Hamann, Nietzsche and Wittgenstein
on the language of philosophers




21st March 2009, CUNY

Jonathan Gray
Royal Holloway, University of London
j.gray@cantab.net




  1. How do philosophers misuse language?
  2. How should philosophers use language?



Hamann




Reason is language, logos. This is the bone I gnaw at
and shall gnaw myself to death over.
(Letter to Herder)


Without a word, no reason – no world.
(Gildemeister, V, 7)


Without language we would have no reason...
(Gildemeister, VI, 25)



Three purifications of reason:
  1. Separation from "tradition and custom and belief"
  2. Separation from "experience and everyday induction"
  3. Separation from language

("Metacritique on the Purism of Reason")






Why shouldn't language aspire towards 'purification'?







The purpose, place, time of an author all qualify his expression. Court, school, the business of everyday life, closed guilds, gangs and sects have their own dictionaries.

("Cloverleaf of Hellenistic letters", Haynes, p. 41)





The purity of a language dispossesses it of its wealth; a correctness that is all too rigid takes away its strength and manhood.

("Word order in the French language", Haynes, p. 31)





The purity of a language dispossesses it of its wealth; a correctness that is all too rigid takes away its strength and manhood.

("Word order in the French language", Haynes, p. 31)


We have got on to slippery ice where there is no friction and so in a certain sense the conditions are ideal, but also, just because of that, we are unable to walk. We want to walk: so we need friction. Back to the rough ground!

(Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, I, 107)






The confusion of language, by which however they seduce and are seduced [...]

("The last will and testament of the Knight of the Rose-Cross", Haynes, p. 106)





[...] therefore it happens that one takes words for concepts and concepts for the things themselves.

(Gildemeister, V, 15)





[...] therefore it happens that one takes words for concepts and concepts for the things themselves.

(Gildemeister, V, 15)


He forgets that the original perceptual metaphors are metaphors and takes them to be the things themselves.

(Nietzsche, "Truth and Lie in an Extra-Moral Sense")







[...] words as undetermined objects of empirical concepts are entitled critical appearances, specters, non-words or unwords, and become determinate objects for the understanding only through their institution and meaning in usage.

("Metacritique on the purism of reason", Haynes, p. 216)







[...] metaphysics abuses the word-signs and figures of speech of our empirical knowledge by treating them as nothing but hieroglyphs and types of ideal relations. Through this learned troublemaking it works the honest decency of language into such a meaningless, rutting, unstable, indefinite something = x that nothing is left but a windy sough, a magic shadow play, at most, as the wise Helvétius says, the talisman and rosary of a transcendental superstitious belief in entia rationis, their empty sacks and slogans.

("Metacritique on the purism of reason", Haynes, p. 210)







Philosophical genius expresses its power through striving, by means of abstraction, to make what is present absent; it disrobes actual objects into naked concepts and merely conceivable attributes, into pure appearances and phenomena.

("A flying letter to nobody, the well known", Haynes, p. 221)







A general term is an empty bag which changes its shape every moment, and, overextended, bursts.

(Gildemeister, V, 513)







Analysis, is nothing more than the latest fashionable cut, and synthesis nothing more than the artful seam of a professional leather- or cloth-cutter.

("Metacritique on the purism of reason", Haynes, p. 217)







Since words and usages are signs, their history and philosophy is very similar and mutually dependent.

("Cloverleaf of Hellenistic letters", Haynes, p. 40)







The senses and passions speak and understand nothing but images. All the wealth of human knowledge and happiness consists in images.

("Aesthetica in Nuce", Haynes, p. 63)




  1. How do philosophers misuse language?
  2. How should philosophers use language?



In reponse to (1) Hamann says philosophers:
  • overlook and underestimate language
  • try to rid themselves of its imperfections, and to purify reason from it
  • use it in unusual and highly abstract ways – to the point where normal meanings (derived from a plethora of characteristic or accepted contexts of usage) are exploded
  • ignore the history of terms, taking certain contigent meanings as essential
  • are led by language to certain opinions and conclusions which they attempt to systematise, rather than using it actively to create new images or metaphors
  • take words for concepts and concepts for things



In response to (2) Hamann says philosophers should:
  • pay more attention to the way language is used
  • pay more attention to the history of language and of the terms they are interested in
  • strive to generate compelling images, metaphors, stories (e.g. Hume's pseudo-historical narratives, or Bacon's metaphors), rather than elaborate abstract systems



Nietzsche







Sodann lese ich Hamann und bin sehr erbaut: man sieht in die Gebärzustände unserer Deutschen Dichter- und Denker-Kultur. Sehr tief und innig, aber nichtswürdig unkünstlerisch.

(KSA 7 509)







A philosophical mythology lies concealed in language.

(WS 11)







I am afraid we are not getting rid of God because we still believe in grammar.

