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Tag: gilbert ryle

Gilbert Ryle’s Plato

Plato’s Progress is not just for philosophers. It is a detective story, and a very entertaining one. Mid-century arch-analytic philosopher Gilbert Ryle skillfully constructed it as such, and it’s a shame this book is so little-known these days. It certainly doesn’t bear much relation to Ryle’s The Concept of Mind, a solid if rather dogmatic book attacking Cartesians and psychologists for, well, making stuff up. But Ryle was more eclectic in his interests than his bulldog personality would lead you to believe; his flirtation with Husserl and Heidegger being just one of the curious detours he made.

While Plato’s Progress is about philosophy, it really isn’t a philosophical work. Rather, it’s Ryle’s attempt to explain the many cryptic, bizarre, and inconsistent aspects of Plato’s writings in as coherent a way as possible. People have been doing this for over two millennia, but Ryle, with focus and creativity that borders on genius, adopts a very simple heuristic and sticks with it to the end.

Though Ryle never states it, his heuristic is as follows:

Plato never tried to be obscure. Any baffling aspects of Plato’s dialogues are unintentional and have an explanation, generally outside of the text.

This may seem reasonable, but try telling it to anyone who has been working on the Parmenides or the Sophist and they will probably laugh at you. Ryle, however, is utterly unsympathetic to the idea that Plato wrote with a level of elusiveness that would put Heidegger to shame. He assumes that a common-sense interpretation of Plato’s writing is generally accurate and that Plato wasn’t hiding some “unwritten doctrines” or performing some implicit dialectical maneuvers without telling us.

The most important consequence of this heuristic is that Ryle remains resolutely focused on Plato’s audience, which is what makes this a work of literary criticism more than philosophy. Of each dialogue, he asks: who was it written for? What was Plato trying to achieve with it?

Ryle cavalierly discards the notion of Plato as some oracular genius whose works were received as if sent from on high, and places him back in 4th-century Athens (and, significantly, Syracuse). If the style changes, often it’s because he’s writing for a different audience. If Plato contradicts himself from one dialogue to the next, he really did change his mind. To quote Ryle:

For philosophers the transformation of Plato from something superhuman to something human is compensated by the transformation of Plato from the sage who was born at his destination to the philosopher who had to search for his destination. We lose a Nestor, but we gain an Ulysses.

Since we don’t know much about Plato’s life, and not that much about 4th-century Athens, Ryle has to make quite a few suppositions, to the point of amassing something of a conspiracy theory for why Plato wrote what he did. But it’s a very clever theory, and Ryle is a remarkably elegant and lucid writer.

Let’s hit the main points:

  1. Why did Plato write dialogues rather than poetry or prose? Because they were meant to be performed and were performed. In fact, philosophical debate was a sporting contest in Athens, which is how Plato got his start.
  2. Why is Socrates absent from the later dialogues? Because only Plato could play Socrates and he fell ill for the latter part of his life.
  3. Why, after the early dialogues, do the dialogues stop being dialogues and turn into Socrates lecturing and everyone else agreeing with him? Because Plato was banned from participating in debates after an (unreported) Socrates-esque trial of his own.
  4. Why are the Republic and the Laws so long and disjointed? Because they were fix-up compilations of normal-length dialogues intended for private publication and consumption by rich hyper-conservative Athenians. They have no internal unity.
  5. Did Plato really reject the Forms and idealism? Yes. He was virtually an Aristotelian scientist by the end of his life, possibly influenced by Aristotle.
  6. What’s up with the tedious Magnesian legal code in the Laws? It was an intended legal code for Syracuse that never got put into practice due to political upheaval, used to pad out one of those books mentioned in answer #4.
  7. What about the 7th Epistle that’s ostensibly Plato talking about his disastrous attempt to bring up a philosopher-king in Syracuse? A forgery! Filled with implausibilities but also valuable true details, it was written by a supporter of Syracusan noble Dion in order to discredit his nephew, Syracusan ruler Dionysius, whom Plato tutored in philosophy.

If all of these things were true, they would make a lot of Plato scholarship look very silly indeed. Anglo and European scholars have twisted themselves into knots in various ways trying to find some intra-textual explanation for a lot of these matters, and Ryle sweeps all their efforts away with pedestrian explanations. He integrates them into a coherent and extremely vivid historical framework that left me envying his mental powers.

