Ernest Gellner on Words and Things: Wittgenstein and Ordinary Language

(Gellner is the bowling ball. Wittgenstein is the 7-10 split.)

Ernest Gellner’s Words and Things was Gellner’s scathing attack on ordinary language philosophy. It caused a fuss in 1959 and made Gellner’s name after Gilbert Ryle refused to review it and Bertrand Russell angrily defended it. How valid was the critique?

This is not just a historical exegesis, but an object lesson in the hopes that older disputes no longer quite so relevant to us can guide us to principles useful in current debates where we lack the benefit of distance. In short, Gellner is right on sociology and wrong on the philosophy, especially Wittgenstein. But the reasons for that are complicated.

Ordinary language philosophy was the mid-century movement represented nowadays by J.L. Austin and Gilbert Ryle, though it’s telling that Gellner quotes some of the lesser-known lights of that scene to make his most scathing attacks. In addition to Austin and Ryle, he rips on the far more obscure G.J. Warnock and John Wisdom, who do give Gellner some of his juiciest material. I haven’t read either of the latter two, but it seems entirely possible they were strident, less than brilliant exponents of the linguistic turn.

Ryle doesn’t offer up such foolish statements, so Gellner’s critique is broader there: Ryle has drawn the focus away from science and toward trivialities by wanting to analyze the concept of mind rather than mind itself. And Austin is simply a knight-errant whose obsession with the most quotidian of conversational gambits is theological angel-counting.

Gellner has generally kind words for logical positivism and A.J. Ayer and Bertrand Russell, who wrote the preface, again putting him dangerously close to the movement he is attacking. And he ignores perhaps the strongest and most wide-ranging mind to be associated with the movement, P.F. Strawson, as well as Americans like Quine. So it is a bit of a chimera that Gellner is attacking, in that he attributes to a collective a dogma that perhaps even its most strident members didn’t fully adhere to.

One could accuse Gellner of cherry-picking, and I think it’s a fair charge, but I think it’s more enlightening to see that Gellner was criticizing a culture, not a philosophy, one that existed at Oxford in the 1950s and that Gellner experienced first hand. Gellner was a social scientist more than he was a classical philosopher, and his rage is less about ideas per se than about the people who hold them and how they hold him. As an avowed disciple of what he termed Enlightenment Fundamentalist Rationalism, he was guided, more than anything else, by the idea of fallibility and the need for constant doubt:

There are no privileged Sources or Affirmations, and all of them can be queried. In inquiry, all facts and all features are separable: it is always proper to inquire whether combinations could not be other than what had previously been supposed. In other words, the world does not arrive as a package-deal—which is the customary manner in which it appears in traditional cultures—but piecemeal. Strictly speaking, though it arrives as a package-deal, it is dismembered by thought.

Cultures are package-deal worlds; scientific inquiry, by contrast, requires atomization of evidence. No linkages escape scrutiny. Empiricist theory of knowledge claimed that information actually arrives in tiny packages (which is false as a descriptive account); but the lesson learnt was that it should be treated as if it was so broken up. Such breaking up of clusters fosters critical revaluation of world-pictures.

This reexamination of all associations destabilizes all cognitive anciens règimes. Moreover, the laws to which this world is subject are symmetrical. This levels out the world, and thereby ‘disenchants’ it, in the famous Weberian expression. This is the vision. Note again, it desacralizes, disestablishes, disenchants everything substantive: no privileged facts, occasions, individuals, institutions or associations. In other words, no miracles, no divine interventions and conjuring performances and press conferences, no saviours, no sacred churches or sacramental communities. All hypotheses are subject to scrutiny, all facts open to novel interpretations, and all facts subject to symmetrical laws which preclude the miraculous, the sacred occasion, the intrusion of the Other into the Mundane.

But what is perhaps absolutized and made exempt is the method itself. And the method leaves its shadow on the world: it engenders an orderly, symmetrical Nature. The orderliness of inquiry leaves its shadow, and appears as an orderly, unique nature. This is the proper sense which is to be attributed to the Kantian doctrine that we ‘make’ our world: an orderly, systematic, law-bound Nature is really the shadow of our cognitive procedure.

Ernest Gellner, Postmodernism, Reason, and Religion: I Choose You, Bachelorette #2

[Okay, I made up the subtitle.]

What Gellner could not stand were closed systems of thought that were not vulnerable to evidentiary invalidation: religion, Marxism, and psychoanalysis being three popular forms. Behind Gellner’s sociological description of the maneuvers employed by his nemeses lies his true frustration:

There is an undeniable element of truth in Polymorphism, both logically and empirically. As a matter of simple fact it is true that languages are complicated and consist of a variety of activities. It is also, perhaps, a necessary truth that any language that does anything worth while has to contain elements or tools of radically different types, and so cannot be internally entirely homogeneous and simple. Nevertheless, the exaggerated use of Polymorphism * by Linguistic Philosophy is disastrous and unjustifiable. Its weaknesses are similar to those of the three fallacies outlined previously with which it is closely associated. It is an attempt to undermine and paralyse one of the most important kinds of thinking, and one of the main agents of progress, namely intellectual advance through consistency and unification, through the attainment of coherence, the elimination of exceptions, arbitrarinesses, and unnecessary idiosyncracies. It in effect tends to underwrite all current concepts, however useless, anachronistic, inconsistent. For linguistic philosophers conceive their philosophical thought to be the undermining of general models and of models as such, as models-only the actual ungeneral description of an usage is philosophically “aseptic”, and commendable.

