Friday, September 09, 2011

Quote of the Day: Brand Blanshard on Linguistic Philosophy

Here is the philosopher Brand Blanshard on "Linguistic Philosophy". Keep in mind that Reason and Analysis, the book this quote was taken from, was first published in 1962.

The linguistic philosophers would rather philosophize in their own manner than talk about philosophy, and their programme cannot be fully appreciated without following them into their discussions of the language we use about time and induction and universals and fact and truth. It would be interesting to do this if there were space for it, which there is not. But I cannot think our main conclusions about this way of philosophizing would be greatly affected by such a review. We should find many fine hairs split into still finer hairs. We should find a virtuosity in ferreting out verbal distinctions, particularly in such masters of the craft as Austin, which would fill any unprejudiced reader with admiring astonishment. We should find many curious details in our use of such words as ‘if’ and ‘can’ and ‘seems’ and ‘ought’ lit up sharply by flashes of light. And yet at the end we should feel strangely unilluminated. Such a prodigal expenditure of power, acuteness and ink, adding up to—what? Disappointingly little in view of the powers that went into it

The reason is not far to seek. Words give the philosopher no compass. The interest in usage is centrifugal and dispersive, and unless guided by something other than itself, dissipates among minutiae, some idle, some important; and mere usage cannot tell it which is which. When philosophers in the past asked themselves What is the nature of knowledge? instead of What are the uses of the verb ‘know’?, they usually did so with a conviction, having nothing to do with language, that some types of knowledge, or some claims to it, were of central importance—the insight of the mathematician, the scientific grasp of natural law, the claim of the mystic or the religious authoritarian. These types or claims were then fastened upon for special examination. The inquiries of the linguistic philosophers have, to be sure, thrown light on these claims. But if so, it is because a way of philosophizing different from their own, disruptive of their own, has not been wholly abandoned. A genuine philosopher can draw nourishment even from what W. E. Hocking has called ‘this new method of milking stones’. ‘If’, ‘can’, ‘know’, ‘true’, are after all key words, and one is bound to derive profit from their study. So our complaint is not that these studies are profitless, but that the profit is so meagre in proportion to the price. There are grains of wheat, many of them indeed, and of high quality, among the chaff. But why should one have to hunt for them in these bushels and bushels and bushels of words about words?

--Brand Blanshard, Reason and Analysis, pp. 380-81, Open Court, Paperback (second printing).