Revolution of the Ordinary
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Revolution of the Ordinary

Literary Studies after Wittgenstein, Austin, and Cavell

Toril Moi

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eBook - ePub

Revolution of the Ordinary

Literary Studies after Wittgenstein, Austin, and Cavell

Toril Moi

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This radically original book argues for the power of ordinary language philosophy—a tradition inaugurated by Ludwig Wittgenstein and J. L. Austin, and extended by Stanley Cavell—to transform literary studies. In engaging and lucid prose, Toril Moi demonstrates this philosophy's unique ability to lay bare the connections between words and the world, dispel the notion of literature as a monolithic concept, and teach readers how to learn from a literary text.Moi first introduces Wittgenstein's vision of language and theory, which refuses to reduce language to a matter of naming or representation, considers theory's desire for generality doomed to failure, and brings out the philosophical power of the particular case. Contrasting ordinary language philosophy with dominant strands of Saussurean and post-Saussurean thought, she highlights the former's originality, critical power, and potential for creative use. Finally, she challenges the belief that good critics always read below the surface, proposing instead an innovative view of texts as expression and action, and of reading as an act of acknowledgment. Intervening in cutting-edge debates while bringing Wittgenstein, Austin, and Cavell to new readers, Revolution of the Ordinary will appeal beyond literary studies to anyone looking for a philosophically serious account of why words matter.

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Part I



“Five Red Apples”

