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Tallis in Wonderland

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Okey Doke

Raymond Tallis is illocutionary about the young Wittgenstein’s perlocutions.

“Okey doke” someone said the other day, getting up to go, thereby inadvertently triggering a long train of thoughts that I want to share with you. And not just thoughts, but memories. In fact, the memories may be a better place to begin. They reach back to the 1970s, when, for a few delirious months, I thought I was on the verge of understanding how language related to the world. This understanding was, of course, a misunderstanding, and, as you might expect, based on a simplification. I was, after all, doing philosophy.

It was 1974, and I had been reading Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921) for the nth time. It is a very short book, although like a white dwarf star, it packs a lot into its space. The part that had most engaged my dazzled attention was the section where Wittgenstein advanced his famous (or notorious) Picture Theory of propositions. It was his way of explaining how propositions – assertions of facts, expressed in words – could be about states of affairs in the world: how chopped up, exhaled air or marks on a page could do what they did. Propositions, Wittgenstein said, were like pictures or models of reality. A drawing can depict in pencil marks a reality that consists of quite other stuff because the disposition of the pencil marks on the page shares something with the disposition of the elements in the scene: they have a common spatial form. This is why we can see what a picture is a picture of.

Of course, propositions, or the utterances in which they are expressed, are not literally pictures – they don’t look like what they assert. Even so, they do share something with that which they propose. Obviously, ‘The cat is on the mat’ does not share a spatial form with a cat on a mat. What the proposition and the state of affairs have in common, Wittgenstein said, is something he called their logical form.

The notion of ‘logical form’, although compelling to me, was not entirely clear – nor, by the way, was it to Wittgenstein, who famously disowned the Picture Theory. But enough of his Theory made sense to excite me: for example, the suggestion that the proposition and the proposed state of affairs had components that mapped one-to-one – that terms in the proposition corresponded to objects, the basic constituents of the world. The sentence ‘The cat is on the mat’ has a proxy in the proposed reality for each of the components: for a cat, for a mat, and for the relation (not an object) between them: ‘on’. This was why the theory seemed have something going for it. At any rate, it appeared to explain the rather intriguing fact that we can make sense of sentences we have never encountered before, so long as we know the meaning of the individual words. The meaning of new sentences will be clear because the logical forms of the propositions they express will be recognisable, and their logical forms will also be that of the reality to which they refer.

For reasons to be mentioned shortly, I knew the Picture Theory was wrong, but I thought it might be pointing in the right direction. And so for a couple of years I struggled over a Great Work, in three volumes, entitled On Representation and Expression, whose 800 manuscript pages are even now turning to peat in my loft. I think I got more pleasure in barking up this Sequoia than I have out of many less vulnerable ideas I have since entertained. I really did feel I was on the verge of a revised Picture Theory that would somehow solve all the problems that I, Wittgenstein, and ten thousand others had found in it. You may think that my soul is a many-layered anorak, but if there is such a thing as purely intellectual happiness, I knew it then.

Linguistic Investigations

What happened to me during the years in which I spent the free time left over from my work as a doctor writing On Representation and Expression, was that I gradually noticed more and more of the blindingly obvious. The later Wittgenstein – repudiator of the Picture Theory and the author of the posthumously-published Philosophical Investigations (1953) – was my chief guide. These are some of the things about language that only a philosopher would need reminding of: that words do not simply map on to the material components of states of affairs because not all words are names of objects; that different kinds of words do different kinds of jobs – the word ‘the’ in ‘The cat is on the mat’ is not employed in the way that ‘cat’ or ‘on’ are employed; and that words, anyway, don’t work in isolation, as if each were bringing its own discrete semantic payload to the sentence. Furthermore, propositions as materialised in sentences may be used to do different things: to refer to an actual state of affairs, to propose a possible state of affairs, and to deny a state of affairs. And that is just a small part of what we do with words, as J.L. Austin pointed out. For utterances do not merely report or deny facts: they have an illocutionary force – an active function such as making an assertion, giving an order, promising, questioning, threatening, reassuring and so on; and they have a perlocutionary force, which is what they bring about – the most obvious being a question eliciting an answer.

In Philosophical Investigations Wittgenstein also reminded himself, and hence me, that we use language for all sorts of purposes that do not figure in text books of philosophical logic – to curse, to bless, to greet, and so on. Speech can be the verbal equivalent of gesturing. In a famous true story, Wittgenstein finally fell out of love with the Picture Theory of propositions when his most forceful opponent, the economist Pierro Sraffa, made a well-known Neapolitan gesture of contempt, brushing his hand under his chin, and challenged Wittgenstein to specify its logical form. And that was that.

