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Editor's note: In Thursday's programme Melvyn Bragg and his guests discussed Ordinary Language Philosophy. As always the programme is available to listen to online or to download and keep.

Ordinary Language Philosophy

Hello

This was a sleepless night one. Sometimes the sleepless night before the programme is because I can't quite work out what's the right time to go to bed so that I wake up at the right time to get up and do a final swot before the programme. Sometimes it seems that nerves crowd in. Last night it wasn't quite panic, but I was engulfed by the desolate feeling that I had as a teenager, that philosophy was magnificent but too difficult for me. And the stuff I was reading for this morning's programme – well, you heard about a tenth of it!

So I went over the stuff again and again, and aided, in fact supported, nay, carried by three very generous and erudite contributors, managed to start at 9:02 and finish at 9:44. I was determined to get in the illustration about the donkeys, and about the red apples, and to try to tackle Frege head-on, and to get some idea of how this had peeled away from most of Western philosophy, but, in effect, gone back to Socrates. So I think we touched those staging posts.

The history course that I did included papers on philosophy (as well as a special subject which, for me, was the Italian Renaissance, and constitutional documents in Latin and so on – history was only the tip of the iceberg) and I think that we rushed through these too quickly. The idea of gouting a few books three times a fortnight to produce essays, then read aloud to a person who'd probably written the most authoritative of the books you'd read, had settled into a routine. But I discovered immediately that philosophy could not be gouted. So a great deal of fuzz went on. Little short circuits threatened to close down grey cells unwilling to engage with Aristotle at speed.

Curiously, at Oxford, I knew Peter Strawson very well, even though I did not read philosophy. My first wife lodged in his house for a few years, and for about ten years Peter and his wife, and sometimes the family as well, and myself and my wife went on holidays together, either up to a rented house near Whitby or over to Brittany for a rented house there. He was the most extraordinary person I met at Oxford. His mind so clear about everything. And again, which seems to be a characteristic among the better academics, very generous to those who clearly wanted to know something but knew nothing.

He particularly liked striding out and walking; I don't know whether this is relevant, but he used to play war games with his friend John Carswell. These consisted of putting little lead soldiers (or maybe pseudo-lead) in Napoleonic and Wellingtonian formations (there were other battles they re-fought as well), in suitably scouted-out terrain and with their own rules, setting out to replay the battles but allowing themselves the game room (is this the Wittgenstein element?) to do variations on the theme. I remember seeing these two distinguished, cheerful men in an area of sand dunes, replacing and replacing these tiny soldiers, some on horseback, some beside cannons, some as infantry, as they were prepared to wade through hours of intense concentration on battles fought long ago. It sounds like something out of Sterne.

Off now to a ridiculous day. To The Savoy for The Spectator Parliamentarian of the Year Awards, and then later to the British Museum for the Annual Trustees' Dinner and a chance for heavy sightseeing inside what seems to me to become, every year, an even greater museum.

Lucky, lucky.

Best wishes

Melvyn Bragg

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  • Comment number 4. Posted by All for All

    on 18 Nov 2013 11:16

    Listened Again.



    (And spelled again)

    Perhaps like Jacob 'who did wrestle with God' (in flight from strife and with strife ahead, gaining a limp that would spare from worse punishment), those who wrestle philosophico-linguistically may best be understood 'in context', physically escaped from the oppressive, morally in fear of the revolutionary, seeking - aware or not - to bar self and others from logical analysis of such terms as 'democracy', from extension of meaning beyond the range of 'the observable'.

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  • Comment number 3. Posted by All for All

    on 18 Nov 2013 00:33

    Listened Again.

    Perhaps like Jacob 'who did wrestle with God' (in flight from strife and with strife ahead, gaining a limp that would spare from worse punishment), those who wrestle philisophico-linguistically may best be understood 'in context', physically escaped from oppressive, morally in fear of the revolutionary, seeking - aware or not - to bar self and others from logic analysis of such terms as 'democracy', from extension of meaning beyond the range of 'the observable'.

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  • Comment number 2. Posted by All for All

    on 16 Nov 2013 20:46

    John Thompson @1: a valiant effort, if your meaning(s) taken rightly!

    The origin of philosophy as a discipline - distinct from plain attempts to share personal wisdom - might easily have been in 'foolery', another means of 'speaking truth unto power', alongside the higher-stakes game of 'divine revelation'.

    Pride of place now taken back from theology, philosophy today affords practice in argument and a foundation for elite confidence, aware or not of its relegation to displacement activity, as yet no source of moral challenge in 'the business ahead'.