Fortunately for more dedicated Platonists, no proof exists for Ryle’s theories, though Ockham’s Razor still makes some of them pretty tempting. I can’t say that I’ve ever seen any explanation for the bizarre disappearance of Socrates in the later dialogues except for Ryle’s, and the idea of Plato performing as Socrates in Athens and later in the Academy is certainly compelling. And the idea of the Republic as a compilation geared toward hyper-authoritarian Athenians explains its bizarre construction, as well as making Plato potentially a bit less totalitarian than Kallipolis implies.

The trial of Plato and his banishment from philosophical contest is at the center of Ryle’s theory. Ryle is not certain of the charges, but comes up with a number of hypotheses that all revolve around Plato defaming or otherwise offending some rich and powerful Athenians. While such a wholly undocumented event may sound implausible, Ryle marshals a compellingly methodical (if hopelessly speculative) argument for it. It’s the best chapter in Plato’s Progress because of Ryle’s incredible Columbo-like ability to draw out little circumstantial details from Plato, Aristotle, Xenophon, Isocrates, and others that support his case. It’s an amazing performance.

Ryle attributes the intense drama of Socrates’ trial and death in Apology, Phaedo, and Crito not to Plato deciding to memorialize Socrates long after his death, but to Plato using Socrates to justify his own position while on trial in Athens. There is not sufficient reason otherwise, Ryle says, for the shift in Socrates’ personality from the early to the middle dialogues:

The impression that the early dialogues give us of Socrates’ personality is that of the gay, avuncular, combative, shrewd and predominantly scrupulous champion of eristic ring-craft; a mixture of Dr Johnson, D’Artagnan and Marshall Hall. The last twenty pages of the Gorgias, the Apology, the Crito and the Phaedo introduce us to a very different man. Socrates is now a prophet, a reformer, a saint and a martyr. The hemlock reminds us of the crucifix. Plato is writing here with a passion which was not there before. Some quarter of a century has elapsed since Socrates’ execution, and during this period Athens has repented of her crime. Socrates’ name no longer needs to be retrieved from disgrace. Plato himself has written, surely to the great satisfaction of his Athenian audiences, a number of cheerful, down-to-earth stories of the champion’s victories and, in the Euthydemus, of his technical defeat in the disputation-ring.

Whence come the new tones of Plato’s voice? No mere twenty-five-year-old piety could explain the new moral passion or the new political venom of Socrates’ monologue in the Gorgias; his relish in themyth.in the Gorgias for the eternal tortures in Tartarus that await the men of power; his apostolic vindication of his mission in the Apology; the deep and almost merry seriousness of his Farewell to This Life in the Phaedo. The earlier eristic dialogues are the products of Plato’s talents, but these immediately succeeding dialogues come out of his heart as well. What has happened to Plato’s heart?

There must have been a crisis in Plato’s life in the later 370’s, which is reflected at once by the disappearance of the elenchus from his dialogues; by the foundation of the Academy with its dialectic-barred curriculum for the young men; by the passion with which Plato writes in the Gorgias monologue and in the Apology, Crito and Phaedo; and even, perhaps, by Socrates’ very uncharacteristic lament at the divine veto on suicide in the opening conversation of the Phaedo.

Moreover, unlike Socrates, Plato bungled the defense quite badly, and he was not only defending himself, but other practitioners of philosophical debate:

In his long monologue at the end of the Gorgias 508c, 5o9d), Socrates surprises us by twice saying prophetically that he will flounder incompetently in his defence of himself, his associates and his relations, oikeion. But in 399 Socrates was the sole defendant; he had no co-defendants for whom he had to try to state the defence. The prosecution prophesied in the Gorgias was not that of a solitary defendant for irreligion; it was the prosecution of a plurality of defendants for defamation. Apparently at least one of these defendants was a relative of ‘Socrates’. Who?

