Walter Jost, Rhetorical Investigations: Studies in Ordinary Language Criticism. Charlottesville:
U of Virginia P, 2004.
Ambitious in scope, richly integrative, and extensively researched, this study demonstrates its author's familiarity with
ideas from multiple fields of inquiry, including classical as well as modern rhetoric, critical theory, philosophy, and
literary modernism. The chief aim of the book is to work toward integration and synthesis; drawing on theorists ranging
from Martin Heidegger and Kenneth Burke to Ludwig Wittgenstein and Stanley Cavell, and using the poetry of Robert Frost
to work through the author's focal concerns, the book seeks to develop a framework for interpretation in which "grammar
and rhetoric, philosophy and literature, reason and desire, reference and semiotics, truth and antifoundationalism" might
be brought into closer dialogue with one another (1). More precisely, Jost characterizes literature and philosophy as the
termini of his discussion, suggesting that rhetoric can be used to negotiate between these discourses (7). Hence,
although the four chapters in Part II develop extended readings of Frost's "The Death of the Hired Man," "West-Running
Brook," "Snow," and "Home Burial," respectively,
the present book is more about exemplifying a specific kind of critical inquiry, interpretation, argument, and community
activity than it is about a particular poet, historical trajectory, literary period, or cultural moment. Frost's poems
present me with an occasion to rethink a nexus of questions about the everyday and the ordinary, language, experience,
common sense, judgment, and exemplarity; to question assumptions about the grammatical and rhetorical possibilities of
literary criticism; and to reexamine what I take to be underappreciated resources for criticism to be found in the
traditions of rhetoric, hermeneutic phenomenology, pragmatism, and so-called ordinary language philosophy and criticism.
- The introduction further specifies what the author means by the "ordinary language criticism" mentioned at the end
of the passage just quoted and also in the book's subtitle. Ordinary language criticism, in Jost's account, takes
inspiration from the ordinary language philosophy pioneered by Wittgenstein, refined by J.L. Austin, and
recontextualized by Cavell (Claim, In Quest, Must; see also
Baillie and Cohen).
For theorists in this tradition, people learn (and later use) concepts thanks to
their place within a larger form of life
and the modes of language use associated with that form of life. Although abstract logical definitions play a role in
specialized discourses (e.g., certain forms of philosophical analysis), in other discourse contexts boundaries between
concepts are fixed by "situated criteria, the features and functions of things, the behaviors and actions of people in
certain circumstances in which we operate with our words" (8). For example, when I hear someone say plank in a
conversation I do not try to match that person's usage against an abstract mental checklist of necessary and sufficient
conditions for "plankness" in order to make sense of the term. Rather, I monitor
whether the ongoing discourse is about the construction of ships, archaic practices of meting out justice at sea (as in
walk the [gang]plank), or political campaigns, and I draw an inference, possibly incorrect, about which concept
of "plank" is appropriate given the broader context in which the term plank is being used. "Plank" is
irreducibly caught up in these contexts of usage; there is no single, decontextualized meaning of plank (cf.
Herman 2002), but rather multiple, partly overlapping meanings, each determined by the use of the term in the situated,
rule-governed modes of discourse production and interpretation that Wittgenstein called "language games" and
Jean-François Lyotard "phrase regimens." Further, these language games are not wholly autonomous practices but can
impinge on one another, as when through a metaphorical extension plank migrates from the language game(s) of the
shipwright to those of the politician and the pundit. The key insight here, though, is that plank does not
denote "plank" prior to its being used in some language game or other, even if only the stripped-down "games" in which
dictionary definitions or the rules of logic are used to map out semantic relationships among terms.
- But what would be the specific brief of an ordinary language criticism "consistent though not necessarily
coextensive with ordinary language philosophy" (9)? How exactly would students of literature, say, draw on
(post-)Wittgensteinian language theory to study "literary thinking across or askew to fields and theoretical specialisms,
attending to the background complexity of everyday life and ordinary language as they shape the form and content of
literary works" (10)? In one statement of method, Jost suggests that "ordinary language philosophy and criticism can be taken as nonstandard uses of ordinary language to investigate ordinary language 'on display' in literature" (43).
