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Critical Discussion Spreading the Word: Groundings in the Philosophy of Language, by Simon Blackburn; xi & 368 pp. Oxford : Clarendon Press, 1984, $32.00 cloth, $11.50 paper. Discussed by Peter Lamarque DO YOU hold a dog-legged theory of meaning? Are you a cognitive imperialist? Do you belong to a bent community? Or a wooden one? Are you on the side of the bleak or the homely interpreter? Such riddles are the very stuff of Spreading the Word. But the catchy formulations belie a content of intense seriousness. Here is a book at once stylish and difficult, profound and often profoundly elusive. The subject is philosophy oflanguage and sure enough there are discussions of, among other things, meaning, truth, reference, rules, conventions , and metaphors. But Blackburn's purpose is wider. The philosophy of language becomes the language of philosophy. "A theory of language," he writes, "is likely to affect any metaphysics or epistemology, but they in turn affect most of our ideas about language" (p. 7). The book is divided into two parts, "Our Language and Ourselves" and "Language and the World." Blackburn's mission is to promote the philosophy oflanguage as a pivotal enquiry in the attempt "to obtain some stable conception of this triangle of speaker, language, and world" (p. 3). His title "Spreading the Word" has its clear evangelical sense. But the title also alludes to a specific program. Hume spoke of the mind "spreading itself on the world." He saw us as projecting onto nature "the colours borrowed from internal sentiment." For Blackburn this "spreading " or projection is a crucial feature of one of the ways language relates to the world. It is at the heart of his discussion of evaluation. 212 Peter Lamarque213 Like philosophy itself, the philosophy oflanguage seems to have no settled "approach" or even topics. Those who view, say, J. R. Searle's Speech Acts: An Essay in the Philosophy ofLanguage or, say, J.J. Katz's Philosophy of Language as paradigmatic in this field will no doubt be troubled to find virtually no mention of speech acts in Blackburn's book and hardly any discussion of linguistics. Those who favor a traditionalist approach which focuses on propositions, universale, abstract ideas, analytic and synthetic, the Verification Principle, denotation and connotation, subjects and predicates, and so on, will also be disappointed. There is no attempt here to be comprehensive or to give any kind of general survey or to respect historical chronology. This is not — in spite of its declared aim — a beginner 's book. It is too difficult, selective, and condensed for that; and it presupposes a considerable background knowledge of contemporary philosophical concerns. Instead the book represents the (or perhaps a) state of the art. It brilliantly captures the excitement and sense ofachievement ofa lively vigorous debate. And there is no doubt that the author's own contributions are central. A note of caution, though. Being a book of the day it is also prey to the transiency of fashion. With its emphasis on such topics as realism versus anti-realism and scepticism about rule-following (related to Kripke's Wittgenstein on Rules and Private Language) there is always a danger that it will take on a dated air as fashions change. I In Book III of Gulliver's Travels Swift describes the bizarre linguistic practice ofcertain Professors in the language school of Lagado. They carry round with them the very things they want to talk about: "... since words are only names for things, it would be more convenient for all men to carry about them such things as were necessary to express the particular business they are to discourse on." They converse simply by showing each other the objects they carry round with them. It might be burdensome but it saves the lungs from "corrosion" and even promises the possibility of a "universal language." Why is this so absurd? The first thought is that it just imposes drastic limits on what the Professors can say. But on further reflection it becomes apparent that they could not say — and certainly not mean — anything at all. Suppose one of the objects was a carrot. What could a Professor say merely by holding up...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-329X
Print ISSN
0190-0013
Pages
pp. 212-225
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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