Wednesday, June 19, 2013

In Defense of Ordinary Language Philosophy

The middle of the twentieth century in the Anglosphere saw the dominance in philosophy departments of what we might call linguistic philosophy. This was an approach to philosophy that attempted to solve philosophical problems by appeal to the analysis of the language in which the problems were proposed. The major movements of this kind were logical positivism and ordinary language philosophy; they were in some ways Esau and Jacob, twins fighting from the womb. Both of them eventually fell out of favor. Logical positivism fell out of favor chiefly because it could not bear its own weight, in roughly the sense that formulating a version of it that was simultaneously non-self-defeating and non-pointless turned out to be more than anyone could do. Ordinary language philosophy fell out of favor for different reasons, and I want to argue that, while it was inadequate if taken as a complete approach, jettisoning it entirely was nonetheless a serious mistake, because it still has something to contribute. I would actually, if pressed, go much farther than this; I think its rejection was only prevented from being the beginning of the end for Anglo-American 'analytic' philosophy by the development of new ideas in modal logic. But I will not argue this last point here. What I will do is (1) give an explanation of ordinary language philosophy, which is often misunderstood, and in particular the Rylean approach to it, which is the approach I think has the best-thought-out philosophical foundations; (2) address some common criticisms of ordinary language philosophy; and (3) say something briefly about why deliberate embrace of OLP in its proper place is potentially important. This will not be a comprehensive argument, by any means, but laying down the basics will suffice for now.

(1.1) The 'Ordinary' in 'Ordinary Language Philosophy'

The most common confusion that arises when discussing ordinary language philosophy is to take it to be about everyday language. This confusion is clearly on display in Russell's poorly-argued attack on ordinary language philosophy, "The Cult of 'Common Usage'". As Ryle notes in "Ordinary Language", however, we have to distinguish between 'the use of ordinary language' and 'the ordinary use of an expression'. When we speak of ordinary language in the former sense, we mean common, everyday language, as opposed to things like technical language, poetic language, etc. One might take this as a starting point, but it is not the sense in which an ordinary language philosopher, and certainly a Rylean ordinary language philosopher, appeals to ordinary language. That kind of appeal is to the latter sense, the sense when we are taking about the ordinary use of language, rather than the sense when we are talking about the use of ordinary language. In this second sense, 'ordinary' indicates not 'common' or 'everyday' but 'stock' or 'standard'. One may use a fish-knife to cut up potatoes, but its ordinary, i.e., stock or standard, use is to cut fish. This means that technical terms have ordinary uses; there are stock or standard uses of terms like 'species', 'phylogeny', 'matter', 'information', and so forth throughout the sciences. Indeed, a great many philosophical discussions will require, at least in great measure, discussion of the ordinary uses of technical terms. (I am deliberately avoiding talking about this kind of discussion in terms of 'analysis'; see below.)

What we are looking at here is also dynamic rather than static, because it concerns active use of terms. Ryle notes that we often talk about the ordinary use of language in terms of ideas, concepts, or meanings. He prefers to talk about use because it conveys more accurately the active and dynamic character of what is being examined. Ryle recognizes, however, that it has its own advantages. It could be confused with talking about the usefulness of expressions, where usefulness is contrasted with uselessness, which is a relatively unimportant question. As Ryle puts it, when you go to a foreign country, you want to know the use of a peseta or centime, i.e., its purchasing power; you already know what pesetas or centimes are used for. Perhaps more dangerously, 'use' could here be confused with 'usage', which is a "custom, practice, fashion or vogue" (OL 174). To describe usages of words already presupposes that you have looked at the uses of those words in context.

What comes out clearly in Ryle's account in "Ordinary Language" is the instrumentality of language. Words are instruments, interpersonal instruments, in fact; they have their raison d'etre in being used in interactions. The Rylean approach in ordinary language philosophy is to take this instrumentality seriously and to examine the standard use of the instrument.

(1.2) The Unscheduled Logical Powers of Language

The major idea to which this Rylean account of OLP is opposed is that formalization provides the magic solution to all philosophical problems. The emphasis on instrumentality virtually guarantees such an opposition. Alexander 'untied' the Gordian Knot by hacking through it with his sword; but we all know that this means in a very straightforward way that Alexander did not untie the knot at all, but used a new instrument to do a different thing entirely. The Gordian Knot remained untied; Alexander did not really solve it, he only pretended to do so. And when we are formalizing problems and answers, we are introducing yet another instrument to the mix. It's certainly possible that we were making some mistake with the prior instruments, but it could also mean that we are simply confusing two different problems that our translation/formalization rules treat as if they were the same. It's certainly a point we need to consider.

