Out of the Quagmire of Words: Ordinary Language Philosophy and Literary Study

By V. Joshua AdamsNovember 22, 2017

Out of the Quagmire of Words: Ordinary Language Philosophy and Literary Study

Revolution of the Ordinary by Toril Moi

IN 1979, the California poet Robert Hass published his now-famous poem, “Meditation at Lagunitas.” Hass’s poem criticized poststructuralist literary theory (which he called “the new thinking”) for disregarding particulars in favor of “the luminous clarity of a general idea,” and for adopting a pathologically mournful philosophy of language in which “a word is elegy to what it signifies.” As a consequence of this sort of thinking, Hass wrote, “everything dissolves: justice, / pine, hair, woman, you and I.” This eloquent lament did not stop the rise of literary theory (neither did Steven Knapp and Walter Benn Michaels’s blistering essay “Against Theory,” published a few years later). And, although much has changed in the intervening years — theory is no longer all “about loss,” in Hass’s words — the place of theory in the academy seems secure. Fewer people may “do” theory now, but it survives as a kind of conventional wisdom, a default approach to how literary scholars treat language and read texts.

Nevertheless, if theory was as problematic as Hass’s poem intimated 40 years ago, shouldn’t we be more suspicious of the conventional wisdom that is its legacy? According to Toril Moi, the answer is yes. Her important new book, Revolution of the Ordinary, makes a case for rejecting the approach to language that the “theory project” produced. Like the speaker of Hass’s poem, Moi believes that the way literary theories think about language has corrosive ethical and political consequences. Unlike Hass, she does not counter theory with poetry. Nor does she offer a substitute theory to correct the problems of the old. Instead, she looks to philosophy, particularly to “ordinary language philosophy” — by which she means the work of Ludwig Wittgenstein and, to a lesser extent, J. L. Austin, as interpreted by Stanley Cavell. For Moi, this philosophical constellation promises to renovate literary studies by reconnecting our language to the world from which theory severed it.

Ordinary language philosophy is unfamiliar terrain to literary scholars, and it is not always easy for graduate students in literature to get training in this work and its context. To wit: A friend asked to audit a philosophy seminar on the Philosophical Investigations taught by a rising star in the field. The professor replied that, as a graduate student in English, she was welcome to attend, but only if she remained completely silent! So Moi begins her book in an expository mode, introducing her readers to some fundamental ideas in Wittgenstein’s philosophy of language, with particular attention to his concepts of “use,” “language games,” “forms of life,” and “grammar.” The rest of her book attempts to show how these concepts can help literary scholars adopt what Moi calls “the spirit of the ordinary.”

Whether or not we want this “spirit of the ordinary,” or should have it, are obviously important questions. Gilles Deleuze once accused Wittgensteinians of being “assassins of philosophy.” You don’t need to be this melodramatic to recognize the challenge that a “spirit of the ordinary” might pose to philosophy or to literary studies as traditionally practiced. There is a sense in which taking words as they are ordinarily meant is incompatible not just with literature, but with the study of literature — and not just with the study of literature but with study, period. For what would be the point of studying something that you already know? To suggest that literary studies should move toward the “spirit of the ordinary” is to swim against a long current of thinking in which literature and interpretation go hand in glove. Hence the impatience and incomprehension that appeals to ordinary language philosophy often meet with in literature departments.

To sell literary scholars on “the ordinary,” then, it’s important to get this word right. As Moi notes, it can easily lead to misunderstandings. Unfortunately, she is a little vague on her key term. She cites the philosopher Richard Fleming’s formulation, in which the “ordinary” in “ordinary language philosophy” does not mean “unreflective, conventional common sense” but rather, “the exemplary, the public, the shared,” or, more grandly, the “necessary order of our common existence.” And yet, as Moi indicates, there is more to the term than this. The appeal to ordinary language is also embedded in an activity: Moi mentions the “spirit or attitude” in which Wittgenstein carries out his investigations. These investigations complicate the way that philosophy traditionally operates. They do not attempt to see through the veil of appearance. Rather, they move in the opposite direction, seeing the attempt to penetrate the veil of appearance in the name of such clarity as the source of philosophical difficulties in the first place. “[W]hat we do,” writes Wittgenstein, “is to bring words back from their metaphysical to their everyday use.”