*The “57 Varieties” way of doing philosophy, as it has been wittily described by Professor S. Kömer.

Ernest Gellner, Words and Things

He no doubt saw ordinary language philosophy as another, as it “dissolved” one problem after another as linguistic rather than real. This for Gellner is cowardice. Making G.E. Moore into a Chance the Gardener figure, he compares him to Wittgenstein’s ideal:

Some philosophers have considered the deliberate suspension of belief, of the natural attitude, to be of the essence of philosophy. Husserl called it the epoche, a kind of putting-of-the-world-in-brackets and suspending judgment so that one could have a better look.

The essence of Moore is a kind of inverted epoché. He refused to put the world in any brackets.

Moore’s inverted epoché, his conviction or principle that things in general were substantially as they seemed, reappears in Wittgenstein and in Linguistic Philosophy proper with a rationale –namely, that assertions to the effect that things are radically other than they seem are always misuses of language. In brief, Moore displayed many of the characteristics of Linguistic Philosophers, without being led to them by the ways and reasoning of Wittgensteinianism. He did by nature that for which Wittgenstein’s Revelation found reasons.

One might say that G.E. Moore is the one and only known example of Wittgensteinian man: unpuzzled by the world or science, puzzled only by the oddity of the sayings of philosophers, and sensibly reacting to that alleged oddity by very carefully, painstakingly and interminably examining their use of words. . . .The philosophical job is to persuade us of the adequacy of ordinary conceptualisations. It is the story of Plato over again–only this time it is the philosopher’s job to lead us back into the cave.

Ernest Gellner, Words and Things

For Gellner, this “adequacy” is synonymous with complacency and cultural conservatism. I.e., it is the attempt of the Oxford don to keep the world as the comfortable place that it is.

I am a bit sympathetic to this critique, as I suspect the ordinary language orthodoxy of the 1950s genuinely was overbearing and vexing to those upstarts who wished to pursue a less linguistic direction. Yet of course anything can serve as a closed system, if its believers are sufficiently recalcitrant, and any orthodoxy can be and often is overbearing and vexing to upstarts. You don’t need Duhem, Quine, and Kuhn in order to believe that people generally are hesitant to lose faith in the systems to which they have pledged themselves. People are apt to overextend their systems as well. (See C.D. Darlington and, time and again, David Hume and xkcd.)

Nevertheless, Marxism and psychoanalysis, among others, have attracted somewhat more cult-like followings than other systems. It’s probably a good thing Gellner didn’t spend too much time around Heideggerians, otherwise we would have gotten a book on them. Gellner limits himself to a single dismissive remark:

On the side of Continental philosophy, a greater and greater cult of paradox and obscurity, an appetite which feeds on what it consumes and, as with a galloping illness, hardly allows the imagination to conceive its end: who can outdo Heidegger?

Ernest Gellner, Words and Things

The issue is to what extent this cult-like environment is entailed by the system at hand. The criterion that Gellner uses to judge the level of closure of philosophical systems, which I think is a good one, is that of mysticism. At one end is the scientific method by which everything is (supposedly) falsifiable; at the other end is wholly unjustified religion. These two quotes, both of which invoke the phrase “curiously reminiscent,” should give some idea of where ordinary language philosophy stands for Gellner on that spectrum:

The doctrine that philosophy must wither away as we become acquainted with the patterns of our use of words is curiously reminiscent of the Marxist view that the State will wither away.

This main fallacy of Wittgenstein’s which remained with him throughout his life can indeed be expressed more dramatically as the notion that there is such a thing as “seeing the world rightly”. Thus Linguistic Philosophy, the doctrine that philosophy is an activity, is a spiritual exercise that confirms the faith which calls for the exercise to begin with. It is in this respect, as in others, curiously reminiscent of psychoanalysis.

Ernest Gellner, Words and Things

The ultimate bounty of Words and Things is Wittgenstein, whom Gellner would go after in other books as well. There is no question that Wittgenstein is an arch-enemy for Gellner just as much as Russell is a comrade-in-arms. I think Gellner saw Wittgenstein’s abandonment of the semi-reasonable (yet still too mystical) logical atomism of the Tractatus as a betrayal of the human obligations of doubt and secular progress, in effect a turn to religion.

Wittgenstein and his ordinary language followers represent, to Gellner:

  1. The abandonment of serious, relevant issues for conjured, spurious ones.
  2. The unquestioning faith of a mystic and the corresponding influence on blind followers.

