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Discussion: Wittgenstein’s Conservatism

K. T. Fann, in his admirably lucid article
(‘ lVi ttgenstein and bourgeois philosophy’ , Radical
Philosophy 8, p24ff) recommends that radicnl
philosophers should adapt to their own purposes
the methods of the later Wittgenstein. Given,
however, that a radical philosopher as such aiMs
at altering widely-accepted modes of thought- and
action – I should question whether such methods
can be of much use to him. For in important respects, their tendency is, I think, inherently

Consider, for example, ‘ … the famous recommendation: “Don’t ask for the meaning, ask for the
use”‘. According to Fann, ‘ … One advantage of
this slogan is that “use” carries with it no
suggestion of an object corresponding to a word’

From some standpoints this may indeed be an advantage. The trouble is that it leaves us no way
of definin~ what it is to use a word correctly
except in terms of generally-accepted usage.

Roughly, to use a word correctly is to use it
conventionally. And if a thinker, in trying to
formulate the results of some intellectual explorations, is led to juxtapose words in unconventional ways, he can always be stopped short with
the now familiar objection: But we (i.e. presumably, the convention-abiding, non-eccentric mem-‘

bers of the relevant social group) do not use
these terms in this way. And if what gives something a specific role as a word in a language, as
opposed to being a mere mark or sound, is a certain
pattern of socially-accepted uses, then there is no
effective reply to this objection. The speaking
majority has to be right, simply because there is
no other criterion of rightness. And by the same
token, a Kant or a Hegel or a Whitehead who takes
extreme liberties with the language in his
attempts to get across a radically novel point of
view has to be wrong; radically original use is
ipso facto misuse.

It is a short step from this to saying that the
philosopher, who is after all simply one user
among others of a shared language, can, as
wittgenstein himself put it, merely describe and
leave everything as it is.

In quite general
terms, if we concentrate too exclusively on the
concepts of language-games or forms of life,
within which correct and incorrect procedure can
be judged solely by appeal to the conventions
(customs, traditions … ) in accordance with which
the particular game is actually played, or the
particular form of life carried on, the outcome
can only be an (almost) endlessly hospitable
relativism. Admittedly such relativism has the
appeal of looking commendably tolerant and democratic, but it has the drawback of limiting the
scope of possible criticism. For if we try to
criticise any form of life, whatever it may be, ab
extra, we are simply foisting onto it the
standards or criteria of our own form of life, and
there are no neutral standards by reference to
which we could meaningfully claim that ours was

Such relativism can have some bizarre

consequences – as, for example, when Professor
D. Z. Phillips, faithful to his Wittgensteinian
principles, is driven to admit ‘ … if I hear that
some remote tribe practices child-sacrifice, what
then? I do not know what sacrifice means for the
tribe in question. What would it mean to say I
condemned it when “it” refers to something I know
nothing about? If I condemn it, I would be condemning murder.

But murder is not child–sacri-fice’ (Faith and Philosophical Enquiry, p239).

So, whatever it is they are doing, presumably we
just leave them to it. At any rate, such thoroughgoing relativism leaves us short of reasons for
wanting to alter or abolish any form of life.

To get back to language, however – suppose we
allow that, for many of our words at least, their
meanings, or the concepts for which they stand,
are to be identified, not by a certain passage of
socially-accepted usage, but by the appropriate
objects (features, situations, relationships … )
in the language-independent world.

We can then at
least avoid the task, notoriously difficult even in
the case of the simplest words, of specifying just
what is the set of rules or conventions deli~iting
its permissible uses. We can point out, rather,
that the object (or whatever) is one essential
element, though not of course the whole, of what
determines the possible successful uses of a word
in communication or clarification; and that the
range of such uses is open-ended, i.e. not fixed
in advance by any sets of rules, but always capable of being extended- by anyone with the imagination, perseverance, or good fortune to see further
than his predecessors into the structure of the
object, find new instantiations of it or new relations with other objects. Whatever the other advantages or disadvantages of this view of language,
it does, in principle, leave room for the philosophical radical, for the thinker who wants to tell
his fellows in effect: I know very well what you
have in mind when you talk about causality (knowledge, mind … ) but I find your thought and discourse about it in important respects systematically mistaken. We do not have to suppose that h~
must be misusing, and advocating the misuse of,
the appropriate vocabulary – or that he is introducing new concepts of his own, disguised under
familiar terms, while professing, perhaps sincerely,
to be casting new light on key elements of our
shar8j conceptual system. However risky and presumptuous his radicalism may be he could be right
– and probably once in a while he is. For we have
now a sense in which it can be claimed that,
despite the liberties he takes with convention, he
is still using the same concepts as his fellows,
still talking about the same things even though he
takes a novel view of them. And the only important
criterion by which we can judge what he says is not
whether or not he observes the generally-accepted
rules for the use of his terminology, but whether
he succeeds in conveying this novel view to some
of his audience – even if only to the most imaginative and sympathetic among them – and if they find
it in some way illuminating. Wittgenstein, in his
later writing, often enough satisfies this criterion; but his central theory gives little encouragement to its use. On the contrary, his proposed
‘therapeutic’ application of philosophy, like some
other forms of therapy, has the effect of treating
radicalism as one of the intellectual ailments
to be cured.

Edmund Burke

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