Ryle prefers to put the point in terms of scheduled and unscheduled logical powers:

Of those to whom this, the formaliser's dream, appears a mere dream (I am one of them), some maintain that the logic of everyday statements and even the logic of the statements of scientists, lawyers, historians and bridge-players cannot in principle be adequately represented by the formulae of formal logic. The so-called logical constants do indeed have, partly by deliberate prescription, their scheduled logical powers; but the non-formal expressions both of everyday discourse and of technical discourse have their own unscheduled logical powers, and these are not reducible without remainder to those of the carefully wired marionettes of formal logic. The title of a novel by A. E. W. Mason 'They Wouldn't be Chessmen' applies well to both the technical and the untechnical expressions of professional and daily life. This is not to say that the examination of the logical behaviour of the terms of non-notational discourse is not assisted by studies in formal logic. Of course it is. So may chess-playing assist generals, though waging campaigns cannot be replaced by playing games of chess. (OL 184)

These 'logical powers' are the logical relationships of an expression with other expressions. However, when we are using words in everyday life, we do not run over the closure of all the logical relationships an expression has. Far from it: we only consider some of the simpler aspects of it. A schoolboy who knows 3x3=9 may genuinely understand it, but not know the full underlying rules governing the expression. (For that matter, a mathematician might not, either.) He uses the expression in the fields that he knows, letting it slide into a familiar groove rather than exploring the full range of its possibilities. Formalization does not get around this. As Ryle notes in "Philosophical Arguments", to get to the point at which you are able to give the precise skeletons of use requires that we already think extensively about this broader set of logical powers. All we do in formalization is put some of these logical powers, often the ones most amenable to very simple rules, on a schedule, so we can keep track of them more easily. This does not mean we have captured everything of importance in the original, however. We have made a toy model; we can learn a great deal from a toy model; but toy models are not the things they model, and sometimes that makes a very great difference. Moreover, one can never tell whether it does make a difference until one goes back to the original and thinks it through.

(1.3) Conceptual Cartography

We then are exploring the logical powers, scheduled or unscheduled, of language. One might be tempted to call this sort of examination 'analysis', but Ryle tends to emphasize quite strongly that this is not analysis in a strict and narrow sense. It would be more accurate to call it 'synopsis', which is neither analysis nor synthesis, since it involves looking at how analyses relate to syntheses of which they can be a part.

Ryle's favored way of talking about it is in terms of cartography: we are mapping the logical powers of ideas. Natives to a country may know the country quite well without ever actually charting it. We could talk, if we pleased, of the implicit map in the native sense of the land; but, at the same time, approaching an area from a different direction might throw them off entirely. Further, there may be quirks due to how people use landmarks and the light. I spent several years in Toronto, and, being an extensive walker, walked considerable portions of the city in that time. My 'mental map' of Toronto has a number of quirks. The primary landmark is the CN Tower, and I rarely looked at city maps, which means the 'top' of my mental map of the city is south; however, the details are filled out most clearly along the major subway lines, and my mental map of the subway system, derived as it was from actual subway maps, has north at the 'top'. This never caused me, personally, problem, since I would naturally reorient myself depending on whether I was thinking of walking or taking the subway, although it sometimes did make it difficult to give intelligible directions, and at least twice during my stay there I gave completely backwards directions to people because they had the misfortune of asking me how to walk somewhere just as I came off the subway, or because I, in grave error, tried to give them walking directions using subway stops as landmarks. In addition, lots of areas of the city -- mostly outskirts reached only by bus -- are very hazy. I could still get lost in Toronto, although never for long. I could also easily misjudge distances; distances I had actually walked I had a good sense of, but there were also lines of connection in the city I knew from bus or subway that I had never walked. For this and other reasons, there are almost certainly inconsistencies in my sense of how Toronto is laid out.