These are two different charges, which I’ll call Charge (1) and Charge (2). Gellner co-mingles them but especially with Wittgenstein they need to be separated. My own view is that the first charge is ungrounded but that the second one is at least somewhat legitimate.

As to Charge (1) of spuriousness, Gellner overlooks the internal developments within logical positivism, and the difficulties that Carnap’s Aufbau and other attempts to regiment the world had faced. In fact, he does attack logical atomism as an early example of Wittgenstein’s faith-based reasoning, with Wittgenstein assuming that there are logical simples out there but not needing to go to the trouble of finding any. But Gellner doesn’t seem to want to acknowledge the implications of the failure of logical positivism and verificationism.

In addition, Gellner gets Wittgenstein wrong on a number of points, a problem that persists when he treats Wittgenstein’s later work. This is probably the most damning aspect of the book and the one that still causes people to dismiss it. I can’t defend Gellner here: he felt the need to go after the substance as well as the context, and he couldn’t be bothered to give it a fair shot. To be fair, Wittgenstein is seriously difficult and many of his adherents got him wrong too, and many still aren’t sure if they’re even right; but in general, the closer Gellner gets to Wittgenstein’s philosophy, the less convincing he is.

But in separating language philosophy from all other philosophical problems, Gellner also ignores the more general continuum that was being set up. Language, reality, and logic were not coalescing in the way that was promised, and it was not producing an “orderly, unique nature.” Godel’s blow to systems of logic showing them to be necessarily incomplete was perhaps the most crushing inner defeat, but language itself was refusing to conform as well. In this way Gellner was very similar to Russell, who saw the problems Wittgenstein raised with his Theory of Knowledge, but could not bring himself to reject the general empiricist basis behind them. (See David Pears’ The False Prison for more on this.)

Because syntactic or indeed semantic theories of language haven’t really worked out, and pragmatics have become more and more important, you can call Austin et al. naive, dogmatic, boring, or just plain sloppy, but you can’t quite call them wrong, at least not in the way one would call logical positivism wrong.

The problem is that Gellner’s Enlightenment Fundamentalist Rationalism sets up very strict criteria by which one can make sweeping statements about things like the worthlessness of a school of philosophy, and human languge is such a mess that Gellner’s attempt to hold the fort on reasonably simple, naive theories of meaning cannot clear the bar that his own principles have set for him.

That leaves Gellner other avenue of attack for Charge (1), his objection to Pyrrhonistic and therapeutic attitudes of ordinary language philosophy. I do not see this attack as sufficiently grounded either, as science has offered similar prescriptions. The healing of our “folk psychological” ideas is just one of the more prominent recent examples of “seeing the world rightly.” Hence why Dennett’s Consciousness Explained was dubbed Consciousness Explained Away, Consciousness Ignored, etc. These attitudes may be better grounded scientifically, but the attitudes remain similar.

And Pyrrhonic and therapeutic attitudes are hardly new: Epicurus, Nagarjuna, Sextus Empiricus, Lucretius, and many others have always offered the claim that truth would set us free from at least some of our worries and obsessions. These attitudes, when deployed pathologically, are an offense to knowledge and curiosity, but Gellner simply slams the attitudes in toto without allowing for their inevitable presence in all domains. They can never be stamped out. I’m sure Gellner knew this, but his enthusiasm got the better of him.

Onto Charge (2), of the mythification of Wittgenstein. Everything I have read suggests a strong degree of truth to the veneration and almost deification of Wittgenstein. He had an aura of remote brilliance about him and people speak of attending his classes as they would of attending the speeches of a prophet. I think Gellner is very psychologically keen about Wittgenstein.

This main fallacy of Wittgenstein’s which remained with him throughout his life can indeed be expressed more dramatically as the notion that there is such a thing as “seeing the world rightly.”

Wittgenstein was indeed driven by a need for certainty, for clarity, for indisputable assertions. There is no doubt this was a pathological need, and it informs the less attractive aspects of his philosophy: a general arrogance and an unwillingness to accept, even momentarily, provisional or partial measures in explanations and analyses. Both of these are present in his demand to see the world rightly.

Wittgenstein’s brilliance and integrity prevented him from taking easy solutions, however, and Gellner does not seem to have realized this, presumably because he did not take Wittgenstein’s project seriously. Wittgenstein’s stubbornness and general refusal to accept criticism except from within does not make it any easier, but the fact remains that Wittgenstein could not allow himself to do what he continually said he wanted to do, which is give up philosophy. He wouldn’t stop until he knew he saw the world rightly, and I’m pretty sure he never would have believed he did. Gellner has made an accurate diagnosis but has misstated the symptoms.

Yet Wittgenstein’s personality did engender a more rigid orthodoxy, which was not helped by the stridency of Ryle. Again, however, Gellner goes too far in conflating philosophy and culture. The orthodoxy of computational linguistics was just as strong for many years, yet it did not arise from any particular mysticism of beliefs, just from a remarkably charismatic and brilliant founder.

