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  • Revolution of the Ordinary. Literary Studies After Wittgenstein, Austin, and Cavell by Toril Moi
  • Brian O'Keeffe
Toril Moi, Revolution of the Ordinary. Literary Studies After Wittgenstein, Austin, and Cavell Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2017. pp. 290.

The main claim of Toril Moi's book is that ordinary language philosophy can transform our prevailing understanding of language, theory and reading in literary studies. To make good on this claim, Moi invites us to step back in time, and visit the courts of Wittgenstein's Cambridge, and the quads of J.L. Austin's Oxford. A revolution was brewing in philosophy: Wittgenstein contemplated the big questions of philosophy—the nature of free will, the idea of God etc.—and concluded that philosophy had mystified itself by posing the questions badly. Philosophy, too long mired in abstruse language, needed to spell out its difficulties in plain English. Wittgenstein did just that, and cut—with almost terrifying lucidity—through the Gordian knots of philosophy. It was less an exercise in proposing new answers to the big philosophical questions so much as showing why, in many cases, philosophy really didn't need to consider them questions at all.

Such was the revolution: translating philosophy's fuddled discourse into plain, crisp English. Winnowing commonsense from philosophy's arcane confusions. Paying attention to the ordinary, the commonplace, life and language as it is normally lived, rather than preferring the thick mists of the noumenal. The fomenters of this revolution, for Moi, were indeed Wittgenstein and J.L. Austin. The third member of this triumvirate came later—Stanley Cavell. Cavell identifies with "Emerson's and Thoreau's emphasis on the common, the near, and the low" (7). Austin wants to know how we use ordinary language. Wittgenstein says "what we do is to bring words back from their metaphysical to their everyday use" (7).

What, though, did this revolution have to do with literary studies? Clearly, Cavell, whose investments in literature are evident, will be one useful guide here, and the use of Austin's speech act theory in literary studies is familiar enough, but what about Wittgenstein? Moi deploys him in various ways, but one way involves simply adopting the spirit of Wittgenstein: let's get clear on the besetting problems of literary studies, less in a bid to solve them, and more in an exercise to see whether they really need be considered problems at all. The targets now come into view: literary theory, High Theory, post-Saussureans, Derrideans, and de Manians. [End Page 368] To cut through those Gordian knots, Moi takes us on a journey divided into three parts: section 1 addresses Wittgenstein's vision of language and theory; section 2 juxtaposes ordinary language philosophy and Saussurean linguistics; section 3 examines the implications for reading literature in "the spirit of the ordinary" (3).

What does ordinary language philosophy think philosophy should be? In Themes out of School, Cavell says that philosophy should be a "willingness to think not about something other than what ordinary human beings think about, but rather to learn to think undistractedly about about things that ordinary human beings cannot help thinking about." In Must We Mean What We Say? Cavell registers what might be shocking about such a view of philosophical enquiry: "That what we ordinarily say and mean may have a direct and deep control over what we can philosophically say and mean is an idea which many philosophers find oppressive." Philosophy's neglect of such things, Cavell suggests, is such that its general attitude to ordinary lived life can sometimes amount to an outright rejection of the human.

So ordinary language philosophy wishes to reclaim ordinariness—in life, in language use—from philosophy, and in a sense, save philosophy from itself. As Richard Rorty puts it (in the name of pragmatism, however, rather than ordinary language philosophy), the best hope for philosophy is to not practice Philosophy. For when philosophy selects as its privileged topics of enquiry things like truth, goodness, beauty and so forth, its zealous effort to turn them into concepts, or (in Plato) to attach an eidos to them, already shows that the game is up, since such...


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