Why is Socrates made to prophesy that he will flounder hopelessly in court? Xenophon reports no floundering; and Plato’s Apology will live for ever as a powerful speech. A very creditable minority of the judges voted for the acquittal of Socrates. There are other places where Plato makes Socrates declare that the true philosopher is bound to flounder in court against the ready-witted, mean-minded prosecutor, though their roles will be happily reversed when they come to discuss more cosmic matters. One place is the long and philosophically quite pointless digression in the Theaetetus from 172c. Here Socrates says nothing about himself in particular. In the Republic 517a we get a similar but briefer statement of the forensic incompetence of the true philosopher, who again is not identified with Socrates. In the Gorgias 526b-527,a the politician Callicles is warned that he, but not the philosopher, will gape and feel dizzy before Rhadamanthus and Minos, as Socrates is going to do before his Athenian judges. We may conjecture that Plato had had to speak on behalf of his fellow-defendants and himself in their trial for defamation and that his performance had been embarrassingly inadequate. His pitiful showing left an abiding sore place in his memory. His dream in the Gorgias and Theaetetus of an eventual turning of the tables upon the ‘lawyers’ was a compensation-dream. It is noteworthy that in the Theaetetus the philosopher is described as an unworldly innocent who does not even know his way to the agora or the courts. In the Apology Socrates had not been so represented. He was a frequenter of the agora. In the Theaetetus Plato was thinking about someone else than Socrates as his unworldly, forensically ineffective philosopher.

Plato was thinking of himself! Plato was not executed–Athens would not repeat the mistake of scapegoating a philosopher–but he was banned from participating in dialogue tournaments. Yet, Ryle hypothesizes, that freed up Plato’s imagination to begin real philosophizing. The early dialogues were little more than records of tournament debates (“Moot”s). Ryle dramatically tells the tale:

The reason why the suppression of Plato’s practice of the Socratic Method involved the abandonment of the eristic dialogue was that Plato now had no more Moot-records or memories to dramatize. His home source of elenctic arguments dried up when his personal participation in dialectical debates stopped.

What forced Plato to find out the secret of solitary debating was the suppression of his practice of conducting eristic Moots with the young men. It was his exile from this duelling that drove Plato, though only after years of frustration, into solitary pro and contra reasoning. Plato did not write the eristic dialogues because he was a philosopher; he became a philosopher because he could no longer participate in questioner-answerer Moots, or any longer be their dramatic chronicler. His judges broke Plato’s heart, but they made him in the end a self-moving philosopher. No longer had the Other Voice to be the voice of another person. No longer was the objective the driving of another person into an impasse; it was now the extraction of oneself from an impasse.

He comes up with similar explanations for the strange topics in the dialogue by positing extra-philosophical motivations for them. The early dialogues often mention one topic and then veer away from it because they were written to order for competition, which prescribed a certain theme. The Phaedrus turns away from metaphysics and politics to boy-love eroticism because it’s an advertisement for the Academy!

The Boy-Love motif is very strong in the [early] eristic dialogues. We find it in the Lysis, Charmides, Protagoras, [Alcibiades], Euthydemus, Gorgias and Meno. We hear hardly a whisper of it in the later dialogues with the two important exceptions of the Symposium and the Phaedrus. In Diotima’s speech in the Symposium the darling of Eros is sublimated into an Otherworldly Beloved, in what sounds like a valedictory tone of voice. It is the sixty-year-old Plato’s ‘Farewell for Ever’ to his darling twenty-year-olders. He must now think without them. He must now think alone. The much later Phaedrus is a new call to the twenty-year-olders, but this time not to dialectic-hungry young men, but to the rhetoric-hungry young men for whom at last the Academy is going to provide rhetoric- teaching of a philosophically fortified kind.

As Socrates’ own eloquence in the Phaedrus is both profounder in content and better organized in form than the speech of Lysias, so the Academy’s scheme of instruction in rhetoric will make its students both wiser and more winning than those of Isocrates. In his Phaedrus Plato is showing to would-be rhetoric students that the philosopher can defeat the rhetorician in rhetoric. Being addressed specially to such Phaedruses, the dialogue is devoid of philosophical argumentation, though it contains some philosophical rhetoric.

Having founded the Academy and free to philosophize once more, Plato’s approach changes again. The impenetrable later dialogues like Parmenides and Sophist are rather different, intended for internal consumption at the Academy, where Plato has far more latitude to write than he previously did. Ryle works through the dialogues one by one, ordering them, explaining their provenance, and sometimes carving them up: for example, the Parmenides is stitched together from two very different pieces with no connection between the two). And his forensic skills are impressive. Here’s a representative example:

Many of Plato’s middle-sized dialogues seem to adhere to a regulation length, namely 52-54. Stephanus pages. As the Phaedo is five or six pages in excess of this regulation length, it is worth while to see if it has been enlarged beyond its original length. There is a stretch of just the required length between 108c and 113c which does bear several marks of being a subsequent interpolation. This stretch, which tells us that the earth is spherical and cavernous, is totally irrelevant to the subject-matter of the dialogue as a whole and is only factitiously relevant to the subject-matter of the passages immediately preceding and succeeding it. Moreover there is a glaring incongruity between Socrates’ exposition of someone else’s geophysical theory in this stretch and his renunciation of physical theories ten pages earlier. The theme interrupted in the middle of 108c seems to be smoothly resumed at the beginning of 113d.