Wittgenstein was an exceptional case, however, and the combination of his gnomic discourse and his yearning, spiritual frustration was captivating to some and toxic to people like Gellner. (I don’t believe Gellner ever met Wittgenstein, but that he formed an idea of him based on interacting with his acolytes, an idea perhaps even more mythic and titanic than the reality.) It is right to be wary of any such elevation, and it is here that Gellner gets closest to explaining the cultural etiology of the more mediocre language philosophy he is attacking, and the blind faith that does play a part in it.

It’s a curious error to conflate ideas (Charge (1)) and culture (Charge (2)), and particularly curious when a keen social scientist like Gellner makes it. It’s not the only time he did it: The Psychoanalytic Movement: The Cunning of Unreason  indicts Freud and his followers on similar grounds, though with far more success. Freud, like Wittgenstein, was a near-demagogic bringer of truth who also suffered from acute self-doubt and revised his own theories repeatedly, while bridling at the slightest criticism from others. In both cases, Gellner ties the figures and their followers too rigidly to the ideas in play, as though there was an exact parallel correspondence between the sociological power dynamics at work and the underlying theories themselves.

It produces a peculiar sort of alienation: people are expressing and asserting themselves through ideological systems and forms of argument rather than through emotional dynamics. My own belief has generall been that this gets it the wrong way round: ideological reconstructions are post hoc justifications for personal and emotional conflicts that owe little (but not nothing) to the intellectual matters at hand. The ideas coyuld have easily been different; the emotions and games of power are so often the same.


  1. Balaustion
    18 September 2011

    I certainly recognize the dynamic. There’s a certain kind of clearly brilliant and charismatic person who won’t accept the most obvious premises, and shows no anxiety in rejecting them. At that point you (me) will start testing the possibility of giving up the premise and relying on the charismatic brilliance, the intellectual style, the epistemological serenity of the teacher. For if you can even entertain giving up these apparently unshakable premises — and it turns out you can — maybe there’s another way of thinking that opens another world for you. The teacher seems to have been there, and has something undreamt of to say.

    It took a long time for me to get beyond that with LW, to get beyond following him out of the sheer attractiveness of his attitude and writing. But getting beyond it meant getting to some really deep thinking indeed. Despite the mythifications and mystifications of his followers. (Wisdom, BTW, is pretty good, especially on the philosophy of mathematics. And a lot of people I trust like Warnock, though I haven’t read him. Malcolm, on the other hand…..) I think the same dynamic without the true insight may be found in the case of de Man. It’s worth contrasting de Man, whose writing does not age well, with LW, to see the difference between genuine insight that your contemporaries can’t follow, though they can see that it looks like something real is going on, and pseudo-insight, where it looks like something real is going on.

    Cavell is actually really useful for reading Wittgenstein, even if you don’t agree with him. He tests everything Wittgenstein says, while committing himself to reading with a principle of charity that Quine and even Dworkin could never match despite their own commitment to such charity. Cavell thinks about everything Wittgenstein says: he’s the opposite of an acolyte, and that’s why he gets you so deep.

    I can imagine that being around LW’s followers was hideous. But LW is the most stalwart refuser of simplification ever, in just that area where simplification is falsification. He’s not leading us back to the cave: he’s asking us to look around at the world around the well, and not to blind ourselves by staring at the sun.

  2. Ryan
    20 September 2011

    I love this bit from Uschanov’s paper on Gellner’s role in ‘discrediting’ OLP:

    “As the years passed, Gellner’s estimate of [OLP] and Wittgenstein’s work got lower and lower. In the eighties the falsity of Wittgenstein’s ideas was, to him, ‘probably the single most important fact about the intellectual life of mankind’ (1984: 263); by the nineties it had grown to ‘the single most important fact about the human condition’ (1996: 670), and Wittgenstein now ‘condemns and ignores everything that is important in the history of human intellectual life’ (1998: 162), recommending ‘a collective infantile regression for all mankind’ (1992: 123).”


  3. David Auerbach
    21 September 2011

    Ryan, wow, I didn’t know about the later quotes. They don’t surprise me but they’re pretty funny. Uschanov’s comment that “Gellner used essentially populist rhetorical strategies” makes sense to me, but under Gellner’s somewhat Foucauldian obsession with power-relations, it would make sense that he would use those strategies. (Just in the opposite direction that Foucault did.)

    On the other hand, I am enough on the side of the Baker-Hacker-Pears-Stern classicist school of exegesis to disagree strongly with Uschanov’s appeal to the Diamond-Crary-Read-Conant one-Wittgenstein approach. I like some of Diamond’s work, particularly the early stuff, but I disagree strongly with her influential position that the Tractatus is Pyrrhonist and that not taking *all* of it as “nonsense” is “chickening out.” I think it’s been a very dismaying trend as far as claims to what Wittgenstein actually believed.

