Sunday, January 2, 2011

Homage to J. L. Austin

I recently located my copy of Sense and Sensibilia, and began rereading it.  I know that somewhere there lurks my copy of How to do Things with Words, and will try to find it.  I downloaded onto my otherwise admirable nook Philosophical Papers, and am infuriated that I can't read it, for reasons thus far unknown, to me at least.

I'm reminded of just how enjoyable it is to read Austin.  He seems to me to be, as far as philosophy is concerned, the proverbial breath of fresh air.  I remember I found him astonishing, all those years ago.  I also found him irritating, apparently, at least at first, judging from the notes I scribbled in the margins on the first few pages of Sense and Sensibilia in those distant days.

Austin, you see, demolishes (I hate the word "deconstructs" and all its derivatives) many of the beloved old chestnuts of philosophy--specifically those related to perception in that particular book.  In the course of doing so he demolishes the work of certain philosophers.  I think I may have just read Ayer's Language, Truth and Logic and been impressed by it if my margin notes are any indication.  I seem to have been annoyed by Austin's comments regarding that book which, curiously, I have been able to download and can read without difficulty on my nook.  However, the more of Austin one reads, the more surprised one becomes that Ayer and so many others thought as they did/do, and indeed could have come to the conclusions they come to.

Austin's demolition efforts seem similar to those of Wittgenstein in that they focus on the use and misuse of words, and the assumptions which arise thereby almost necessarily.  By using certain words in certain ways, philosophers in effect load the deck with which they're playing.  Something was obviously going on the 20th century which prompted some philosophers to pause and wonder what the hell it was philosophy was doing so unsuccessfully and indecisively for the prior 2500 or so years.  Dewey was similar to Austin and Wittgenstein in this respect.

Dewey thought that philosophers had managed to confound themselves and others for millenia primarily as a result of social conditions which obtained when philosophy as known in the West began, i.e. in ancient Greece.  The philosophical Greeks tended to belittle the changeable.  They denigrated that which was not immutable, feeling that only the immutable could be "true" and "worthy."  The more subject to change, the less "real."  Dewey felt that this point of view was a kind of virus which spread and was sustained in various respects throughout history, spawning the dualisms which confused philosophy and rendered it ultimately irrelevant.

I find it interesting that although Austin, Wittgenstein and Dewey seem to have come to similar conclusions based on different considerations, one thing they have in common is a belief that philosophy and philosophers have gone so far astray at least in part due to a kind of contempt for the ordinary. Philosophers seem to enjoy distinguishing what they think from what they believe is thought by "ordinary men"; distinguishing what is real from "ordinary life" or the "ordinary, day-to-day world"; distinguishing the proper language of philosophy from "ordinary language."

It's hardly surprising then, that "ordinary people" come to believe that philosophy and philosophers have little or nothing to do with the "ordinary world" which is, for good or ill, the only one we have, much as we may like to think otherwise.  One hopes it is not the case that philosophy is nothing more than a kind of refined, intellectual escape from the mundane.  There is nothing wrong with such things, but philosophy has always had pretensions to being much more than that.  There's no reason to think it must be so limited.   Perhaps it would be a good idea for philosophers to devote more attention to the ordinary.

1 comment:

  1. ....then came Rorty who put everything together.