July 26, 2014

Rhees and Knott on “What Language Is”

In his recent article “Rush Rhees on Wittgenstein and ‘What Language Is’” (Philosophical Investigations, July 2014, pp 228-245, see abstract), Hugh Knott presents Rhees’s critique of Wittgenstein. He goes on to argue that the so-called New Wittgensteinians  have failed to appreciate the deepening of perspective intrinsic in that critique.

Knott’s article is rich in content. I wish to discuss some of his arguments in this and a coming entry. In brief, to clarify the tangle of voices: Knott thinks that Rhees added something important to Wittgenstein, and that this has been missed by a number of philosophers including me. For my part I believe Rhees may indeed have added something, but I find it hard to get clear about what it was, and I see some problems in Knott's view of presenting it.

Knott comments on some writings of mine as expressions of a New Wittgensteinian reading (à la Cavell, Conant, Diamond, and others). I’m not sure whether the shoe fits, though it is true I have learnt a great deal not least from Cora Diamond (herself an admirer of Rhees). Anyway that does not matter, as long as my possible misreadings of Rhees are not laid at the door of Diamond et al.

Rhees is someone whose work I’ve long been impressed by. At the same time, I have found some of his central ideas hard to grasp, not in the sense of not wishing to engage with them, but on the contrary being challenged to reflect further. My article “Rhees on the Unity of Language” (Philosophical Investigations 35 (2012), pp. 224–237) was one expression of my effort to understand his thinking; in writing it I was aware of its tentative nature. (An earlier attempt was “Rush Rhees on Philosophy and Religious Discourse”, Faith and Philosophy 18 (2001), 431-442.)

According to Knott, then, I have missed out on something of importance in Rhees. I’ll here try to set out what I take to be the main matters of contention. I’ll sharpen the points made by Knott – appearing as Rhees’s spokesperson – in the interest of trying to get clear about what the issues are.

As Knott correctly notes, I have been arguing that philosophical problems arise out of the confusions individuals may have about the use of certain expressions in our language. Against this idea, presumably to be found in Wittgenstein, Rhees (he says) contended that there is a question about what language is which is not in this way dependent on confusions concerning the use of specific expressions, and which Wittgenstein failed to take seriously enough. According to Rhees, this question is grounded in

a confusion or uncertainty connected with being able to speak, and so perhaps with learning to speak: a confusion in connexion with what it is that one was learning in learning to speak: with what saying something is and what understanding is. This sort of confusion or uncertainty (which is not just a confusion of the grammars of particular expressions) has led men to the scepticism which runs in one way or another into all the big questions of philosophy. (“Wittgenstein’s Builders”, Discussions of Wittgenstein, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1970, p. 74, quoted by Knott.)

In a different context, Rhees writes (also quoted by Knott):

We cannot understand the central ideas of philosophy – such ideas as reality, truth, things, intelligibility, understanding – we cannot understand the rôle they play in language unless we try to understand what language is. (Without Answers, Routledge and Kegan Paul 1969, p. 135.)

These passages are thought-provoking but at the same time bewildering. Wittgenstein noted that philosophical inquiry has often taken the form of asking “What is X?”, leading up to a “substantive” account of the subject in question: “language is ----“, “reality is ---- “, “the mind is ----“, “thinking is ----“. He wanted to suggest that these types of question are misleading. As I understand him, the problem with them is that they lead us to search for essences, i.e. they presuppose that there is a single answer to them regardless of someone’s purpose in asking them. Against this, he suggested, words like “language”, “reality” etc may give rise to various bewilderments, but not to one big question.

On this view, language, for instance, is not a problem for us as such. We speak it daily and may never be bewildered by the fact that we are able to make ourselves understood and are able to understand what others are saying. It is when we do philosophy that questions about understanding and meaning may come to appear puzzling in various ways. These puzzles grow from a deep-rooted tendency to misunderstand the use of words like “mean”, “understand”, etc, etc; from a preconception which prevents our getting a clear overview of the use. Thus, our picture may be organized around the presupposition that “mean” and “understand” must be names of mental states; the task of philosophical clarification consists in making us see the particular uses for what they really are. (Knott introduces a dichotomy between the simple description of use – say, by means of a simple definition and some examples of usage - and the clarification of a concept, p. 237. The former, something of the kind provided, say, in a language guide, may leave our philosophical preconceptions untouched; the alternative, however, as I see it, is not to study the concept as though that held some kind of unity, but rather to look more deeply a the uses in their variety.)

(It seems likely that the form puzzles about words take is partly conditioned by our culture. Say, by the pre-eminent role of written language, the prestige of intellectual pursuits, the position of science and ideas about science in our society. One could, I think, imagine people whose thinking about language for some reason never ran into these snags.)

Rhees on the other hand appears to think that there is one given confusion bound up with the question what language is, with what one learns in learning to speak. (His words might even be taken to suggest that this confusion makes itself felt in our learning to speak, but I don’t think that can have been his intention.) And I get the sense that for him, somehow, this bewilderment is shared by us all and inevitable. This reading is underscored in Knott’s presentation.

If that is Rhees’s idea, I don’t know what to make of it. I would need to know more about what that confusion or uncertainty are taken to be like, and how they are supposed to lead to skepticism.

Knott argues that, in spite of my protestations, I too put forward general remarks about the nature of language in my writings. Thus, in ”Hacker on Wittgenstein's Ethnological Approach” (in Eric Lemaire & Jesús Padilla Gálvez (eds.), Wittgenstein: Issues and Debates. Ontos Verlag, 2010) I write ”learning to speak means learning to express oneself by means of words” (p.122). Well, to be sure this is a general observation, but these words hardly express some deep insight into what it means to be a speaker. Tell this to an ordinary citizen and her response is likely to be: “of course, so what?” It’s only when we’re in a philosophical mood and are inclined to think that learning to speak can only consist in acquiring certain verbal knacks or in learning to name objects that this reminder serves a purpose.

I shall address the unity of language in a later entry.

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