November 03, 2012

The limits of the language game metaphor: Diamond and Mulhall

Stephen Mulhall’s essay “Realism, Modernism, and the Realistic Spirit: Diamond’s inheritance of Wittgenstein, early and late” (Nordic Wittgenstein Review 1 (2012), 7-33) is a thought-provoking inquiry into ways of applying Wittgenstein. (The essay is now available on the journal's website.) 
                      I shall here comment on one section of the essay (2: 3).
                      As Mulhall notes, we commonly think of Wittgenstein’s concepts “language game”, “grammar”, “forms of life”, “criteria”, ”rule-governed” – what Mulhall calls his signature concepts – as “forged by Wittgenstein himself in the service of simply putting things before us as they really are”. Mulhall, however, draws attention to the risk that
if ... this set of signature concepts is sufficiently substantial or robust to acquire a life of its own, then they might on occasions stand between us and an ability simply to acknowledge how things really are; rather than helping to subvert our tendency towards the imposition of a philosophical ’must’, they may actually subserve its further expression (p. 10).
In other words: the language game metaphor was meant to draw our attention to the actual activities in which we utter and respond to words. But there’s a danger that this perspective will come to impose its own preconceived notions on how we see things. (Thus, I suggest, we may forget that the language game is indeed a model or metaphor, and start imagining, say, that it has rules just like football, or that the limits of the game must be precisely circumscribed, etc.)
I believe this warning is of the utmost importance. Mulhall tellingly compares this situation to the development of realism in the novel:
The history of the novel since Defoe, Richardson and Sterne might ... be written entirely in terms of the ways in which novelists repeatedly subject their inheritance of realistic conventions to critical questioning in order to recreate the impression of reality in their readers (p. 9).
Mulhall illustrates his theme by reference to some of Cora Diamond’s work, among other things her essay “The Difficulty of Reality and the Difficulty of Philosophy” which I touched on in an earlier blog. There Diamond speaks about certain experiences – such as the encounter with the photograph of six young men that were shortly afterward to be killed in the war – “in which we take something in reality to be resistant to our thinking it, or possibly to be painful in its inexplicability, difficult in that way, or perhaps awesome and astonishing in its inexplicability”(p. 99 in her essay, quoted on p. 18). She calls this “a difficulty of reality” and says that to appreciate it “is to appreciate oneself being shouldered out of how one thinks, how one is apparently supposed to think” (p. 105; p. 19).
                      Mulhall comments:
[P]roperly to register the essential nature of a difficulty of reality asks us to acknowledge the capacity of reality to shoulder us out from our familiar language-games, to resist the distinctively human capacity to word the world, and thereby to leave us as bewildered and disorientated as a bird that suddenly finds itself incapable of constructing a nest, or a beaver of building a dam... (Ibid.)
Not everyone will have the same response to Cora Diamond’s examples (this is one of several she invokes). If one does not, it is no use staring at the example and trying to discover what she is talking about there – one will simply have to find one’s own examples; cases in which one feels words fail one. (Nor should we forget that what strikes someone about an awesome experience may not primarily be her inability to put it into words; that, on the whole, is the reaction of someone who is preoccupied with describing things, with “wording the world”. Anyway, in a given case someone might feel that silence is the only adequate response.)
                      But if we are not all struck in the same way by the same examples, the question arises, what makes something an experience of the relevant kind? On what authority could I claim that this is a case in which words fail us, if someone fails to see it? Am I blind to something, if I personally fail to recognize this? Evidently, those questions are out of place. There is no right or wrong here. This kind of experience is not grounded in anything, it is our unmediated, primitive, subjective response. But then to say that it is an experience of the language game giving out would be a strangely objective way of putting the matter – for one thing, it makes it appear that one needs access to the concept of a language game to be able to have the experience. (It also makes it sound as if the rules of the game laid it down that this is out of bounds. But this would be giving them the kind of jurisdiction that we are concerned to question.)
                      I find it exceedingly hard to get a grip on this discussion. What complicates matters, I believe, is the way two different things come together: the speaker’s predicament in front of the experience, and the philosopher’s predicament in trying to account for the speaker’s predicament. Mulhall explicitly puts them side by side:
Surely difficulties of reality ought ... to resist the grammar of “language-game”, “grammar” and “form of life” (however flexibly they are projected) just as radically as they resist that of any other aspects of our thinking and talking? (Ibid.)
This is what I feel like saying: the speaker is bewildered about how to respond to what’s in front of her. The philosopher, so far, is not facing a question: it’s not for the philosopher to tell the speaker how she might respond, nor to say that here language gives way. The problem for the philosopher arises, if it does, after the speaker has responded. Depending on what was said, the philosopher may reflect, say, that the speaker’s words reflect her bewilderment about the experience – on the other hand, of course, her verbal response (whatever her reaction) may be down-home and trivial.
                      Mulhall asks:
Would it be at all helpful in clarifying this highly distinctive aspect of our relation with our words to say that being shouldered out of our language-games is just one more language-game, or to declare that words have a grammar when they fail us just as they do when we effortlessly employ them to word the world, or to describe these uncanny encounters as just another element in the homely forms of human life? (Ibid.)
My response here would be to say that the usefulness of the language game metaphor (like the language game itself) doesn’t come to an end in this or that particular place, rather it gradually peters out.