Skip to content

Each lexicon a labyrinth.

A Fortnightly Review.

A Terribly Serious Adventure: Philosophy at Oxford 19001960
by Nikhil Krishnan

Profile Books, 2023 | 400 pp | £20.00 $26.63


Language does our philosophizing for us. Most of us, anyway. Very few of us sit down to philosophize, or read about other people philosophizing. Our collective philosophy is our language, accrued, assembled and finessed through thousands of years. There’s a quadruped, a tailwag and a bark. Dog, says the language, and we can pursue the matter in dictionaries, some general, some specialised. Our language gives us names, meanings, definitions, descriptions. It orients us in a world of prior significance. It precedes us everywhere. We live inside language, in a way that very few of us exist inside a philosophy. It is language that shapes and expresses our meaning every day, and every night too – dreams are linguistic.

NOTE: In The Fortnightly’s online template, illustrations are thumbnails with captions or onward text links embedded. To enlarge an illustration, click on it. To read a caption, hover over the illustration. To play an embedded video in a larger size, click ‘full screen’ option. ‘Esc’ returns you here.

Grand philosophical problems are all too often linguistic muddles.

The modern philosophical moment known as the linguistic turn was an acknowledgment of this fact. At its bluntest it said that grand philosophical problems are all too often linguistic muddles. We forget what language is for, and abstract it into a confusion of grandeurs. But go back to the specifics of the words, and you might glean a little lucidity. You’ll be in the labyrinth, all the same. The labyrinth that is every language. The mistake is to imagine that there is no light in there. There’s enough light to fuse a billion synapses into one. Stare hard enough into the language and it will yield meaning upon meaning; it will never stop. It’s the gift that never stops giving. There’s a beautiful example in Bob Dylan’s song ‘Don’t Think Twice’: Goodbye is too good a word, babe/So I’ll just say fare-thee-well. Goodbye is too good a word because it is a contraction of God-be-with-you. A good dictionary contains a thousand philosophies: we are looking at our great collective act of meaning-making. You can abandon a philosophy; you can’t abandon language. If you do, you are mentally wrecked.     

Wittgenstein saw how Saint Augustine, by using the river as his central metaphor for time, then went on to mislead himself about the nature of time. The river is a commanding image. It flows on; it leaves behind the banks; it presses on towards the sea. Augustine’s language shows that his metaphor, chosen for exemplification, ends up dominating his thinking. Language can do this. As Wittgenstein put it, the limits of my language are the limits of my world. Think for example about the locution pattern-recognition. Surely we can’t go wrong there? And yet, and yet. The words are once again doubling up on us, and we should be wary where we are being taken. Re-cognition. So we already know it then, this pattern? But do we? The term suggests a passive noting of something which preceded our perception. But pattern-recognition in art and science is often a highly active process. When Picasso put together the handlebars and saddle of an old bike, he made a bull. Those objects had never before been assembled thus. This pattern was the product of a new perception: Picasso’s. When in one of her poems Elizabeth Bishop describes a swan moving through water, and says that it turns and reconnoitres like a battleship, that pattern of perception was not there before her poem. So this is not pattern-recognition; it is pattern-cognition.

Notes and CommentMendeleev constructed the periodic table and then saw a pattern created by his own system. There were missing elements. He couldn’t discover them, but he could see from the pattern of his system that they had to be there – the gaps were shouting out at him to fill them. Eka-boran; eka-aluminium; eka-silicon; eka-manganese. They were all there, where he said they would be, and displaying the characteristics he said they would have. Here you create your pattern out of observable reality; then you find new things in the pattern that haven’t been observed yet. This is only recognition if we believe in a Platonic substratum of truth that precedes us all. What we are revisiting is what we have made, or as Wordsworth precisely put it: what we half perceive and half create.

The later Wittgenstein trained his eagle-eye on language. That’s where we make meaning, and that’s where we mangle it. At the end of BBC’s Desert Island Discs, the lonesome traveller is told they will automatically be given the Bible and the Collected Works of Shakespeare. I always want to shout at the radio at this point: which editions, for God’s sake? I would like the original-spelling edition of Shakespeare, please. We have steamrolled our modern orthography and conventions on to the Shakespeare text. We should always try to get back to the original language of Shakespeare: it can be a revelation. As for the Bible, well, men and women have gone to the flames arguing about this one. If they could give me a parallel text of Tyndall and the Authorised Version, I might try to fathom how we got here, in the linguistic form of our biblical orientation. Revisions often revise away the original vision. You are then asked to choose a book. I would choose the Oxford English Dictionary, in as many volumes as possible – the one on my shelves currently has sixteen, but there are now others. I would prefer that book to any work of philosophy. Wittgenstein I think would have fully understood this; Bertrand Russell might not.