Ordinary language philosophy thus struggles with traditional philosophy on a very basic level. As Cavell remarks (and Moi quotes), this is an “intimate” conflict. Though she is admirably candid about the difficulties in making Wittgenstein’s vision of language available to literary scholars, Moi’s own text does not preserve the intimacy of this conflict, either with traditional philosophy or with literary studies. Although she is indebted to his interpretation of Wittgenstein, Moi largely ignores Cavell’s penetrating insight that Wittgenstein is everywhere engaged in an almost obsessive struggle with the “truth of skepticism,” nor does she address the formal or literary qualities that many commentators, including ordinary language philosophers, have found crucial to understanding Wittgenstein’s work. All of this is at least ironic, given that one of the major themes of Revolution of the Ordinary is that literary scholars should follow Wittgenstein’s attentiveness to the ways in which questions about the meaning of words can be answered by attending to their use.

There is a further problem with “ordinary.” Despite her enthusiasm for the term, Moi’s attempt to “use Wittgenstein’s thought” to do work in literary studies deviates from the most significant and controversial aspects of the “ordinary” reading of Wittgenstein that she otherwise claims to embrace, namely that, rightly and resolutely understood, “Wittgenstein’s thought” is not a set of tools with which to do work, but nonsense. And not a special kind of illuminating nonsense, but nonsense tout court. Here he is at the end of the Tractatus:

My propositions serve as elucidations in the following way: anyone who understands me eventually recognizes them as nonsensical, when he has used them — as steps — to climb beyond them. (He must, so to speak, throw away the ladder after he has climbed up it.)

If we take the “ordinary” reading of the Tractatus seriously, then there is no question of using Wittgenstein’s thought to do anything except leave that thought behind.

Do these interpretive problems surrounding “ordinary” matter? After all, Revolution of the Ordinary is not a book of philosophy or an interpretation of Wittgenstein. It is an attempt to renovate literary studies. So, for literary scholars, the interpretive problems really only matter insofar as they impede the book’s use. They don’t completely do this, but they do end up revealing something problematic about the ends of Moi’s revolution, something that will keep many from signing up.


Revolution of the Ordinary falls into three parts. After introducing the key concepts, the first third of Moi’s book concludes by contrasting this rough-and-ready philosophy of language with the “classical” one governing movements in contemporary theory — particularly deconstruction and intersectionality. The middle third draws out further differences between a Wittgensteinian philosophy of language and the one that contemporary theory extracts from the talismanic notes of Ferdinand de Saussure’s Course in General Linguistics. The final third covers a grab bag of issues, including the compatibility of ordinary language philosophy with radical politics, the hermeneutics of suspicion, and the idea of texts as expressive actions (rather than objects or representations), before concluding with an appeal to the Cavellian idea of “acknowledgment” as a way of explaining how modern writers might help us produce an “ethics of attention.”

As local interventions, some of these are more convincing than others. The criticism of deconstruction’s handling of concepts, and intersectionality’s handling of identity, are particularly strong. So too the analysis of the “materialist” reading of Saussure, which shows how contemporary Saussureans collapse reference, implausibly, into signification (recognizing a sign is not the same thing as understanding what someone means by using that sign). These readings reveal the power of Wittgenstein’s famous remark, which also serves as the book’s epigraph: “A picture held us captive. And we couldn’t get outside it, for it lay in our language, and language seemed only to repeat it to us inexorably.” Following Wittgenstein’s example doesn’t help us see through texts to a deeper truth, but rather, it reminds us how theories produce certain results by making assumptions that are not necessary.

