Philosophy and Linguistic Analysis

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Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 811

The importance of the book lies in the fact that it clarifies Wisdom’s position in relation to the current attempts to define philosophy as some form of linguistic analysis. Although Wisdom was strongly influenced by Ludwig Wittgenstein, he did not believe, as Wittgenstein and many of the logical positivists did, that metaphysics is nonsense of some sort that becomes evident when its statements are properly analyzed; nor did he believe that metaphysical statements are merely linguistic and that all difficulties can be eliminated by substituting clear words for vague ones and precise grammatical constructions for ambiguous ones; nor did he follow the Oxford School in stressing either the “ordinary language” of the person in the street or his or her beliefs on certain philosophical matters as the final court of appeal for settling all philosophical disputes. He examines these views, as well as others that associate philosophical problems with their mode of expression, and endeavors to state his own view in contrast to them.

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Philosophers pose questions such as “Can we really know what is going on in someone else’s mind?,” “Can we really know the causes of our sensations?,” and “What is a chair?” The reader’s task is to determine what philosophers seek when they ask such questions, and what they mean when they reply, “We can never really know what is going on in someone else’s mind,” “A chair is nothing but our sensations,” or “A chair is something over and above our sensations.”

In a sense, Wisdom says, philosophy gives rise to verbal disputes. To state that one cannot know what is going on in someone else’s mind is to utter something that is obviously untrue unless one adopts an unusual meaning for the word “know.” It might be said that one who makes a statement of this kind is uttering nonsense. Suppose that a philosopher asks whether two plus three can ever equal six? Again, the question becomes nonsense unless one adopts unconventional meanings for some of the words it contains. The fact that both statements are nonsensical does not mean that they are nonsensical in the same way. To determine how they differ in their portrayal of nonsense, one would need to make a study that would be at least partially verbal. Thus, philosophical clarification is achieved through an examination of language. Similarly, if a philosopher says that a chair is something over and above human sensations, he or she is not proposing a new definition of “chair” or a new use for chairs, but instead is suggesting the need for a clarification of the meaning of a word. Philosophical questions and answers, therefore, seem to be verbal.

Although the philosopher’s statements are formulated in words, the intention is not to raise verbal issues; the philosopher is not taking over the role of the translator. A translator substitutes a sentence S for a sentence S_, for the purpose of telling the meaning of S_. Philosophers do not wish merely to substitute one statement of a fact for another; they wish to transmit insight—insight into the structure of the fact that is asserted by S_. They equate S with S_ because they believe that S better indicates the structure of a certain fact than does S_. This is not a verbal matter.

The nature of philosophical statements can be further clarified by distinguishing their content from their point. Suppose a philosophical statement contains the word “monarchy.” Anyone who knows that “monarchy” means the same as “set of persons ruled by the same king,” and who also knows the meaning of either of these expressions, will find that the philosophical statement becomes clarified if one is substituted for the other. This involves merely clarification in content and is the concern of the decoder rather than that of the philosopher. The philosopher achieves clarification (the point of the utterance) only if the hearer already uses and understands the meaning of both “monarchy” and “set of persons ruled by the same king.” Philosophical statements thus appear to be very curious: They provide information only if the hearer already knows what is being told to him or her. Philosophy is trying to show the “structure” of a monarchy by bringing together the sphere in which “monarchy” is used and the sphere in which “set of persons ruled by the same king” is used. These are different categories, and the philosophical problem is that of showing by means of the structure of the statement how they are related. Wisdom suggests a certain mnemonic device: “It’s not the stuff, it’s the style that stupefies.” It is not what philosophers talk about that makes them unique, but the form in which they expresses themselves. Wisdom apologizes for a suspicion of smartness when he says, “Philosophers should be continually trying to say what cannot be said.”

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