In his Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein said the name for something was its linguistic terminus. If this is a dog then it is a dog. I can talk about breeds, sexes, size etc. But I can’t get past that identifying word dog. We have had quite a time of it over the last hundred years, with sub-atomic particles. One of them was given the moniker quark. The word comes from James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake. It has a faint air of whimsy about it. So much so that as a choice of words it was upbraided. We are dealing with the fundamentals of matter; the very stuff of the universe, said the critics. Surely this is too frivolous a manoeuvre, as nomenclature goes? That was the objection. But the word has stuck, all the same. Everyone now uses it. And one of its forms is charm. All original words get started with a frisky act of linguistic dalliance. That was the freedom Adam was afforded in the Garden of Eden. Before he had to think up words for snake, fall and post-natal depression.

If I enter a new belief, then I enter a new use of words. Neologisms are not necessary. The words themselves metamorphose inside their meanings. The early catachumens, down in the catacombs, had to learn how to reformulate the word messiah in their minds. For some, depending on their linguistic background, it would already have become saviour. Both words share the notion of the anointed one.  The chosen one; the redeemer. Redemption is a very tricky word. Originally it related to a debt. I can redeem your debt by paying it off. And that in early theology was what Jesus was doing: paying the debt we all owed to the Almighty for our ontological sin. But those catachumens of a Jewish background had to translate their previous notion of messiah into an entirely new one. It had been expected in the Jewish tradition that the messiah would arrive in glory and splendour, expel the Romans out of their imperial domain, and announce the new age. Now you are being asked to translate that notion into something like its opposite. The new messiah is a lowly man from the obscure Roman province of Judea. His victories are either verbal or tiny incidents of the miraculous. His apotheosis is to be nailed to a cross and tortured to death. Some messiah, then. And yet how they flocked to this new creed, promising suffering on earth. What a heroic act of translation, what a metanoia, was there. Now John the Baptist can be seen as the grand herald, Elijah, even though he explicitly denied it. Now the messiah is a bipedal flash of light in an obscure Roman province, whose life ends in disgrace.

If any modern writer found the life within the life of words, it was Gerard Manley Hopkins. He saw the Anglo-Saxon vigour beneath the Romanising sheen, and fought back, page by page, to find what he believed to be the primal energy of the English language. As his work progresses, it sheds the accretions of Romance languages, and re-asserts Old English primacy. He sees how the words have been wearing fancy dress for centuries, but look vastly more vigorous without it.

Krishnan’s book examines how Oxford philosophy became entranced with philosophy as language; language as philosophy. Oxford was very much where Wittgenstein wasn’t. He was in ‘the other place’ – that’s how pretentious idiots in Oxford refer to Cambridge. Hard to imagine Wittgenstein at Oxford, in the same way that it is hard to imagine F. R. Leavis there. They helped define modern Cambridge, and modern Cambridge helped define them. They knew each other too, both of them finding the other one a bit rum. Everyone found Wittgenstein a bit rum, though quite a few fell in love with his rumness. He didn’t really fit in anywhere, he was sui generis, and it is a great tribute to Cambridge that it let him get on with being himself. These days he would have to explain the anorexic thinness of his bibliography. It all comes down finally to a question of what you really want to do. Important word: ‘do’. It’s your life, after all, what you actually do. A. J. Ayer once put it to the board of Radical Philosophy, who were petitioning for a chair in European philosophy at Oxford: ‘Look, I can see that you want to read these fellows; but do you actually want to do them?’ There’s an awful lot in life we are happy to read, but do we really want to do it?

Krishnan takes us through the intrigues and battles of the people concerned with fashioning a twentieth-century philosophy in Oxford. We learn a lot about Gilbert Ryle, Isaiah Berlin, A. J. Ayer and J. L, Austin. There is also fascinating stuff about Iris Murdoch, Peter Strawson and Bernard Williams. All of them are in a sort of ghost-dance with Wittgenstein. Austin referred to him as Witters and mocked his magus-like postures and pretensions. Elizabeth Anscombe, who revered Witters, always referred to Austin as ‘that bastard’, and thought he took Wittgenstein’s profundities and translated them into a Little England vernacular. Anscombe was bitterly opposed to any form of spurious unity; a loathing she acquired from her mentor. And reading these pages we might find J. L. Austin a trifle more frisky than our gleanings from his stern writings had led us to guess. He could be a caution, when it suited him.