But this formulation raises further questions: What is the difference between a nonstandard use of ordinary language and
non- or extra-ordinary language? How do the sophisticated philosophical and rhetorical theories Jost uses to describe the
nature and functions of ordinary language--and to analyze its deployment in Frost's poetry--themselves relate to everyday
communicative practices? Do ordinary language philosophy and criticism constitute "metalanguages" that can be brought to
bear on the "object-language" that people use in contexts of everyday communication or in literary representations of
those contexts? Or, rather, do the philosophical underpinnings of Jost's approach militate against this view, given that
ordinary language theorists posit not a binary division between "ordinary" and "specialized" languages, but rather scalar
relations based on graded prototypicality--with everyday exchanges forming the central or prototypical case from which
more or less technical, register- or purpose-specific uses deviate more or less markedly? In the domain of literary
theory and poetics, how might ordinary language criticism (construed as an investigation of displays of ordinary
language in literature) build on the prior research of scholars such as Mary Louise Pratt, who criticized the Russian
Formalist idea of "literariness" by arguing that it is based on a conception of non-literary language as a "vacuous dummy
category," and who analyzed literary works as "display texts" in which norms for using ordinary language remain in play,
though in modulated form?
- I return to some of these questions below, in connection with Jost's extended interpretations of Frost's poems in
Part II of the book. But it is important to note at the outset that, besides appealing to philosophical precedents set by Wittgenstein, Austin, and Cavell, Jost (who was himself trained as a rhetorician) seeks to ground the practice of
ordinary language criticism in a rethinking of the ancient trivium of
grammar, rhetoric, and logic/dialectic. In turn,
this rethinking both enables and is enabled by the author's close readings of Frost's poetry. The introduction describes
how Jost's study draws on, while also recontextualizing, each component of the
trivium. To synopsize:
In the new, post-postmodern dispensation, each member of the trivium
becomes less a discrete analytical domain than a
heuristic framework (or form of practice) in synergy with the other two.
- Grammar helps specify particular grounds of judgments underwriting human life and the means by which
speakers organize conceptual parts into wholes (14).
Rhetoric bears on the specific circumstances surrounding people's acts and words and how they invent new words
and actions in new circumstances (14). Here Jost seeks to reclaim elements of the rhetorical tradition from what he
characterizes as Paul de Man's reduction of "'rhetoric' to an unstable figurality in which binary topics and proofs
('ideas') are subordinated to and subsumed by tropes and figures ('images')" (16).
Logic concerns sequences of actions and words and "the general gestalt patterns that connect actions to other
actions, beliefs to further beliefs, judgments to further judgments" (14). Relatedly, dialectic concerns order
and community, i.e., how members of a community achieve coherence (or not) by participating in an inherently
collaborative attempt to "order the ordinary" (14).
- Part I of the book is titled "Rhetoric: An Advanced Primer" and, sketching out the general theoretical framework
on which the author draws in later chapters, begins with a chapter called
"Dialectic as Dialogue: The Order of the
Ordinary." Along with chapters 2-4, chapter 1 provides a foundation for Jost's
extended readings of individual
Frost poems in the second part of the book--though Part I also draws on the poetry in developing those very foundations.
(The book includes, as well, an Appendix that reprints seven of the Frost poems used as case studies; it also features
extensive notes replete with bibliographic information about key rhetorical, philosophical, and critical sources.)
Chapter 1 explores consequences of (and remedies for) an assumption that Jost argues to be pervasive throughout the
history of Western philosophical discourse: namely, that "because everyday life presents endlessly diverse and shifting
scenes of opinion and custom expressed in equally impermanent and equivocal words of ordinary language . . . , both the
everyday and the ordinary are . . . illusory" (27). Radical forms of skepticism in contemporary thought leave untouched
the grounding assumption that everyday scenes of behavior involve unsystematic action, opinion, or desire--or, for that
matter, the related assumption that the non-systematicity of everyday action is threatened by co-opting ideologies which
seek to systematize, and thus distort, the domain of the ordinary.
