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The plain-speaking philosophers

Nikhil Krishnan’s A Terribly Serious Adventure shows how Oxford’s “ordinary language” movement, pioneered by JL Austin and Gilbert Ryle, looked to words for answers.

By Thomas Nagel

The philosopher Nikhil Krishnan arrived in Oxford from India as a Rhodes scholar in 2007. His education there transformed him, and this book is an expression of gratitude to a movement in Oxford philosophy that had reached its peak of development 50 years earlier, but of whose intellectual legacy he found himself the beneficiary: the “ordinary language” movement, which held that linguistic analysis was the key to resolving philosophical problems.

Krishnan believes that the value of this movement requires defence. He describes it as a “much-maligned tradition” and alludes to humanistic critics who deride its preoccupation with verbal puzzles and its avoidance of big, deep questions. He responds:

“Oxford philosophers rarely claimed to do more than clarify a couple of ideas, to make a couple of distinctions. But I shall be arguing that they delivered vastly more than the little they promised. Some philosophy can edify without meaning to. Indeed, some philosophy is all the more edifying for not trying to be anything of the sort.”

The first sentence is a caricature, but the ordinary language tradition did have a strong deflationary element. Yet Krishnan believes that its virtues – intellectual, social, and even moral – continue to set the standards for subsequent analytic philosophy, with its larger ethical and metaphysical ambitions.

[See also: Derek Parfit: the perfectionist at All Souls]

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The book tells the story in human terms. “Its basic unit of organisation,” says Krishnan, “is not the argument but the anecdote, and what it is concerned to understand is not just what people thought but what they were like.” All of the philosophers he discusses are dead, but I knew most of them personally, and some of them were good friends. Relying on memoirs and other sources, Krishnan has succeeded in bringing these men and women and their complex and intense relations to life – which is a real achievement.

On the other hand, his decision to downplay the arguments and philosophical claims that are at the heart of this story, presenting them often with abbreviated samples whose interest is not always clear, makes the book less instructive than it could be. I understand the strategy of drawing the reader into the subject through an interest in philosophers as people, and philosophy as a human social enterprise. But it is essential also to explain from the inside what these people were really doing, and what they found so fascinating in the problems, theories, and disagreements that occupied them, which is not easy.

Krishnan tells the story through the lives of a number of individuals. Three of them he counts as especially important – Gilbert Ryle, JL Austin, and Peter Strawson – but significant parts are played by AJ Ayer, Isaiah Berlin, Iris Murdoch, GEM Anscombe, RM Hare, Philippa Foot, and Bernard Williams. All of them except for Foot and Strawson were trained as classicists.

Ryle was chairman of the board, the person most responsible institutionally for the dominance of analytic philosophy in Oxford. He was an undergraduate just after the First World War, was appointed to the faculty, and soon tried to find out what was happening in philosophy elsewhere. He learned German in order to read Edmund Husserl, and wrote an appreciative review of Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time (1927) in 1929 – though later he is reported to have said: “When the Nazis came to power, Heidegger showed that he was a shit, from the heels up, and a shit from the heels up can’t do good philosophy.”

Ryle also took an interest in the unpublished work Ludwig Wittgenstein was presenting to select audiences in Cambridge – a pluralistic examination of the many ways in which ordinary language works that was different from the unified logical analysis put forward in his earlier work Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921). But Ryle also sent his student Ayer to Vienna to bring back an account of the logical positivist movement that had been inspired by Tractatus. The result was Ayer’s bestselling Language, Truth and Logic (1936), which announced the death of metaphysics and the non-existence of ethical truth. The conviction began to spread that language was the key to philosophy: a correct understanding of the conditions of meaning would permit philosophers to dismiss as nonsense the confused uses of language that failed to satisfy those conditions. On the positive side, metaphysics, the branch of traditional philosophy that aims to discover the basic structure of reality, could be replaced by conceptual analysis, because the necessary truths that past philosophers had thought could be discovered by reason were merely reflections of the structure of our language – true not in virtue of the nature of reality but in virtue of the meanings of our words.

Berlin, Austin, Ayer, and a few others began meeting to discuss these ideas in the late Thirties, but then came the war. The men left Oxford, and when they returned, the revolution began in earnest. In 1945, Ryle was appointed Waynflete Professor of Metaphysical Philosophy and became the editor of Mind, the leading philosophy journal. The popularity of the undergraduate degree in philosophy, politics, and economics meant that Oxford had a large philosophy faculty, and Ryle used his influence to see to it that teaching positions went to those trained in the linguistic approach to philosophical questions.