Wittgenstein’s work should always give us pause, simply in terms of its form. He found continuities next to impossible. He did not pretend to join up his discrete bits of prose. And how often such joinings (when we stare at them hard enough) are spurious, little more than blobs of glue with nothing solid hidden inside the solvent. Our continuities can sometimes be the most debased form of the copula, which as the OED usefully informs us can, at its cheapest, represent ‘the verb be as a mere sign of predication’. Many an essay is a series of statements strung together, and many a ‘book’ is no more than a compilation of essays. We should at least admit that the string is often cheaper than the beads. Beware Greeks bearing continuities.

Wittgenstein put it thus: ‘We want to replace wild conjectures and explanations by quiet weighing of linguistic facts.’  And that is, more or less, what all the characters described here did, while squabbling away with one another. This could be a somewhat academic narrative but Krishnan fills it with vivid life; it’s the words on the page that live, as they need to, or what is writing for?

Language is never neutral; it needs its history, and it needs the contexts to that history, if we are to make sense of things.

Language is never neutral; it needs its history, and it needs the contexts to that history, if we are to make sense of things. De Saussure explained to us the difference between the synchronic and the diachronic. The synchronic moment of a language is the way it functions as a system at any particular moment. We do not need etymologies here, which go back through the past, just functions, which operate entirely in the present. But we can draw the wrong conclusions from the synchronic moment. For example, if I placed two words before you and asked you to choose which came first in English usage, you might produce an answer that was logical but wrong. Which is precedent: foreword or preface? This one surely looks easy. Both parts of foreword can be traced back to the Anglo-Saxon. Preface is entirely Latinate. Easy to see which came first then? And yet, if we go and look for foreword in Johnson’s great Dictionary of 1755, we’ll not find it. Was the Great Cham napping? No. The word was inserted into the language in the nineteenth century by lexicographers – it didn’t exist in Johnson’s lifetime. Mistakes play their part, then, in any narrative of disputation. If I had said a few years back, ‘We are ruled entirely by mistakes,’ that could have seemed like a grand and woolly asseveration. But it could equally have been a statement of scientific fact. We were all under the sway of Covid at the time, and whatever was going on with Covid was ruling our lives. The conquering virus dictated our actions from day to day. So how could we be ruled entirely by mistakes? The virus mutated each time the viral copying machine made a mistake. A mutation is a typo in the genome, and that gives rise to another version of the virus, either stronger or weaker. So the absence of a fully-functioning viral proofreader was ruling all our mutating lives. The statement, it seems, had precision and relevance. Mistakes can call the shots, as they often do. Such mistakes in transmission led to the cracking of Enigma , and that shortened the war considerably.

If you can write clear and vigorous sentences, it doesn’t make your life any better; but it does make it clearer. You can at least discern the mess you are in, and you might learn not to try to eff the ineffable.

Alan Wall was born in Bradford, studied English at Oxford, and lives in North Wales. He has published six novels and three collections of poetry, including Doctor PlaceboJacob, a book written in verse and prose, was shortlisted for the Hawthornden Prize. His work has been translated into ten languages. He has published essays and reviews in many different periodicals including the Guardian, Spectator, The Times, Jewish Quarterly, Leonardo, PN Review, London Magazine, The Reader and Agenda. He was Royal Literary Fund Fellow in Writing at Warwick University and Liverpool John Moores and is currently Professor of Writing and Literature at the University of Chester and a contributing editor of The Fortnightly Review. His book Endtimes was published by Shearsman in 2013, and Badmouth, a novel, was published by Harbour Books in 2014. A collection of his essays was issued by Odd VolumesThe Fortnightly Review’s publishing imprint, also in 2014. A second collection, of his Fortnightly reflections on Walter Benjamin, followed in 2018, and a third collection, Midnight of the Sublime, has just been published. An archive of Alan Wall’s Fortnightly work is here.

Notify of

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

1 Comment
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Ian Seed
Ian Seed
10 months ago

Excellent – this is a real gem.

Would love your thoughts, please comment.x