A Cultural History of Causality: Science, Murder Novels, and Systems of Thought

By Stephen Kern | Go to book overview

3
Language

FROM 1830 to the early twentieth century, most leading thinkers believed that language was a challenging but adequate instrument for communicating ideas.1 Although they knew that specific vocabularies and grammars dictated how ideas were expressed, they did not seriously consider that those linguistic elements substantially shaped the substance of their ideas and, even less, the nature of the very experience that they used that language to describe. In that sense they believed that language communicated rather than generated experiences and ideas. Romantics had celebrated the creative (or, to use a modern term, “performative”) function of language following Kant’s theory of the creative role of the mind in constituting reality, but that thinking was primarily limited to philosophers and poets and did not influence the realist novelists.2 The realists were acutely aware of the difficulty of finding the right words, as Flaubert acknowledged in Madame Bovary with an unforgettable image: “Human speech is like a cracked kettle on which we tap crude rhythms for bears to dance to, while we long to make music that will melt the stars” (216). But even though he struggled mightily to express himself, he did not think that the structure of language itself played a major role in constituting the thoughts he used it to convey.3

The growing awareness of the causal role of language in understanding and experiencing the world came to be known among philosophers as “the linguistic turn.”4 This movement originated with Bertrand Russell, G. E. Moore, Rudolf Carnap, and Ludwig Wittgenstein, who came to see philosophy not as a direct study of thought and reality but as a study of the ways that thought and reality are constituted by language. Historians of philosophy commonly date this turn from Wittgenstein’s statement in 1922, “All philosophy is a ‘critique of language.’”5 Its enormous significance was noted by George Steiner, who concluded that until the late nineteenth century, the most biting skeptics remained confident in the ability of language to put their case in the form of intelligible propositions. One of the great skeptics about

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A Cultural History of Causality: Science, Murder Novels, and Systems of Thought
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents vii
  • Acknowledgments ix
  • Introduction 1
  • 1 - Ancestry 27
  • 2 - Childhood 64
  • 3 - Language 108
  • 4 - Sexuality 147
  • 5 - Emotion 189
  • 6 - Mind 226
  • 7 - Society 266
  • 8 - Ideas 304
  • Conclusion 359
  • Notes 377
  • Bibliography 419
  • Index 425
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