    Uschanov’s view that “The one plausible explanation is that the “grave mistakes” consisted in Wittgenstein’s failure to make it explicit that he was satirically presenting a wilfully nonsensical text, a reading which I defend elsewhere” seems absolutely indefensible. For me there is no doubt that the later work is a rejection of the Tractatus’s sincere logical atomism.

    I also like Ayer’s line that OLP is “an avenue of philosophical progress” which “may have become a blind alley … [b]ut this is not an excuse for imputing frivolity to those who pursue it.” I love that he called his questioning of Ryle’s Concept of Mind “An Honest Ghost?”

    Balaustion, perhaps I was fortunate in having Pears as a teacher, because his humility and sympathy made it clear just how difficult these issues were and backgrounded the attractiveness to foreground the hyper-socratic questioning and Wittgenstein’s own struggles with the problems he had. So reading it became a matter of him saying, in response to past philosophical questions, “It’s not that easy! That’s just phosphorescence! We’re not out of the cave yet!” Which I suppose I’ve adopted as my attitude as well.

    I like some aspects of Austin and Ryle, but in ordinary language I think they fall into holes that Wittgenstein never did, as does Grice. Sellars takes things in a more productive direction, trying to work out a reasonable system that at least addresses some of W’s concerns, even though Sellars doesn’t seem to have been strongly influenced by him.

    Cavell on the other hand *is* a great philosopher in the deep substantive way that (in my opinion) Austin and Ryle were not, and his probing stance builds on Wittgenstein without being beholden to him. It’s hard for me to think of him as a Wittgensteinian because he’s a Cavellian to me, so I place him in a different relation to Wittgenstein than I do the commentators above. Like Sellars, he is building his own structure. Yet some of his cultural writing is closer to Wittgenstein than anything Hacker, Diamond, or any of the others wrote. I have never felt close to his writings on film, but his essay on “Music Discomposed” is *very* interesting, and *very* Wittgensteinian, even though it never invokes Wittgenstein.

  4. David Auerbach
    21 September 2011

    Also, despite Uschanov’s immense hostility to Gellner, some of which is justified, he still concedes more or less the same substantive critique to Gellner that I do:

    “Another feature troubling about OLP is its ignorance of continental philosophy, particularly the Husserlian phenomenological tradition (Weinzweig 1977). Recent attempts to trace the cultural roots of the notion of “continental philosophy” (Critchley 1997: 348, 350; Glendinning 1999: 8–11, 16–19) have drawn attention to the role of OLP in creating a familiar stereotypical representation of the analytic–continental divide. Accounts of attempted bridge-building between OLP and the continental tradition, such as the famous conference on analytic philosophy at Royaumont, France, in 1958, show the deep nature of the rift and the ridiculously donnish opprobrium many Oxford philosophers were liable to apply to contemporary continental thought.62 István Mészáros complained in the mid-sixties that the predominance of OLP in British philosophy had led to a situation in which “Aristotle as a systematizer is neglected, that great philosophers like Diderot are completely ignored, that Hegel only appears as a kind of evil spirit, that there is little inclination to deal with or even to recognize problems raised by Marx, and that existentialism is hardly taken notice of” (1966: 313). The complaint is largely justified, especially regarding phenomenology: serious bridge-building between it and analytic philosophy began only in the seventies. Even if Austin’s “linguistic phenomenology” had little to do with the continental variety, the Husserl of the Crisis phase was very close to Ryle’s metaphilosophical vision in important respects, and Ryle would have benefited from the developments in phenomenology after he lost his youthful interest in Husserl (Ryle 1970: 9; 1971a: x; 1993: 106–107; Small 1981).63 The same goes for Wittgenstein, who after all considered himself a kind of phenomenologist, and whose work has interested phenomenologists for decades; his only recorded remark on Husserl shows that he too was only familiar with the early Husserl of Logische Untersuchungen, not the later one.”

    “Ridiculously donnish opprobrium”? He sounds like Gellner! (I think even Ryle conceded that he had been too narrow-minded and used OLP as a cudgel against all other forms of philosophical thought.)

  5. T. P. Uschanov
    22 September 2011

    Thanks for all this. First, whatever criticisms I have, then the praise.

    I have to say that I’m not thrilled by the reference to the “[...] Conant one-Wittgenstein approach”. Conant, in particular, has used every available opportunity to emphasise that his problem with the traditional view of Wittgenstein is that it mislocates the, to him very real and all-important, transition between “early” and “later” Wittgenstein (sometimes severely, sometimes less severely) and not at all that it claims that there was such a transition. See in particular Conant’s extensive paper “Mild Mono-Wittgensteinianism” (in “Wittgenstein and the Moral Life”, a 2007 Festschrift for Cora Diamond edited by Alice Crary) or his new paper “Wittgenstein’s Methods”, which he gave here in Finland just this week (I wasn’t there): http://www.abo.fi/media/6840/19092011conant.pdf

    (“Mild Mono-Wittgensteinianism” is one of those paper titles that are great in exactly the same way as Ayer’s “An Honest Ghost?”.)