One more mystery dispatched!

The result is gripping, at least if you have a basic familiarity with Plato and appreciate detective work of this sort, performed with uncommon astuteness. Ryle also has a very enjoyable dry wit (he was a huge fan of Austen and Wodehouse), as here:

In his Panathenaicus 26, Isocrates refers to the curriculum of the Academy as having been set up ‘in our own day’,  This part of the oration was probably written in about 342 when Isocrates was some ninety-three years of age. Unfortunately his longevity makes his phrase ‘in our own day’ quite uninformative.

English philosopher I.M. Crombie, who wrote two immense and analytical volumes on Plato, also managed to get in a few good ones in his review of Plato’s Progress, which he reviewed appreciatively but with some skepticism. This is my favorite, when Crombie is discussing Ryle’s idea of philosophical debate as recreational and competitive pastime in Athens:

For this intrinsically unplausible proposition, Ryle does indeed produce some evidence, certainly enough to show that something here needs to be thought about, but not enough to persuade me that, “Come on, let’s see if I can defend ‘Virtue is teachable’ for half an hour” was a common alternative to “Come on, let’s play draughts.”

I gather the same sensibility underlies G.A. Cohen’s tribute to his former adviser Ryle:

Gilbert Ryle on Heidegger’s Being and Time

Arch-analytic Gilbert “Category Mistake” Ryle reviewed Heidegger’s Being and Time sympathetically on its publication in 1928. It is a beautifully clear statement of the methodological parting of the ways that was then taking place. The philosophical concerns, however, are similar, as are their attempts to get away from subjective psychology.

I’ve excerpted the best bits as well as his punchy conclusion.

This is a very difficult and important work, which marks a big advance in the application of the ‘Phenomenological Method’—though I may say at once that I suspect that this advance is an advance towards disaster.

[Heidegger contends that traditional ontological categories] cannot supply the terms in which we are to unpack the Meanings for which we are looking, for they are at least under suspicion of being metaphorical. Phenomenology is Hermeneutic and the categories which are the untested framework of our everyday world are among its primary interpretanda.

As a practical consequence of this view Heidegger imposes on himself the hard task of coining, and on us the alarming task of understanding, a complete new vocabulary of terms—mostly many-barrelled compounds of everyday ‘nursery’ words and phrases—made to denote roots and stems of Meaning more primitive than those in which Plato, Aristotle and subsequent scientists and philosophers have so taught us to talk and think, that we, by the strong force of habit, have come to regard as ultimate and pivotal ideas which are in fact composite and derivative. Heidegger’s ontological Phenomenology is to turn our eyes back again to contemplate with a new method and a new clarity the springs of Meaning from which flow our most familiar and most ‘homely’ conceptions and classifications. The principle on which he seems to be designing his new terminology is, I should judge, the hypothesis that certain ‘nursery’ words and phrases have a primitiveness and freedom from sophistication which makes them more nearly adequate expressions of really primitive Meanings than the technical terms which science and philosophy in the course of a long development have established.

The hypothesis seems to me a perilous one, for it is at least arguable that it is here, and not in the language of the village and the nursery, that mankind has made a partial escape from metaphor.

(I must leave till later my further and fundamental objection that all these so-called ‘primitive’ attitudes or ways of ‘being-an-I’ really involve knowledge, which knowledge necessitates universals and categories upon which the Analysis of Dasein throws—and can throw—no light at all.)

And this leads to dangerous results in the practice of the phenomenological method; it leads to them here in Sein und Zeit. For the presence of knowledge of some reality (which is surely present in any and every conscious experience) though it is not explicitly recognised is surreptitiously imported as well into such terms as ‘understanding’ and ‘illumination’ as into the countless nursery-terms which Heidegger is trying to build up into a new philosophical vocabulary.

