November 03, 2012

The limits of the language game metaphor: Diamond and Mulhall

Stephen Mulhall’s essay “Realism, Modernism, and the Realistic Spirit: Diamond’s inheritance of Wittgenstein, early and late” (Nordic Wittgenstein Review 1 (2012), 7-33) is a thought-provoking inquiry into ways of applying Wittgenstein. (The essay is now available on the journal's website.) 
                      I shall here comment on one section of the essay (2: 3).
                      As Mulhall notes, we commonly think of Wittgenstein’s concepts “language game”, “grammar”, “forms of life”, “criteria”, ”rule-governed” – what Mulhall calls his signature concepts – as “forged by Wittgenstein himself in the service of simply putting things before us as they really are”. Mulhall, however, draws attention to the risk that
if ... this set of signature concepts is sufficiently substantial or robust to acquire a life of its own, then they might on occasions stand between us and an ability simply to acknowledge how things really are; rather than helping to subvert our tendency towards the imposition of a philosophical ’must’, they may actually subserve its further expression (p. 10).
In other words: the language game metaphor was meant to draw our attention to the actual activities in which we utter and respond to words. But there’s a danger that this perspective will come to impose its own preconceived notions on how we see things. (Thus, I suggest, we may forget that the language game is indeed a model or metaphor, and start imagining, say, that it has rules just like football, or that the limits of the game must be precisely circumscribed, etc.)
I believe this warning is of the utmost importance. Mulhall tellingly compares this situation to the development of realism in the novel:
The history of the novel since Defoe, Richardson and Sterne might ... be written entirely in terms of the ways in which novelists repeatedly subject their inheritance of realistic conventions to critical questioning in order to recreate the impression of reality in their readers (p. 9).
Mulhall illustrates his theme by reference to some of Cora Diamond’s work, among other things her essay “The Difficulty of Reality and the Difficulty of Philosophy” which I touched on in an earlier blog. There Diamond speaks about certain experiences – such as the encounter with the photograph of six young men that were shortly afterward to be killed in the war – “in which we take something in reality to be resistant to our thinking it, or possibly to be painful in its inexplicability, difficult in that way, or perhaps awesome and astonishing in its inexplicability”(p. 99 in her essay, quoted on p. 18). She calls this “a difficulty of reality” and says that to appreciate it “is to appreciate oneself being shouldered out of how one thinks, how one is apparently supposed to think” (p. 105; p. 19).
                      Mulhall comments:
[P]roperly to register the essential nature of a difficulty of reality asks us to acknowledge the capacity of reality to shoulder us out from our familiar language-games, to resist the distinctively human capacity to word the world, and thereby to leave us as bewildered and disorientated as a bird that suddenly finds itself incapable of constructing a nest, or a beaver of building a dam... (Ibid.)
Not everyone will have the same response to Cora Diamond’s examples (this is one of several she invokes). If one does not, it is no use staring at the example and trying to discover what she is talking about there – one will simply have to find one’s own examples; cases in which one feels words fail one. (Nor should we forget that what strikes someone about an awesome experience may not primarily be her inability to put it into words; that, on the whole, is the reaction of someone who is preoccupied with describing things, with “wording the world”. Anyway, in a given case someone might feel that silence is the only adequate response.)
                      But if we are not all struck in the same way by the same examples, the question arises, what makes something an experience of the relevant kind? On what authority could I claim that this is a case in which words fail us, if someone fails to see it? Am I blind to something, if I personally fail to recognize this? Evidently, those questions are out of place. There is no right or wrong here. This kind of experience is not grounded in anything, it is our unmediated, primitive, subjective response. But then to say that it is an experience of the language game giving out would be a strangely objective way of putting the matter – for one thing, it makes it appear that one needs access to the concept of a language game to be able to have the experience. (It also makes it sound as if the rules of the game laid it down that this is out of bounds. But this would be giving them the kind of jurisdiction that we are concerned to question.)
                      I find it exceedingly hard to get a grip on this discussion. What complicates matters, I believe, is the way two different things come together: the speaker’s predicament in front of the experience, and the philosopher’s predicament in trying to account for the speaker’s predicament. Mulhall explicitly puts them side by side:
Surely difficulties of reality ought ... to resist the grammar of “language-game”, “grammar” and “form of life” (however flexibly they are projected) just as radically as they resist that of any other aspects of our thinking and talking? (Ibid.)
This is what I feel like saying: the speaker is bewildered about how to respond to what’s in front of her. The philosopher, so far, is not facing a question: it’s not for the philosopher to tell the speaker how she might respond, nor to say that here language gives way. The problem for the philosopher arises, if it does, after the speaker has responded. Depending on what was said, the philosopher may reflect, say, that the speaker’s words reflect her bewilderment about the experience – on the other hand, of course, her verbal response (whatever her reaction) may be down-home and trivial.
                      Mulhall asks:
Would it be at all helpful in clarifying this highly distinctive aspect of our relation with our words to say that being shouldered out of our language-games is just one more language-game, or to declare that words have a grammar when they fail us just as they do when we effortlessly employ them to word the world, or to describe these uncanny encounters as just another element in the homely forms of human life? (Ibid.)
My response here would be to say that the usefulness of the language game metaphor (like the language game itself) doesn’t come to an end in this or that particular place, rather it gradually peters out.