- Controverting these assumptions, Wittgenstein, Cavell, and their fellow-travellers conceive of the ordinary and
the everyday as "fundamental yet evolving cares and commitments of human beings in community with and against each
other--hence of everyday language as a human habitat and even 'home' in which we dwell, the linguistic hub of activities
constitutive of the human form of life" (32). Here, the metaphor of the hub stems from Jost's refusal to draw a sharp
line between everyday and non-everyday language use; instead, like Wittgenstein,
he posits a continuum in which
relatively more specialized uses radiate outward from less specialized linguistic practices (37). The chapter moves from
a discussion of this general philosophical reorientation and its implications for skepticism, to a discussion of Frost's
"The Black Cottage," a dramatic monologue whose narrator is "a homegrown skeptic about the home of the everyday and the
ordinary" (54). Jost argues that the narrator's skepticism is bound up with his tendency to speak as if all statements
were tools that can be used in the same way--a tendency that eventually causes him to drop out of language games
- Chapter 2, "Rhetorical Invention: Notes toward an American Low
Modernism," and Chapter 3, "Grammatical
Judgment: It All Depends on What You Mean by 'Home,'" continue to lay the
general, philosophical groundwork for
ordinary language criticism also provided by Chapter 4, "Logical Proof:
Perspicuous Representations." Chapter 2
characterizes Frost's standard rhetorical posture as one in which "the language (style, structure, grammar, rhetoric) of
practical problem solving, commonsense reasoning and beliefs, the rhetoric of the everyday and ordinary . . . often
intermingled with philosophic meditations on their origins and ends" (64). Jost argues that whereas high modernism
sometimes tries to escape from (in order to "purify") everyday life, Frost practices a species of low modernism that
focuses on overlooked possibilities in everyday life as well as everyday linguistic usage (69). Taking issue with Frank
Lentricchia's (Kantian) understanding of Frost's poetry as private, affective, noncognitive, and "therapeutic" in
character (78), Jost argues instead for a synthesis of the hermeneutic aesthetics of Gadamer with American pragmatism in
the Emersonian-Jamesian tradition. This synthesis, he argues, reveals a strand of low modernism (in writers as diverse as
Frost, Henry James, D.H. Lawrence, William Carlos Williams, and Charles Olson) complementing the high modernism of
Mallarmé, Joyce, Kafka, Musil, and Mondrian:
Frost in particular engages in topical invention, writing poems that catalog elements of the ordinary, not to
defamiliarize the ordinary but rather to "recommunalize a precarious everyday" (93).
High and low both seek new integrations of our divided selves, but whereas high modernism makes language (reading and
writing, communication) overtly difficult and strange in order to break its readers free from the grip of an everyday
perceived to be suffocating and conventionalized, low modernism makes language deceptively easy and pleasurable in order
to entice us into tripping over connections we had habitually overlooked. (85-86)
- Chapters 3 and 4 shift from rhetoric to grammar and logic, respectively. In chapter 3, Jost builds on
Wittgenstein's philosophical recontextualization of the concept of grammar, i.e., his interest in what might be termed
"metagrammar." For the later Wittgenstein, the grammar of our language carries in its wake an entire metaphysics--as when
(in English) the form of a statement such as "X is having a pain in his leg" causes speakers of the language to assume
that pain is wholly private and internal, rather than being constituted at least in part by the verbal and other
performances by which people display and communicate the experience of being in pain. More generally, a major task of
philosophy is to disentangle the structure of sentences from the structure of the world. Chapter 3 suggests that Frost's
low-modernist poetry is marked by an analogous concern with
(meta-)grammar taken in this sense; his work, too, explores
broad, philosophical implications of ways of framing statements about the world. Thus, for Jost, both Wittgenstein and
Frost resist the age-old codification of rationality in the form of the predicative proposition, whereby "subject-object
predication defines a priori what counts as the statement of a definition, argument, or truth judgment" (102).