And yet, because these pictures lie in our language, it is hard to see them clearly. Some of Moi’s other interventions are not as convincing, and I found myself wondering what sort of pictures might imprison her own language. At first one of those pictures seemed to be a kind of excessive timidity with respect to her subject. Intent on showing the differences between ordinary language philosophy and contemporary theory, she initially seems not to see that, when it comes to making a substantive argument, that’s only a preliminary task. It’s not enough to show that attention to Wittgenstein, Austin, and Cavell produces a very different approach to language and literary interpretation than most theory does. Why does literary studies need transformation in the first place? And why transform it in the way Moi suggests? Though Moi is right that it is difficult to get poststructuralists and ordinary language philosophers on the same page, she doesn’t structure her book in a way that might achieve this. Revolution of the Ordinary would have been more effective if it began by explaining how the “theory project” fails and then outlining how ordinary language philosophy might succeed. Instead, it assumes what it needs to show.

Moi is cagy about putting her cards on the table. She has a good hand, but some of her cards are wild. Sixty pages in, rebooting her argument after leading her readers through a thicket of Wittgenstein, she writes:

Ordinary language philosophy […] clears the ground for ways of thinking that are more attentive to particulars, to individual experience, more attuned to the ways we actually use language, more open to the questions thrown up by actual human lives, than the standard attempts to “do theory.”

Here we see some of the grand ambitions, but also the grand tendentiousness, of Revolution of the Ordinary. Beyond her assumption that theory has failed, Moi also makes some startling assumptions about what theory was supposed to have accomplished. Grant that ordinary language philosophy is what Moi says it is, and can do what she says it can do better than “doing theory” can. Put aside the important political question of whether literary scholars should think primarily about individual experiences and not collective ones. Why should “doing theory” in literary studies be accountable to the ways we actually use language in, and to questions thrown up by, actual human lives — as opposed to the use of language in, and questions thrown up by, literary texts? Beyond challenging the ways that literary studies thinks about language, Moi challenges the distinction between literature and life.

The warrant for treating literature as directly responsible to life does not come from ordinary language philosophy but (in Moi’s case, anyway) from the existentialism of Sartre and de Beauvoir. Revolution of the Ordinary reverses the polarity of literary history, so that the ethical concerns of existentialism supplant the formal concerns of structuralism (or poststructuralism). Here, however, the interpretive problems around “ordinary,” and the inevitability of interpretation itself, are not just ironies but obstacles. It’s only because Moi flattens the struggle of ordinary language philosophy into what she calls “emphasizing the importance of the ordinary” that she can deploy it in this revanchist project. The literary antiformalism of Sartre and de Beauvoir does not mesh with the ways in which Wittgenstein and Austin assumed the distinctiveness of literature, particularly poetry, from speech. It does mesh, to a degree, with Cavell’s general approach to literature; but Cavell, for reasons having to do with his obsession with skepticism, produces work that is sensitive to formal considerations in a way that the existentialists were (understandably) not.

Moi’s few discussions of literature in Revolution of the Ordinary suggest that she does not view literary texts themselves as cases with relevant particularity to which we might attend. Rather, the particularity resides in the experience that those texts occasion for the reader. Access to these experiences seems, implausibly, to require no interpretation. And the aesthetic judgment it involves is minimal. Paraphrasing de Beauvoir late in the book, she writes: “Literature allows us to see the world as it appears to another, not by becoming them, but by being able to let ourselves be imaginatively absorbed by the vision offered by the literary work.” How much one needs to do to even understand the vision of the literary work! Moi assures us that de Beauvoir’s stance is not necessarily naïve. That’s at least debatable. What’s not debatable is that literary artifacts, in this formulation, are transparent to the point of disappearance. Reading in “the spirit of the ordinary” allows ethics to subsume aesthetics once and for all.


To some degree, this is the foregone conclusion of all attempts to philosophize literature. Philosophers make arguments. Literary critics make arguments, too, of course, but they do so about works of art, which are not just arguments, hence the difficulty of turning art into knowledge. Cavell is not remarkable among philosophers for the way in which he avoids this difficulty but for his willingness to extend the consequences of it both ways. Remember the words that conclude The Claim of Reason’s tour-de-force reading of Othello: “[C]an philosophy become literature and still know itself?” Shakespeare knows something about the connection between skepticism and tragedy that philosophy does not know. Coming to know it might transform philosophy into something it does not recognize.

