Tuesday, 26 June 2012


In his new When Words Are Called For Avner Baz, the ex cowboy and construction businessman, provides what is surely the best defence yet of ordinary language philosophy (OLP). Here are some of the themes as they struck me:

a. OLP is typically characterised either as trying to answer philosophical questions ('is it true that xyz?') by appeal to what folks say, or as refusing a sense to philosophical questions just because philosophers don't constrain themselves to the linguistic mores of the folk. An obvious objection is: why should we care what folks say? After all, aren't we trying to fathom, for example, whether there is any basis to what they say? Aren't we interested in the essential 'nature of reality' - and not in habits of language? Maybe we need to speak against the warp and weft of the folk to do this.

Avner Baz
Luckily, Baz tells us, OLP is trying to do no such thing. Rather it invites us to leave aside, for one moment, our questions of whether it is true that xyz in order to first focus on what if anything is meant, here, in this context, by this speaker, by 'xyz'. And not only that, but how exactly is this current inquiry intended? And what are the normal conditions that render sensible inquiry or discussion about or expostulations about xyz. The 'appeal to the ordinary and normal uses of some word or expression, and to their conditions [of deployment], is not meant to settle the question of the sense or non-sense of some troublesome piece of philosophical discourse. Rather it is meant to raise and to press that question against the assumption that the stretch of discourse does - and indeed must - make (clear) sense, simply by virtue of being composed of familiar words that are put together syntactically correctly; and to do so in the face of a philosophical difficulty that owes its apparent force to that very assumption.' (p. 11)

b. OLP sets itself against a wholly 'referential' conception of meaning - against the ideas that there is some entity called 'the meaning' of a word which guides its use; that such meanings are to be understood in terms of what is referred to by words; that the meaning of sentences is composed out of the contributions of those word meanings making it up; that all of this is to grasped in isolation from questions about how words and sentences are used on particular occasions; that the representational functions of language are its most fundamental functions. One of the tendencies in philosophy has been to focus on 'the nature of' what it is assumed is referred to by those 'philosophically troublesome singular substantives' (truth, time, reason, justice, knowledge, will, world, thought...); it is especially in relation to such enquiries that we might find an OLP approach helpful. We should not simply assume, for example, that the basic function of 'know' is to enable us to 'ascribe' what is referred to by the term 'knowledge' to people. (p. 19)

c. That various philosophical questions are, far from being pressing, in fact idle or beside the point. Baz invites us to not assume that terms or phrases have meanings regardless of the uses to which we can imagine them actually being put. Rather than carry on assuming that we do know how we are meaning our words when we ask philosophical questions, and then offering our 'intuitions' about whether or not they have an application (contribute to a true proposition) in the instance under consideration, we are instead invited to remember the ways we normally use these words, and the points of using them in such ways (cf Austin: how we do things with words), and then to specify both the point and the manner in which we would like our words to be taken in the present instance. In this way we can dispense with pesky intuitions (cf Dennett on intuition pumps) and achieve an honest stipulative and purposeful relation to our words (cf Kuusela on Wittgenstein's honestly stipulative methodology).

d. I found two stylistic matters to be very fruitful in Baz's text. The first is his manner of anticipating objections. A considerable amount of space is given to the objections of imaginary interlocutors. The second is Baz's way of: drawing his imaginary interlocutor's attention to where Baz was in his argument before they interrupted, reminding them of the remit of the discussion, what has and what has not already been established, etc. This is particularly helpful because it is all too easy to argue against someone by accidentally relying on subsidiary assumptions that one has already been invited to suspend or, even, which have already been conclusively dealt with. Our bad habits tend to hunt in packs, but Baz's method manages to both round them up and separate them out very nicely. This is philosophical thought - trenchant, brave, careful, rigorous - at its best.

I have also just found that a review of Baz's book - by a philosopher who has the curious distinction of a) coming from an ancient Palestinian family who were and are keeper-of-the-keys to the Holy Sepulcre church in Jerusalem, b) being a highly prominent political spokesperson on Palestinian issues, and c) being J L Austin's son-in-law - Sari Nusseibeh - has been published by Notre Dame Reviews.