I think, too, that it can be shown that the only reason why Heidegger’s Hermeneutic of ‘Dasein’ takes or promises to take the form of a sort of anthropologistic Metaphysic (smelling a little oddly both of James and of St Augustine) is because Heidegger presupposes that the Meanings which his Hermeneutic is to unravel and illuminate must be in some way man-constituted.

But though I deplore the damage wrought upon his Metaphysics by the presuppositions which Heidegger has unconsciously inherited, I have nothing but admiration for his special undertaking and for such of his achievements in it as I can follow, namely the phenomenological analysis of the root workings of the human soul.

He shows himself to be a thinker of real importance by the immense subtlety and searchingness of his examination of consciousness, by the boldness and originality of his methods and conclusions, and by the unflagging energy with which he tries to think behind the stock categories of orthodox philosophy and psychology.

And I must also say, in his behalf, that while it is my personal opinion that qua First Philosophy Phenomenology is at present heading for bankruptcy and disaster and will end either in self-ruinous Subjectivism or in a windy mysticism, I hazard this opinion with humility and with reservations since I am well aware how far I have fallen short of understanding this difficult work.

Sein und Zeit, it is worth mentioning, is most beautifully printed and the pages have generous margins.

Gilbert Ryle, “Heidegger’s Sein und Zeit” (1928)

In his essay, “Analyzing Heidegger: a history of analytic reactions to Heidegger,” Lee Braver has also remarked on the value of this review, complimenting Ryle’s sympathy toward Heidegger and pointing out their shared concerns. I think Braver makes too much out of some lingering Kantianism in Ryle’s terminology with which he tries to show that Ryle later embraced a position he’d criticized Heidegger for; but from a Heideggerian standpoint I can see why Braver says this.

For my part, I might like Ryle’s Heidegger more than most other versions I’ve encountered (Dreyfus’s, say).

Stanley Cavell and Timothy Williamson: Must We Mean What We Say? And How?

This is an extension of earlier thoughts on Wittgenstein, and particularly about how philosophers think of meaning and to what extent culture gets involved in it. I want to contrast Stanley Cavell, for whom culture is very nearly the starting point of philosophical investigation, and Timothy Williamson, for whom it seems to be a recurrent nuisance. Both claim very different aspects of Wittgenstein for their own projects. I side with Cavell.

“Must We Mean What We Say?” is very early Cavell, dating from 1957, before he had gotten his PhD. I am not sure how widely read it is today, because it is written in the argot of the Ordinary Language Philosophy of the time (Cavell was a student of J.L. Austin’s). Although the essay goes far beyond Austin in its underlying concerns, Cavell is still working within an orthodoxy that he would soon transcend.

The signs are clearly already there, as Cavell concertedly links the technical aspects of Wittgenstein and Ordinary Language Philosophy to looser concerns of art, literature, and taste. He yokes the ideas of language games and social practice to somewhat Kantian ideas about the experience of art, beauty, and meaning. His skill in doing so is already manifest. His employment of technical discourse (here Wittgenstein, elsewhere psychoanalysis) never overshadows the literary humanist sense that comes to the forefront in his later work; Cavell fits in my mind next to William Empson, Erich Auerbach and Northrop Frye rather than to Austin or Ryle.

Notably, he draws out those aspects of Wittgenstein closest to this sensibility, which Austin and Ryle clearly did not possess: the amazement and bafflement at culture, the ability to be temporarily transported by a “game,” be it a work of art or a conversation, the sense of awe. Wittgenstein’s deployment of these moments was very sparing and always cautiously conditioned by his radical uncertainty. Cavell seems to possess more holistic certainty, and as Nightspore suggested in a comment, this allows parts of Wittgenstein’s work to come forward more fully in a way that Wittgenstein would never have allowed.

