these barriers are. As such, this post will be devoted to sketching a few of the ways in which these philosophers are excluded from contemporary debates in the four areas mentioned above.

The Assumption of Outdatedness

Undoubtedly the most common way that Wittgenstein or Austin are excluded from contemporary debates is simply by ignoring them altogether. It is usually assumed that they are examples of an outdated and outmoded style of philosophy and hence that their views are at best of historical significance. In When Words Are Called For, Avner Baz explains this assumption as follows:

Within the mainstream of analytic philosophy, it is now widely held that [ordinary language philosophy] has somehow been refuted or otherwise seriously discredited, and that it may therefore philosophically legitimately and safely be ignored.

Hence, the assumption that Wittgenstein and Austin are proponents of an obsolete style of philosophising is not simply arbitrary or malicious, but is taken, either explicitly or implicitly, to be philosophically well-grounded.

The philosophical reasons behind this assumption are multifaceted, and I wouldn’t even presume to be able to give a full and adequate account of them. However, I think there are a few key points that have emerged through the way that the philosophers I mentioned have tried to challenge this assumption of the philosophical irrelevance of Wittgenstein and Austin, but I’ll have to come back to this point in the next post.

If you don’t understand the connection between these two objects, ordinary language philosophy is probably not for you.


Often, work on the philosophers in question is acknowledged, but their influence is restricted to areas of philosophy that don’t interact in any particularly significant way with mainstream philosophy of mind, language, epistemology, or metaphysics. In this way, work continues on these philosophers in proportion to their stature and renown without this work having any notable impact on the philosophical sub-disciplines that it most naturally relates to.

In the case of Wittgenstein, the difficulty of seeing how his views fit into mainstream philosophy, coupled with his historical prominence in the history of 20th century analytic philosophy, has led to a kind of cottage industry devoted to the interpretation and development of his work. “Working on Wittgenstein” is, in a crucial sense, typically not taken to be the same as working on the philosophy of mind, language, epistemology, or metaphysics, even if as a matter of fact those topics are exactly what is being discussed.

Austin with an *i*, not Austen with an *e*.

The case of Austin is more complicated, in part due to the fact that it’s much easier to separate the ‘results’ of Austin’s work on language from the philosophical aspirations he had for his work and the meta-philosophical assumptions that underpinned his writing. However, a similar effect can be observed concerning the assumption that what’s worthwhile in Austin’s work has been extracted and applied in the realm of ‘pragmatics’ (or perhaps linguistics more widely) and needn’t particularly concern philosophers working in the disciplines I mentioned above.

This reaction is distinct from the first not only for the degree of acknowledgement that it gives to these philosophers, but also for the emphasis on the content of the work rather than the style. The assumption of irrelevance here rests more on the belief that what these philosophers are studying has no bearing on contemporary debates in the areas mentioned, rather than the assumption Baz articulated in the previous section that the way these philosophers try to answer to questions has been discredited.


The final reaction to these philosophers does recognise their direct relevance to contemporary philosophy, but in the attempt to integrate them and make them relevant to contemporary discussions domesticates the conclusions and methods of these philosophers in the process.

This sort of domestication is at the same time the best and worst way to treat these philosophers. On the one hand, it is usually a sincere and honest attempt to fit them into contemporary debates, arising out of a genuine desire to engage with this challenging alternate style of philosophising. On the other hand, the attempt itself typically succeeds in fitting these views into the debates in question only by, and in proportion to the degree to which, the views are tamed and their challenge neutered.

A prime example of an expression of this sort of worry comes from McDowell, who criticises Brandom for his apparent misunderstanding of the quietist aspects of Wittgenstein’s philosophy:

In Brandom’s reading, “quietism” is a pretext for not doing constructive work that Wittgenstein reveals as obligatory for others not constrained by his scruples. Though Brandom calls it “principled”, “quietism” so understood looks like an excuse for laziness. I think this is a paradigm of how not to read Wittgenstein.

McDowell’s qualm here is that Brandom’s attempt to integrate Wittgenstein into a long tradition of theorising about normativity—stemming back from Brandom, through Sellars and Frege, all the way to Hegel and Kant—results in the neutering of Wittgenstein’s anti-theoretical quietism, which McDowell takes to be a central and principled aspect of Wittgenstein’s philosophy. Thus the accusation is that Brandom manages to integrate Wittgenstein into this tradition of thought only by domesticating the latter’s meta-philosophical assumptions, turning them into mere ‘scruples’.

