Michael Tanner, The Language of Philosophy

[Michael Tanner, ‘The Language of Philosophy’, in The State of Language, ed. Leonard Michaels and Christopher Ricks (Berkeley, 1980), 458–66.]


The prevalent mode of writing in Anglo-American philosophy is such that adequate discussion of some of the most serious traditional issues has become extraordinarily difficult. To understand how this has come about it is necessary to realize that philosophy is, among the serious intellectual disciplines, probably the most fashion-prone, and to see what the fashions, as manifested in the idioms and techniques of philosophers, have been since the end of the Second World War. The one generally known truth about English-speaking philosophers and their output during the last thirty years is their unprecedented concern with language. For approximately the first half of that time this preoccupation was considered by the majority of interested nonphilosophers as something to be regretted, an indication that the time-honored devotion of philosophers to ultimate issues had been replaced by a narrow, purely academic concern with “mere words.” In the last fifteen years, however, regret and hostility seem to have been replaced either by indifference – to philosophy rather than to ultimate issues; by respect, since the burgeoning branches of linguistics have effected the usual intimidation that people feel in the presence of something that can plausibly be called a science; or by resignation in the face of the inevitable: in a world of increasing fragmentation of knowledge, it is not to be expected that philosophy, any more than any other academic discipline, should be understood by nonprofessionals. Something very similar has happened in literary criticism. To give some force to, even if not to demonstrate, the universal truth of my opening statement before to see how philosophy has arrived at where it is, I shall quote at some length from an article published in 1973, as one of a collection of reflections by contemporary Anglo-Americans – that it should be by such a group was the point of the enterprise – entitled Philosophy and Personal Relations: the kind of topic that would have been considered taboo twenty years ago by up-to-date philosophers. The article is called “A Conceptual Investigation of Love,” and begins by lamenting the fact that such a subject as love receives so little attention from philosophers in the writer’s tradition. The analysis proceeds:

Having defined the field of investigation, we can now sketch the concepts analytically presupposed in our use of ‘love’. An idea of these concepts can be gained by sketching a sequence of relations, the members of which we take as relevant in deciding whether or not some relationship between persons A and B is one of love. These are not relevant in the sense of being evidence for some further relation ‘love’ but as being, in part at least, the material of which love consists. The sequence would include at least the following:

(1) A knows B (or at least knows something of B)

(2) A cares (is concerned) about B

A likes B

(3) A respects B

A is attracted to B

A feels affection for B

(4) A is committed to B

A wishes to see B’s welfare promoted

The connection between these relations which we will call ‘love-comprising relations’ or ‘LCRs’ is not, except for ‘knowing about’ and possibly ‘Feels affection for’ as tight as strict entailment. [1]

The analysis continues in the same vein, prompting the question: How has such comically solemn ineptitude become possible? For it isn’t as if this comes out of the blue; the philosophical climate is such that if one chooses to write on such a topic as love – more the kind of thing the Iberians are expected to do – there are strong forces leading one to do it in the style of the quoted passage.


What preoccupied philosophers during the forties and fifties was the felt necessity of contracting the traditional subject matter of philosophy, simply because philosophers didn’t have the right kind of equipment – no one, perhaps, could have, or the only equipment worth bothering with was that to be found in laboratories – do deal with the big old issues. The amount of resentment that this contraction gave rise to was remarkable, if not surprising, and reached its peak in a book by Ernest Gellner, published in 1959 by the ever-canny Victor Gollancz (who twenty three years earlier had published the supreme work of polemicizing contraction, A. J. Ayer’s Language, Truth and Logic), with an introduction by Bertrand Russell, for whom philosophy still had, as he said in a book of his own published the same year, “the grave and important task of understanding the world.” Gellner’s book, called challengingly Words and Things, immediately became notorious because Gilbert Ryle, one of the most influential post-war Oxford philosophers and the editor of the then important journal Mind, informed the publisher that he would not have the book reviewed in Mind because it contained abusive passages about contemporary philosophers. This led Russell to write a letter to The Times in which he deplored the fact that Mind had become a coterie-organ. For three weeks the correspondence columns of The Times remained animated by letters about contemporary philosophy, mainly from nonphilosophers and mainly showing how much hostility was felt in the intellectual world to philosophy as it was then thought to be practiced. The proceedings were wound up with a leading article of appropriate vacuity and solemnity.