Cavell does defend Ordinary Language Philosophy from an attack by the logician and skeptic Benson Mates. I have not read the attack, but from Cavell’s quotes, it seems a bit more temperate than Ernest Gellner’s attack, but not all that much more sympathetic, akin to Timothy Williamson‘s recent urgings that we forget about all those ordinary language anecdotes and platitudes and once more get down to solving logical and metaphysical issues for all time. Reading Williamson’s “Must Do Better” seems to indicate that we haven’t come very far in the last 50 years:

What about progress on realism and truth? Far more is known in 2004 about truth than was known in 1964, as a result of technical work by philosophical and mathematical logicians such as Saul Kripke, Solomon Feferman, Anil Gupta, Vann McGee, Volker Halbach and many others on how close a predicate in a language can come to satisfying a full disquotational schema for that very language without incurring semantic paradoxes. Their results have significant and complex implications, not yet fully absorbed, for current debates concerning deflationism and minimalism. One clear lesson is that claims about truth need to be formulated with extreme precision, not out of kneejerk pedantry but because in practice correct general claims about truth often turn out to differ so subtly from provably incorrect claims that arguing in impressionistic terms is a hopelessly unreliable method. Unfortunately, much philosophical discussion of truth is still conducted in a programmatic, vague and technically uninformed spirit whose products inspire little confidence.

Precision is often regarded as a hyper-cautious characteristic. It is importantly the opposite. Vague statements are the hardest to convict of error. Obscurity is the oracle’s self-defense. To be precise is to make it as easy as possible for others to prove one wrong. That is what requires courage. But the community can lower the cost of precision by keeping in mind that precise errors often do more than vague truths for scientific progress.

In addition to the humdrum methodological virtues, we need far more reflectiveness about how philosophical debates are to be subjected to enough constraints to be worth conducting. For example, Dummett’s anti-realism about the past involved, remarkably, the abandonment of two of the main constraints on much philosophical activity. In rejecting instances of the law of excluded middle concerning past times, such as ‘Either a mammoth stood on this spot a hundred thousand years ago or no mammoth stood on this spot a hundred thousand years ago’, the anti-realist rejected both common sense and classical logic. Neither constraint is methodologically sacrosanct; both can intelligibly be challenged, even together. But when participants in a debate are allowed to throw out both simultaneously, methodological alarm bells should ring: it is at least not obvious that enough constraints are left to frame a fruitful debate.

When law and order break down, the result is not freedom or anarchy but the capricious tyranny of petty feuding warlords. Similarly, the unclarity of constraints in philosophy leads to authoritarianism. Whether an argument is widely accepted depends not on publicly accessible criteria that we can all apply for ourselves but on the say-so of charismatic authority figures. Pupils cannot become autonomous from their teachers because they cannot securely learn the standards by which their teachers judge. A modicum of willful unpredictability in the application of standards is a good policy for a professor who does not want his students to gain too much independence.

Timothy Williamson, “Must Do Better” (2004) [I wish he had called it “Must Fail Better”]

The details are different, but the resemblance to Mates’, Ayer’s, and yes, even Gellner’s criticism of the post-Wittgensteinian movements in analytic philosophy is uncanny, right down to the excoriation of mystic philosophical oracles. And Cavell’s defense could just as well apply to the unnamed folks whom Williamson is bashing:

 But the philosopher who proceeds from ordinary language is concerned less to avenge sensational crimes against the intellect than to redress its civil wrongs; to steady any imbalance, the tiniest usurpation, in the mind. This inevitably re­quires reintroducing ideas which have become tyrannical (e.g., exist­ence, obligation, certainty, identity, reality, truth . . . ) into the specific contexts in which they function naturally.

This is not a question of cutting big ideas down to size, but of giving them the exact space in which they can move without corrupting. Nor does our wish to rehabilitate rather than to deny or expel such ideas (by such sentences as, “We can never know for certain . . . “; “The table is not real (really solid)”; “To tell me what I ought to do is always to tell me what you want me to do . . . “) come from a sentimental altruism. It is a question of self-preservation: for who is it that the philosopher punishes when it is the mind itself which assaults the mind?

Stanley Cavell, “Must We Mean What We Say?” (1957)

This reintroduction that Cavell recommends inevitably carries with it all the ambiguity and unprovability that Williamson (and Gellner) detest. It comes as little surprise that Williamson’s take on Wittgenstein and Austin is rather off-the-mark:

A standard framework for description is an incipient theory; it embodies a view of the important dimensions of the phenomena to be described. Since Wittgenstein and Austin were notoriously suspicious of philosophical theory, they inhibited theory-making even of this mild kind. Of course, many philosophers of the period escaped their influence. Austin himself permitted philosophical theories, if they were not premature; it was just that he put the age of maturity so late.

