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.