The burden of Gellner’s book and Russell’s introduction was that British philosophy – American philosophy had not then gained the ascendancy which it now overpoweringly has – under the sway of Ludwig Wittgenstein in Cambridge, and of Ryle and J. L. Austin in Oxford, had come to have a concern for no more than “the silly things that silly people say” (Russell’s phrase), and an unhealthy obsession with its own nature: so that the prevalent Cambridge view, at least, was that philosophy was, as Karl Kraus succinctly expressed his view of psychoanalysis, “the disease of which it was the cure” – or vice versa. According to such philosophers, as Gellner and Russell claimed, among the differences seemed to outsiders to be insignificant, the traditional torments of philosophy, including such issues as the relationship between mind and body, the freedom of the will, the objectivity of values, and the possibility of nonempirical factual knowledge, [461] originate in a disregard for the “logic of our (ordinary) language.” Wittgenstein insisted that the complaints of philosophers were, or began from, “deep disquietitudes” brought about by “the bewitchment of our intelligence by language,” the result of “language going on holiday.” For Wittgenstein (this all refers to Wittgenstein’s second phrase of philosophizing, the work of the man who returned to Cambridge and philosophy in 1929 after a decade of widely varying activities), we must see how language is ordinarily used and not attempt, as philosophers customarily have, to straitjacket our language and thus our thought in accordance with the kind of demands typical of philosophers to make – for instance, to seek for the necessarily and sufficient conditions for the use of a term, or to operate with standards of alleged rigor which can result only in the temporarily illuminating but rapidly frustrating and ultimately paralyzing impasse of skepticism.

Wittgenstein never showed or thought that philosopher should show a concern with the nuances of language. By contrast J. L. Austin established his reputation by dauntingly intensive if unsystematic forays into the minutiae of everyday and colloquial usage, distinguishing between “Clumsily he trod on a snail,” “He trod clumsily on a snail,” and “He trod on a snail clumsily,” as a possible contribution to dealing with the problems of responsibility and thus ultimately of free will. In the nearest thing to an apologia that he wrote for his style of philosophizing, he stated that “our common stock of words embodies all the distinctions men have found worth marking, in the lifetimes of many generations: these surely are likely to be more numerous, more sound, since they have stood up to the long test of the survival of the fittest, and more subtle, at least in all ordinary and reasonably practical matters, than any that you or I are likely to thin up of an afternoon – the most favoured alternative method.” But this might well be thought to beg several questions, such as whether the aims of “many generations” are the same as those of philosophers who make new or different distinctions from the ordinary ones, or again whether the most favored alternative method has been thinking up distinctions in armchairs “of an afternoon.”

Most seriously, the method employed by Austin, and also the widely different from apparently easily confused methods of Wittgenstein, most copied as these immediately were, could seem to traditionally-oriented philosophers such as Russell and C. D. Broad to have no serious bearing on the substantial issues (concerning “things”), which clearly couldn’t be resolved by newfangled [462] investigations (concerning “words”). So the antagonism to the most fashionable British philosophers of the fifties was predominantly an antagonism to the way they viewed language, and as a corollary, to the way they used it. For with their views about the etiology of philosophical problems in language went an intense concern with such matters as the use of technical terms by philosophers, and the adoption of the idiom of the man in the street as that was conceived by Oxbridge dons. So far as technical terms were concerned, philosophers felt that they had special reasons for suspecting their legitimacy, apart from those already given in the quotation from Austin. For they are too readily construed as necessitated by philosophers’ having discovered some new class of entity, which actually, qua philosophers, they never can. Thus a term such as sense-datum, which had originated in about 1912 with G. E. Moore and Russell, had been thought to denote a class of objects – the immediate objects of sensation or perception – which had not previously been noticed, and Moore even gives recipes for having sense-datum experiences if you haven’t knowingly had them already. All such “discoveries” made by philosophers are in fact misplaced inventions – so ran the view of Wittgenstein and of Ryle and Austin. The conclusion was often naturally drawn that philosophers should completely eschew technical language.