Wittgenstein's later philosophy suggests, rather, that we judge statements as true or false using criteria embedded in
particular language practices that are in turn geared on to specific situations of use (cf. Addis). What counts as a true
statement about, say, the length of a plank will depend on whether the statement is made in a shipyard, a backyard, or an
institute for theoretical physics. Likewise, Frost's low-modernist poems reveal a "preoccupation with the grammar of
'proof'" (97), focusing on "the various claims of reason and its language games of 'belief,' 'proof,' 'argument,'
'knowledge,' 'truth,' and the like" (98). Jost uses the 1939 poem "There Are Roughly Zones" to argue that in Frost's
poetry "metaphysical categories of explanation" ("soul," "mind," "heart") give way to "'rough zones' of explanation,
meaning, and value"--the center of gravity shifting, as it does in Wittgenstein, from metaphysics to rhetorical talk,
from substances and properties to "arguments and emotions . . . whose reality we experience in working our way through
the poem" (121).
- Chapter 4 opens with an account of Michel de Certeau's distinction, in The Practice of Everyday
Life, between hegemonic discursive "strategies" and subversive "tactics." Suggesting that both strategies and
tactics (cf. universals and particulars, rules and cases, generalizations and future instances, laws and their
application) belong to rhetoric, Jost argues against "contemporary misconceptions that experience 'must' be--not only
in everyday life but in art--politically or culturally shocking, 'radical,' 'unheard-of.'" On the contrary,
"'to have an
experience' is indifferently both confrontative and, in Dewey's language, 'consummatory,' a blended tension of difference
and completion" (123-24). Far from having to be wholly aligned with tactics to be authentic, experiences must be anchored
in discursive strategies to some extent if they are to be intelligible--"haveable"--at all.
- Positing a scalar relationship rather than a binary division between strategies and tactics, the chapter then
situates Aristotle's distinction between enthymeme (or argument) and example along this continuum, locating argument at
the strategic end of the scale and example at the tactical end. Arguments involve rule-governed deductions from
determinate generalizations; examples, by contrast, enable rhetors "to structure relatively indeterminate situations from
past particulars or cases" (124). Jost devotes the rest of the chapter to a discussion of relatively tactical dimensions
of Frost's poetry. Frost's local tactics include jokes, riddles, and paradoxes, quasi-proverbial locutions, portraits of
characters engaged in "drifting conversation," and a variety of tropes. More globally, the poetry throws light on the
issues of exemplarity and exemplification. Focusing on "Two Tramps in Mud Time" as a key tutor-text, Jost suggests that
the poem exploits the relative indeterminacy of generic terms ("work," "need," "love," etc.) to recall "past uses [of
the words] as examples, as possibilities, . . . that may thus be used as resources for the future" (139). Further,
invoking a number of disjunctive pairs (work/play, frost/water, practical tramps/poetic narrator), the poem thereby
furnishes "many examples of unity-in-division, related to each other by analogy" and "rhetorically [moves the
reader] to a new 'place' (topos), by virtue of our having experienced several plausible examples, whose terms then
become, in Kenneth Burke's formulation, 'equipment for living'" (144). The final section of the chapter engages in an
extended account of epiphany and epideixis, which for Jost constitute distinct language games. Whereas epiphany is the
hallmark of high modernism, epideixis is the paradigmatic mode in Frost's low-modernist poetry. Compared with epiphany,
epideixis involves "a more gradual but also more overt evocation of the background patterns and premises of a
position" (151); it has to do with speech more than psychology; and entails
communal rather than personal realizations and changes (152-54).
- Part II of the book is titled "Four Beginnings for a Book on Robert Frost." Chapter 5, "Lessons in the
Conversation that We Are: 'The Death of the Hired Man' (Invention)," draws on
theorists as diverse as Alasdair
MacIntyre and Carol Gilligan to explore how the conversation portrayed in that poem involves a dialectical interplay of
ethical-rhetorical performances. Chapter 6, "Naming Being in 'West-Running
Brook,'" uses the poem to argue that
Frost gives voice, in the idiom of the everyday, to the questions about being and time, language and interpretation, also
asked by Heidegger but in a distinctly philosophical idiom. In Chapter 7, "Giving Evidence and Making Evident: Civility
and Madness in 'Snow' (Proof)," Jost returns to issues of rhetoric in
particular; in his account, the poem
demonstrates that "knowing another is not a logical grasping of an object but a rhetorical seeing (acknowledging) of
another, one who has a rhetorical claim on us to respond" (234).
