December 28, 2017

Language and creativity

I recently had occasion to review Wittgenstein and the Creativity of Language, a collection of essays edited by Sebastian Sunday Grève and Jakub Macha. (Philosophy 92 (2017), 647-650.) The collection contains a number of interesting contributions, beside a few that I thought needlessly inaccessible. However, the task started a question germinating, which did not seem to be addressed directly in the book. 
What exactly is meant by the idea that language is creative? It might be natural to suppose that creativity is somehow central to the way we use language: in using language and in responding to its use we are being creative. 
Being creative in one’s use of words - one is inclined to think - is using them in new ways. And responding creatively is responding to new uses. And so the idea is that in speaking we are constantly creating and responding to new uses of words. But here’s the catch: what is ”a new way of using a word”? When is the use the same as before and when is it different from before? 
One of the central points to which Wittgenstein drew attention in Philosophical Investigations is that what will count as ”the same” something or other in any given case is dependent on the framework of comparison that is relevant to the context at hand. When it comes to comparing physical objects, for instance, two objects may be ”the same” or ”not the same” with respect to colour, size, shape, weight, material, country of origin, price, etc. (And where comparing colours is concerned, in turn, the accepted degree of variation is dependent on the purpose of the comparison. And so forth.)
The same goes for cases of speaking and responding.
When it is said that language allows for ”using words in a new way”, however, it is left open what the relevant framework of comparison might be. Any two situations of speaking can be considered ”the same” from some point of view and ”not the same” from another point of view. So saying that in speaking we may often or sometimes use words in new ways is really not saying anything at all.

This is not to deny that people may use language in creative ways. We may be struck by a deep or witty comparison, an illuminating metaphor, etc., as by Benjamin Franklin’s aphorism: ”A good conscience is a continual Christmas”, or by Churchill’s characterization of Clement Attlee as ”a sheep in sheep’s clothing”, or by someone who says that ”Trump appeals to the American Id”. To call such sayings creative is not to register an absolute difference between this and other uses of these words, but simply to express one’s reaction to the use. And people may be differently struck by different uses.


  1. I believe that you make an important point very nicely here. But I do think something goes wrong at the end. You write: ‘To call such sayings creative is not to register an absolute difference between this and other uses of these words, but simply to express one’s reaction to the use. And people may be differently struck by different uses’. I guess there might be room for discussion of what constitutes something as an ‘absolute difference’, and there be readings on which what you say about that is just correct. And it is certainly the case that people may be differently struck by different uses. But the apparently completely general claim that to call such sayings creative is ‘simply to express one’s reaction to the use’ is, I believe, unwarranted. I would place it in the same camp as Peter Winch’s comment on the disappearing shed: ‘Despite appearances, the words “The shed has vanished” ….. [do] not go beyond expressing present bewilderment at the senseless conflict on one’s present impressions’ (Trying to make sense, 93-4). And I would place both beside Wittgenstein’s remark: ‘A cry is not a description. But there are transitions. And the words “I am afraid” may approximate more, or less, to being a cry. They may come quite close to this and also be far removed from it.’ (Philosophical Investigations, p 189). I am inclined to ask both you and Winch what contrast you are making when you say what you do here. Thus, when you say that to speak in this way of these uses of language is ‘simply to express one’s reaction’ to them, one might read you as making a contrast of this kind: “As opposed, for example, to ‘pointing out’ to another that this (any of the examples you give) is a creative use of language” But if this were your suggestion, I would be inclined to reply: “There are occasions on which calling such a saying creative would be correctly described as ‘pointing something out to another’.” I think that this criticism, if fair, is of some importance. One of Wittgenstein’s aims in his later work is to remind us of the many different things that the utterance of the very same words can be. Another, connected, aim is to unsettle our sense that we have a clear grasp of what it is to ‘describe’ something, or to ‘say something true about something’, that provides a univocal reference point when surveying the variety of things we may do in language.

    1. This is a sound criticism, thank you. To speak of ”simply expressing one’s reaction” is crude. I should have said something like ‘To call such sayings creative is not to register an absolute difference between this and other uses of these words, IF THIS IS TAKEN TO MEAN a difference which can be spelled out independently of our reactions to the words.’
      This is not to say that one could not discuss such a characterization, attempt to bring others around to seeing it, etc. So in that way it could be called a description. (A literary critic might characterize a writer’s use of language as creative, another critic might disagree, etc.)
      I guess the temptation is to retain the conventional view of description as something on the lines of a representational isomorphism (where the problem is not that there are other kinds of description as well, but that the very idea of a representational isomorphism is irremediably obscure), whereas that is precisely the idea one needs to get rid of.

    2. Or otherwise put: something being a description is a matter of its use, not its form. I think we are agreed on that.

  2. Would it help if we made a distinction b/w kinds of creativity in language. So, for example, we can distinguish b/w 2 sorts of cases: (1) Cases in which we say of a use that it is creative merely b/c it was not heard before by someone. If I never heard the sentence "There is a green zebra on the stove," than *in that sense* it is a creative use, even though we might be able to formulate rules for the production of grammatical sentences like this, and the creativity did not involve a change in those rules. (2) Cases in which one is creative about the rules themselves, like “This is the first time in my life that I've been outgrandfathered” (Clement Freud, Sigmund Freud’s grandson, after meeting Winston Churchill’s grandson).

    This should not imply that there is a clear line between those kinds of cases. Still, we might regard the distinction as absolute *in a sense*. In general, the fact that a distinction is gradual does not mean the distinction is not real or even deep. Here is an example (partly borrowed from LFM): A painting of a phone—a sculpture of a phone—a phone without the mechanism inside—a broken phone—a working phone; there is a gradual transition here, but still there is a category-difference between phones and phone-paintings.

    1. Thank you for your comment. I’m hesitant about making the notion of rules so central, at least if we take the word “rule” in its literal sense, i.e. as a verbal formulation which we go by in using words. If we take the use and understanding of words to be based on rules in this sense, we easily get into an infinite regress.
      On the other hand, if we do not invoke rules, we have the problem of deciding what counts as conforming to earlier practice and what does not. I’m quite confident that your writing of the sentence “There is a green zebra on the stove” is the first of its kind (mine being the second), but then why wouldn’t we consider applying the word “snow” to the first snow of every year “a new use of words”? Indeed everything ever said or written will be the first of its kind from *some* point of view. (Cp Philosophical Investigations 214: “If an intuition is necessary for continuing the series 1 2 3 4 . . . then also for continuing the series 2 2 2 2 . . . .”)
      So I’d be more inclined to think of the attribute “creative” in contrast to the notion of routine. Most uses of language will be more or less routine, but every now and then we will find a person’s use of words creative (as in speaking of someone being “outgrandfathered”). Note too that the non-routine use of words *has to be successful in some sense* in order to be called creative: the odd formulations that may be brought out by someone learning a new language would for the most part not be considered creative. (Of course, we sometimes use the expression “in accordance with the rules” as a metaphorical way of saying that something is routine.)

    2. Thanks Lars. Just one more thought: In the Notebooks, Wittgenstein wrote “Identity is the very Devil and *immensely important*” (p. 123). The point you raise, if I understand, concerns identity and sameness, as well as creativity. The two matters--sameness and creativity--are perhaps not exactly two sides of the same coin, but they seem to me to be intertwined. Thanks again.

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