Meaning and Use

Five Red Apples: From Naming to Use

To understand ordinary language philosophy one must read Wittgenstein.1 Cavell suggests that to understand his work it is essential to “spend the two dozen hours it would take to go sensibly over the opening half-dozen pages of the Philosophical Investigations and come to an end somewhere.”2 Reading Wittgenstein closely is challenging, but it is also exhilarating, for Wittgenstein’s text is an invitation to immerse oneself in a way of thinking that is utterly different from the dominant traditions of thought in literary studies. Wittgenstein’s style—his mode of writing—challenges all established assumptions about how to write philosophy. Reading about Wittgenstein can’t substitute for actually reading his work. Let’s begin, then, by reading the first paragraph in Philosophical Investigations:
When grown-ups named some object and at the same time turned towards it, I perceived this, and I grasped that the thing was signified by the sound they uttered, since they meant to point it out. This, however, I gathered from their gestures, the natural language of all peoples, the language that by means of facial expression and the play of eyes, of the movements of the limbs and the tone of voice, indicates the affections of the soul when it desires, or clings to, or rejects, or recoils from, something. In this way, little by little, I learnt to understand what things the words, which I heard uttered in their respective places in various sentences, signified. And once I got my tongue around these signs, I used them to express my wishes (Augustine, Confessions, I.8).3
These words, it seems to me, give us a particular picture of the essence of human language. It is this: the words in language name objects—sentences are combinations of such names.—In this picture of language we find the roots of the following idea: Every word has a meaning. This meaning is correlated with the word. It is the object for which the word stands.
Augustine does not mention any difference between kinds of word. Someone who describes the learning of language in this way is, I believe, thinking primarily of nouns like “table,” “chair,” “bread,” and of people’s names, and only secondarily of the names of certain actions and properties; and of the remaining kinds of words as something that will take care of itself.
Now think of the following use of language: I send someone shopping. I give him a slip of paper marked “five red apples.” He takes the slip to the shopkeeper, who opens the drawer marked “apples”; then he looks up the word “red” in a chart and finds a colour sample next to it; then he says the series of elementary number-words—I assume that he knows them by heart—up to the word “five,” and for each number-word he takes an apple of the same colour as the sample out of the drawer.—It is in this and similar ways that one operates with words.—“But how does he know where and how he is to look up the word ‘red’ and what he is to do with the word ‘five’?”—Well, I assume that he acts as I have described. Explanations come to an end somewhere.—But what is the meaning of the word “five”?—No such thing was in question here, only how the word “five” is used. (§1)4
In the last paragraph, a taciturn man hands a slip marked “five red apples” to an errand-boy. When he gets to the store, an old-fashioned shop with deep wooden drawers, the boy gives the slip to the shopkeeper. Maybe the boy can’t read. But the shopkeeper can, for he does not hesitate to open the drawer marked “apples.” This shopkeeper is a bit odd, though, for he takes out a color chart to make sure he gets the color of the apples right. Doesn’t he know what red is? (Or what red means? Should I worry about the difference?) At least he can’t be color-blind. Once he has the right color, he counts out the apples aloud (so he is not mute). While the shopkeeper consults his charts and counts his goods, the errand-boy politely waits in front of the counter.
What kind of scene is this? It could be the opening of a prewar Hollywood movie. Maybe the beginning of a heartwarming family film, featuring the young Jimmy Stewart as the shopkeeper with a strange relationship to colors. Or maybe we are dealing with a postwar thriller: Robert Mitchum would be terrific as the brooding, taciturn man in need of apples. But this seems too dark. Doesn’t the very ordinariness of the scene point towards romantic comedy? We never find out, for the story ends here. We don’t even learn whether the apples are handed over, let alone whether they ever make their way back to the man who wanted them in the first place.
Is this modernism? The mid-twentieth-century setting suggests it might be. The story certainly leaves the reader feeling challenged, maybe a little annoyed. What’s the point of telling us a story about someone who goes to the store and buys five red apples for someone else? Why dwell on something so desperately banal? Is this supposed to be a parable of human existence? But nothing here points towards Beckett or Adorno. The story is so clearly not about life and death, or the meaning of life. Nobody is making dramatic choices, nobody is complaining that nothing makes any difference anyway. Nor is there a palpable sense of distress and despair. Perhaps the shopkeeper’s need for the color chart is intended to reveal some kind of disability, yet even that is represented as perfectly ordinary. Maybe there is a slight homoerotic subtext in the idea of five apples circulating among three males? But here I must confess that I invented the errand-boy. The story itself just has “someone” (jemand). For all I know, the someone could be a little girl, or a grown woman (although I find that implausible).
Although this is a story about shopping, it is hard to see it as an allegory of commercialization, or the commodification of culture. The five red apples don’t seem to represent anything but themselves. Maybe the storyteller has Cézanne’s painting Five Apples in mind.5 But the apples in that painting are not red. And Cézanne painted so many apples! I can find no subtle point about painting here. But the intense attention Cézanne pays to his apples may be relevant. His painting shows us how to look at apples as if for the first time. By resisting our efforts to turn the buying or the apples into metaphors for something else, this story does something similar. It forces us to look closely at the simple action of buying five red apples. But why should we focus on such a banal transaction? Well, the author tells us that if we do, we will understand how “one operates with words.” But what does this explain? How do we “operate with words”? Wittgenstein imagines a quizzical interlocutor who has the same question:
—“But how does he know where and how he is to look up the word ‘red’ and what he is to do with the word ‘five’?”—Well, I assume that he acts as I have described. Explanations come to an end somewhere.—But what is the meaning of the word “five”?—No such thing was in question here, only how the word “five” is used.
In this case explanations come to an end rather quickly. Wittgenstein has a short fuse. Why does his interlocutor try his patience so fast? The story says that the shopkeeper looks up the color sample to find out what red is. But how did he learn to do that? Where do the color samples come from? It is not obviously pointless to ask, just as it is not obviously pointless to wonder how the shopkeeper knows that “five” is a number-word, that he is to count it out, not look for a drawer labeled “five.” We should also wonder why the interlocutor finds “red” quite problematic, takes “five” to be a mystery, yet takes for granted that “apples” goes without saying.
Wittgenstein brushes off the question about the “meaning of the word five.” He is only interested in one thing, namely “how the word ‘five’ is used.” Does he think that use is more important than meaning? But he doesn’t say that. He says, rather, that “no such thing was in question here.” It is as if the interlocutor is asking for the wrong thing, as if he were wrong to bring up “meaning” at all. But why is that? By now I have begun to parrot the interlocutor. Like him, I have turned into a child who can’t stop asking “why?” This may be an unavoidable effect of reading Wittgenstein’s prose. It turns us into children endlessly wondering about reasons and causes. But then he also turns us into philosophers, for Plato writes that philosophy begins in wonder, and Descartes concurred, for he thought that wonder (admiration) was the most philosophical passion of the soul.6