- Chapter 8, finally, is titled "Ordinary Language Brought to Grief: 'Home Burial' (Dialogue in Disorder and Doubt)" and is one of the richest, most probing chapters in the book. Here Jost builds on research stemming from
Wittgenstein's critique of the private-language argument--his criticism of the assumption that the experience of pain and
other sensations involves a kind of "inner language" to which only the experiencer has access. In the author's
interpretation, Frost's poem likewise works through philosophical issues bound up with skepticism about other minds and
their "qualia" or ineliminably subjective states of awareness (see
Freeman; Levine; Nagel). In a manner consonant both
with Wittgenstein and with the broader "second cognitive revolution" to which his work has helped give rise
(Harré, "Second"; Harré and Gillett), Jost argues that critics of the poem have made the mistake of trying
to peer into "the 'inner' workings of the characters rather than the outer behavior and scene of their speaking, as
though straining to penetrate the characters' words to grasp the mental anguish within" (249). Instead (to shift for a
moment to a vocabulary slightly different from Jost's), the characters' pain is enacted discursively; i.e., their words
and behavioral displays give rise to inferences about emotional states located in and emerging from--rather than
preceding--this multiperson episode of talk (cf. Harré, "Discursive"; Harré and Gillett).
- Rather than presenting at this point a more detailed summary of the engaging, often line-by-line interpretations
developed in Part II, I would like to highlight two broader issues raised by Jost's readings of the poems--and more
generally by the approach outlined in the book as a whole. The first issue concerns the metagrammar of Jost's own
project, i.e., the norms governing Jost's argumentational moves and combinations of critical, philosophical, and
rhetorical discourses as he articulates the project of ordinary language criticism. At issue, in other words, are the
norms accounting for Jost's own intuitions about what constitutes a "legal" or acceptable statement (or combination of
statements) framed in the context of ordinary language criticism. The second broad issue involves rhetoric rather than
grammar--specifically, the rhetoric of stability in terms of which Jost casts ordinary language criticism as an
alternative to and defense against radical forms of skepticism. This issue concerns the relation between the rhetoric of
stability and the conceptual underpinnings of ordinary language philosophy. It also concerns the specific rhetorical
purpose served by the author's emphasis on the stabilizing role of ordinary language in the approach that he
- First, then, what exactly is one doing when one engages in ordinary language criticism? More
specifically, how does one formulate statements that would be deemed acceptable--grammatical--within this language game
about language games? The question arises because of the language Jost himself uses; specifically, Jost's readings of
Frost sometimes suggest not just a parallelism but a more fundamental equivalence between philosophical and rhetorical
discourses, on the one hand, and Frost's poetry, on the other. For example, chapter 6 characterizes Frost as a
"communicator and rhetorician--one who resists romantic expressivism and transcendentalizing in favor of a
nonessentialist account of self and Being, and Heidegger's postromantic elevation of Being over man in favor of man's
naming of being, and does so precisely by holding these (and other pairs) in tension" (214). Similarly, describing Frost
as a "hermeneutically adept" poet (211), the author argues that "we can apply it [i.e., Heidegger's notion of the
"retrieval" of a human being's past possibilities, traditions, heritage, such that they are not merely absorbed into the
world] by proposing that the image of the backward ripple in the outgoing brook that so fascinates Fred signifies just
this concept of 'retrieval' and its hermeneutic cousins 'appropriations' and 'application'" (198). These statements
suggest that Frost's poetry allegorizes concepts of Heideggerian phenomenology; doing ordinary language criticism would
be tantamount, in this instance, to showing how literary discourse is inter-translatable with specialized philosophical
language--in this case, philosophical discourse concerned with temporal aspects of (the human experience of) the ordinary
and the everyday. Yet the philosophical tradition on which ordinary
draws does not assume that specialized languages are reducible to or wholly commensurate with less specialized usages; it
merely assumes that every language emerges from and is intelligible because of a particular situation of use. Indeed,
ordinary language philosophers insist on the non-equivalence of language games that might appear to be
inter-translatable prima facie, but that on closer inspection prove to be anchored in incommensurate norms and
conventions, different forms of life.