    As to the disagreement between the two interpretive schools about Wittgenstein’s intentions when writing the Tractatus and particularly its closing sections, I have come to think that the textual and other historical evidence is simply inconclusive to confirm the interpretation of either camp for good (and of course, both camps have internal disagreements that are in many ways almost as sharp as the disagreement between the two of them). It seems to me that we are fated simply never to find out definitely, unless there is an afterlife. I see from the quote you supply, which I had quite forgotten, that I was prepared to overstate the matter somewhat at the time I wrote my paper. There’s the bit where you say and the bit where you take it back, as I quote Austin as saying! But I am still very disheartened by the facile misrepresentations of Diamond, Conant, etc., that have enjoyed wide circulation, which indeed reside in my own mind in much the same box as the worst of Gellner’s misrepresentations of Wittgenstein.

    All the rest of this post of yours on Gellner I like quite immensely. As I already said in my other comment, I personally would have liked him to have written a purely social satire on ordinary language philosophy, as it would have allowed him to be as satirical as he wanted without taking the risk of banal factual errors such as those I convict him of. I only disagree with your theory that John Wisdom is “strident, less than brilliant”; on the contrary, he is by far the most lyrical and mellow of the major philosophers generally classified as ordinary language philosophers, stylistically and rhetorically closer in many ways to the best Continental philosophers than to the average analytic philosopher of his age. (He was a Cambridge philosopher, not an Oxford one.) I once saw somewhere a characterisation of Wisdom’s writing as “Wittgenstein extrapolated to the Lydian mode”, which hits the nail on the head.

  6. David Auerbach
    23 September 2011

    Thanks for the response. It seems like we’re more or less in agreement on Gellner. I was only speculating about Wisdom as I haven’t read him, so no actual judgment was intended. Wittgenstein definitely achieved some sort of bizarre white whale status for Gellner, all the more bizarre given that Gellner’s familiarity with his work seems to have been mostly second-hand and consequently inaccurate.

    I admit to using a bit of shorthand to abbreviate the approach which Diamond initiated and Conant and others followed. It is more precise to say that they attribute to the Tractatus certain Pyrrhonist tendencies that were previously thought to be present only in the later work (at least some of it). Regardless of however many Wittgensteins Conant thinks there are, this general position, which has had a great impact, still seems very wrong-headed to me. The specific, famous passage of Diamond’s that I think is indefensible is this:

    One thing which according to the Tractatus shows itself but cannot be expressed in language is what Wittgenstein speaks of as the logical form of reality. So it looks as if there is this whatever-it-is, the logical form of reality, some essential feature of reality, which reality has all right, but which we cannot say or think that it has. What exactly is supposed to be left of that, after we have thrown away the ladder? Are we going to keep the idea that there is something or other in reality that we gesture at, however badly, when we speak of ‘the logical form of reality’, so that it, what we were gesturing at, is there but cannot be expressed in words?

    That is what I want to call chickening out. What counts as not chickening out is then this, roughly: to throw the ladder away is, among other things, to throw away in the end the attempt to take seriously the language of ‘features of reality’. To read Wittgenstein himself as not chickening out is to say that it is not, not really, his view that there are features of reality that cannot be put into words but show themselves. What is his view is that that way of talking may be useful or even for a time essential, but it is in the end to be let go of and honestly taken to be real nonsense, plain nonsense, which we are not in the end to think of as corresponding to an ineffable truth. To speak of features of reality in connection with what shows itself in language is to use a very odd kind of figurative language. That goes also for “what shows itself.”

    I think that’s all pretty much wrong, and that Unsinn is very very far from “plain nonsense.” And the consequential rejection of logical atomism implied by these words makes it understandable that people would take this to be implying a far stronger continuity between early and later Wittgenstein than had previously been thought.

    Without getting into too involved an exegesis, Hacker’s “Was He Trying to Whistle It?” seems to me to be a fine refutation of these general sorts of points, and at least there I think the documentation is definitively on his side. If there has been a convincing refutation of it, I haven’t seen it. I’ve also never been enamored of Diamond’s “chickening out” posturing, as though it were some sort of test of character to accept her point of view.

    Which is not to say that there is not a Pyrrhonist spirit at work in the Tractatus, but that this passage simply goes too far. And the continued publication of articles like Marie McGinn’s Saying and Showing and the Continuity of Wittgenstein’s Thought, which quotes Conant and Diamond and also seems to ignore Hacker’s critique and stress the fundamental continuity across his whole thought.

    In my opinion, Conant did not do himself any favors with his Kierkegaard and Wittgenstein article. Despite somewhat similar personality quirks, W’s and K’s writings do not employ similar techniques. McGinn and Hacker both quote this footnote of Conant’s:

    I would urge that the propositions of the entire work are to be thrown away as nonsense…. The aim is to undo our attraction to various grammatically well-formed strings of words that resonate with an aura of sense. The silence that…the Tractatus wish[es] to leave us with in the end is one in which nothing has been said and there is nothing to say (of the sort that we imagined there to be)…. [It] is not the pregnant silence that comes with the censorious posture of guarding the sanctity of the ineffable.

