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Well, I suppose this is one of the major topics in philosophy these days, isn't it? You take a subset of your own beliefs which you hold with high confidence, and notice that other people in similar epistemic situations have held contrary beliefs with equal confidence. Do you reduce your confidence? If you think so, then given each of your beliefs can be denied by a possible thinker, how do you avoid global skepticism?

There is a view, a distinctly Hegelian one, which denies one of the premises in the argument. It goes like this: each age has its own problems grounded in its own presuppositions, and when philosophers as a group tend to feel that real progress is being made on those problems from their vantage point in history, then that is a golden age. Stagnation is also possible, given the problems and presuppositions of a particular group of people.

I suppose I am tempted by this view: we should recognize that Strawson, Ryle and Austin were inhabiting a world which we literally cannot inhabit. We should retain confidence in our views precisely because they are more appropriate to our vantage point in history. Perhaps this will be seen as a form of "relativism" about philosophical truth, but given that no-one knows what the hell philosophical truth is anyway, I'm doubtful that this kind of relativism is particularly bothersome.


Following up on Joe's post, I might add that the standard, present-day understanding of ordinary language philosophy is likely a caricature. (I realize Marcus mentioned OLP just to illustrate a broader point, but the worry about "misbegotten projects" might be lessened, if it was inspired by the caricature.)

Here is a surprisingly moderate statement from Austin about philosophy and ordinary language:

"Certainly ordinary language has no claim to be the last word, if there is such a thing. It embodies, indeed, something better than the metaphysics of the Stone Age, namely...the inherited experience and acumen of many generations of men. But then, that acumen has been concentrated primarily upon the practical business of life. If a distinction works well for practical purposes in ordinary life (no mean feat, for even ordinary life is full of hard cases), then there is sure to be something in it, it will not mark nothing: yet this is likely enough to be not the best way of arranging things if our interests are more extensive or intellectual than ordinary...[E]rror and fantasy of all kinds do become incorporated in ordinary language and even sometimes stand up to the survival test...Certainly, then, ordinary language is not the last word: in principle it can everywhere be supplemented and improved upon and superseded. Only remember, it is the first word."

from 'A Plea for Excuses', reprinted in Austin's _Philosophical Papers, 2e_ OUP, 1970, p. 185

Marcus Arvan

Joe: I'm not sure the analogy is all that apt. The thing about philosophical fads -- at least as far as I can tell -- is that just about everyone at a given point in time seems to buy into them. So, for example, analytic metaphysics is really running strong right now. On the flip side, *opposition* to analytic metaphysics was all the rage in the time of ordinary language philosophy. This question I'm asking isn't: when two philosophers disagree, and both have roughly the same epistemic standing, how should they respond? Which is a big question today. My question is rather: how should any of us go about determining, at any given point in time, whether some dominant philosophical program is likely to be fad?

Also, you raise a worry about truth, but this isn't what I'm worried about either. I'm more concerned about *longevity*. Plato may have written a lot of false things, but he had lasting impact. Ordinary language philosophy, on the other hand, seems more like a flash in the pan. Myself, I wouldn't be embarrassed of how I spent my life if I ended up defending something completely false but nevertheless interesting. I *would* be embarrassed if I spent my philosophical life working within a paradigm that is so misbegotten that it was almost a complete waste of time.


Hi Marcus,

Now I'm a little confused by your framing of the question. You now suggest that it is not about justification or truth. But your use of the phrases "fad", "misbegotten" and "flash in the pan" suggest otherwise: the fact that OLP has declined is described in explicitly evaluative terms. Moreover, in the OP you say that people were "taken with" OLP, and you say that you are "right with our discipline's rejection of ordinary language philosophy." You define a fad as a "waste of time", and oppose it to a "golden age" which is itself defined in terms of genuine philosophical progress. And you conclude by suggesting that "we should be a bit more humble about our judgments of what is "good" and "not good", which only follows if your question itself is connected with truth or justification.

So, if you really just want to ask a merely sociological question, that's fine, but I think I was licensed in concluding from your original post that the question concerned evaluation as well.

Thomas D. Carroll

"I am also, on the whole, right with our discipline's rejection of ordinary language philosophy. Just as I think some metaphysics is a mistake, telling us more about concepts than the world, so too do I think it is a mistake to think that all (or most) philosophical problems are nothing more than abuses of language."

Hi Marcus, in reading your very interesting post, I found myself puzzling over the lines above. What is the scope of "our discipline" and "OLP"? Has it really rejected OLP? I tend to think of the discipline of philosophy as a fairly diverse collection of sometimes overlapping conversations. OLP (whatever that might be I suppose depends on the interlocutors in question) still has a foothold, if a small one, in the discipline.

The sociological question about fads in philosophy is very interesting, and also troubling. Of course, philosophers who embrace a small role in the piecemeal approach of analytic philosophy might view their labors as valuable to the discipline even if the research program under which they labored is later abandoned (by most). That kind of labor might not be satisfying for everyone though (and I take it from your post, maybe not for you).

A very good book on some perhaps related issues is Richard Popkin's The History of Scepticism: From Savonarola to Bayle (2003). I realize that in this post, you were not troubled by skepticism about the truth question so much as about the longevity question; the book addresses the early modern history of the former. Even so, I doubt the two are unrelated.

Marcus Arvan

Hi Joe: I guess I don't really know how to separate out the evaluative question from the sociological one. For better or for worse, I tend to think of "progress" in broadly historical terms, where "good" ideas are simply those that stand the test of time, inspiring a lot of interesting work over the long run. On this construal, OLP certainly hasn't stood the test of time, and I'm interested in whether we can know, at any given time, which ideas are likely to.

Hi Thomas: thanks for your comment. I'm not exactly sure what the scope of the claim is. I was just gesturing toward a clear trend (viz. there may be some hangers-on to OLP, but the discipline as a whole has surely moved on, no?).

Anyway, you're probably right about the stuff in the second paragraph of your post. There may be people out there who would be content working as under-laborers in a research program that is eventually abandoned -- but I'm not one of them. ;)

Also, thanks for the reference to the Popkin book. I hope to check it out!

elisa freschi

An interesting post in defense of OLP:



Somewhat late but I wanted to add a few thoughts, as I've previously read OLP things and this history and thought about it a bit.
• Although OLP was not a good theory, it may be a good method. Many very interesting ideas came about from Ryle, Strawson, Austin, Anscombe, Wittgenstein etc that were fostered in this time. I think that ordinary language type investigations proved surprisingly fruitful in some respects.
• Nobody knows how widely believed the OLP thing was. It had two main schools: Oxford and Cambridge, which are bound to be over-emphasized in history and publications. I believe very few people in the U.S., Scandinavia, etc, we're persuaded by the approach to begin with. It's high profile adherents made it popular.

There's another good book I can link that has interviews done after the fact, like a couple years, and is very interesting. Would have to dig for it though.

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