Quietism has had a long and dignified history in film as well as philosophy.

Furthermore, it  is commonly assumed that this sort of domestication is not merely an unfortunate byproduct of modernising Wittgenstein, but positively required if his philosophy is to be presented in a way amenable to a contemporary philosophical audience (for example, Kripke’s interpretative comments in the introduction to Wittgenstein on Rules and Private Language seem to suggest that he shares this view).

Anyone who has read Wittgenstein cannot fail to be sympathetic to this sort of approach, given the obscurity with which Wittgenstein typically presents his points and the resistance one naturally faces trying to integrate his philosophy into contemporary debates (not least of all from defenders of Wittgenstein). However, what separates the philosophers I mentioned earlier is that they often (though by no means always) manage to show the relevance of Wittgenstein and Austin to contemporary philosophy without doing violence to the core meta-philosophical assumptions that underlie the two philosophers’ writings, either unintentionally or deliberately.


It is worth noting that all of the common reasons for the dismissal of Austin and Wittgenstein given above are philosophically grounded in one way or another. It is easy to slip into a sort of paranoiac mindset when defending a minority position and to interpret your opponents uncharitably as a result. I hope that by indicating the role that genuine philosophical disagreements play in underpinning these responses I have avoided this sort of attitude, even if I haven’t had the space to articulate the disagreements themselves.

Thus, part of the challenge that contemporary neo-Wittgensteinian and/or ‘ordinary language’ philosophers face, one that I hope to illustrate that they have met, is to successfully articulate and challenge the philosophical assumptions that underlie the chilly reception felt by Wittgenstein and Austin. This is simply to recognise that the lack of integration is not usually a result of ignorance or neglect, but is rather an expression of genuine disagreement.

Specifically, based on the divisions above, there are at least three distinct (though, in practice, no doubt, interdependent) challenges that philosophers hoping to integrate Wittgenstein and Austin face:

  1. Unearthing and challenging the reasons for the belief that the style of philosophising exemplified by Wittgenstein and Austin has been discredited or refuted in some way.
  2. Showing the relevance of the issues dealt with by these philosophers to contemporary debates in the philosophy of mind, language, epistemology, and/or metaphysics.
  3. Doing (1.) and (2.) in such a way that the meta-philosophical assumptions underpinning the views of these two philosophers are not domesticated in any way.

Whilst it’s obviously not possible to show in a blog post that the philosophers I mentioned have succeeded in doing the above, in the next post I hope to at least indicate how each of them have gone about tackling this daunting task. Until then!

Wittgenstein’s Impact on Contemporary Philosophy

In my last post I began to talk about some of my philosophical influences, and what I thought they had in common that distinguished them from other philosophers. Given that most posts on this blog about philosophy are going to explain what the views of these philosophers are and why I believe they have something important to contribute to contemporary philosophical debates, I’m going to focus in this post on characterising the distinctive sort of neglect that I think many of these philosophers have received in mainstream philosophy, focusing for now on Wittgenstein alone.

What inspired me to take this route is the following quotation from an article by Ray Monk (author of the engrossing Wittgenstein biography The Duty of Genius) regarding the influence of Wittgenstein on contemporary thought:

Ludwig Wittgenstein is regarded by many, including myself, as the greatest philosopher of this century… And yet in a sense Wittgenstein’s thought has made very little impression on the intellectual life of this century. As he himself realised, his style of thinking is at odds with the style that dominates our present era. His work is opposed, as he once put it, to “the spirit which informs the vast stream of European and American civilisation in which all of us stand.” Nearly 50 years after his death, we can see, more clearly than ever, that the feeling that he was swimming against the tide was justified.

In one way or another, this image of swimming against the tide applies to many philosophers that I mentioned in my last post. As Monk indicates with respect to Wittgenstein, fame has little to nothing to do with the actual impact that these philosophers have (or, more appropriately, haven’t) had on contemporary philosophy.

Ludwig Wittgenstein, whose principal contribution to philosophy was a magnificent tuft of hair.