Though Moi dedicates her book to Cavell, she reads as more sympathetic to the traditional philosophical position than he ever does. Her appeal to a version of ordinary language philosophy effects a transformation in literary studies, but it is a literary studies without literature. Thus strong and legitimate criticisms of the theory project come at a price that most literary scholars will be unwilling to pay. Once literary artifacts are as transparent as they appear to be for Moi, is there any reason for literary studies to exist as its own discipline, and not an annex of philosophy? Is this really what we need — even less of a justification for what we do?

Revolution of the Ordinary’s willingness to pay this high price makes more sense when we attend to its author’s politics, particularly her sense of the heroic political responsibility of intellectuals. At the beginning of her book, Moi explains, “In a world in which politicians have long since begun openly to exhibit their disdain for the ‘reality-based community,’ in which ‘truthiness’ constantly threatens to take the place of truth, it is crucial to recover a sense of the value of words.” She echoes this warning in her final chapter, where she also expands on it in revealing ways:

When politicians, advertisers, bureaucrats, academics produce a quagmire of words that don’t mean anything, their words serve one purpose: to make us acquiesce in ideas, actions, and projects we don’t actually understand. This is as dangerous for intellectual life as it is for democracy.

In such a situation we need a philosophically serious alternative to theories promoting the idea that language is in some fundamental way disconnected from reality. […] As I have shown in this book, ordinary language philosophy provides such an alternative.

These passages account for Moi’s willingness to jettison the literary. Any stance toward language that does not reinforce the connection between words and reality effectively complies with a political project of deception and manipulation on a vast scale. Such are the true stakes of Revolution of the Ordinary.

I happen to think these stakes are exaggerated, that even if the intellectual classes as a whole believed that language was disconnected from reality “in some fundamental way” — whatever that means — it would hardly constitute a danger to intellectual life, since a language that was totally disconnected from reality could not exist. More problematically for the coherence of Moi’s argument, however, putting her politics front and center shows how far she is, really, from the “spirit of the ordinary” that she supposedly seeks. You don’t need to be an ordinary language philosopher to grasp the contradiction in claiming that, on the one hand, nefarious parties are producing a “quagmire of words that don’t mean anything,” and, on the other hand, that they are doing this in order to make us “acquiesce in ideas, actions, and projects we don’t actually understand.” If the words don’t mean anything, how could we know they served a purpose, let alone that this purpose was dangerous? The danger to intellectual life and to democracy does not come from quagmires of meaningless words. It comes from words with meaning, and the people who speak those words. Our president, for example.

Moi’s politics, or, rather, her weighty sense of political responsibility, decisively shape her stance toward literature and theory in ways that estrange her from the tradition of philosophy she wants to claim as an ally, and they block her from appreciating (let alone valuing) the tendency of literature to resist the domestications of reason and the reality principle. Given that “so many powerful persons and institutions have a vested interest in making us lose faith in language’s power to respond to and reveal reality,” she writes, “precise and attentive use of words is an act of resistance.” I don’t doubt that this could be true, from a certain modest, sober, liberal perspective. But this view of politics and aesthetics is captive to its own picture of the world. For Moi, responding to power requires revealing the reality it obscures. But what about playing with that reality, reimagining it, changing it? Sometimes the ordinary is not enough.


V. Joshua Adams is a poet, translator, and critic, as well as a former editor of Chicago Review. He teaches at the University of Louisville, where he is working on a book on impersonality and skepticism in modern writing. For more information, visit vjoshuaadams.com.

LARB Contributor

V. Joshua Adams is a poet, translator, and critic, as well as a former editor of Chicago Review. He teaches at the University of Louisville, where he is working on a book on impersonality and skepticism in modern writing. For more information, visit vjoshuaadams.com.


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