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Our Lives in Language

Samuel Filby

Toril Moi
Revolution of the Ordinary
University of Chicago Press
304 pp
£22.50 (pbk)

Here’s one way to think about the relationship between philosophy and literature: what is philosophically interesting about literature are philosophical propositions squeezed into narrative form. If literature is to be engaged by philosophy at all, it will be so that it can raise philosophical questions easier swallowed by narrative than propositional argument. As such, the merits of literature are grounded in its ability to accomplish tasks philosophy sets before it. One might use The Brothers Karamazov as a text to uncover propositions relevant for articulating the problem of evil, or perhaps use Watchmen as a way of stressing the differences between deontology and utilitarianism. On this picture, literature’s function is pedagogical and illustrative, providing the philosopher with examples to make the abstract more concrete. Here, the authority of the relationship lies almost entirely on the side of philosophy. Literature itself has no real voice – it is merely an object at philosophy’s disposal.

Furthermore, one can be a very good philosopher while having no literary talent – one can simultaneously be good philosopher and a terrible writer. Hegel is a great philosopher if anyone deserves the title, yet his writing borders on inscrutable. Since this can clearly be the case, literary talent has no real place in the life of philosophical writing. All the same, Hegel labyrinthine prose at least partially constitutes a failing as a philosopher. Philosophers should be precise writers, as any literary flair distracts from the clarity of her argument. (Even Iris Murdoch, who wrote both academic philosophy and literary fiction, held that philosophy and literature should be clearly distinct, as the aim of philosophy is to clarify whereas the aim of literature is to mystify.) This will be the case regardless of whether some philosopher is a good writer, as with Nietzsche, or a bad writer, as with Hegel. In either case, Nietzsche and Hegel hinder their readers’ ability to get to their respective arguments – which, ultimately, is what philosophy is all about. Thus, any interpretive skills that philosophers can learn from literary criticism will be due to the failing of a given philosopher to write clearly, requiring more interpretative work from the reader than should reasonably be demanded of her. If philosophers like Hegel and Nietzsche simply said what they meant and did so clearly, then philosophy would have no need for the interpretive adroitness exemplified by good literary critics.

Here’s another way to think about the relationship between philosophy and literature: philosophy, like literature, is best thought of not primarily as a tradition of arguments but as a tradition of texts. Both disciplines are distinct from other another; neither can be reduced to the other. To emphasize that they are textual is to underline their formal nature: that philosophy and literature are both written and thus pose exegetical problems for the reader is not something that should be underplayed or ignored. In both disciplines, the writer must discover a style most appropriate to their respective end, and that style will delimit the content of the writer’s text. A writer does not necessarily become a better philosopher by writing more precise sentences (though often they can), no less than does another writer necessarily become a better novelist or poet by the same means. Precision and clarity may occasionally be the aim of either form of writing, but their appropriateness will be based on what an individual writer is trying to accomplish. That a writer may eschew absolute precision and clarity for the sake of some other potentially incommensurable good – beauty, depth, authenticity – should be not straightforwardly be taken as a criticism of that writer, regardless of whether they are writing philosophy or literature.

On this view, it is still the case that philosophy is not reducible to literature and literature not reducible to philosophy. However, the difference does necessarily not lie in the argumentative nature of philosophy or ventures in clarity, nor does it lie in literature’s aesthetic sensibilities. Although firmly planted within the Anglo-American “analytic” tradition of philosophy – a tradition known for possessing a self-image of clear thinking – Bernard Williams chose not to strive for total argumentative precision, but instead accepted that his readers possessed “ways of understanding which will make something out of the writing different from anything the writer thought of putting into it.” Similarly, in the preface to his Philosophical Investigations, Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote that he “should not like [his] writing to spare other people the trouble of thinking. But, if possible, to stimulate someone to thoughts of his own.” For Williams and Wittgenstein, writing philosophy wasn’t just about clear arguments, but about getting their readers to think. The same could be said, of course, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche and Derrida. For these thinkers, achieving a certain kind of writing was the central goal of philosophy.

This is also the goal of novelists, poets, and playwrights, and so on. Those who write what is traditionally deemed “literature” tend to be more conscious of the relationship between form and content, the way in which a text’s content may be internally related to its form. Philosophy can study literature and literary criticism to learn this aptitude, ways of writing and reading that allow for thinking not limited to argument alone. To reiterate: this is not to claim that clear and precise arguments are not a desirable goal of philosophy, for they are. Rather, it is to affirm that there are other ways of writing philosophy, and those ways may be equally legitimate as philosophy that strives primarily towards clarity and precision.