  1. Professor Herzberg,

    I have a several of questions

    First, I’m not sure I understand how you understand Mulhall’s warning. Is the point supposed to be that (1) beyond a certain point signature concepts can become useless and a hindrance? Or is the point supposed to be that (2) signature concepts are not meant to be applied rigidly, and that if they are used in the right way, they do not lose their helpfulness.

    Second, I’m not sure I understand how you understand the connection between Mulhall’s warning about un-Wittgensteinian use of a signature concept, and Diamond’s discussion about the difficulty of reality. You say Mulhal uses Diamond’s discussion to illustrate his point. Now, if I understand, this implies that there is in the discussion about difficulties of reality some temptation to use signature concepts in an un-Wittgensteinian, or at least unhelpful, way. But I’m not sure I understand: (1) What would be the unhelpful use of signature concepts in the discussion about the difficulty of reality? And (2) Is the unhelpful use of signature concepts different in, say, a discussion about rule-following, or about other philosophical topics?

    Third, you say that “there is no right or wrong here” – when it comes to failing to be struck, or “shouldered out” by a certain example. Does that mean that there is absolutely no normativity here at all? – This would seem to be exaggerated. For one thing, Ted Hughes’ choice of words in the poem Diamond quotes at the beginning of her paper—his talk of ‘shouldering out one’s body from its instant and heat’—seems to be very accurate. And this indicates a kind of normativity. But if that is so, might there nevertheless be room here for a kind of talk of right and wrong?

    Fourth, you say: “to say that [a difficulty of reality experience] is an experience of the language game giving out would be a strangely objective way of putting the matter – for one thing, it makes it appear that one needs access to the concept of a language game to be able to have the experience.” – It does seem a bit strange to talk of experiencing the way language works—or fails to work. Nevertheless, is there a better way of expressing what happens in such cases? Might it be one of those cases in which we have to say, a-la Wittgenstein, “I need these terms here”? – I’m asking this, partly because you say at the end of your post on the book on animal life that you are using words in a secondary sense. But in the current post, you don’t say that. Is it because you don’t take yourself to be using words in a secondary sense here?

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    1. Thank you for your thoughtful questions. I’ll do my best to reply.

      (1) Mulhall asks rhetorically “Surely difficulties of reality ought rather to resist the grammar of ’language-game’, ’grammar’ and ’form of life’ (however flexibly they are projected) just as radically as they resist that of any other aspects of our thinking and talking?” (p. 19) Note the parenthesis: the suggestion here is that the signature concepts will not be helpful in these cases, no matter how carefully you apply them.
      I assumed he meant for the question to be answered in the affirmative. I’m not sure, though.