On Ryle's account, our everyday sense of the use of language is much like this. We can have a genuine grasp of it and still be subject to disorientations, confusions, inconsistencies, and haziness. If we were to set out actually to make a map of Toronto, we would not settle for this: orientation would have to be standardized, inconsistencies would have to be resolved, haziness would have to be filled in, confusions would have to be clarified. Finding a cartographical inconsistency would show us that something was wrong. To discover these, we would not just map out single buildings and landmarks but how they all related to each other. So too the Rylean approach to OLP is concerned not with mapping out concepts in isolation but a whole network, seeing how each concept is oriented with respect to the others. This allows us to discover paradoxes and category mistakes. This doesn't mean, necessarily, that we explore the entire network in detail; it does mean that we have to extract some of the logical relationships a concept has to other logical relationships. Mere analysis simply will not suffice: "Philosophical problems cannot be posed or solved piecemeal" (PA p. 211).

(2.1) Gellner's Fourfold Attack

Ernest Gellner's 1959 Words and Things was in great part an attack on OLP, and is one of the few attacks that manages not to be hopelessly vague, and thus most attacks since owe a great deal to it, whether they admit it or not. Gellner identified what he called four pillars of OLP, attacking each in turn:

(1) Paradigm case argument: In paradigm usages a word must be correctly applied.
(2) Generalized naturalistic fallacy: Linguistic norms can be inferred from actual usages.
(3) Contrast theory of meaning: Contrastless concepts are meaningless.
(4) Polymorphous account of language: A unified general model of language is impossible.

None of these are obviously applicable to the essence of the Rylean approach, although with some stretching one can perhaps stuff some specific Rylean arguments under the headings. Certainly none of these are pillars of Ryle's approach, nor would any of them clarify the issue that Ryle himself thought genuinely important, namely, the opposition to formalism. And (2), and possibly (1) as Gellner understands it, simply makes the use/usage error Ryle had already noted some years before.

The book became the center of one of the major editorial scandals of twentieth century philosophy when Ryle, who was editor of Mind at the time, refused to accept a review of the book, saying that abusiveness might sell books but disqualified it for serious academic consideration. Russell, who had written a very favorable introduction to the book, felt insulted by this and protested vehemently, which led to a large controversial correspondence. But it's hardly surprising that Ryle would think the book contentless: the book was supposed to be a refutation of OLP, and Ryle, one of the pre-eminent philosophers of the approach, could have recognized virtually nothing in it. It could hardly have looked like anything but a pile of insults on an ignorant foundation. T. P. Uschanov has a good discussion of some of the response to the book at the time. Suffice it to say that in Gellner, and in others who parrot the same kinds of arguments, we will find nothing substantial with which to oppose the Rylean approach to OLP.

(2.2) The Quasi-Gricean Argument

Perhaps the argument most worth taking seriously is an argument tracing back to Paul Grice, although Grice's own approach can be considered an OLP approach. Grice was interested in the relation between the formal and informal approaches to language, a technical issue that had become important in the dispute between OLP and its critics, and came to conclude that the difference between the two was not so sharp as some of the people on each side seemed to think. He argued that what we needed was a theory that could distinguish between some expression's being inappropriate because it was false and its being inappropriate for reasons having nothing to do with truth or falsehood. There are lots of things that might be appropriate to believe but that would not be appropriate to say in a given kind of case, so there are going to be limitations to any look at the use of terms. This is often understood to be raising a general problem for OLP, although it should be noted that it has always been quite unclear how much it should be taken as a general criticism of OLP itself rather than simply a correction to a common mistake being made in OLP. As Parker-Ryan puts it in her IEP article on OLP:

Pragmatic aspects of communication, according to Grice, must be distinguished from the strictly semantic aspects, and thus, according to him, meaning must not be confused with use. But this, on his view, is precisely what the Ordinary Language philosophers do, insofar as their ‘appeal to ordinary language’ is based on the view that meaning is determined by use (see the chapter entitled ‘Prolegomena’ in his 1989). Indeed, Grice here launches a detailed attack on many of the ‘ordinary language’ analyses put forward by, amongst others, Wittgenstein, Ryle, Austin, Malcolm and Strawson. In each case, Grice argues that where the Ordinary Language philosopher appeals to the use of the expression, especially in order to throw doubt on some other philosophical theory, what occurs is the failure to distinguish meaning (that is, ‘semantic content’ or ‘truth-conditions’) and use (that is, pragmatic aspects of communication such as implicature). Therefore, the argument that philosophical non-ordinary uses of expressions are a problem for metaphysical theses is itself at fault.