Literature, then, can be more than a tool for philosophical illustration. But if one can learn how to read and write a different kind of philosophy by studying literature, what might philosophy offer literature? In her remarkable new book Revolution of the Ordinary: Literary Studies After Wittgenstein, Austin, and Cavell, Toril Moi turns to ordinary language philosophy as a means of answering this question. Moi’s central contention in Revolution of the Ordinary is that “ordinary language philosophy has the power to transform the prevailing understanding of language, theory, and reading in literary studies today.” Philosophers familiar enough with the later Wittgenstein’s vision of language will sure be accustomed to the view that said vision overthrows and mocks preceding pictures of language. As with the Heidegger of Being and Time, part of what makes the later Wittgenstein such difficut reading is because of how revolutionary his new picture is, how it refuses to participate in the dominate narrative.

Yet the revolution of the later Wittgenstein is usually framed within the context of Anglo-American “analytic” philosophy, not literary theory. Proponents of the Philosophical Investigations typically claim that it can change our views about language, the mind, rule-following, and philosophy, but not how to read texts. Part of what makes Revolution of the Ordinary such a spectacular book is the way in which Moi uses careful readings of Wittgenstein and his interpreters to make a case for a new way of doing literary criticism, a new way of approaching and reading texts.

Moi’s project in Revolution, I take it, is twofold: to use Wittgenstein as a means of revealing the inadequacy of literary theory’s operative framework, while at the same time employing his thought to direct literary theory on a new path. But Moi does not force Wittgenstein’s thought in a direction it does not naturally lend itself, misreading him to utilize his thought for her own purposes. Rather, Moi begins her book with a close reading of Wittgenstein, illustrating by example how to read the Investigations well. Only after offering such a reading and an attentive unpacking of some of Wittgenstein’s central terms (“language-games,” “grammar,” “forms of life”) does Moi then turn to examine the state of contemporary literary theory.

For those who need a quick catch-up: literary theory, for the last thirty years or so, has been dominated by what Paul Ricoeur famously dubbed as the “hermeneutics of suspicion,” an interpretative commitment that seeks to discover what is really going in a text, to uncover what is “behind” the text – hidden power dynamics, capitalist ideology, anti-environmentalist sensibilities, and so on. In attacking the assumptions readers typically bring to texts – that, for instance, James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room is primarily about same-sex desire – literary theorists reveal the ways in which readers are victims of ideology. In his Political Unconsciousness, for example, Fredric Jameson contends that Marxism is a “necessary precondition for adequate literary comprehension.” On Jameson’s view, you better not even begin trying to comprehend Middlemarch before you’ve become a Marxist. Otherwise, you risk succumbing to ideology and missing the fact that Middlemarch is less about Dorothea Brooke and more about capitalism.

The result of the hermeneutics of suspicion is that ordinary readers of texts are deemed culturally conservative and naïve. Intelligent readers unfamiliar with literary theory might appeal to the author’s intention to explain why they read a text in a “straightforward” way, but such an interpretive move has largely been mocked by theorists since the New Critics deemed authorial intentions as irrelevant in the 1940’s and Roland Barthes declared the author dead in the sixties. While I do not have time to parse out the nuances between distinct philosophical perspectives – Marxism, psychoanalysis, poststructuralism, and so on – what is significant here is the underlying spirit shared by each position, a circumvention of the “self-evident” in favor of what is hidden in a text. The proper function of the literary theorist will be to apply their preferred theoretical lens to any given text, revealing underlying themes known from the outset (since they are presumed by each theoretical lens before the reading of a given text even begins).

An immediate question to press against the hermeneutics of suspicion is why you should bother reading literature at all, since what any particular text can offer a reader is simply a confirmation of the unfalsifiable general theory you’ve assumed from the outset. The particular is entirely subsumed under the general, leaving individual texts with nothing to teach us. In Revolution, Moi extends this concern by maintaining not only that ignoring particular cases in the name of general theory renders individual texts irrelevant, but also ignores “where feminist thought has always begun: with a woman’s own experience.” According to Moi, this leads feminist theory to undermine a clearly important feminist projects: the individual experience of oppression. In turning to Wittgenstein and Stanley Cavell, Moi claims, feminist critics can learn new ways of paying attention to particular cases of oppression.

