- Rhetorical Investigations: Studies in Ordinary Language Criticism, and: Ordinary Language Criticism: Literary Thinking after Cavell after Wittgenstein
On the question of ordinary language criticism and philosophy, "Who pleases whom?" Judging by many of the articles, essays, and books of the last decade the answer might be: almost nobody pleases anyone. Whether in appreciation or incomprehension of its importance and substance, renewed efforts at understanding, redirections of thinking, and disappointments and frustrations with the [End Page 209] subject-matter are prevalent when ordinary language is the topic of discussion. These two recent books tend to strengthen this assessment. Rhetorical Investigations is a sustained effort to "revisit" and "rethink" grammatical (conceptual) reflections on ordinary language and literature; and in so doing provide a "reinvention" of characteristics of literary theory through an extensive and detailed consideration of the work of Robert Frost. Although sometimes overreaching in its efforts (particularly when discussing logic), it imaginatively uses rhetoric and ordinary language concerns as a means of direction and focus for new, explanatory discussions in literary—philosophical analysis. Ordinary Language Criticism (part of the general series, "Rethinking Theory," edited by Gary Saul Morson) is a diverse and uneven collection of fifteen articles concerning and using ordinary language interests, several of which (R. M. Berry, Garry L. Hagberg, Richard Eldridge, Gerald L. Bruns) valuably repay the diligence needed to discover them in 350 plus pages. The text includes an editors' introduction that voices the wish to "return criticism to its grounds in the 'ordinary' or natural language we all speak" and (unsuccessfully but lustily) pronounces and explains "ordinary language criticism" as a new yet traditional area of study. ("New" in that it takes "as its point of departure" the ordinary language philosophy of Wittgenstein, and "traditional" in that "all criticism is really ordinary language criticism.") The editors further undertake in this introduction the endeavor to sketch something of a program for the book, meant to show connected promptings among the various writings, whereas the specific authors themselves settle down quickly and separately to a critical work at hand without particular references to each other. Both of these texts, like others in this field of study before, valuably raise questions and apprehensions of what use there is in talk about ordinary language. The best of such material provides provocations for thinking that are to be found nowhere else. The worst of such books and articles is that they prejudice sensible people against the study of the ordinary.
Can one conceive of something to say about these two books that the authors and the current readers haven't already heard or of which they can be profitably reminded? It certainly would not be wise to presume such a grand stand. This is a large question to which only a small answer might be given here. Setting aside the perhaps undiscussable differences of what we each see of primary importance in the primary texts and how best to read them, one issue and difference of understanding, specific and plain enough to state briefly, perhaps usefully does arise. It is a lack of a clear sense of the "ordinary," its distinctiveness, its implications; and thereby a continuation of many of the confusions that have inhabited philosophical and literary writing before and after Wittgenstein turned his attention to the matter. Is this not partly why frustrations of understanding, disagreements in thinking, and displeasures in discussion remain pervasive and unrelenting?
This difficulty and difference with such work can only prove worthwhile introducing, however, against a background of agreement over the centrality [End Page 210] of a cluster of issues, of which three might be specified: a first agreement concerns the sensitivity or fear that something is being missed or remains unintelligible in the culture about the ordinary; a respect for the ordinary is a needed, often unnoticed beginning of our reflections. Rhetorical Investigations importantly develops its analyses from such a perspective (Jost's...