The title of the manuscript that grew out of my wandering search for the essence of language, On Representation and Expression, in a sense summarised the trajectory I had taken. I had begun in a state of excitement at the notion that language represented the world in a way that could itself be represented, and I ended by acknowledging that language was essentially a mode of human expression – and what’s more, one that made sense not as a discrete system built out of self-contained word-packets, but as something inextricably caught up in our irreducibly complex lives. I didn’t, however, buy the later Wittgenstein’s notion of language as a nexus of ‘games’. That conception seemed too shallow and too arbitrary to capture the function of something so profound, so serious, and so central to our lives. In short, as the end of youth faded into early middle age I became a disappointed late Wittgensteinian, and a disappointed man.

Beyond Words

In the 1980s I came across post-structuralism, post-modernism, literary theory and the works of characters such as Jacques Derrida, and disillusionment was replaced with rage. These people wanted to tell us that ‘there is nothing outside of the text’ – that the linguistic representation of an extra-linguistic reality was an illusion. “Tell that to a junior doctor responding to the message ‘Cardiac arrest, Ward 6’” I thought. Their reasons combined bad philosophy and bad linguistics, and their appeal in some cases to the later Wittgenstein and the later Austin to prop up their claims would have disgusted all of Wittgenstein and all of Austin. Though I couldn’t bear to return to my manuscript, I was goaded into trying to formulate an account of how it is that language refers to (half way between representation and expression) a world. I won’t detain you with the theory I developed in Not Saussure: A Critique of Post-Saussurean Literary Theory (available in all good bookshops), except to say that it was an advance on the nonsense that passed for philosophy in English Literature departments. It didn’t, however, take me to the promised land I glimpsed when I first read the Tractatus.

No-one who is not mad (or not pretending to believe post-structuralism) will question that discourse reaches outside of itself. Even so, there is a real problem: language has its own properties and ways, which are distant from the ways and properties of the world – in particular, from what we parcel off as ‘the material world’, which blinds us with bright lights and hurts us when we bang our shins. Utterances pick up and run with ‘takes’ on what is before us, so that, for example, we can refer to the cat as ‘that furry animal’, ‘that pest’, ‘Smith’s favourite feline’. And we can refer to it in order to give an instance of some kind of entity, or to illustrate the process of making reference to an entity, or for a multitude of other reasons. Yet there is something outside of the takes. There are also constraints on how we can verbally take things. ‘Smith’s favourite feline’ cannot be correctly referred to as ‘a bowl of custard’ except in some tortured metaphorical sense.

The loose relationship between what is out there and what we say is loosened further by the different ways we use words. We can speak simply to play with the relationships between the sounds and meanings of words, as when we pun; we can enjoy the music of words as we create those enchanting lexical contraptions called poems; we can assume regional accents in order to make classes of speakers present through stereotypes; we can say the opposite of what we mean in order to tease, mock, and frolic in a thousand modes of irony; and we can play with dissonant linguistic registers, as Samuel Beckett does when he has characters in rags discoursing in Mandarin prose from ditches. Inflation – ‘Thanks a million’, ‘I died a thousand deaths’ – is the stuff of everyday discourse. And, elevated on balloons of words, we can, as in philosophy, seem to transcend everything there is, including ourselves, when we use terms such as ‘life’, ‘the universe’ and ‘everything’. The endless foldings of meta-language – discourse that refers to discourse – even throw up words such as ‘word’ and ‘language’, and phrases such as ‘the relationship between language and the world’.

There is no sharp demarcation between that which belongs to language and that which belongs to what language is about – no straight, crooked, or even continuous coastline between the sea of language and the land of things. While reality is not inside language, it is not simply outside it, either.

How distant that simple Picture notion of the relationship between propositions and states of affairs now seems! There is a long, winding path from seemingly basic propositions such as ‘The cat sat on the mat’ to expressions such as ‘Okey doke’. To think of this is to be reminded of how deep and complex we are. Thanks a million, therefore, to the man who said “Okey doke” and sent me down memory lane.

© Prof. Raymond Tallis 2009

Raymond Tallis is a physician, philosopher, poet and novelist. His latest book Michelangelo’s Finger: An Exploration of Everyday Transcendence is published by Atlantic.

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