I think it’s worth considering exactly what it means to say that a philosopher can gain significant renown and have as much influence as someone like Wittgenstein—a household name in 20th century philosophy if ever there was one—without making a significant impression on the discipline within which they work.

John Etchemendy opens his book The Concept of Logical Consequence with a description of Tarski’s impact on contemporary philosophy of logic that I think neatly encapsulates the kind of influence that typically comes hand-in-hand with renown within a discipline:

The highest compliment that can be paid to the author of a piece of conceptual analysis comes not when his suggested definition survives whatever criticism may be leveled against it, or when the analysis is acclaimed unassailable. The highest compliment comes when… the definition is treated as common knowledge. Tarski’s account of the concepts of logical truth and logical consequence has earned him this compliment.

Though Etchemendy here speaks particularly about conceptual analysis, there’s a point that can be made here about lesser degrees of compliment that philosophers often receive more generally. Philosophers that make a lasting impact on a discipline are not necessarily those who are deemed to have succeeded in putting forth a viewpoint deemed incontestable (in fact, I’m not sure there is such a thing in philosophy), but rather those whose contribution becomes an essential and indispensable feature of the debate or region of philosophy itself.

The nature of this contribution can take any number of forms other than conceptual analysis. It can sometimes take the form of contributing a conceptual distinction thereafter deemed essential to a (sub-)discipline, as with Frege’s distinction between sense and reference. It can often take the form of contributing a distinctive stance or viewpoint to a debate that then goes on to have a life of its own outside the writings of that author, as with Bentham’s promotion of utilitarianism. It can at other times take the form of shaping or forming the nature of a debate or region itself, as with Davidson’s program for a Tarskian semantics. It can sometimes instead take the form of an interpretation of the ideas of a key figure that becomes so commonplace that the line between the interpretation and the original position become blurred for all but the specialist in that area, as is arguably the case with Dummett’s Frege. And on rare occasions, it takes the form of seemingly rejuvenating and reconceptualising an entire (sub-)discipline itself, as could not unreasonably be said of Chomsky’s contribution to linguistics.

The point is that the contributions these philosophers have made are, in one way or another, essential to the contemporary state of these sub-disciplines. What makes their contribution essential in this way is usually the fact that their ideas have been integrated or absorbed into the sub-discipline, in one of the above ways, or perhaps some other way, to such an extent that one cannot understand the current state of these areas of though without understanding their contribution to them first.

One way to understand Monk’s statement about Wittgenstein is that whilst he is undoubtedly well-known, he has manifestly not had this sort of influence on contemporary philosophy (at least the later Wittgenstein; for its influence on logical positivism and its introduction of truth tables into the philosophical tool-box alone, the Tracatus probably did have the impact discussed above). Whilst it’s very likely that you will have a chance to take a dedicated course on Wittgenstein at some point during an undergraduate degree in philosophy, it’s far less likely that Wittgenstein would be included on the syllabus for a standard introductory course on the philosophy of mind, the philosophy of language, or epistemology, despite the fact that the later Wittgenstein had a lot to say on these topics.

Furthermore, whilst this is a fairly accurate representation of many UK universities, I get the impression that the likelihood of coming across Wittgenstein in a US course on these topics is even slimmer (comments from readers from across the pond would be appreciated on this point). The fact is that the way these disciplines have progressed, especially in the States, is such that they have not incorporated Wittgenstein’s ideas in the same way that the ideas of other philosophers have been. To put it bluntly, you simply don’t need to understand Wittgenstein to get on in the philosophy of mind, language, epistemology, or metaphysics, whereas you’d have a hard time getting along in these areas without having a good grasp of, say, Kripke, Davidson, Gettier, and Lewis.

The fame that Wittgenstein has achieved is more comparable to that of a pre-Frege historical figure than it is to those philosophers considered an indispensable part of the canon of 20th-century analytic philosophy. Whilst it would be extremely odd to attain tenure in one of these fields without at least having a working knowledge of most members in a typical philosophical canon (think pub-conversation-level knowledge of Russell’s History of Western Philosophy), it wouldn’t be odd to attain tenure without ever having mentioned them in your publications and your contributions to contemporary research, and I think the same is true of Wittgenstein. (I think this is also reflected in the fact that graduate courses that split their modules into ‘historical’ and ‘topical’—or ‘historical’, ‘theoretical’, and ‘practical’—typically place Wittgenstein in the ‘historical’ category.)