    And statements like “I believed that the metaphilosophical slogans of the Tractatus all applied as aptly to the Investigations as they did to the early work” again stress a type of continuity that has been overplayed. The more recent paper seems to downplay these explicit sorts of claims for the Tractatus, but I still prefer, e.g., the more subtle reading of David G. Stern in How Many Wittgensteins? I’m going to post a quote from that paper….

  7. T. P. Uschanov
    23 September 2011

    Well, since you specifically mentioned Hacker’s “Was He Trying to Whistle It?”, let me try to keep the discussion connected to the original subject, Gellner – and his “essentially populist rhetorical strategies”. Because I view Hacker as employing those same strategies, and they put me off Hacker, a friend of Wittgenstein, exactly as deeply as they put me off Gellner, an enemy of Wittgenstein.

    I quote from a draft of a paper I wrote around the same time as the Gellner paper (around 10 or 11 years ago) but abandoned, as there was more and more work coming out saying essentially all the things I had intended to say, only better.

    Hacker applies the attribute “post-modernist” to the resolute reading of the Tractatus six times in less than two pages. Further, he terms the resolute reading “deconstructive” (2000: 359). At least some of the proposed resolute readings are apparently not only deconstruction, but “deconstruction with a vengeance” (2000: 385). In a footnote, Hacker adds that by deconstruction he means a doctrine subscribing to “the hermeneutic principle that an author never says what he means or means what he says” (2000: 384; cf. Koethe 1999: 5). This is an astonishing charge, since one of the main weapons – if not the main weapon – of the resolute reading has been to point out the standard reading’s refusal to believe that Wittgenstein meant what he said in certain passages of the Tractatus (notably the preface, §§5.4732-5.4733, and §§6.53–6.54), as well as in correspondence and conversations with Ludwig Ficker and Paul Engelmann.

    For example, a cornerstone of many of the resolute readings of the Tractatus, including Diamond’s reading as well as the one I sketch below, has been a famous remark made by Wittgenstein in a letter to Ficker that the point of the Tractatus was an ethical one. Somehow Hacker’s aversion to deconstruction (as defined by him) has not stopped him from using it to try to save his own reading of the Tractatus as exclusively a logical treatise. Facing the need to explain the remark to Ficker in his first book, Insight and Illusion, Hacker brusquely dismissed it as “either self-deluded or disingenuous” (1972: 83). Asked twelve years later whether he really meant this, Hacker said that although he would no longer use these exact words, he still refused to entertain the possibility that Wittgenstein was serious in making the remark (Holiday 1985: 142). Having thus repeatedly rejected as mendacious the single most cited and most explicit statement by Wittgenstein himself regarding the point of the Tractatus, Hacker has in my view signed away even the slightest entitlement to moral high ground regarding the need to read Wittgenstein’s writings charitably.

    Ironically, had Hacker bothered to look at the work of any of the real self-confessed deconstructionists to have written approvingly on Wittgenstein’s philosophy (e.g. Agacinski 1975; LaCapra 1979; Staten 1984), he would have found in them an unswerving commitment to the standard interpretation of the Tractatus. Furthermore, the very volume where Hacker’s paper appears, from which Hacker is supposed to constitute a “Dissenting Voice,” contains a lengthy paper devoted to criticizing attempts at aligning Wittgenstein and deconstruction (Stone 2000). The same can be said of Hacker’s repeated claim that the resolute reading reads the Tractatus as “Zen-like” (2000: 370), as presented “in the manner of a Zen master” (2000: 378) or as representing “Zen pedagogy” (2000: 381). The only reference to Zen elsewhere in the 350 pages of the book preceding Hacker’s dissent is in the aforementioned paper on deconstruction, which expresses hope of “remov[ing] the Zen-like sound of paradox” in some of its own conclusions (Stone 2000: 111). Additionally, one of the first philosophers to endorse the resolute reading of the Tractatus, calling it “well argued,” was D. Z. Phillips (1995: 126), the author of a famous paper criticizing those who want to compare Wittgenstein and Zen on the basis of superficial similarities (Phillips 1977).

    I’ve had to ask myself which is worse, Conant’s equation “Wittgenstein = Kierkegaard” (which is quite heavily qualified in some respects, in spite of the liberties Conant takes when he really gets carried away) or Hacker’s equation “postmodernism = Kierkegaard = deconstruction = Zen”. The former is a parallel suggested as a useful heuristic, the point of which one can see even if one disagrees with it either wholly or in part. But the latter sounds to me like the confusion of some kind of autodidact crank.