Among the many presumptions that such readings make is the notion that there is a “surface” and “depth” to texts, the true meaning of a text always hidden behind the surface. But if we buy into Wittgenstein’s conception of language, Moi believes, we can free ourselves from this opposition. She does not suggest that we become more conservative readers, nor is she advising that we turn our attention to the “surface” of a text alone. Moi’s sensibilities aren’t Bloomian (neither Harold nor Allan) – she isn’t condemning feminist, Marxist, or postcolonial readings simpliciter. Moi, unlike more conservative readers, maintains that “we still need to produce compelling critiques of injustice and oppression.” Rather than operate under the presumption that ideology or oppression is always beneath the surface text, the plausibility of a readings will depend on particular literary texts, individual readers, and the circumstances under which the reader encounters a text. Indeed, it is by learning to read in a way that is dependent on texts, readers, and circumstances that we can come to acknowledge what a text has to teach us about injustice, amongst other things.

What Wittgenstein, Austin, and Cavell can teach us about reading is that nothing is hidden in a text: “in Wittgenstein’s vision of language there is simply no need to think of texts and language as hiding something.” Wittgenstein’s vision of language doesn’t recommend “surface” readings over “deep” readings because it wants to jettison the picture of texts as having surface and depth. For Wittgenstein, the meaning of a sentence cannot hide anything because the meaning of a word cannot be separated from its use. If you want to know what a word means, do not look for the meaning beyond the word, as if language seeks to represent some reality beyond itself. Wittgenstein denies that language is in the business of representation at all. Instead, he suggests, examine how a word is being used in order to understand what it means. This does not mean that the meaning of a word self-evident, for language can certainly puzzle us. Yet our misunderstandings do not occur because something is hidden, but because we fail to see what is in front of us.

If you are convinced that the surface / depth opposition does no real work for literary critics, that it fails to tell us anything interesting about how to read a text, and that it renders texts and individual experiences irrelevant, then theorists will need an alternative way to proceed. Moi contends that “meaning as use” can, in a significant sense, offer a new direction for literary theory. On Moi’s reading of Wittgenstein, he holds that language is something we do: utterances are intentional actions. It follows that novels, plays, and poems are also intentional actions (or perhaps intentional objects). Thus, when something in a text puzzles or strikes us as strange, we should respond in a similar fashion as to when any other kind of intentional action puzzles us: we should ask, “why did agent so-and-so perform such-and-such action?” In short, we ask “why this?” when an intentional action puzzles us.

To call a text an “intentional action,” however, seems to push Moi and her influences right back into the New Critic’s intention fallacy: in brief, that the meaning of some text is determined by the text itself, not in whatever intentions the author might have for the text. Moi rightly argues that the New Critics have a bad view of what “intention” consists of. For the New Critics, an intention is outside of a text, somehow located in the author’s mind. But as Stanley Cavell argued in “Music Decomposed” and “A Matter of Meaning It” (both of which are compiled in his groundbreaking Must We Mean What We Say?), we read intentions off of actions, thus we read intentions off of texts. On this view, intentions are not found outside of an action, but instead in the action itself. This means that, on Cavell’s view of intention, the questions “Why did Tolstoy make Anna Karenina jump in front of a moving train?” and “Why did Anna Karenina jump in front of a moving train?” are the same. Tolstoy’s intentions are found in the action that is the text of Anna Karenina. Consequently, if we examine the text close enough to discover why Anna jumps to her death, we will have also (at least partially) discovered why Tolstoy intended her to jump.

If we hold that meaning is use, that texts are intentional actions, and that the intentions of an author can be found in that author’s texts, then we can revolutionize literary theory without falling into conservativism and naïveté. Instead of subscribing to a general theory and a hermeneutic of suspicion, we can puzzle over individual texts and press them for answers to our questions. To make these argumentative moves requires a great deal of nuance, nuance that I have certainly moved over too quickly here. I hope, however, that I have at least gestured at the ambition and sophistication of Moi’s accomplishment in Revolution. To apprehend her argument in Revolution in the Ordinary is to simultaneously grasp the way in which it is an interdisciplinary achievement, a significant contribution to both Wittgenstein studies and literary theory.


Samuel Filby [1] completed his MSt in Philosophical Theology in 2017, and currently teaches philosophy at Seattle Pacific University. His work has been published in the Seattle Review of Books, and is forthcoming in the Journal of Analytic Theology.