- We return here to an issue broached earlier: namely, the relation between ordinary language criticism and the
literary (and other) uses of language that it studies. True, Wittgenstein's philosophical project was based, in part, on
a rejection of the distinction between metalanguage and object-language formalized by Rudolf Carnap, among others. Rather
than attempting to develop a logically purified metalanguage--an ideal language that, imposed from without, would purge
ordinary language of its ambiguity and vagueness--Wittgenstein and those influenced by him sought to find a logic
immanent to language itself. But to be self-consistent, ordinary
language philosophy cannot equate grammar with
metagrammar, the situated use of language with the (differently situated) philosophical study of such language use. One
must assume that the same heuristic distinction continues to apply, mutatis mutandis, in ordinary language
criticism. Arguably, however, when the author writes that "Frost's own sense of judgment at the beginning of American
modernism supersedes traditional epistemological accounts" (102; my emphasis), his verb-choice again flattens
out the difference between Frost's poetic project and the ordinary language critic's way of characterizing that project.
Likewise, when Jost notes that theorists of ordinary language and literary practitioners converge on the same themes and
symbols, his account implies a similar convergence of grammar and metagrammar, i.e., of the use of everyday language and
of theoretical descriptions of that use: "It is an abiding theme of Wittgenstein, and of Stanley Cavell in regard
particularly to Emerson and Thoreau--Frost's own models--that 'home' is the place, and symbol, of the everyday and
ordinary, and not least the symbol for and the place of our use of ordinary language in, for example, talk and gossip"
(168). Complex mapping relationships need to be spelled out more fully here. If it is to distinguish itself from
thematics, ordinary language criticism cannot merely point to the discursive field from which concepts such as "home" and
"the everyday" emanate and in which they are embedded. Beyond this, it must specify how a given text participates in this
global field. At issue is the metagrammar that determines what a text can and cannot say without being shunted to a
different zone within the field, thereby entering into different kinds of relationship with other texts in the domain as
- The second broad issue mentioned before concerns the rhetoric rather than the (meta-)grammar of ordinary language
criticism. More specifically, it concerns the rhetoric of stability used by Jost throughout his study. For example, in
the introduction, the author sets up his analysis by suggesting that "rhetorical investigations . . . are stabilized in
the sense of a community, and the question becomes what it means to use or trust that sense" (18). Meanwhile, in
chapter 2, Jost seeks to use Frost's poetry to steer a middle course between two positions regarding rhetoric: "that of
earlier romantics and moderns for whom rhetoric is anachronistic, naïve, or pretentious for professional intellectual
purposes, and that of a specific kind of postmodernist for whom it is
rhetoric's sole cunning to destabilize, by intellectually outwitting, all epistemological self-satisfactions across the
disciplines" (72). The rhetoric of stability continues in the opening paragraph of chapter 5, where Jost writes: "For
Ludwig Wittgenstein and Stanley Cavell, all understanding stabilizes itself in our 'acknowledgments,' 'agreements in
judgments,' and 'mutual attunements' of so-called ordinary language and practice, perhaps the most important of which are
our conversations with each other" (160). Similarly, in chapter 3 Jost argues that "resisting skepticism in literature or
literary theorizing and criticism, by counting or recalling criteria of ordinary language . . . is stabilized in our
acknowledgments, in what Frost alludes to as 'glad recognition of the long lost'" (111). Later in the chapter, commenting
on Frost's concern with the "stable flexibility" of "the give-and-take that does in fact restrain our ordinary lives"
(117), the author discusses how the "rhetorical action" of Frost's poetry points to his interest in "stable and
stabilizing" conceptions of taste and judgment, in contradistinction to "nonrational," romantic conceptions of these
faculties or aptitudes (116). And in his explication of "Snow" in chapter 7, Jost associates Frost's poem with
Wittgenstein's turn from explanation to description, "to directing our attention to the deep conceptual patterns of
linguistic surfaces in imagined actions and scenes, stabilizing causal propositionalism in what we know how to do and .