(TI III 5)





Where there exists a language affinity it is quite impossible, thanks to the common philosophy of grammar - I mean thanks to unconscious domination and directing by similar grammatical functions - to avoid everything being prepared in advance for a similar evolution and succession of philosophical systems [...]

(BGE 20)


[...] our entire science is still subject to the seduction of language [...]

(GM I 13)







'the lightning flashes'

= the 'lightning' (subject/'doer') does 'flashing' (verb/'doing')







[...] no such substratum exists; there is no 'being' behind doing, acting, becoming; 'the doer' is merely a fiction imposed on the doing - the doing itself is everything.

(GM I 13)





When I analyze the process that is expressed in the sentence, 'I think,' I find a whole series of daring assertions, the argumentative proof of which would be difficult, perhaps impossible [...]

(BGE 16)


Willing seems to me to be above all something complicated, something that is a unity only in name--and it is precisely in a name that popular prejudice lurks, which has got the mastery over the inadequate precautions of philosophers in all ages.

(BGE 19)






Language is predicated on falsity.







Fundamentally, all our actions are altogether incomparably personal, unique, and infinitely individual; there is no doubt of that. But as soon as we translate them into consciousness they no longer seem to be.

(GS 354)





When we have words for something we have already gone beyond it. [...] Language, it seems, was invented only for average, middling, communicable things. The speaker vulgarizes himself as soon as he speaks.

(TI IX 26)


[...] communication is shameless; words dilute and brutalize; words depersonalize; words make the uncommon common.

(WP 810)







Through words and concepts we are still continually misled into imagining things as being simpler than they are, separate from one another, indivisible, each existing in and for itself.

(WS 11)





Philosophers [...] have trusted in concepts as completely as they have mistrusted the senses: they have not stopped to consider that concepts and words are our inheritance from ages in which thinking was very modest and unclear. [Philosophers] must no longer accept concepts as a gift, nor merely purify and polish them, bur first make and create them, present them and make them convincing. Hitherto one has generally trusted one's concepts as if they were a wonderful dowry from some sort of wonderland: but they are, after all, the inheritance from our most remote, most foolish as well as most intelligent ancestors. This piety toward what we find in us is perhaps part of the moral element in knowledge. What is needed above all is an absolute skepticism toward all inherited concepts [...]

(WP 409)





...to realise that what things are called is incomparably more important than what they are. The reputation, name, and appearance, the usual measure and weight of a thing, what it counts for - originally almost always wrong and arbitrary, thrown over things like a dress and altogether foreign to their nature and even to their skin - all this grows from generation unto generation, merely because people believe in it, until it gradually grows to be part of the thing and turns into its very body. What at first was appearance becomes in the end, almost invariably, the essence and is effective as such.

(GS 58)





schlecht, schlicht

(GM I 4)


gut, gott, Gote

(GM I 5)







Whereas each perceptual metaphor is individual and without equals and is therefore able to elude all classification, the great edifice of concepts displays the rigid regularity of a Roman columbarium and exhales in logic that strength and coolness which is characteristic of mathematics.

("Truth and Lie in an Extra-Moral Sense")





System itself is a hindrance to truth

(Hamann, Gildemeister, V 228)


I mistrust all systematists. The will to system is a lack of integrity.

(Nietzsche, TI I 26)







[...] it is enough to create new names and estimations and probabilities in order to create in the long run new 'things'.

(GS 58)




  1. How do philosophers misuse language?
  2. How should philosophers use language?



In relation to (1) Nietzsche says philosophers:
  • overlook the influence of language on philosophy and metaphysics
  • are misled by the simplicity and separateness of linguistic terms (such as 'I', 'will', ...)
  • are led to infer subjects from our way of speaking (doer behind deed, ...)
  • 'mummify' words and concepts, thinking they are ahistorical and autonomous essences, rather than a complex and interconnected constellation of living, changing terms
  • are led to believe in abstract properties and types, rather than unique actions



In relation to (2) Nietzsche says philosophers should:
  • use genealogical and etymological approaches to study the history of our concepts, to uncover biases, prejudices and to understand the conflict and contingencies in their development
  • be active and creative rather than passive and reverent in their use of language (e.g. planting seeds with 'new names' which may in the long run create 'new things')
  • exercise suspicion in relation to language, insofar as it is reflects 'average, middling, communicable' needs, concerns and values



Wittgenstein





[...] philosophical problems arise when language goes on holiday

(PI I 38)


philosophy is a battle against the betwitchment of our intelligence by means of our language

(PI I 109)





Essence is expressed in grammar.

(PI I 371)


Grammar tells us what kind of object anything is. (Theology as grammar.)

(PI I 373)







When we do philosophy we are like savages, primitive people, who hear the expressions of civilised men, put a false interpretation on them, and then draw the queerest conclusions from it.