Since for Wittgenstein the genuine philosophical endeavor was wholly negative – antitheoretical, antigeneral, antisystematic – and was merely involved in restoring everything to the place it had had before philosophers had disturbed “ordinary language,” clearly he could think of technical terminology only as mischievous. However, since Wittgenstein was a very great philosopher who held many pronounced and idiosyncratic philosophical views, though he repeatedly and emphatically denied doing so, his practice was to use technical terms in some profusion and to deny that he was doing so. The inevitable consequence has been a growth industry devoted to the explication of such frequently used Wittgensteinian terms as criterion, language-game, and form of life. They may not sound as intimidating as many specimens of philosophical jargon, but they are actually used by Wittgenstein in a confusing variety of ways, and have been taken over by some of his disciples for monstrous purposes. Furthermore, his style (he wrote in German, and has been fortunate in having as his chief translator G. E. M. Anscombe, who catches his tone in English to a remarkable extent) in his late work is discursive but also epigrammatic, sometimes vatic, quite often portentous. For a time his characteristic flavor – a combination of informality with periodic suggestions of alarming depths – had a widespread influence on philosophers, and has led in extreme cases, e.g., the American Stanley Cavell, to extremes of narcissistic archness. In his well-known collection of essays Must We Mean What We Say?, Cavell has a thematic index, including such expected topics as Belief, Language, Fact, and Metaphor. But he also has there, with three-page [sic] references provided, “Sitting quietly in a room,” and checking up on one of them, in his chapter on Endgame, we find

it is simply crazy that there should ever have come into being a world with such a sin in it, in which a man is set apart because of his color – the superficial fact about a human being. Who could want such a world? For an American, fighting for his love of country, that the last hope of the world should from its beginning have swallowed slavery, is an irony so withering, a justice so intimate in its rebuke of pride, as to measure only with God. The question is whether enough men can afford the knowledge that the way the world is comes down in the end to what each son is doing now, sitting within his ordinary walls [my italics], making his everyday demands. And whether enough men can divine the different, and choose, between wanting this world to stop itself, and wanting all worlds to end.[3]

It isn’t easy to imagine prose drawing attention to its own sensitivity more insistently, while actually presenting a blend of the banal and the unintelligible which would surely have temporarily united Wittgenstein and Austin in contempt for what the latter called the “ivresse des grands profondeurs.” But on the whole, utterances of Wittgenstein’s, such as “The real discovery is the one which enables me to stop doing philosophy when I want to. – The one that gives philosophy peace, so that it is no longer tormented by questions which bring itself into question,”[4] were not so much imitated as taken inspirationally, the inspiration manifesting itself in many very sweeping characterizations – but in more homely English terms – of what philosophy might and might not accomplish. This informality, feigned freedom from technicality, and occasional peremptoriness of Wittgenstein’s style were actually inimitable, the rash few who tried to imitate the style sounding now (it’s hard to imagine that they ever sounded different) comically pretentious, as when one of the closest disciples ended a gnomic paper with the one-sentence paragraph: “Language is something that is spoken.”

Informality was also the keynote of the Oxford style exemplified [464] by Austin, who begins his best article “Ifs and Cans,” with the question “Are cans constitutionally iffy?”, where cans comes from the verb, not the noun. He clearly delighted in being shockingly unprofessorial, though actually his writings, for all their addiction to colloquialisms and fifth-form jokes, are extraordinarily pedantic in distinction drawing, often seemingly for its own sake. But oddly for a philosopher who remonstrated with his colleagues for ignoring the distinctions built up by many generations of ordinary folk, Austin probably introduced more technical terms into philosophy than any other twentieth-century figure except Heidegger; or rather, not so much into philosophy as into his own homespun branch of descriptive linguistics.

What Wittgenstein and Austin shared, despite marked disparities in temperament and outlook, was a conviction that traditional philosophy was almost wholly mistaken, that it needed to be brought down to earth, that generalities should be eschewed … except, of course, for such generalities as those. Their methods of puncturing traditional philosophical pretensions were frequently to take obvious but overlooked quotidian counterexamples to glamorous, large-scale philosophical theses; to ask mock and mocking questions; and, most importantly and characteristically, to get touch. It is the quality of intellectual machismo that unites the philosophical style of the fifties with that of the seventies. Though there is an enormous change in the philosophical climate to be registered between 1955 and 1975, at least from the ground level, nothing has been the same since – nineteen years before the first of those dates – Ayer began his first book with the superb matter-of-fact swagger of “The traditional disputes of philosophers are, for the most part, as unwarranted as they are unfruitful.” Since then, unless one has been determinedly eccentric or able to endure the stigma of effeteness, tough-mindedness has been a sine qua non of academic philosophy. Until the mid-fifties, it was a matter primarily of the philosophy of meaning and logic – theory of knowledge and destructive criticism of past philosophy being at the safely tough end of the spectrum, ethics suspect, and aesthetics and philosophy of religion out of the question. Then, thanks to a movement towards the primacy of methodology, any subject was considered in principle admissible, though aesthetics was still considered, famously, “dreary.” What was most important was the attitude one adopted toward one’s subject matter, and to some extent one’s stance within it. Thus subjectivist ethical theories were considered tougher than those associated with intuitionism; a [465] philosopher who found the concept of God incoherent was tougher than one who found it intelligible, let alone one who thought that it had application – i.e., that God existed. This may all sound like parody, but alas it isn’t. My opening claim about the fashion-proneness of philosophers is confirmed by the fact that any philosopher who has been around for thirty years will be able to tell from the titles of most articles in the journals, or from a few sentences in them, when they were written, to within five years. So if you come across a friendly-sounding article called “On Buttering Parsnips,” and find that it is wholly devoted to pretty intimidating semantic analysis, you can be confident that it is of approximately 1970 vintage. What makes the phenomenon more dismaying is that it’s not as if a consensus of opinion is ever reached on any philosophical topic, however insignificant; it merely seems to be that philosophers get tired of discussing a particular topic in a particular way and move on.