Why doesn’t the interlocutor ask how the shopkeeper knows he is to look for the drawer marked “apples”? Why does he think this particular feat goes without saying? The assumption that the word “apples” requires no further explanation marks him out as a member of the “Augustinians,” the large and varied group of philosophers who believe in some version or other of the “Augustinian picture of language” described at the very beginning of §1: “The words in language name objects—sentences are combinations of such names.—In this picture of language we find the roots of the following idea: Every word has a meaning. This meaning is correlated with the word. It is the object for which the word stands.”7
James Wetzel reminds us that Wittgenstein profoundly admired Augustine. He is not using Confessions as an example of mindless philosophical error, but rather as a reminder that even the greatest minds may yield to this particular philosophical temptation.8 To Wittgenstein, the trouble with the Augustinian picture of language is the prominence it gives to representation, to the idea that if we just can understand how names or naming works, then we will have captured the essence of language. Someone in the grip of the Augustinian picture of language may, for example, think that the word gets connected with the meaning when we point at the object and say “apples!” or otherwise present it in some explicit way, for example by saying “this is an apple!” (Philosophers call this “ostension,” and talk about “ostensive definitions.”) Wittgenstein has no patience with this theory: “An ostensive definition,” he writes, “can be variously interpreted in any case” (§28).
Shouldn’t the next step then be to figure out a better theory of how the word gets connected to the thing? Wittgenstein is quite funny about what happens to philosophers who take this route. Such philosophers, he writes, think of naming as an occult process. To them, “naming seems to be a strange connection of a word with an object” (§38). A misguided philosopher—someone who tries to “sublimate [sublimieren] the logic of our language,” he writes, will try to “fathom the relation between name and what is named by staring at an object in front of him and repeating a name, or even the word ‘this,’ innumerable times. For philosophical problems arise when language goes on holiday. And then we may indeed imagine naming to be some remarkable mental act, as it were the baptism of the object” (§38).
This kind of philosopher wants to be deep. He will not be satisfied with Wittgenstein’s exhortation to lighten up a little and remember that “when philosophizing, it will often prove useful to say to ourselves: naming something is rather like attaching a name tag to a thing” (§15). The deep philosopher doesn’t think that sticking labels on jars or tying tags to teddy bears is a dignified, let alone philosophical, explanation of what naming is.9 If he can’t establish the connection between the word and the object in some deep way, he will declare that there is no connection, that words simply have no relationship at all with the things they name. This is skepticism. Or at least a form of it. If Augustine claims that there is a connection between name and word, the skeptic will deny it. Yet this move will not save him from Wittgenstein’s scorn, for the deep philosopher has done nothing to unsettle the fundamental framework of Augustine’s picture, namely that the key thing we have to understand about language is the relationship between words and things. The Platonist and the deconstructionist are closer to each other than they think.10
This is why the Augustinian does not feel the need to ask how the shopkeeper knows what drawer to look in. To him, it is self-evident that the meaning of “apples” must be the actual objects contained in the drawer. He also takes for granted that words—all words—work exactly like names. When Wittgenstein confronts him with something other than names of concrete objects, the Augustinian is in trouble, for he thinks of “the remaining kinds of words as something that will take care of itself.” No wonder that numerals and words for sensations confuse him.
The Augustinian may have a theory of certain nouns, but he does not have a theory of language—unless, of course, we imagine a language consisting exclusively of concrete nouns. (This is precisely what Wittgenstein goes on to do in §2, when he imagines a tribe of builders sharing a language consisting of only four nouns.) Augustine’s picture of language, then, is not so much wrong, as too simple and too circumscribed. He does “describe a system of communication; only not everything that we call language is this system” (§3).
The strategy of §1 is now clear: Wittgenstein’s story is intended to make us wonder about Augustine’s. Augustine shows us a child who learns to express his wishes simply by naming things; Wittgenstein responds by drawing our attention to a man who expresses his simple wish for five red apples, only to provoke a barrage of puzzled questions.
But why do explanations come to an end, and so suddenly? It helps to know that Wittgenstein thinks that an “explanation serves to remove or prevent a misunderstanding—one, that is, that would arise if not for the explanation, but not every misunderstanding that I can imagine” (§87). An explanation is meant to clear up a specific problem, not every conceivable problem. But if this is what an explanation is, then no explanation would ever satisfy the interlocutor, for what he wants to know is how words like “red” and “five” can have meaning at all, quite outside any specific context of use. Moreover, explanations are given in words. They are useless to someone who hasn’t already learned the language. We don’t teach a little child to speak by explaining how words are used. We train the child until he or she becomes adept enough to understand explanations (cf. §5).
The distinction between training and explaining is crucial. Training is constant practice; explaining is giving reasons. Augustine underestimates how much we have to learn in order to learn to do the simplest things—naming, explaining—with language: “[He] describes the learning of human language as if the child came into a foreign country and did not understand the language of the country; that is, as if he already had a language, only not this one” (§32).
The interlocutor is not asking for explanations because he is genuinely puzzled. To me, the question “But what is the meaning of the word ‘five’?” is in bad faith. He obviously knows what “five” means. His problem is not the meaning of “five,” but that he can no longer explain to himself why the word means what he knows it means. He wants Wittgenstein to supply a different ground of meaning, a new story about what connects the word with the thing.
It may look as if Wittgenstein fails to reply properly. For all he does is to draw attention to two features: how the shopkeeper acts, and how the word “five” is used. It would be easy to conclude that we are to attend to what we do with words rather than what they mean. But if that were our conclusion, we wouldn’t be getting the point after all, for here the word “rather” gives us the wrong idea. Wittgenstein does not think of use as something like the “ground” of meaning, as many critics believe.11 He thinks of it as use, as he says in §43: “the meaning of a word is its use in the language.”
Use is n...

Indice dei contenuti

  1. Cover
  2. Title Page
  3. Copyright Page
  4. Dedication
  5. Contents
  6. Acknowledgments
  7. List of Abbreviations
  8. Introduction
  9. Part I  Wittgenstein
  10. Part II  Differences
  11. Part III  Reading
  12. Notes
  13. Works Cited
  14. Index
Stili delle citazioni per Revolution of the Ordinary

APA 6 Citation

Moi, T. (2017). Revolution of the Ordinary ([edition unavailable]). The University of Chicago Press. Retrieved from (Original work published 2017)

Chicago Citation

Moi, Toril. (2017) 2017. Revolution of the Ordinary. [Edition unavailable]. The University of Chicago Press.

Harvard Citation

Moi, T. (2017) Revolution of the Ordinary. [edition unavailable]. The University of Chicago Press. Available at: (Accessed: 15 October 2022).

MLA 7 Citation

Moi, Toril. Revolution of the Ordinary. [edition unavailable]. The University of Chicago Press, 2017. Web. 15 Oct. 2022.