I think that the same holds, to varying extents, of all the philosophers that I mentioned last time, though it rings especially true of Austin, given his historical importance (speech act theory itself notwithstanding, which has achieved integration into linguistics and the philosophy of language). The fact is that the views these philosophers hold on topics in the philosophy of mind, the philosophy of language, epistemology, and metaphysics are still for the most part quite marginal, even when at first glance their stature would seem to indicate otherwise.

For someone sympathetic to the views expressed by these philosophers, this lack of integration into the mainstream of these sub-disciplines is disappointing. The reason seems to be that whilst these philosophers have something interesting to say, the meta-philosophical views that they hold stand at odds with those shared by the majority of mainstream analytic philosophers, which makes engagement with their position difficult.

Whilst the main source of the cold reception that these philosophers have had in more orthodox circles is undoubtedly philosophical, I think that there are interesting quasi-sociological reasons, too, and since these are relevant to my view of my own eventual position in the wonderful world of academic philosophy, in the next post (and, I think, the last on this topic) I’ll try to explain how it is that a philosopher with the stature of Wittgenstein or Austin (at least in his heyday) can end up having a relatively marginal contemporary role within the sub-disciplines they worked within.

Neo-Wittgensteinian Ordinary Language Philosophy

After a couple of months of grad school application hell, I’ve been wanting to get back to regular blogging, and under the influence of a couple of friends who are more productive than I am, I’ve decided to ease myself back into the blagosphere with a quasi-personal post or two about what I hope to achieve in philosophy and the place that I see for myself in the discipline that I love. In particular, I want to get to that point by first discussing a few philosophers that have influenced me greatly, and what I see as the reasons behind the somewhat chilly reception they’ve received in contemporary mainstream analytic philosophy.

Given that one of the reasons I’ve not posted for a while is that I have a tendency to write excessively long posts, I’m going to try to limit myself to shorter posts in order to encourage posting more frequently. As such, I want to begin today simply by explaining who it is that I’ve been most influenced by, and what I see as the commonalities and significance of their ideas.

Let’s begin with a few names, in no particular order: Ludwig Wittgenstein, Charles Travis, James Conant, J.L. Austin, Avner Baz, John McDowell, Stanley Cavell.

Whilst these philosophers write on a number of disparate, seemingly unrelated topics—semantics, Kierkegaard, epistemology,  literature, aesthetics, psychology, Kant, and ancient philosophy, just to name a few—they all share one common characteristic: they all deviate, in one way or another, from the dominant methodological paradigm operative in much contemporary analytic philosophy.

Some caveats are already required before even this simple and vague statement can be said to be true. In particular, I don’t think there is an agreed-upon, universally-accepted ‘paradigm’ that governs mainstream philosophical practice. That being said, to borrow a Wittgensteinian term of art, there is enough of a family resemblance between most philosophers working within the mainstream for the contrast with these other philosophers to be meaningful.

Given that I don’t want to define this mainstream quasi-paradigm using any positive characteristics, and to indicate the wide range of approaches that fall within this broad category, it seems best to simply list, in a similar fashion, those philosophers I take to fall within this framework in some sense or another, and hope that some sense of their difference from the philosophers above will be evident to those familiar with contemporary philosophy: Saul Kripke, Tim Williamson, Tyler Burge, Donald Davidson, John Searle, David Lewis, Ned Block, Jerry Fodor, Ernest Sosa, Jaegwon Kim.

Whilst I don’t think there are any hard-and-fast rules to follow to distinguish the two groups, nor any points on which the members of each group would all agree, I do think there are at least points on which every member of the two groups would disagree with each other (I’m not sure if natural language quantification is up to the challenge of expressing what I just tried to say, but I trust you get the point!), specifically regarding their understanding of the nature of philosophical problems, and the means by which they go about to solve them.

In particular, all of the philosophers in the first list fall under a rubric we could, without too much violence (and with the notable exception of McDowell, who I’ll deal with elsewhere), call “ordinary language philosophy”. To be less vague, all the philosophers named share, in one sense or another, the conviction that any investigation of phenomena interesting to philosophers—art, perception, reality, meaning—must proceed first and foremost through a careful investigation of the meanings of the terms in question, paying particular attention to the use that we put these words to.

