Ordinary Language (Lexicographers and Philosophers)

Henry Watson Fowler published his Dictionary of Modern English Usage in 1923. It is still in print both with and without revisions. Like Wittgenstein, he must have approved of King Lear’s “I’ll teach you differences.” The considerable care and effort he puts into expounding the proper use of English marks out Fowler as one committed to the preservation of standards. The entry on ‘Shall and will’, is of particular interest to me. It is lengthy and complicated, and noteworthy in its determination to identify shades of meaning which are likely to go unnoticed in our busy world. He writes of the ‘plain’ and ‘coloured’ uses of the auxiliary verbs, plain futurity as against something which betokens agency. Can you hear the difference between ‘I shall go to London on Monday’ and ‘I will go to London on Monday’ and slightly differently again, ‘They will go to London on Monday’ and ‘They shall go to London on Monday’ ? If so, I have no hesitation in recommending Modern English Usage to you. (There are many perceptive and many quirky entries: his analysis of different types of humour is a tour de force.) Fowler’s extraordinary power to detect and analyse nuances of both the spoken and written word, is a power shared by some of the great twentieth century philosophers. Two of the greatest, arguably the greatest, are Wittgenstein and Heidegger, although their first language was, of course, German. A language may grow and become more complicated, or become simpler, possibly more streamlined and practical, possibly losing some of its subtleties. People of conservative outlook, probably temperamentally pessimistic, like Fowler, like T.S.Eliot, like Heidegger will record and fight against losses of discriminatory power and with it their perception of a coarsening of sensibility. A language will likely move in the direction of maximum intellectual energy and effort of the people who use it, and as certain features develop others will waste with the shift of attention. Let me try and indicate some of the concerns of Wittgenstein and Heidegger.

This is Wittgenstein from Philosophical Investigations. “When we talk of our language only approximating to exact rules, we are on the brink of a misunderstanding. For then it may look as though what we are talking about is an ideal language. As if our logic were, so to speak, logic for a vacuum. . . For this can lead us (and did lead me) to think that if anyone utters a sentence and means or understands it, he is operating a precise calculus according to precise rules.” And this from Heidegger in an interview given in 1969, his eightieth year, “And it requires a new attentiveness to language, not the invention of new terms, as I once thought; rather it requires a return to the original contents of our language as it has been conceived, and which is constantly decaying.” And from his lecture, The Question Concerning Technology (1953) this startling judgment:- “Modern physics is not experimental physics because it applies apparatus to the questioning of nature. The reverse is true. Because physics sets up itself to exhibit the coherence of forces calculable in advance, it orders its experiments precisely for the purpose of asking whether and how nature reports itself when set up in this way.” The procedure is circular because predicated on the regularity of nature, or to put it another way, with the deterministic spectacles on, what is seen is predictable, and what is holy in life disappears.

And Wittgenstein expresses concerns about both mathematics and psychology at the end of the Philosophical Investigations. “The confusion and barrenness of psychology is not to be explained by calling it a ‘young science’; its state is not comparable to physics in its beginnings. (Rather with that of certain branches of mathematics. Set Theory). For in psychology there are experimental methods and conceptual confusion. (As in the other case conceptual confusion and methods of proof). . . The existence of the experimental method makes us think we have the means of solving the problems which trouble us; though the problem and method pass one another by.” At the risk of over simplification, I think it worth saying that what Wittgenstein and Heidegger are talking about is the soullessness of the modern world. We should take note of the instrumentality of the physical sciences. They have transformed our world in myriad ways but they are without interiority. At the end of the nineteenth century we were told that all art aspires to the condition of music. We are now being told by many in the scientific community that all knowledge aspires to the condition of physics. Ordinary language tells us something very different.

Published by davidcookpoet

I am a husband, father and grandfather. I retired from a busy working life as an adult psychiatrist in 2014. My interests are in literature, philosophy, modern jazz and horse racing. I might represent those four fields by Shakespeare, Kant, Charlie Parker and Lester Piggott. Like nearly all of us, I can identify a number of formative experiences, one of which was a psychotic episode in my first year as a psychiatrist. This reinforced an already established interest in mystical experience, and a sense of how little human beings know. My intellectual bugbear is reductive materialism, and I am surprised at the lack of moral imagination of those who promulgate such views. It seems to me they need to consider ,perhaps by exposure, just why totalitarianism is so horrific.

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