Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Challenging Prescriptions for Discourse: Seneca's Use of Paradox and Oxymoron

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Challenging Prescriptions for Discourse: Seneca's Use of Paradox and Oxymoron

Article excerpt

In the 1930s two works appeared which profoundly shaped the way in which philosophy in the Anglo-American world would be written: Rudolf Carnap's "Uberwindung der Metaphysik durch logische Analyse der Sprache" (1932) - "The Elimination of Metaphysics through Logical Analysis of Language" - and Alfred Ayer's Language, Truth and Logic (1936). Since their primary goal was to discredit metaphysics as a philosophical enterprise, these works seem to have at first glance little to do with philosophical writing per se. Both, however, offered a linguistic critique of metaphysics which proved to be much more than a general criticism of certain isolated presuppositions of this philosophical subdiscipline itself. Their criticism in fact offered a model for philosophical writing, and what began as a criticism of metaphysics turned out to be a sweeping vision not only of the proper office of philosophy but also of the form of expression best befitting philosophical inquiry.

Both Carnap and Ayer argued that certain kinds of statements which they viewed as "metaphysical" were in fact meaningless. Their goal was to show that metaphysics was a bankrupt discipline because it consisted of pseudo-statements devoid of real signification. They illustrated their contention by excerpting "metaphysical" statements from thinkers such as Bradley, Hegel, and Heidegger and showing how they failed to match up to certain criteria for meaningfulness and intelligibility. For example, one of the "truth conditions" that Carnap and Ayer stipulate is the ability on the part of the listener to know what would count as an affirmation or contradiction of the claim in question. Carnap refers to this as the "criterion of application" and uses the example of the imaginary word "teavy." If we were to ask the speaker what things are "teavy" and what things are not, and he were unable to respond adequately, then we would not know how to employ the new word or under what conditions it would be correctly or incorrectly applied. According to Carnap, "If no criterion of application for the word is stipulated, then nothing is asserted by the sentences in which it occurs," and he concludes that such sentences "are but pseudo-statements" (64). Ayer calls this the "criterion of verifiability," which he explains as follows: "The criterion which we use to test the genuineness of apparent statements of fact is the criterion of verifiability. We say that a sentence is factually significant to any given person, if, and only if, he knows how to verify the proposition which it purports to express - that is, if he knows what observations would lead him, under certain conditions, to accept the proposition as being true, or reject it as being false" (35). Like Carnap, Ayer claims that if this criterion for verifiability is not met, then the proposition at issue is "a mere pseudo-statement." The thesis about verifiability and truth conditions is at the center of both Carnap's and Ayer's position, and it allows them to criticize the metaphysicians via a critique of what they pejoratively designate as "metaphysical language."

The view espoused by both Carnap and Ayer rests on the positivistic presupposition that the goal of philosophical or scientific language is to try to mirror as clearly as possible a non-linguistic empirical reality that allegedly is freely available to everyone beforehand. The all-important criterion of verifiability implies a primordial common ground of experience against which we can compare and test our linguistic utterances, which are only secondary to it, and the implication in turn is that writing is important only to the degree that it is able to express clearly and communicate what is the case about the world. Thus, Ayer says, "if a work of science contains true and important propositions, its value as a work of science will hardly be diminished by the fact that they are inelegantly expressed" (45). Hence form and style are no longer regarded as consequential, and the transmission of meaning or content becomes paramount. …

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