This outline requires much more detail than I’ve currently given it, but in the spirit of keeping these posts short, sharp, and to the point, I’m going to finish up here and leave this exposition to future posts. However, I’d like to close with a few quotations from some of the philosophers above that, for me, encapsulate what it is that distinguishes them from mainstream contemporary analytic philosophy, and indicates the reason why I think it’s crucial to
pay attention to these voices. Enjoy!

If I am right about the character of the philosophical anxieties I aim to deal with, there is no room for doubt that engaging  in “constructive philosophy”… is not the way to approach them. As I have put it, we need to exorcize the questions rather than set about answering them. Of course that takes hard work: if you like, constructive philosophy in another sense.

—John McDowell, Mind and World

“Ordinary language philosophy”… seeks to alleviate philosophical entanglements and obscurities by means of consideration of the ordinary and normal uses of philosophers’ words, and the worldly conditions that make those uses  possible and give them their specific significance.

—Avner Baz, When Worlds Are Called For

When philosophers use a word—”knowledge”, “being”, “object”, “I”, “proposition”, “name”—and try to grasp the essence of the thing, one must always ask oneself: is the word ever actually used in this way in the language which is its original home?— What we do is to bring words back from their metaphysical to their everyday use.

—Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations §116

Our most profound confusions of soul show themselves in—and can be revealed to us through an attention to—our confusions concerning what we mean (and, in particular, what we fail to mean) by our words.

—James Conant, “Elucidation and Nonsense in Frege and Early Wittgenstein”

Attention to the details of cases as they arise may not provide a quick path to an all-embracing system; but at least it promises genuine instead of spurious clarity.

—Stanley Cavell, “Must We Mean What We Say?”

[NB: For those wondering, I gave this post an incredibly pretentious title because: a) I like pretentious titles, b) it gives me an excuse to
encourage you to go read a brilliant piece of epistemology which also has the virtue of having a wonderfully pretentious title: Duncan Pritchard’s article “McDowellian Neo-Mooreanism“, c) I’m shamelessly trying to snag some Google search results for ordinary language philosophy and Wittgenstein.]

[[EDIT: for some reason, the formatting of this post went totally haywire, and I’ve only just realised this and managed to address it. Apologies if you read it whilst the formatting made it nearly unreadable!]]

“Free” Trade and the Erosion of Democratic Accountability, Part 3: Free for Whom?

In my last two posts I covered some of the crucial and most troubling measures that are likely to be in the Trans-Pacific Trade (TPP) agreement, a secretive ‘free’ trade agreement currently in the last rounds of negotiation.Whilst a lot of what has been said already touches on the detrimental effect that the TPP could have on democracy, this final post will focus more generally on how trade agreements and the liberalisation of trade erode democracy.


Given that there can be confusion over exactly what is meant by democracy or democratic accountability, I’m going to take a moment to give a quick explanation of what I mean. I take it that the point of democratic forms of government—whether representative or direct—is to give the citizens of a state the ability to take control over the political and economic forces that dominate their lives. If the people of a country, for example, are to be subject to a law, then they should be able to have a say, however indirectly, in whether this law gets implemented and if so, how.

It is common to conflate democracy itself with democratic forms of government, but it’s crucial for my purposes that we don’t make this mistake. I take it to be obvious that a ‘democratic’ government is neither necessary nor sufficient for democracy in the sense above.

It is not necessary because even if there was no government, as in some left libertarian or anarchist forms of political organisation, there could still be democratic control over the economic and political forces and institutions that are present. Such a form of political organisation would enshrine the principles of democracy in the above sense, without having a single ‘democratic’ governmental body accountable to the people. In fact, even within societies with a ‘democratic’ government, this sort of democratic control is exerted by the people on a smaller scale. For example, if you are fortunate enough to work in a sector that still has some shadow of a functioning trade union system left then this is but another means for you to exert some control over a major economic force in your life (your employer).

