Words and Things

Words and Things

Words and Things

Words and Things

Excerpt

Mr. Gellner's Book of Words and Things deserves the gratitude of all who cannot accept the linguistic philosophy now in vogue at Oxford. It is difficult to guess how much immediate effect the book is likely to have; the power of fashion is great, and even the most cogent arguments fail to convince if they are not in line with the trend of current opinion. But, whatever may be the first reaction to Mr. Gellner's arguments, it seems highly probable--to me, at least--that they will gradually be accorded their due weight.

The first part of his book consists of a careful analysis of the arguments upon which linguistic philosophers rely. He sets forth what he calls "The Four Pillars" of the theory of language which forms the basis of the philosophy in question. The first of these four pillars he calls "the argument from the Paradigm Case". This consists in reasoning from the actual use of words to answers to philosophical problems, or from a conflict in actual uses to the falsehood of a philosophical theory. Mr. Gellner quotes as an example of this argument what some, at least, of the linguistic philosophers regard as a solution of the free-will problem. When a man marries without external compulsion, we may say, "he did it of his own free will". There is, therefore, a linguistically correct use of the words "free will", and therefore there is free will. No one can deny that this is an easy way to solve age-old problems. The second of the four pillars consists in inferring values from the actual use of words. The third, which is called "the Contrast Theory of meaning", maintains that a term only has meaning if there is something that it does not cover. The fourth, which is called "Polymorphism", maintains that, since words have many uses, general assertions about the uses of words are impossible. All these four pillars assume that common speech is sacrosanct, and that it is impious to suppose it capable of improvement. This fundamental dogma, it is not thought necessary to establish.

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