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The Death of Reality by Lawrence Dawson

Antony Flew scorns Lawrence Dawson’s attack on Wittgenstein.

Subtitled ‘How a conspiracy of fools is imposing unreality and laying claim to the destiny of a nation’ this book contains a wealth of information about the misdoings of the mass media in the USA. However, The Death of Reality is relevant to the interests of readers of Philosophy Now only in as much as the author attributes this deplorable imposition of unreality to the discredit of the Wittgenstein of the Philosophical Investigations.

Those who, like the present reviewer, were privileged to have studied The Blue Book and The Brown Book in typescript before the publication of the Philosophical Investigations in 1953, would have found it difficult, not to say perverse, to construe Ludwig Wittgenstein’s insistence that the meaning of a word is its use – as Dawson here construes it – as revealing the essential and inescapable subjectivity of all human language, and consequently as revealing Wittgenstein’s supposed adherence to his own newfangled form of philosophical idealism. It seemed obvious to us then, as it still does to me now, that the ordinary colloquial use of the word ‘chair’ is to refer to members of a somewhat diverse but nevertheless identifiable kind of physical object; viz., chairs.

Chairs as such are, of course, of no philosophical importance, but the substantial philosophical significance of this Wittgensteinian insistence on seeking the actual uses of words in their ordinary, colloquial, non-technical usages should become obvious to readers of Gilbert Ryle’s The Concept of Mind (1949) once they have learnt that Ryle enjoyed a walking tour with Wittgenstein during the summer of 1930 and if they have ever compared the papers which Ryle published before that tour with anything which he published thereafter.

For from that tour Ryle had learnt that the use, the meaning, of the word ‘mind’ was to refer not to a member of a putative class of incorporeal entities but to the capacities of flesh and blood human beings. Whether he or she possesses a first class mind can be determined by studying his or her performance in written examinations or in other behavioural tests, and such determinations neither necessarily require nor necessarily reveal the existence and involvement of any such putative incorporeal entity.

None of this supplies any support at all for Dawson’s contention that Wittgenstein’s “Philosophical Investigations argued that language cannot describe reality and consists of subjectively imposed meanings which are validated by consensus …” (pp.142?3).

The clue to the source of Dawson’s misunderstanding of Wittgenstein is to be found in the very next sentence on the same page:

“Wittgensteinian linguistics are brought to general acceptance in the book, The Social Construction of Reality, by Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann. That book was published in 1966, at the height of the New Left rage, by a division of Doubleday whose address, 666 5th Ave., sends superstitious chills through Christians familiar with the book of Revelation.” (p.143).

The insert ‘About the author’ on the inside of the rear cover of The Death of Reality tells us that Dawson “graduated from the Idaho State University in 1967 and attended Columbia University graduate school of sociology”. It was presumably in that graduate school that he became acquainted with the discipline so misleadingly described as the sociology of knowledge. Even Berger and Luckmann gave a hostage to this misdescription by their choice of the title The Social Construction of Reality for what was at the time the standard work on the nature and findings of that discipline. Nevertheless, in a passage which Dawson quotes very accurately on the same page yet fails to appreciate, they did observe the fundamental and crucial distinction between what actually is the case and what is merely asserted or believed to be the case. They scrupulously circumscribed the three key words ‘validator’ ‘knowledge’ and ‘reality’ with what were then commonly described as sneer quotes:

In the book, Berger and Luckmann reiterate Wittgenstein’s new ‘validator’ for shifting and non-objective ‘reality’. That ‘validator’ is the opinions of a group or, as the authors call it, the process by which any body of ‘knowledge’ comes to be socially established as ‘reality’ (p.143, emphasis original).

It is perhaps worth adding that at much the same time as Dawson was meeting what he saw as the imposition of unreality in the sociology of knowledge at Columbia in New York, much the same sort of thing was being taught to teachers and would-be teachers in the UK at the Open University and in the Institute of Education in London. The set book used was Knowledge and Control edited by M.F.D. Young (1971). But the guru in the UK appears to have been Marx rather than Wittgenstein – albeit a Marx bizarrely misrepresented as being a philosophical idealist.

Thus, the possibility of providing some sociological account of the interests supporting or opposing the making of some particular sort of discrimination is again and again misconstrued as a demonstration of the non-existence of any real objective basis for such discriminations, that there are no corresponding discriminable differences ‘without the mind’. One of M.F.D. Young’s contributors audaciously concludes that “it is not an objectively discernible purely existing external world which accounts for sociology; it is the methods and procedures of sociology which create and sustain that world.” (p.131).

© Prof. Antony Flew 2002

Antony Flew was a graduate student of Gilbert Ryle and was told about the walking tour and its significance by Ryle himself.

The Death of Reality by Lawrence Dawson, (Paradigm Press, 1999), $25. ISBN 0-9419-9510-0

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