Words and Things, Ernest Gellner. Gollancz (25/-).
Thought and Action, Stuart Hampshire. Chatto & Windus (25/-).
there is a gulf today, which we must make every possible effort to narrow, between the kind of thinking characteristic
But socialists must use philosophy, not merely abuse it. It is for this reason that Mr. Gellner’s gloriously iconoclastic attack on the current methods of ‘linguistic philosophy’, Words and Things is useful only destructively. His frontal assault is refreshingly impolite and extremely funny, and his sociological insights into the movement are often penetrating: we should take more seriously than we have done the problem of why philosophy has gone the way it has—of the relation between the particular expertise of linguistic philosophy, with its attendant mystique, and the general professionalisation of our increasingly managerial society. But Gellner’s insights are only insights; they fit into no coherent positive philosophy, for he has no coherent positive philosophy to offer.
The other recent book to make inroads into contemporary philosophy is Stuart Hampshire’s Thought and Action, but it does so by quite different methods and is ultimately of more use, I believe, because it is not entirely negative. Gellner is concerned to prove that philosophy is possible and that linguistic philosophers are merely doing it under the guise of ‘analysis’; Hampshire proves the possibility of philosophy by actually doing some. Where Gellner devotes his whole book to ‘linguistic analysis’, Hampshire gives it seven pages. But both books may help in getting British philosophy out of its present unconstructive state, and in so far as this state is a matter for sociological as well as philosophical concern—in fact the two are inseparable—Gellner’s vitriolic injections may be a fairly direct way of making philosophy a rather less gentlemanly pursuit: the recent controversy in The Times is extremely revealing in this connecion.
Let us consider the argument more closely. Traditional philosophy, to paraphrase Mr. Gellner, took language for granted and puzzled about the world, while linguistic philosophy appears to take the world for granted and puzzles about language: a philosophical solution these days often seems to consist in a prolonged worrying about the terms in which the problem is posed—prolonged to the (quite hypothetical) point at which the worry vanishes. The difficulty is to size up this revolution and get it in perspective.
The key insight of the new movement is perhaps the elimination of meanings as some sort of special entity lurking behind our words, and the recognition that language is essentially an institution where words have their meaning by virtue of their function in the whole structure rather than through any simple correspondence or non-correspondence with basic objects of reference somehow already there, pre-linguistically, in the world. Our concepts, that is, settle the form of the experience we have of the world, and description of reality must be an inexhaustible process. There are, so to speak, no ‘brute facts’ in the world: a grocer’s bill is only a grocer’s bill because of the human institutions of ‘buying’, ‘selling’, ‘owing’ and so on; it is wrong to say that it is “really” only a piece of paper, an aggregation of molecules or any of a variety of other philosophically favoured entities. So with everything. A table may also be a high altar in a society where certain religious terminologies are applied.