    No better supports of 'communication' have been discovered than those of wide education, wide experience, and a good 'dictionary of etymology and usage', with the prudent advice - as far as is practicable - always to question what might be 'meant' by self and others, a task as much or more to be aided by poet and novelist, psychologist and historian, as by the meta-grammarian and logic-chopper.

    In a society without freedom to follow conscience - without agreed material security for all individuals and so of all viewpoints - the role of 'foolery' remains akin to that of the monastery in medieval times, even in silence or phatic communion handing-on a vital genetic store.

    The arts of the fool will one day not just entertain but nourish the understanding of each new generation, enabling life to be shared in equal partnership, free from the sordid, free from the distrust and corruption that otherwise are dictated by material conflict of interest.

    I doubt that Ordinary Language Philosophy ever touched on choice in the meaning of 'democracy', no trace being left in today's culture of shareable analysis even of apparent choices, let alone of 'the right choice' of social context, for the enduringly (fully) 'democratic' outworking of meaning, to represent both 'the world' and the cares of all.

    In Our Time much appreciated, I fear that snatches of OLP might have caught my ear without winning perhaps due attention. Having written in happy ignorance, now again to dare where even Melvyn fears to tread!

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  • Comment number 1. Posted by John Thompson

    on 7 Nov 2013 17:49

    Melvyn was this a waste of time and energy,like flogging a dead horse?.If anything is going to kill philosophy off as a general subject it is the giving of poor examples,like shooting a donkey you’ve lost interest in thinking it’s your own,but shooting a neighbour’s donkey instead,and finding excuses to give to said neighbour.Ordinary language philosophy is about ordinary language,so give ordinary examples..We get the drift that it evolved out of the misuse of language, misunderstandings,the divorce from philosophy as a grand subject,isolated, abstract, theoretical,logical.It didn’t help the argument by citing the old examples used.Platonic Forms are dead.

    For Wittgensten philosophical problems arise from the intellectual bewilderment induced by the misuse of language, the only way to resolve them is to use examples from ordinary language to deflate the pretensions of traditional thought. The only legitimate role for philosophy, then, is as a kind of therapy—a remedy for the bewitchment of human thought by philosophical language. Careful attention to the actual usage of ordinary language should help avoid the conceptual confusions that give rise to traditional difficulties.Later Wittgenstein despised theory.

    What I took OLP to mean was as Wittgenstein asserted “What we do is bring words back from their metaphysical to their everyday use.”You mentioned how the Logical Positivists(inspired by Wittgenstein’s Tractatus) showed religion off the premises,applied the verification principle to logical propostions to demarcate sense from nonsense,using science as a basic template.This fell into disfavour when it was found by Popper that scientific statements couldn’t always be verified.

    What OLP emphasised was the spoken language of everyday speech,not lofty, conceptual, theory-based terms,based on an underlying unity or essence of philosophy.Wittgenstein’s idea of ‘language games’to engage with ‘forms of life’,indefinite varieties of social context and purpose,there is no external validator,no hidden source to try to reach,he’d come down from the mountain and found the activity of language in different communal contexts meant there was nothing to explain.When language ‘goes on holiday’ bafflement arises.It’s an activity,a speech act.It’s a rule-governed activity.We use it.We just act.

    From Strawson we found that a sentence can be meaningful,but neither true or false, so we need to attend to language rather than formal logic,attempting to report accurately the conceptual framework contained in ordinary language.Attention to context would avoid the muddle.Austin paid attention to the circumstances in which philosophical claims were made.He spoke about the performative operation of words as actions changing the world.We do things with words,given validity by conventions,institutions,enabling us to assert,state.We can clear away confusions about how reality is.What is it we’re saying,what does a claim mean.A good intellectual training for many.

    Philosophical questions are puzzles rather than problems.We unravel them by showing how language is actually employed.Language is the solution,the resting place.To Russell this was a betrayal of philosophy’s purpose, to him language was transparent,he saw this as a “procurement by theft of what one has failed to gain by honest toil”. Popper thought there were genuine philosophical problems(which are not puzzles arising out of the misuse of language).Linguistic analysis was insufficient. Above all OLP saw philosophy as a practice, not accumulation of knowledge.

    I think you should have spoken more about speech acts,intentions of communication, the communicative use of language,as in the work of John Searle.OLP did die out due to its inability to engage with reality,its flight from theory(now coming back).Philosophical problems are real,we don’t dissolve them.Language represents the world.Austin as you say is great in showing the vulnerability of human beings who are not immune to the contingencies of the world,individuals in space and time.Stephan Mulhall did an excellent job.There was the movement in Wittgenstein from the ultimate forms of logic and truth to individual desires and intentions and minds.
    Marvellous Melvyn,the whole newsletter devoted to just this topic.Great on Strawson too.

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