      (2) I share your worries here. I would agree that there is an unhelpful use that is unhelpful even in connection with the most everyday, down-to-earth uses of words. It appears that there are two discussions going on here that would be better kept separate: (i) what are helpful/unhelpful ways of using the signature concepts? (ii) are there cases in which even the most sensitive way of using the signature concepts will still lead to distortion? As to the latter, I don’t see why that would have to be the case. In other words, the downside of the language game metaphor is that it may tempt us to apply it in a crude insensitive way.

      (3) I think I’d still maintain that this is personal. If you don’t share Ted Hughes’s response, there would be no point in insisting that you should. (One might think it a lack of sensitivity, not a linguistic shortcoming.)

      (4) I do think a reaction like Hughes’s could be spelled out in terms of secondary sense.

  2. Fifth, you seem to be making at least an implicit distinction between those who are preoccupied with wording the world—even what they find inexpressible—and those who might feel that silence can be the adequate response sometimes. And it seems that this distinction is important for you. But I’m not sure how deep you think this distinction can go: What is the difference between saying something that we know, in some sense, does not make sense (like: “my body is being shouldered out of its instance and heat”), and keeping silent? I mean, is there a deep difference of speech-act here? Put differently: if indeed ‘language is things we do,’ and if “keeping silent” is an activity—something we do—then might silence be language?

    Sixth, you say that in this discussion “two different things come together: the speaker’s predicament in front of the experience, and the philosopher’s predicament in trying to account for the speaker’s predicament.” – How do you understand the relation between the two predicaments? Is there a kind of isomorphism between them? (Cora Diamond in her “Secondary Sense” paper talks about a kind of isomorphism between a predicament of a speaker and a predicament of a philosopher, which is possibly related to what you say, when she says: “Where I want to speak of an activity as not being 'self-contained', I will use an expression, the activity of using which will not be 'self-contained' (p. 232).)

    Seventh, you say that “the usefulness of the language game metaphor (like the language game itself) doesn’t come to an end in this or that particular place, rather it gradually peters out.” – In the Lectures on Mathematics Wittgenstein warns that differences of degree might still be deep differences of grammar. For instance, there is a difference of degree between toy train and real train—in between them more and more sophisticated and bigger and bigger toys—but this does not show that there isn’t a deep grammatical distinction between toy and the real instrument. There is thus a danger of deep grammatical differences being hidden behind differences of degree. So, my question is this: Even if the usefulness of the language game metaphor is a matter of degree, might there still be a deep grammatical difference between when it is and when it is not useful? And if so, what is it?

    Eighth, do you take it that difficulties of reality only pertain to powerful and more or less singular experiences, or might one experience a difficulty of reality about a central constant feature of reality, like the fact that we are mortal, or the fact that we have a body? I also have in mind here your discussion from a while ago about autism. In discussions about autism, I am personally tempted sometimes to say that autism—the word—ought to be used as a term that indicates a difficulty of reality. I wondered whether you thought this suggestion has any merit.

    1. (5) I didn’t mean that there is a deep difference between someone who is struck by the difficulty of finding words and someone who is silent. I only wanted to remind us that silence is an option. There is a bigger difference between either of those and someone who sees nothing extraordinary in the experience.

      (6) I feel like saying that there is no determinate relation between the two predicaments. For instance, using words in a secondary sense may not pose any difficulty to the speaker (as when we call certain colours warm and others cold, or certain musical phrases happy or sad), while philosophers may have a hard time giving a fair description of this use.

      (7) My inclination would be to say that the difference between the cases in which the metaphor is useful and the cases in which it is not is a purely practical matter; it’s a question of what works (and whether this tool works here is partly a matter of how it is handled).

      (8) All I can say here is that “difficulty of reality” is not a technical term, it does not have a settled use. As far as I know, it made its first appearance in Cora Diamond’s essay. I would suggest that anyone is free to use it as long as it is helpful in illuminating things.

      I hope these answers go some way towards meeting your questions.

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