On a Rylean approach, however, this final conclusion can be the case without sacrificing the point that talk about meaning is, depending on precisely what we mean, either use or an abstraction from uses. And if one cannot identify an independent way to identify meaning that does not, in fact, involve recognition of use or abstraction from uses, then the argument simply fails to be a general problem for the Rylean approach, and becomes at best a cautionary tale in not jumping to conclusions too quickly.

(3) Ordinary Language Philosophy as Vocabulary Synopsis

None of this is to argue that Ryle was correct in everything. I think, for instance, that OLP in none of its forms had a good account of figurative language; Ryle's own view that metaphors and the like are non-ordinary uses is untenable, and I think (to give another example) Grice's attempt to handle them makes his account question-begging. This is a fairly serious flaw, and one that would cause problems sooner or later. Likewise, none of this is to argue that OLP is the One True Method, as opposed to a method for dealing with a set of problems that genuinely arise in philosophy (namely, those arising from the handling of vocabulary). Rather, my argument is that there was never any seriously good reason to reject a Rylean approach to OLP, and there are advantages to it that should involve it being taught and used as a legitimate philosophical method.

This should not be as controversial as it is. Speech-act theory, Gricean pragmatics, and discussions of category mistakes are all just fragments of OLP that have broken off and continue to be used under the table, so to speak. They are, however, fragments, and attacks on OLP have become virtually ritualized, to a serious detriment in systematicity of approach. The argument for a Rylean approach being very useful for at least some things is fairly simple:

(1) Rylean OLP consists of systematically identifying the ordinary use of expressions, which in turn consists in the systematic drawing-out of its 'logical powers' or relations within a contextual network of expressions.
(2) Something like this activity is necessary in many particular cases for handling the dangers of misleading expressions and confusion between different vocabularies (e.g., technical and colloquial expressions that look the same).
(3) It is beneficial if this is done systematically rather than sporadically or merely occasionally.
(4) Therefore Rylean OLP can offer a beneficially systematic way of handling an activity that is often necessary in philosophy.

The systematicity is a key issue here. The problem is not that philosophers do not do what Ryle would recognize as OLP; they clearly do. A philosopher of biology who looks at the standard uses of the term 'species' in biology and how they relate to each other, for instance, is doing ordinary language philosophy of some kind. Rather, the problem is that the prejudice against OLP means that people doing this do so as relatively isolated islands, and in an occasional way, rather than in a systematic way. Deliberate, conscious, systematic application is necessary, however, for not being misled in any number of ways it is possible to be misled.

(4) Bibliography

Gellner, Ernest, Words and Things. Beacon, 1959.

Parker-Ryan, Sally, Ordinary Language Philosophy, Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Russell, Bertrand, "On the Cult of 'Common Usage'". The British Journal for the Philosophy of Science, Vol. 3, No. 12. (Feb., 1953), pp. 303-307.

Ryle, Gilbert, "Ordinary Language". The Philosophical Review, Vol. 62, No. 2 (Apr., 1953), pp. 167-186.

Ryle, Gilbert, "Philosophical Arguments" in Collected Papers, vol 2. Routledge, 2009.

Ryle, Gilbert, "Systematically Misleading Expressions". Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, New Series, Vol. 32 (1931 - 1932), pp. 139-170.

Uschanov, T. P., The Strange Death of Ordinary Language Philosophy, 2001.

In addition, those interested in the spat between Ryle and Russell over Gellner's book can read many of the letters to the editor that this spat created here.


  1. Nicholas Smyth9:01 AM

    One of the most helpful blog posts I've ever read. You've inspired me to go back and read Ryle. Thank you!

    substantially: do you think that Rylean OLP survives, to any
    significant extent, in the work of modern expressivists? Differences
    abound, of course, but the expressivist's first move is Ryle's: deny
    that analyses are what we should be after, and instead try to construct a
    story about what is being done with words. Actually, now that I think
    of it, this was basically Stevenson's view as well.

  2. branemrys11:54 AM

    I don't really know enough about expressivism to say. There's certainly a link with OLP, through Hart, but OLP is pretty diverse, and I'm not really familiar with how Hart's approach relates to Ryle's, either.


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