More importantly for present purposes, a ‘democratic’ government is not sufficient for democracy in this sense either. If a society has governmental body that is in principle responsive to the will of its people, but the government has no way to implement measures that embody this will, due to a lack of political or economic power, the overall system of political organisation is manifestly not democratic in any sense but name. I want to suggest that this is precisely the situation that we are slipping in to as a result of globalisation, ‘free’ trade measures and the liberalisation of trade.

The Basic Problem

Given that I want to comment on the effect that the liberalisation of trade and the implementation of ‘free’ trade agreements (which, as we have seen, often go far beyond merely liberalising trade) has on democratic accountability, it is important to differentiate the basic problem itself from the compounding effects of liberalisation on this problem.

Democracy is supposed to give people a means to exert control over the economic and political forces that contribute so drastically to their welfare and living standards. The job you have, the pay you receive, your working conditions and so on are the most crucial factors in understanding how well your life will go for you, your life expectancy, education and so on. The basic problem is that the average person’s ability to exert control over these factors, and hence to determine how well their life goes, will decrease in proportion to the degree to which economic power has concentrated into a small number of institutions like corporations.

There are two ways that this basic problem manifests itself, one focused on internal control and another focused on external control. The first is simply that corporations are effectively “private tyrannies“, in the following sense: from within a corporation, there is little to no way, if you are outside the concentration of power at the top of the institution, to influence its general practices and operations, or to change your working conditions. If you have a desk job in a major multinational corporation and you have some qualms about the way the company is being run by those in positions of power, your only real option is to quit. This is not to say that corporations couldn’t in principle listen to their workforce, only that they generally don’t unless they are forced to.

Secondly, the extent to which external control over corporations is possible will also be inversely proportional to the extent to which economic power has been concentrated. To cite a familiar example, say that the people of some state want to implement large-scale regulation of corporations. Such suggestions are inevitably dismissed, often not because we shouldn’t regulate corporations or tax them too heavily or close corporate tax loopholes, but that we can’t. If we did, it is argued, the economy would collapse because, as everyone knows, such measures would scare off corporate investment, incite mass capital flight, increase levels of straight-up tax evasion and ultimately the über-capitalists would all run off and start their own utopia, leaving the rest of us to wallow in our socialist hell-hole.

These sorts of arguments illustrate neatly the basic problem as it manifests itself in the form of external control over concentrations of economic power like corporations. There are certain laws that cannot be passed, whether the people want it or not, because, in essence, the rich would punish any government that chooses to pass such a law by de-funding its economy. The greater the share of the economy these corporations are responsible for, the greater this punishment will be and the more power they will have to economically veto laws that conflict with their interests, limiting drastically their democratic accountability.

In a society in which economic power has massively concentrated into the hands of a small number of corporations, there will be two main ways that it will be possible for the majority of people not in a position of power within these institutions to exert an influence on their operation, and ‘free’ trade measures undermine both.

Holding Workers to Ransom

The first way is for the workers themselves to engage in collective bargaining through unionisation in order to achieve some level of control from within these organisations. After all, corporations are only as large as they are thanks to the size of their workforce. Whilst individual ability to exert internal influence will decrease in proportion to the size of the corporation, the potential collective bargaining power should, in theory, increase. Unions offer a way for a large number of workers to effectively stack up the small amounts of power that they have individually and use this to bargain with those individuals near the centre of the concentration of power.

Unfortunately, NAFTA provides a case in point regarding how trade agreements undermine the ability of unions to exert internal control over corporations, removing one major avenue for making corporations democratically accountable. This is because in order for unionisation to be an effective tool for exerting a democratic influence from within, they actually have to have some sort of bargaining power.

The problem is that trade agreements like NAFTA and TPP not only make it easier for domestic countries to export to other countries, but they also make it easier for companies with enough capital to move parts of their business—or the whole business itself—to countries with cheaper labour and production costs, or with less unionisation, and simply export the final product to the market back home. The more mobile the industry, the easier this will be—whilst it will be almost impossible to move, say, mining operations abroad, financial institutions can transfer capital at the click of a mouse.

In other words, ‘free’ trade measures geographically liberate corporations from the country within which their market lies, giving them the opportunity to produce in those countries with the cheapest labour and then export, with little to no financial penalty, to those countries with the biggest markets. One unfortunate result of this freedom is that it makes it easier for corporations to simply threaten unions with plant closure in order to counteract strike threats and other bargaining measures used by unions, undermining the control that the workforce has over these institutions.