Wittgenstein held that philosophical theories were symptoms of philosophical puzzlement, not answers to it, but that was itself one of his philosophical theories. His work was always driven by theoretical concerns. This applies in particular to his account of family resemblance terms, his specific contribution to the study of vagueness, as it does to Friedrich Waismann’s similar notion of open texture, developed under Wittgenstein’s influence. However, theory does not flourish when it must be done on the quiet. It needs to be kept in the open, where it can be properly criticized.

Timothy Williamson, Vagueness (1994)

Williamson’s demands pose positivistic, scientific criteria for theories that much of Wittgenstein’s work cannot meet, and I gather Williamson is happy to throw that out and keep only what he deems satisfactory. But regardless of accuracy or inclusiveness, if the question comes down to whether I prefer Cavell’s Wittgenstein or Williamson’s Wittgenstein, the choice for me is obviously Cavell, as much as it must seem obviously Williamson to others. But I also don’t think that we know more about truth today than we did 50 years ago, at least not in any ordinary language sense of that claim.

And yet there is a worthy theory behind Cavell and Cavell’s Wittgenstein, but not one having to do with vagueness or predication. It is closer to the early Quine, and it certainly is miles from Williamson’s emphasis on referential semantics. It comes out toward the end of “Must We Mean What We Say?” and it speaks of a cultural, functionalist holism:

Few speakers of a language utilize the full range of perception which the language provides, just as they do without so much of the rest of their cultural heritage. Not even the philosopher will come to possess all of his past, but to neglect it deliberately is foolhardy. The consequence of such neglect is that our philosophical memory and perception become fixated upon a few accidents of intellectual history.

The mistake, however, is to suppose that the ordinary use of a word is a function of the internal state of the speaker.

I should urge that we do justice to the fact that an individual’s intentions or wishes can no more produce the general mean­ing for a word than they can produce horses for beggars, or home runs from pop flies, or successful poems out of unsuccessful poems.

Stanley Cavell, “Must We Mean What We Say?” (1957)

I take this to first propose an externalist, functionalist idea of meaning: what we “mean” when we say something has nothing to do with some private intention we may possess, and everything to do with the rules and standards of language use in our linguistic community. Cavell’s specific contribution is to say that if this is so, philosophy must take on the full burden of the linguistic and cultural history of our community, which includes (and even privileges) the difficult and arcane effects produced by literature. This is a huge responsibility, and no doubt a huge burden to those like Williamson who would rather examine meaning on a semantic or locally pragmatic level. Unfortunately, I think the burden of a more holistic pragmatism, one that inevitably requires heuristic inexactitude, is unavoidable.

A more formal attempt to describe this sort of functionalist pragmatism had already been given in 1948 by Wilfrid Sellars. Sellars later refined this vision to be considerably more complex, but already Sellars’ grasp of the problem in a non-skeptical way is inspiring. Rejecting empiricism, he describes a meeting of idealist and analytic traditions in a hybrid of metaphysical realism and linguistic idealism:

I like to think we have reformulated in our own way a familiar type of Idealistic argument. It has been said that human experience can only be understood as a fragment of an ideally coherent experience. Our claim is that our empirical language can only be (epistemologically) understood as an incoherent and fragmentary schema of an ideally coherent language. The Idealism, but not the wisdom, disappears with the dropping of the term ‘experience.’ Formally, all languages and worlds are on an equal footing. This is indeed a principle of indifference. On the other hand, a reconstruction of the pragmatics of common sense and the scientific outlook points to conformation rules requiring a [world-]story to contain sentences which are confirmed but not verified. In this sense the ideal of our language is a realistic language; and this is the place of Realism in the New Way of Words.

Wilfrid Sellars, “Realism and the New Way of Words“, in Pure Pragmatics and Possible Worlds (1948)

It is not that language defies all attempts to place it under precise understanding. It’s just that we are only local participants in a huge linguistic world to which we have only limited access, which makes the problem very, very hard, but also much richer the problems posed by Williamson. Determinations of meaning are theoretically possible, but in practice inexact, though not indeterminate. We can still proceed with provisional, pragmatic investigations, much in the way that Peirce did, within Sellars’ overarching structure, which I think is a great achievement.

For contrast, see Williamson here, trying to localize problems of vagueness in meaning. Williamson’s view of this community of meaning is limited and emaciated because of the limits imposed on it by his demands for atomistic quantification. The bottom line is that I wouldn’t want to live in a world and a community  in which language could be sufficiently quantified in the way that Williamson thinks it can.

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.

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