When Words Are Called For: A Defense of Ordinary Language Philosophy

July 12, 2012

This is a revolutionary book - certainly within the context of mainstream analytic philosophy. But its appeal should be wider than the admittedly narrow circle of professional philosophers. Indeed, it addresses a popular dissatisfaction with philosophy; namely, that philosophical arguments are often seen as beside the point, "detached from life" and unsatisfying.

Avner Baz addresses this frustration, while at the same time maintaining a respect for that which drives people to philosophy in the first place. Take, for instance, an example of a type of problem that he discusses at length: "[Timothy] Williamson reports...[of] telling the audience of a lecture he gave that he had been to Algiers, which was false but which they had no reason not to believe and so 'justifiably' believed; he then 'made sure they inferred' from their false but justified belief that he had been to Algiers the proposition that he had been to North Africa, which happened to be true."

So, does a member of the audience know that Williamson had been to North Africa? Presumably he or she has a belief that he had been, but is it right to call this belief knowledge?

Certainly, knowledge is an important topic, and it is one that has sparked philosophical controversy for thousands of years. It can seem practically important (eg, "Do we know whether humans contribute to climate change?"). But Baz believes there's something strange about the philosopher's question about knowledge, what he calls "the theorist's question". Baz is writing at least in part to rally those who find such a question compelling, and yet ultimately pointless.

For Baz is not a "theorist". He champions what he calls "ordinary language philosophy" (OLP). This approach may or may not coincide with the 20th-century movement of the same name. The reader sees contours of Baz's OLP repeatedly as he proceeds. Initially he takes inspiration from a particular way of reading work by Ludwig Wittgenstein (especially his Philosophical Investigations) and J.L. Austin (especially his paper "Other minds"). Thus much of Baz's methodology consists in examining analytic philosophers' questions themselves, along with what could even potentially count as meaningful responses.

Baz believes that philosophers tend to divorce their words from reality. His view is that we make sense only when we speak in virtue of such a connection. "In both philosophy and ordinary life, a consideration of the ordinary and normal use(s) of someone's words serves to make clearer what, if anything, she could reasonably be taken to say with her words..." So OLP is not offering a theory of meaning: rather, it simply relies on the fact that we do often speak meaningfully.

His response to the situation offered above, then, is that the question of whether I know, "as pressed by philosophers...is beside the point, or idle, as far as those involved in the situation are concerned". One natural response to this rejection of the question is that it simply focuses on words, when what we're really after is the nature of a concept (eg, of knowledge). Baz responds that we cannot separate the two as cleanly as the philosopher supposes, and further that our uses of words are intimately tied up with the world. He traces many implications of these facts.

The goal of this book is not a knock-down refutation of a dominant philosophical methodology. Rather, Baz is trying to build a persuasive case for a perspective in which philosophical "difficulties lose their apparent force". He has given us a radical, subtle and patient account of an alternative to how much of philosophy proceeds today.

When Words Are Called For: A Defense of Ordinary Language Philosophy

By Avner Baz. Harvard University Press, 256pp, £29.95. ISBN 9780674055223. Published 29 March 2012

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