The Language of Criticism (Routledge Revivals)
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The Language of Criticism (Routledge Revivals)

John Casey

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The Language of Criticism (Routledge Revivals)

John Casey

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First published in 1966, the Language of Criticism was the first systematic attempt to understand literary criticism through the methods of linguistic philosophy and the later work of Wittgenstein. Literary critical and aesthetic judgements are rational, but are not to be explained by scientific methods. Criticism discovers reasons for a response, rather than causes, and is a rational procedure, rather than the expression of simply subjective taste, or of ideology, or of the power relations of society.

The book aims at a philosophical justification of the tradition of practical criticism that runs from Matthew Arnold, through T.S.Eliot to I.A.Richards, William Empson, F.R.Leavis and the American New Critics. It argues that the close reading of texts moves justifiably from text to world, from aesthetic to ethical valuation. In this it differs radically from the schools of "theory" that have recently dominated the humanities.

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Wittgenstein and the Philosophy of Criticism


In the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus Wittgenstein writes: “We picture facts to ourselves.”1 Again: “The pictorial relationship consists of the correlations of the picture's elements with things.”2 Later he presents the ‘general form’ of propositions as “This is how things stand”.3 This ‘picture theory’ of language can, perhaps, be seen as an extreme statement of assumptions which underly a good deal of philosophy. This view of the relation between language and the world will be likely to lead to the idea that different forms of discourse are distinguished from each other by referring to different types of object. In the Philosophical Investigations Wittgenstein rejects the picture theory and with it the search for the “general form of propositions”. The notion that “This is how things stand” can be the general form of propositions arises only when “language goes on holiday”.4 Such a paradigm is only plausible divorced from any actual linguistic context, from any “language-game”.5 According to the picture theory the words in a sentence name elements in the world, and the form of the sentence bears a relation of logical analogy to the form of the facts which the sentence depicts.6 To name is to engage in an activity which is prior to any language-game, and indeed is the precondition of any language being possible. “Naming is so far not a move in the language-game – any more than putting a piece in its place on the board is a move in chess.”7 The setting up of such a purely ‘descriptive’ paradigm of language (although – as Wittgenstein goes on to argue – “This is how things are” is not even being used as a description), the insistence on pure naming as the pre-condition of language, makes the connection between words and things mysterious, private and arbitrary – “some remarkable act of mind, as it were a baptism of an object”.1 An entirely private language would not, on this theory, be impossible.2
This ‘baptism of an object’ is connected with the search for the logically proper name. A favoured candidate for the logically proper name has been the expression ‘this’, which seems to represent ‘naming’ as a unique procedure detached from any other activity – “a queer connection of a word with an object”.3 Now Wittgenstein argues that naming, far from being the pre-condition of language, is already a linguistic activity, or ‘language-game’. There is not one relation between name and object named, and we cannot explain naming in terms of ‘ostensive definition’, if ‘ostensive definition’ is based upon the analogy of ‘pointing’.4 Pointing itself depends upon a mastery of a language,5 and cannot be explained simply as a physical or mental procedure. How, in pointing to a piece of paper, do we ‘mean’ the colour rather than the shape? We may, for instance, screw up our eyes in order to avoid seeing the outline, so that we may be left free to ‘concentrate’ on the colour. This would be an explanation of ‘meaning’ in terms of characteristic physical activities or experiences. But none of these experiences constitutes ‘meaning’ or ‘attending to’ the colour. Does it follow that ‘meaning the colour’ is an inward, mental process, of which the physical experiences are outward signs or accompaniments? Wittgenstein rejects this account also: “. . . because we cannot specify any one bodily action which we call pointing to the shape (as opposed, for example, to the colour), we say that a spiritual … activity corresponds to these words.”6 The mental act which is to supply the missing element, like the pure act of ‘naming’ is an inward ‘attending to’ an object isolated from any context. Mental acts no more overcome the logical difficulties than do the physical accompaniments:
Just as a move in chess doesn't consist simply in moving a piece in such-and-such a way on the board – nor yet in one's thoughts and feelings as one makes the move: but in the circumstances that we call “playing a game of chess”, “solving a chess problem”, and so on.7
One fallacy involved here is that the meaning of a word is the object to which it refers. Wittgenstein calls this the confounding the meaning of a name with the bearer of the name.1 This confusion may account for the ‘picturing’ aspect of the picture theory, for if words are merely names it is difficult to see how combinations of words could convey information, except by being arranged so as to ‘picture’ states of affairs – ‘how things stand’. Yet if naming is a procedure that comes before any language-game, then naming itself affirms nothing of the objects named, not even that they exist.2 If the basic particulars to which words have been attached cease to exist, then words lose their meaning. Hence, on such a theory of language, the difficulty of “The present King of France is bald”. Logical Atomism also relies on the possibility of naming as the pre-condition of language. It seems that Russell confuses the meaning of a name with its bearer. Strawson says:
The source of Russell's mistake was that he thought referring or mentioning, if it occurred at all, must be meaning…. he confused expressions with their use in a particular context; and so confused meaning with mentioning, with referring. If I talk about my handkerchief, I can, perhaps, produce the object I am referring to out of my pocket. I cannot produce the meaning of the expression “my handkerchief” out of my pocket.3