    So you see, my critique of Hacker is an ideology critique in the same sense as my critique of Gellner, or indeed Gellner’s critique of Wittgenstein. But like Gellner, I’m in the end unable to keep the ideology critique apart from technical philosophical matters and matters of textual exegesis. In this sense, I’m no better myself than Gellner.

    The two stumbling blocks for the traditional reading of the Tractatus that I personally just can’t get by, no matter how hard I try and how charitable I try to be – towards those who put the reading in terms other than Hacker’s, that is! – are:

    (1) Tractatus §5.4732-5.4733, where Wittgenstein says that there can only be one kind of nonsense (seemingly the same kind the latter Wittgenstein speaks of in Philosophical Investigations §500);

    (2) Wittgenstein’s letter of 8 August 1932 to Moritz Schlick, where he complains about Rudolf Carnap, whose reading of the Tractatus was the conventional logical-atomist one widely accepted until recently: “I cannot imagine that Carnap should have so completely and utterly misunderstood the last sentences of my book – and therefore the fundamental conception of the whole book.”

    There have been defences of the traditional reading on both of these points, but all the ones I’ve seen have been as contrived and tendentious as the “resolute” reading at its most contrived and tendentious. So, as a good Wittgensteinian Pyrrhonist, I have in the end come to withhold final judgement, seemingly indefinitely. The fact that a whole collection of paired “for” and “against” papers titled Beyond the Tractatus Wars was able to be published this summer was an encouraging sign. But both my personal and my professional interests have moved on in the meantime, seemingly for good, and I haven’t been following the debate myself at all closely for the last eight years or so.

    It’s good that you mentioned David Stern besides Hacker, as my estimate of Stern, and the paper you mention, is as high as yours. (So you won’t need to post any quotes from it if you were going to post them for me.) We’ve never met, but we had some correspondence early in the last decade, and he made a tremendously favourable impression on me. My difference from Stern is a difference in degree – any sometimes not even that high a degree – but my difference from someone like Hacker is a difference in kind.

  8. T. P. Uschanov
    23 September 2011

    I should add that I view purely temperamental differences as also playing a large role here. There is a 1931 remark by Wittgenstein himself in Culture and Value:

    If it is said on occasion that (someone’s) philosophy is a matter of temperament, there is some truth in this. A preference for certain comparisons is something we call a matter of temperament & far more disagreements rest on this than appears at first sight.

    I can certainly well see why someone might be irritated by, say, the passage you quote from Cora Diamond or her use of the term “chickening out”, while not being irritated by these myself in the least.

  9. David Auerbach
    26 September 2011

    While I’ll be the first to concede that Hacker is uncharitable (in general!), his caricaturing of the “revisionist” (for lack of a better term) position as deconstructionist doesn’t disqualify what I still think are substantive criticisms. Even his readings of Diamond/Conant show a lot more familiarity with their positions than Gellner did with Wittgensteins. So for me it’s a different level of uncharitability.

    I agree completely that temperament is definitely at work here. Neither Diamond nor Hacker (nor Hintikka, for that matter, whom I respect greatly) provoke me to the point that I can overlook points of substance in their work, even if I feel more comfortable in the presence of the more charitable Pears and Stern. I’m happy to hear that Stern is amiable; Wittgenstein on Mind and Language made a strong impression on me at a young age. (I do wonder how he and avowed Wittgenstein-hater Gregory Landini get along at UIowa.) That said, Stern seemed fairly dismissive of the Crary/Read “New Wittgenstein”–I recall him writing something to the effect that what was good was not new and vice versa.

    The real error, committed by everyone (including me), is thinking that one ever knows what Wittgenstein meant.

    Without mounting a serious defense of the traditional reading, I did want to respond briefly to the two blocks you mention. I haven’t done research at the moment on these due to time constraints so this is a bit off the cuff.

    (1) I actually do fail to see why this one poses such a great problem. In 4.461-4.4611 W. distinguishes the Unsinn of “Socrates is identical” in 5.4733 from the Sinnlos of tautologies, and that distinction is enough for me to draw a very hard line between the Tractatus and the Investigations. Am I missing something big here? There may be room for disputes but it doesn’t seem like a knock-down piece of evidence.

    (2) I took statements like these to be rejections of any sort of verificationist/empiricist principles and methodologies, but nothing that wouldn’t allow logical atomism and the picture theory to stand metaphysically.

    So for now I continue to chicken out….

  10. Jon O
    29 March 2012

    Why never any mention of Roy Harris’ discussions of Wittgenstein and particularly his comparison of the thought of Wittgenstein and Saussure? I think there is a great deal to be had from reading Harris. His analysis and deconstruction of LW’s games analogy is especially good.
    Agree with the general assessment of Words and Things. Gellner’s rhetorical style can be seductive if one is sympathetic to him as I initially was inclined to be but I now think he was quite wrong on the latter LW. In fact, I don’t think Gellner’s linguistic thought ever really goes beyond a fairly traditional structuralism, incorporating a fair amount of what Harris would call surrogational semantics.

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