. . already acknowledge" (221).
- Jost is, to be sure, a highly effective rhetor, and passages like the ones just quoted--by appealing to the
relative, provisional stability of interpretive criteria grounded in ordinary language use--serve to situate ordinary
language criticism in the broader landscape of critical discourse. More specifically, by suggesting that everyday
experience in general and ordinary language in particular exert a stabilizing influence in our ongoing efforts to make
sense of the world, Jost positions ordinary language criticism between the Scylla of a relativistic, anything-goes
anti-foundationalism and the Charybdis of anti-contextualism--i.e., variants of the (logocentric) view that utterances
and texts lend themselves to fixed, determinate interpretations, irrespective of who's doing the interpreting, when, and
in what circumstances. The conventions and practices of everyday discourse anchor interpretation, but in limited--locally
emergent--ways. With a shift in emphasis, however, ordinary language philosophy can remind us of the limits as well as
the possibilities of everyday discourse in this respect. If discourse conventions and practices constitute a ground for
interpretation, that ground is one capable of becoming, at a moment's notice, a figure in its own right--i.e., a target
of rather than a basis for interpretive activity.
- From a Wittgensteinian view, utterances mean what they do both because of the form that they have and because of
the way they are geared on to particular types of activity, such as games, formal debates, ritualized
exchanges of insults, consultations among coworkers faced with a job-related task, and so on. In part, this grounding of
words in activities channels and delimits how much interpretation I have to do when my interlocutor says something like
I'm not going to do that. Rather than having to search exhaustively through all the semantic spaces potentially
associated with that utterance to compute its meaning, I can rely on quick-and-dirty heuristics to figure out what's
being said, factoring in whether the utterance is part of a game of pickup basketball or a paraphrase of "Bartleby, the
- But conversely, I may lack knowledge about or aptitude for the activity in which the utterance plays a role; in
this case, the ineliminable contextual grounding of utterance meaning will defeat my efforts at interpretation. Then,
too, I may wish to create unusual, norm-breaking or -bending pairings of
activities with utterances, hurling out oaths in
the context of a formal academic debate or using specialized technical vocabulary in a note written on a greeting
card. What is more, the link between utterance form and utterance
meaning is not only
one-many (one and the same locution can mean many different things, depending on context) but also many-one (utterances
having different surface forms can mean the same thing in a given context: cf.
I'm not going to do that, No
way, Forget it, Never, and I prefer not to). Inextricably interlinked with
or competent language use, therefore, is the possibility of being wrong about what someone means. The same activity-based
criteria licensing interpretations of utterance meanings can also cause me to overgenerate inferences--as when I
attribute different meanings to utterances intended as synonymous--or else undergenerate inferences--as when
a mode of
activity different from the default type (e.g., an interpretation of "Bartleby, the Scrivener" written under censorship)
causes me to miss out on important nuances of someone's words. Ordinary language does provide a ground for
interpretation, but that ground is shifting, ever-changing, unstable. Just as the shifting of the earth both destroys and
creates, the unstable topography of a language produces variable effects, from angry miscommunication to Frost's poetry.
This is Wittgenstein's legacy: a non-necessary connection between saying and meaning--a probabilistic link between
utterances and inferences--giving rise to interpretations that may be good or bad for some purposes, but not for others.