(PI I 194)





When philosophers use a word – "knowledge", "being", "object", "I", "proposition", "name" – and try to grasp the essence of the thing, one must always ask oneself: is the word ever actually used this way in the language which is its original home?

(PI I 116)


I am sitting with a philosopher in the garden; he says again and again "I know that that's a tree", pointing to a tree that is near us. Someone else arrives and hears this, and I tell him: "This fellow isn't insane. We are only doing philosophy."

(OC 467)





A main source of our failure to understand is that we do not command a clear view of the use of our words.

(PI I 122)


One cannot guess how a word functions. One has to look at its use and learn from that.

(PI I 340)





Our language may be seen as an ancient city: a maze of little streets and squares, of old and new houses, and of houses with additions from various periods; and this surrounded by a multitude of new boroughs with straight regular streets and uniform houses.

(PI I 18)


A philosophical problem has the form: "I don't know my way about".

(PI I 123)







Consider for example the proceedings that we call "games". I mean board-games, card-games, Olympic games, and so on. What is common to them all? – Don't say: "There must be something common, or they would not be called 'games'" – but look and see whether there is anything common to all. – For if you look you will not see something common to all, but similarities, relationships, and a whole series of them at that. To repeat: don't think, but look!

(PI I 66)







And we extend our concept of number as in spinning a thread we twist fibre on fibre. And the strength of the thread does not reside in the fact that some one fibre runs through its whole length, but in the overlapping of many fibres.

(PI I 67)





It is only in normal cases that the use of a word is clearly prescribed; we know, are in no doubt, what to say in this or that case. The more abnormal the case, the more doubtful it becomes what we are to say.

(PI I 142)


My aim is: to teach you to pass from a piece of disguised nonsense to something that is patent nonsense.

(PI I 464)





What we do is to bring words back from their metaphysical to their everyday use.

(PI I 116)






What we do is to bring words back from their metaphysical to their everyday use.

(PI I 116)


Analysis is nothing more than the latest fashionable cut, and synthesis nothing more than the artful seam of a professional leather- or cloth-cutter.

("Metacritique on the purism of reason", Haynes, p. 217)





Every sign by itself seems dead. What gives it life? – In use it is alive. Is life breathed into it there? – Or is the use its life?

(PI I 432)






Every sign by itself seems dead. What gives it life? – In use it is alive. Is life breathed into it there? – Or is the use its life?

(PI I 432)


[...] words as undetermined objects of empirical concepts are entitled critical appearances, specters, non-words or unwords, and become determinate objects for the understanding only through their institution and meaning in usage.

("Metacritique on the purism of reason", Haynes, p. 216)





We are talking about the spatial and temporal phenomenon of language, not about some non-spatial, non-temporal chimera.

(PI I 108)


When language-games change, then there is a change in concepts, and with the concepts the meanings of words change.

(OC 65)





What is your aim in philosophy? – To shew the fly the way out of the fly-bottle.

(PI I 309)


Philosophy may in no way interfere with the actual use of language; it can in the end only describe it. // For it cannot give it any foundation either. // It leaves everything as it is.

(PI I 124)




  1. How do philosophers misuse language?
  2. How should philosophers use language?



In relation to (1) Wittgenstein says philosophers:
  • use language in unusual ways, which leads them into thinking there are problems where there are none
  • are misled by language into thinking there are things, properties and processes where there are none
  • draw strange conclusions from ordinary turns of phrase, and ways of speaking
  • suffer from a poverty of examples, and don't sufficiently look at how language is actually used
  • think of language as something non-spatial and non-temporal
  • try to purify language, overlooking how it actually functions



In relation to (2) Wittgenstein says philosophers should:
  • pay close attention to the way that words are used
  • furnish their theorising with a plethora of examples
  • consider language as a spatial and temporal phenomenon, where meanings may vary
  • not interfere with language – instead describing it, and leaving 'everything as it is'



Conclusion



Linguistic metacritique of philosophy

Hamann + Nietzsche + Wittgenstein say:
  • philosophers overlook language and underestimate the extent to which it shapes their philosophical outlook
  • philosophers are led by abstract linguistic terms to conceive of things, properties, processes which don't exist
  • philosophers should pay more attention to the complexity of language – in both its history and in how it is used

Hamann + Nietzsche say:
  • philosophers should pay more attention to the history of language, the history of our concepts
  • language should be used actively and creatively, rather than passively accepting the values and assumptions contained within it
  • there is more value in images, metaphors, stories, than in abstract conceptual systems

Hamann + Wittgenstein say:
  • philosophers use language in strange ways
  • philosophers should respect and pay more attention to how language is ordinarily used



Different visions of philosophy



Hamann anticipates the importance of language in philosophy








Jonathan Gray
j.gray@cantab.net

Royal Holloway
University of London