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  • Wittgenstein’s Legacy: Metagrammar, Meaning, and Ordinary Language
  • David Herman (bio)
Review of: Walter Jost, Rhetorical Investigations: Studies in Ordinary Language Criticism Charlottesville: U of Virginia P, 2004.

Ambitious in scope, richly integrative, and extensively researched, this study demonstrates its author’s familiarity with ideas from multiple fields of inquiry, including classical as well as modern rhetoric, critical theory, philosophy, and literary modernism. The chief aim of the book is to work toward integration and synthesis; drawing on theorists ranging from Martin Heidegger and Kenneth Burke to Ludwig Wittgenstein and Stanley Cavell, and using the poetry of Robert Frost to work through the author’s focal concerns, the book seeks to develop a framework for interpretation in which “grammar and rhetoric, philosophy and literature, reason and desire, reference and semiotics, truth and antifoundationalism” might be brought into closer dialogue with one another (1). More precisely, Jost characterizes literature and philosophy as the termini of his discussion, suggesting that rhetoric can be used to negotiate between these discourses (7). Hence, although the four chapters in Part II develop extended readings of Frost’s “The Death of the Hired Man,” “West-Running Brook,” “Snow,” and “Home Burial,” respectively,

the present book is more about exemplifying a specific kind of critical inquiry, interpretation, argument, and community activity than it is about a particular poet, historical trajectory, literary period, or cultural moment. Frost’s poems present me with an occasion to rethink a nexus of questions about the everyday and the ordinary, language, experience, common sense, judgment, and exemplarity; to question assumptions about the grammatical and rhetorical possibilities of literary criticism; and to reexamine what I take to be underappreciated resources for criticism to be found in the traditions of rhetoric, hermeneutic phenomenology, pragmatism, and so-called ordinary language philosophy and criticism.


The introduction further specifies what the author means by the “ordinary language criticism” mentioned at the end of the passage just quoted and also in the book’s subtitle. Ordinary language criticism, in Jost’s account, takes inspiration from the ordinary language philosophy pioneered by Wittgenstein, refined by J.L. Austin, and recontextualized by Cavell (Claim, In Quest, Must; see also Baillie and Cohen). For theorists in this tradition, people learn (and later use) concepts thanks to their place within a larger form of life and the modes of language use associated with that form of life. Although abstract logical definitions play a role in specialized discourses (e.g., certain forms of philosophical analysis), in other discourse contexts boundaries between concepts are fixed by “situated criteria, the features and functions of things, the behaviors and actions of people in certain circumstances in which we operate with our words” (8). For example, when I hear someone say plank in a conversation I do not try to match that person’s usage against an abstract mental checklist of necessary and sufficient conditions for “plankness” in order to make sense of the term.1 Rather, I monitor whether the ongoing discourse is about the construction of ships, archaic practices of meting out justice at sea (as in walk the [gang]plank), or political campaigns, and I draw an inference, possibly incorrect, about which concept of “plank” is appropriate given the broader context in which the term plank is being used. “Plank” is irreducibly caught up in these contexts of usage; there is no single, decontextualized meaning of plank (cf. Herman 2002), but rather multiple, partly overlapping meanings, each determined by the use of the term in the situated, rule-governed modes of discourse production and interpretation that Wittgenstein called “language games” and Jean-François Lyotard “phrase regimens.” Further, these language games are not wholly autonomous practices but can impinge on one another, as when through a metaphorical extension plank migrates from the language game(s) of the shipwright to those of the politician and the pundit. The key insight here, though, is that plank does not denote “plank” prior to its being used in some language game or other, even if only the stripped-down “games” in which dictionary definitions or the rules of logic are used to map out semantic relationships among terms.2

But what would be the specific brief of...

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