Summary of Doctoral Research

In a century when philosophy moved rapidly in the direction of the increasingly technical and the increasingly abstruse, Ludwig Wittgenstein and J. L. Austin emerge as outliers for their attention to ordinary language and the ordinary life of which it is a part. This approach draws upon innocuous aspects of our life and language, and for that very reason it is often misunderstood in a way that diminishes both its force and plausibility. My dissertation—entitled “Disenchanting Philosophy: Wittgenstein, Austin, and the Appeal to Ordinary Language”—argues that, in its ambitions, this appeal to ordinary language has less in common with other methodological innovations within the analytic tradition than it does with the more wholesale attempts at reorienting our thinking that feature in the work of European philosophers such as Heidegger and Derrida. That is, the appeal to ordinary language offers not just a novel philosophical method, but a novel conception of what philosophy is and of the life of which it is a part.

Central to Wittgenstein’s and Austin’s appeal to ordinary language is the idea of attunement—a term coined by Stanley Cavell, whose work strongly influences my own. Any shared practice requires a certain degree of accord between the people who share the practice, and this accord involves not just explicit agreements but also an unspoken shared understanding. For example, to play a game of chess, two players need to share not only an understanding of an explicit set of rules, but they must also share a basic sense of what a game is, why games are worth playing, and so on. Language essentially manifests this attunement—communication involves not just a shared language, but also a shared sense of what is worth speaking about and why—and the appeal to ordinary language reminds us of the attunement at work in language and the forms of life of which language is a part.

This deep attunement often goes unremarked in the philosophical tradition precisely because it is so pervasive and obvious. However, in neglecting our attunement, philosophers often imagine they can speak from what John McDowell calls the “sideways perspective”: a perspective external to the life in which our language and practices have a use. The promise of such a perspective is tempting because it seems to enable us to speak with absolute exactness, unpolluted by the contingencies of human life and agreement. But such a perspective is an impossible fantasy, and attempts to speak from such a perspective result not in exactness but in nonsense. And, in recognizing this perspective as a nonsensical impossibility, we recognize that speaking from within our attunement is not a relativistic second best to some more exact form of expression, but is rather the only way we make sense.

One reason an ideal of exactness seems appealing, if not necessary, is that our attunement is ungrounded. No further justification can be adduced to explain or guarantee our attunement—and indeed, the practice of providing justifications is one that only exists between people who already share a considerable degree of attunement. One original feature of the dissertation is the way it accounts for the ungroundedness of our attunement by connecting it to the human capacity for play. We discover and create common ground between us without needing some prior established common ground in much the same way that children engage in free-flowing play without explicitly laying out any rules. Play is an unregulated activity that gives rise to regularity, and our capacity for play manifests the regularity of our attunement.

Wittgenstein and Austin both spent most of their philosophical lives in British universities, and their work is normally situated within the history of twentieth century Anglo-American analytic philosophy. However, their work opens up striking, and surprisingly extensive, points of connection with a number of themes in European philosophy, a tradition often thought of as orthogonal and antipathetic to analytic philosophy. The dissertation develops the appeal to ordinary language by engaging with the work of Martin Heidegger and Jacques Derrida, as well as more briefly with some other figures in the continental tradition, such as Hans-Georg Gadamer. These engagements not only help develop the themes of ungroundedness and play that I mention above, but they also highlight questions and challenges for authors of both traditions that are not apparent when each tradition works in isolation from the other.

Chapter One considers Austin’s appeal to ordinary language, and draws out its distinctiveness by responding to criticisms and misappropriations by Paul Grice and John Searle. In different ways, Grice and Searle aim to establish a conception of literal meaning that would obviate the need for attunement, but both do so by introducing question-begging idealizations precisely of the sort that Austin seeks to dismantle. However, the chapter then considers Derrida’s criticism of Austin’s appeal to a “total context,” offering a qualified endorsement to Derrida’s claim that this appeal betrays the sort of idealization Austin himself opposes.

Chapter Two explores Wittgenstein’s more robust approach to ordinary language by attending to his hesitant and exploratory use of the first person plural. Rather than taking it as a given that we share the common ground that permits language and mutual understanding, Wittgenstein exposes and explores the fact that this common ground is itself ungrounded, and cannot be guaranteed. These insights find echoes in Derrida, to the point that Wittgenstein’s vision of language turns out to be much closer to Derrida’s in crucial respects than to the aspects of Austin’s work that Derrida criticizes. However, Derrida’s criticism relies on a dichotomy between metaphysics and deconstruction that fails to acknowledge the appeal to ordinary language as a valid alternative. Wittgenstein shares Derrida’s resistance to metaphysical idealization, but offers a response that is more attuned to our everyday practices with language and thought.

Chapter Three explores connections between the appeal to ordinary language and Heidegger’s analysis of “average everydayness” in Being and Time. Heidegger takes average everydayness to be marked by inauthenticity, raising the question of whether the appeal to ordinary language can avoid the charge of inauthenticity. However, in acknowledging the ungroundedness of attunement, Wittgenstein in particular manifests a turn similar to Heidegger’s articulation of authenticity. One virtue of finding something akin to Heideggerian authenticity in the appeal to ordinary language is that it elucidates the moral intensity that occasionally stands out in both Wittgenstein’s and Austin’s programmatic remarks.

Chapter Four argues that the common ground of our shared forms of life is discovered and created through play. Our capacity to engage with one another in unregulated play is essential to establishing regulated social institutions and practices. This claim emerges first of all through a discussion of the relationship between games and non-game play, which shows that Wittgenstein’s conception of language-games does not rigidly distinguish between the two, such that the latter is also central to his work. And second, I develop this claim by responding to a challenge laid against Wittgenstein by his pupil Rush Rhees, which finds echoes in Hans-Georg Gadamer, that treating language as a game prevents language from having any genuine connection to life considered as a whole. Against Rhees, I argue that Wittgenstein’s conception of language-games opens up a rich vocabulary for discussing the connection between language and life in a way that is responsive to the central role in that life of our capacity for play. Points from both Derrida and Heidegger enter into this discussion as well, which concludes by connecting this conception of play to the appeal to ordinary language that I have been developing throughout the dissertation.

My doctoral work has already resulted in two journal publications, two publications in edited collections, and a third journal article forthcoming (abstracts and links to full texts here). On the strength of the examiners’ report on my doctoral dissertation, Oxford University Press approached me about adapting it into a book. A revised book manuscript, which focuses more narrowly on Wittgenstein and Heidegger, was published by OUP in March of 2019.