Not only is this effect of liberalising trade obvious to anyone willing to reflect on the balance of power within corporations, but in addition corporations themselves have predictably lived up to expectations. Robert E. Scott of the Economic Policy Institute helpfully summarises the research as follows:

Wall Street Journal survey in 1992 reported that one-fourth of almost 500 American corporate executives polled admitted that they were “very likely” or “somewhat likely” to use NAFTA as a bargaining chip to hold down wages (Tonelson 2000, 47). In a unique study of union organizing drives in 1993 though 1995, it was found that more than 50% of all employers made threats to close all or part of their plants during organizing drives (Bronfenbrenner 1997b). This study also found that plant closing threats in National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) union certification elections nearly doubled following the implementation of NAFTA, and that threat rates were substantially higher in mobile industries, where employers can credibly threaten to shut down or move their operations in response to union activity. Bronfenbrenner updated her earlier study with a new survey of threat effects in 1998 and 1999, five years after NAFTA took effect (Bronfenbrenner 2000). In her updated study, Bronfenbrenner found that most employers continue to threaten to close all or part of their operations during organizing drives, despite the fact that, in the last five years, unions have shifted their organizing activity away from industries most impacted by trade deficits and capital flight.

‘Free’ trade agreements like NAFTA thus undermine one of the only means of effecting change from within corporations by decreasing the restrictions and regulations that would otherwise prevent corporations from moving their base of operations. This gives corporations more bargaining chips with which to overpower unions and erodes internal democratic accountability as a result. The result of this erosion of democratic accountability is that wages are driven down, both at home and abroad, and there are huge levels of job displacement.

Holding Governments to Ransom

The second way for people to exert influence on corporations is for the government to exert control on their behalf. Given that governments are also usually large sources of economic and political power, they can often enact laws that regulate the activities of corporations or force them to conform to certain standards. An obvious case would be the implementation of anti-discrimination laws that require corporations (in principle) to enact equal hiring policies.

In the last post, I already covered some of the effects that so-called free trade agreements like NAFTA and TPP have on the ability of citizens to pass laws that benefit them when the interests of the populace clash with the interests of the corporation. Specifically, when corporations are given the power, through international tribunals, to effectively fine the population for infringing on their right to endlessly accumulate capital, the government becomes unable to pass legislation that comes into conflict with these interests.

This is precisely a situation in which the state, even if it is directly accountable to the people, cannot function democratically; that is, in which trade agreements undermine the external democratic accountability of corporations. However, the ability of corporations and other concentrations of economic power to hold the state and its people to ransom does not require investor-state arbitration measures of the sort present in NAFTA and other trade agreements. Even traditional, pre-NAFTA-era ‘free’ trade agreements and efforts to ‘liberalise’ trade erode democratic accountability.

For one, we have already seen that the basic problem is that when a small number of corporations are responsible for a large proportion of a country’s economy, they effectively obtain veto-power over laws that conflict with their interests by threatening to withdraw their investments in that country. However, measures that aim to liberalise trade and capital flow will simply increase the extent to which this tactic can be employed by institutions with a great deal of economic power, for reasons similar to those given in the last section.

Just as individual corporations can use the threat of plant closure to undermine the control that their workers have over working conditions, so too can the corporate sector of the economy as a whole use the threat of capital flight and outsourcing to surpress laws that conflict with their interests. Liberalising trade only makes these threats more credible and the costs to corporations that choose to do so smaller.

Finally, aside from their veto-power over laws that conflict with corporate interests, the ‘free’ trade measures themselves are ways to limit the exercise of democratic control over concentrations of economic power. They effectively forbid the population from exerting any kind of control over the operations of corporations and concentrations of economic power by preventing the state from passing laws that would regulate or control the operations of business, even when these operations are damaging to the people of the country within which they are operating.

‘Free’ trade measures simply add to the already substantial bargaining powers that corporations have and give them extra ways to erode democratic accountability both from within and without, whilst those without substantial economic power (i.e. the majority of the population) have no means to exert an influence over those forces that shape their lives and influence their wellbeing.

In other words, ‘free’ trade agreements are only free for those that already have vast amounts of economic power, for everyone else they are at once an economic fetter and a noose.