[See also: Europe’s false dawn]

He also produced a leading example of that approach, The Concept of Mind (1949), a book which rejected the metaphysical question “What is the mind, and what is its relation to the body?”. Instead, it examined the conditions of use of the many linguistic expressions we use to describe the mental life of human beings, including ourselves – our moods, intentions, doubts, regrets, observations, memories, amusement, grief, annoyance, distaste. Ryle claimed there was nothing mysterious about what these expressions refer to. We all use them in ordinary life without difficulty. Ryle claimed it was a “category mistake” to think that “the mind” refers to an inner thing or medium in which mental processes go on, hidden from the observation of others – which he called “the dogma of the Ghost in the Machine”. The mistake comes from not paying attention to the ordinary public context of behaviour and circumstances in which our talk about what other people are thinking and feeling, and our avowals of our own intentions, observations, and so on, are embedded. In general, Ryle’s method was to replace the question “What is X?” by the questions: “How do we use sentences containing the expression ‘X’? On what grounds do we assert or deny them? What role do they play in our everyday lives?” The aim was to dissolve traditional philosophical problems by showing that they depended on misunderstandings of how the language in which they are stated works.

But the intellectually dominant figure of the movement was Austin, who pursued the study of the plurality of uses of ordinary words as an end in itself, for whatever it would reveal, and not just to defuse traditional questions. He distrusted general theories and valued detail. Ryle made heavy use of the notion of “behavioural disposition” in his discussion of mental concepts, but Austin asked whether a disposition was “the same thing as a ‘trait’? A ‘propensity’? ‘Characteristic’? ‘Habit’? ‘Inclination’? ‘Tendency’? ‘Susceptibility’? ‘Liability’?”. He instituted a Saturday-morning discussion group that mined the dictionary for closely related terms to reveal subtle distinctions captured by the collective genius of ordinary language.

Results of this kind are brilliantly set out in essays like “A Plea for Excuses” (1956), with its famous distinction between shooting a donkey by accident and by mistake:

“You have a donkey, so have I, and they graze in the same field. The day comes when I conceive a dislike for mine. I go to shoot it, draw a bead on it, fire: the brute falls in its tracks. I inspect the victim, and find to my horror that it is your donkey. I appear on your doorstep with the remains and say – what? ‘I say, old sport, I’m awfully sorry, etc, I’ve shot your donkey by accident’? Or ‘by mistake’? Then again, I go to shoot my donkey as before, draw a bead on it, fire – but as I do so, the beasts move, and to my horror yours falls. Again the scene on the doorstep – what do I say? ‘By mistake’? Or ‘by accident’?”

As Austin says:

“Our common stock of words embodies all the distinctions men have found worth drawing… in the lifetimes of many generations: these surely are likely to be more numerous, more sound… and more subtle… than any that you or I are likely to think up in our armchairs of an afternoon.”

Yet Austin didn’t eschew systematic theories entirely. His lectures on language as a form of action, How to Do Things with Words (1962), created the theory of speech acts and led to a broader study of how the function of language extends beyond its literal meaning – including the implications of what we say that depend not on logic but on the practical context of utterance: what is called pragmatics, as opposed to semantics.

Ethics was also subjected to treatment by linguistic analysis, notably in Hare’s The Language of Morals (1952), which developed the positivist claim that moral language is used not to state facts of any kind but to express the speaker’s attitudes. This meant there were no objective moral truths, and no boundaries on the content of moral principles: anything could be said to be right or wrong, good or bad, without violating the meaning of the words. This “neutral” account of moral concepts was vigorously contested by Murdoch, Foot, and Anscombe, in arguments which showed that substantive moral ideas couldn’t be banished from philosophy by linguistic analysis.

Austin died in 1960, at the age of 48, and Krishnan sees this as the end of ordinary language philosophy. Metaphysical ambition – though still in the form of conceptual analysis – was exemplified by Strawson, who examined the basic structure of the human world, including our concept of persons, in Individuals: An Essay in Descriptive Metaphysics (1959). Questions about the relation between mind and body had not been put to rest by Ryle; they remain wide open to this day. And moral and political theory flourished from the 1970s.

Krishnan concludes by asking what, in the ordinary language tradition, is still living, and what is dead. What is dead, he says, is the project of “dissolving philosophical problems by the simple device of showing them to arise from the misuse of language” as well as the “paranoid preoccupation with the avoidance of nonsense, as defined according to strictures that disallowed far too much that patently did make sense”. Also lost is the distrust of “depth” as a philosophical virtue – no longer dismissed as an excuse for obscurity.

What survives, according to Krishnan, is a set of standards and a style of inquiry that is of permanent value. This is not something created by the philosophers of ordinary language; it is a continuation of the Socratic conception of philosophy as responsible speech. It means making oneself accountable for what one says, by making it as clear as possible exactly what one means, offering as explicitly as possible one’s reasons for saying it, and making oneself vulnerable to the objections of others – by a willingness either to be persuaded or to offer reasoned counter-arguments.

Followed in a spirit that is both cooperative and competitive, this style is typical of analytic philosophy. It manifests the conviction that the questions we are dealing with have right answers, however difficult it may be to discover them – the conviction that, in Iris Murdoch’s words, philosophy “is not self-expression.”

A Terribly Serious Adventure: Philosophy at Oxford 1900-60
Nikhil Krishnan
Profile Books, 416pp, £20

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[See also: The Red Christian]

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This article appears in the 10 May 2023 issue of the New Statesman, What could go wrong?