Department of English
Ohio State University
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1. This is not to deny that, in particular sentences, the expression plank displays
certain, more or less stable logical and linguistic properties that account for its syntactic behavior and semantic profile
across diverse kinds of utterances. For example, the syntax of plank is such that it cannot function
adverbially--except perhaps in very special (e.g., poetic) contexts. I can say The plank is slowly rotting, but not
That board rots plank. Semantically speaking, planks and the sides of ships stand in a certain kind of part-whole
relationship with one another--the relationship can be mapped as contained structure: containing structure--such that
ceteris parabis (e.g., the plank is not fabricated from a special kind of particle board itself made out of tiny
ship-shaped pieces of wood) some propositions about planks vis-à-vis ships will be true, others false, and still others
nonsensical. Among the false propositions are Planks can be made of ships; among the nonsensical, I asked the
shipwright to put that ship at a different point on the plank's side; among the true, Ships' sides can be made of
planks. Note, however, that in describing the logico-semantic profile of propositions about planks, I have had to sketch
part of the real-world context in which those propositions are used--disallowing the "nonstandard" contexts (poetry with
strange adverbs, special particle board, etc.) mentioned above. The need for me to make such qualifications lends support to
arguments formulated under the auspices of ordinary language philosophy.
2. As Jost puts it, "things, people, beings,
always already 'count' for us not first as
objects but as going concerns: to perceive them as isolated objects (as in a laboratory) takes effort and requires a
determined diminution of what is present from the beginning, namely the full range of our interpretive understanding,
including the linguistic structures for 'seeing-something-as-something,' what Wittgenstein means by 'seeing-as'" (42).
3. The author sketches a particularly porous boundary between grammar and logic. Indeed,
whereas Jost associates grammar with part-whole relationships and logic with forms of interconnection, one might argue the
reverse: entailment relations, for example, involve concepts contained within other concepts (whereby "being red" entails
"being colored" but not the inverse), and grammar involves combinatory principles governing connections among words, phrases,
and clauses (I attached some planks is a grammatically legal combination whereas I planks attached some is
4. A related issue concerns the rhetorical effects of Jost's tendency to elide "ordinary
language" with "the ordinary" or "the everyday," as in the following passage from chapter 7: "As argued throughout this book,
Frost's mind and method are the first to create an alternative low modernist lyric composed from everyday conversational
materials taken for granted by everyone else. These materials and methods are steeped in the conventions of the ordinary, in
our form of life and its emerging and disappearing common sense" (218). But ordinary language philosophers were not,
arguably, theorists of the everyday--even though some of Wittgenstein's arguments have broad implications for that theoretical
enterprise. As discussed below (paragraph 15), ordinary language philosophy was initially a reaction against ideal language
philosophy (Rorty). In this context, theorists of "ordinary language" disputed the view that a logically purified metalanguage
was necessary for the purposes of logico-philosophical analysis--for example, to obviate ambiguous expressions, and attendant
paradoxes and antinomies (e.g., Every sentence that I write is a lie), found in natural languages (Carnap). Hence, in
future work in ordinary language criticism, Jost would do well to address more explicitly how theories of ordinary language
à la Wittgenstein, Austin, and Cavell relate to theories of the
ordinary/everyday à la de Certeau.
5. Granted, elsewhere in the chapter Jost suggests a non-equivalence between Frost's poetry
and Heideggerian phenomenology: "Frost himself in this poem is not, unlike Heidegger, laboriously splitting metaphysical
atoms, though he does intuit profound issues in an insightful way. Although the technical language and rigor of Heideggerian
hermeneutics could not be more alien to Frost, it may be that this hermeneutics offers a contrary medium in which,
paradoxically, 'West-Running Brook' can best move" (195). The closing words of this statement, however, imply a strong
affinity to which my current line of questioning still applies. By what criterion (in Wittgenstein's sense of that term) does
the ordinary language critic select a given discourse as the one best juxtaposed with the text whose grounding in the
everyday he or she wishes to use the other discourse to examine?
6. Richard Rorty sketches the broader history of the dispute between
practitioners of ideal language philosophy, such as Carnap, and practitioners of ordinary language
philosophy, such as the later Wittgenstein.
7. See Stephen C. Levinson for a Wittgenstein-inspired account of how
"activity types" of this sort provide heuristics for utterance interpretation.
8. In more complicated cases--for example, in a society living under
certain kinds of never-before-used utterances in the context of public activities can be ideologically as well as
linguistically creative. See Fairclough and Wodak.
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