There are further difficulties. If the word ‘red’ means this red patch, then how, on another occasion can it be used to refer to a different red patch?4 Indeed, how can it be used to refer to the same red patch? Does the concept of ‘same’ have any place here? If the connection of a name with an object is merely a private determination of the mind to make such a connection, then the mind must make the connection anew every time we wish to use the word. But the result is that we have no reason for saying that the same word is being used to refer to the same object. This is part of Wittgenstein's argument against the possibility of a totally private language: the theory of meaning we have been considering, together with the notion of naming as a mental ‘baptism’, makes a private language not only possible but inevitable.
Now in a system in which sentences are combinations of names, and in which names are merely connected with objects, there will be a scale of complexity in which, inevitably, the names will both be and refer to ‘simples’.1 One consequence would be that the command “Bring me the broom!” would really mean (could be analysed into) “Bring me the broomstick and the brush which is fitted on to it!”2 But why could we not say instead that the second sentence really means the first? Why are brush and broomstick more simple objects than broom? A notion of ‘simplicity’ is being appealed to which is outside of any language-game; simple objects stand, as it were, at the base of language.3 Wittgenstein points out that the distinction between ‘simple’ and ‘composite’ cannot be drawn in isolation from the uses to which sentences are being put. The ‘unanalysed’ sentence quoted above is likely to be doing something different from the ‘analysed’ one. The idea that an object could be ‘simple’ tout court goes with the notion that naming is a pre-condition, and not a function of language.
I shall go on to argue that a number of problems in aesthetics are bound up with the theory of language which, in the Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein rejects. This can best be shown by a detailed examination of particular critics. I shall try to show that Wittgenstein's work has bearing on such questions as whether our response to works of art is essentially ‘emotional’ rather than ‘rational’, whether a work of art can be aesthetically good but morally bad, and whether our judgement of works of art can be ‘objective’. To this end it is necessary to say more of the Philosophical Investigations.
At one point Wittgenstein asks:
Can I say “bububu” and mean “If it doesn't rain I shall go for a walk”? It is only in language that one can mean something by something. This shows clearly that the grammar of ‘to mean’ is not like that of the expression ‘to imagine’ and the like.4
The separation of the concept of ‘meaning’ from that of ‘imagining’, is of fundamental importance.5 Certain mental images may regularly occur in me whenever I say “Shut the door!” and mean it; but I cannot ‘mean’ it if I address my words to a mouse, or if I know that the door is already shut, whatever mental images I may have. Similarly, the person whom I order to shut the door may have the mental image of a door's shutting, but this does not mean that he understands the command; he could take the image as representing my fear of the door's shutting. “The picture did indeed suggest a certain use to us, but it was possible for me to use it differently”.1 The occurrence of mental images is neither necessary nor sufficient for understanding. A man may interpret a mental picture in various ways, and he may, of course, carry out the order without the interposition of any images whatsoever. “. . . possibly he had a special experience . . . but for us it is the circumstances under which he had such an experience that justify him in saying in such a case that he understands, that he knows how to go on.”2 Wittgenstein is here discussing whether knowing how to do a piece of mathematics is a matter of having the appropriate formula in the mind's eye. I may indeed see the symbols of the formula in my mind's eye, but the criterion of my seeing them as the formula would be the mathematical application I make of them. Similarly one criterion that the order “Shut the door!” has been understood is that the person to whom the order has been given shut the door. But it is only possible to hear an order as an order in a context in which orders are given, obeyed and so on. It would not be possible for there to have been only one occasion on which an order was ever obeyed; the act in response to the ‘order’ could not count as a case of ‘obedience’. In the same way to see a group of symbols as a ‘formula’ depends upon the existence of mathematics, and upon a mastery of the technique of mathematics.3
We might not be prepared to say that a child had ‘obeyed’ a command merely on the grounds of a unique coincidence of a piece of its behaviour with what it had just been told to do. This would not be because we thought it improbable that the child was having the right inner experiences (we do not think it improbable that a parrot does not understand the words it utters) but because the general circumstances in which the act could count as ‘obedient’ might be lacking. Our doubt would not be as to the existence or not of mental (or brain) mechanisms. In the same way, if I am teaching a child to read, I can make little sense of the question “Which was the first word he read?1 This question seems plausible (if difficult) only because we know that the experience is different when we ‘derive’ the words we read in the normal way from the marks on the page from when we arbitrarily try to ‘read’ a sentence from a mere jumble of signs.2 It seems possible to ask when the child first had that experience, the ‘reading’ experience. Here again perhaps there is an appeal to an inward mechanism – Wittgenstein brings this out by showing that this would be a possible question to ask of a reading machine: “…it would be possible to say: ‘The machine read only after such-and-such had happened to it – after such-...

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Citation styles for The Language of Criticism (Routledge Revivals)
APA 6 Citation
Casey, J. (2012). The Language of Criticism (Routledge Revivals) (1st ed.). Taylor and Francis. Retrieved from (Original work published 2012)
Chicago Citation
Casey, John. (2012) 2012. The Language of Criticism (Routledge Revivals). 1st ed. Taylor and Francis.
Harvard Citation
Casey, J. (2012) The Language of Criticism (Routledge Revivals). 1st edn. Taylor and Francis. Available at: (Accessed: 14 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
Casey, John. The Language of Criticism (Routledge Revivals). 1st ed. Taylor and Francis, 2012. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.