A final gloom-laden consideration: more than half the Western philosophers who have ever lived are at present teaching in English and American universities. Since many of them are striving for tenure, the number of publications, chiefly in journals, is huge, and it is imperative that articles show, more than anything, that one is up to the minute. So the way philosophers write or converse at conferences and paper readings is predictable: a superabundance of jargon indicative of distinction-drawing expertise; a very pronounced tendency to formalize any English sentence just uttered in terms of the apparatus afforded by symbolic logic – a tendency amounting to a nervous tic on the part of some philosopher who can scarcely speak unless they are near enough to a blackboard to precisify what they have just said by rendering it into their preferred symbolism. And even if they don’t do that, they feel the need to indulge in the kind of pseudo-rigor of which I produced a sad example at the beginning of this article. Anglo-American philosophy, that is, is at present – and the signs are all that it will continue to move in the same direction – wedded to an ideal of quasi-scientific precision, though lacking many of the facilities and habits of scientists, and manifesting no especial desire for them. For example, philosophers incessantly confer, but rarely collaborate. Joint enterprises are virtually unknown; but with the enormous amount of technical apparatus, the prodigious amount of argumentation, and the sophisticated nature of the most canvassed areas, about all those concerned with the philosophy of language, the possibility of being in command of all the requisite material scarcely exists. And the nature of the philosophical enterprise – or [466] its various natures – is still sufficiently puzzling to leave it uncertain to what extent one can afford to be a moderately minute specialist, in the way that scientists can be, and that literary critics can’t be (although of course many are).

To conclude by amplifying slightly my first point: the mode in which contemporary philosophy is conducted in English makes all but impossible the serious discussion of concepts, world views, attitudes, and feelings which are not susceptible of analysis of the prevailing kind. My quotation from Cavell only serves to reinforce this point. For, admirably intent as he is on dealing with questions largely neglected by his contemporaries, he finds it necessary to take refuge in a style which has its own kind of dauntingness without the compensations of rigor or enhanced insight. If one isn’t to capitulate to the usual mode, one has to show oneself to be aggressively different, and it is noteworthy that Cavell doesn’t get going in his collection until he has justified his idiosyncracies [sic] at considerable length in an introduction that gives a gruesome foretaste of what lies ahead. The fear, as in literary criticism, is that one will lapse, or will be accused of lapsing, back into the old belle-lettristic mode, than which it is rightly felt that nothing could be more deadly – though other things can be as bad. What is needed is a recognition that there are other modes of rigor and precision than quasi-formal ones, and ways of being profound that do not require near-unintelligibility. In the history of philosophy there have been great figures who combined imaginativeness and discursiveness with economy and powerful insight, and it should be obvious to philosophers by now that some aspects of the subject require the kind of gifts that Nietzsche and William James manifested, whatever one may think of their actual performances. If this platitude (as it seems to me) doesn’t gain recognition, then a good deal of the obloquy directed against contemporary philosophers will be seen to be thoroughly deserved.


  1. W. Newton-Smith, “A Conceptual Investigation of Love,” in Alan Montefiore, ed., Philosophy and Personal Relations (London, 1973), pp. 118-119. It should in fairness be added that the author’s specialty is space and time, where there is no doubt still ample room for him to function.
  2. J. L. Austin, Philosophical Papers, 2nd ed. (Oxford, 1970), p. 205.
  3. Stanley Cavell, Must We Mean What We Say? (New York, 1969), p. 141.
  4. Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations (Oxford, 1953), pt. 1, sec. 133.