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Review of  Wittgenstein and the Possibility of Discourse

Reviewer: Kara A. McBride
Book Title: Wittgenstein and the Possibility of Discourse
Book Author: D.Z. Phillips Rush Rhees
Publisher: Wiley
Linguistic Field(s): Discourse Analysis
Issue Number: 17.2393

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AUTHOR: Rhees, Rush
EDITORS: Phillips, D. Z.
TITLE: Wittgenstein and the Possibility of Discourse
PUBLISHER: Blackwell Publishing
YEAR: 2006

Kara McBride, Second Language Acquisition and Teaching, University of Arizona


More than most philosophers, Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) radically
revised his thoughts on a number of fundamental issues during his career.
His earlier thought was much more along the lines of his former teacher
Russell's philosophy--in keeping with a tradition that logic is an ideal,
that mathematics is a perfect example of a system of thought, and that
philosophy and discussions of the philosophy of language should fit these
models. As his own thinking developed, Wittgenstein came to realize the
extent to which language cannot be described like a kind of calculus, and
this raised many problems for Wittgenstein's philosophy. One problem, for
instance, is that there is no set of characteristics that one could list
about which one might say ''All examples of language use have these
characteristics in common.'' Wittgenstein's solution to this, then, was to
come up with the now rather famous analogy for language use that describes
language use(s) as many different games that all bear a family resemblance
to each other.

This book, Wittgenstein and the Possibility of Discourse, is an edited
version of notes that that Rush Rhees (1905-1989), friend and editor of
Wittgenstein, wrote in reflection on Wittgenstein's work. All of the notes
were written between 1957 and 1960 (but see Note 1 below) -- after
Wittgenstein's death. Most of the book deals with the analogy of language
as games and the problems that Rhees had with this analogy.


In the Editor's Notes we learn that this book is the product of D.Z.
Phillips (1934- 2006) having edited 160,000 pages of Rhees' personal notes
into a book with, unlike the notes, regular-sized paragraphs, titles,
chapter divisions, and significantly less repetition. The divisions of the
book were chosen in order to highlight the development of Rhees' thoughts
and are not presented in a strictly chronological fashion.

Phillips named Part One of the book ''Philosophy and Language.'' Here Rhees
struggles with the question of how language can be identified as such. A
test of whether something is language or not could never be spelled out as
neatly as a test that distinguishes gold and brass from one another, he
notes. He plays with the questions of what it is to learn a language and
then what it is to learn a foreign language. He insists that Wittgenstein
stopped short when he said that an answer to the question ''What is
language?'' would take the form of ''Like this, and like this, and similar
things...'' Rhees senses that a more concrete answer ought to be possible.

At the end of this section, Rhees says that, just as Wittgenstein noted
that some philosophical confusions are the result of taking an analogy too
far, Wittgenstein himself took his games analogy too far.

Part Two is called ''Games and Language,'' and in it, Rhees treats the games
analogy as if it had been offered up as literally true. For example, he
points out that chess cannot have a literature, while a language can. Other
problems that he sees with saying that language is (like) a game include 1)
you could also not do in a game something that would be equivalent to
asking a question in a conversation; 2) nor is there in a game something
like making an interesting remark; 3) there is no difference between a real
game and a sham game, but there is a difference between a real conversation
and one done just for practicing the language (as in learning a foreign
language); and 4) in games like chess, the pieces are provided for you.

Part Three is called ''Beyond Wittgenstein's Builders.'' Wittgenstein's
example of the builders was meant to be a microscopic example of language
use. In it, builders used a mini-language in which they had commands such
as ''Beam!'' which, when uttered, would cause one builder to, for example,
hand another one a beam. Rhees finds this example absurd because he says
that if a person has some language ability, then that person will apply the
language to all aspects of his or her life, and not just to a very
restricted part of his or her life (such as working as a builder). That is
to say, the builders would also go home after work and extend the Builder's
Language by speaking to their wives and kids (or whomever). Rhees' point in
saying this is that language is inextricably tied up with people's lives;
that language touches all aspects of one's life; and that to understand
language means to understand people and to be able to relate to them.

Part Four, ''Belonging to Language,'' is concerned with the notion of the
unity of language. Examples of the unity of language are: 1) if I
understand you, it means I could also understand others who speak the same
language you and I speak, 2) the same words mean (roughly) the same thing
to both of us, and 3) the same words can have the same meaning on two
different occasions (although of course the circumstances will be
different). Rhees runs through a number of inquiries to try to get at how
this unity is established. For him, it has very much to do with how
language is tied in with people's ''way of life.'' In this section, as in
others, the concept of the ''growth of understanding'' is very important.
Through discourse, people come to understand more and more. Rhees maintains
that this needs to be a fundamental aspect of any account of language, and
that Wittgenstein failed to adequately include this in his theory.

In the biographical sketch about Rhees at the end of the book, Phillips
describes Rhees' unusual character and career path, including that he was
kicked out of his first college within two years and that when he later
withdrew from a Ph.D. program at Cambridge, he wrote about himself, ''I have
succeeded neither in preparing anything for publication nor in completing a
thesis for a PhD. Nor can I say that I see any great likelihood of my doing
so'' (p. 270). He did however teach many philosophy classes at more than one
university and stayed active in philosophical circles.


The book has an appendix called ''On Wittgenstein'' that was adapted from a
letter written by Rhees. In it, he talks about how Wittgenstein would many
times re-write his own work, trying always to make it more concise and
forceful. Rhees says that in doing this, Wittgenstein demanded more from
his readers than many readers are capable of. Rhees, on the other hand,
challenges his reader in the opposite way. The very same questions are
asked in many different places throughout the book, and the same arguments
are made again and again, often in several different sections within the
same chapter. There is almost no logical build up of arguments or
presentation of ideas. The reader has no sense of getting anywhere during
the whole course of reading the book. Also disturbing is the fact that most
paragraphs contain at least one sentence fragment.

There were several philosophical arguments in this book that I take issue
with. Primarily, it seems that Rhees took the analogy of games far too
literally (just as he accused Wittgenstein of doing). For example, he
objected that games are not like language because they cannot have a
literature. His main point in making this kind of objection is to establish
that it is through discourse that understanding can grow--understanding
between two people, understanding of philosophical issues, the working out
of one's personal problems, and so forth--and that games do not really
serve this purpose.

Other objections of his that seem quite weak to me include the following:

1) He says that in games, the pieces are supplied, but that this is not the
case in language (one could say that the lexical items of a language are
like the pieces).

2) When he describes what a child learns as he/she learns a language, he
seems to confuse language learning with the other concepts that the child
is simultaneously learning.

3) He claims at one point that gestures are not possible without a language
behind them. And so, for instance, animals could not gesture. (There are
many comments that he makes about children and animals throughout the book
that seem misconceived.)

Although many of the objections that Rhees raises are, in my view, the
result of him taking some of Wittgenstein's analogies (games) and examples
(builders) in ways that they were not originally meant to be taken, they do
lead him to new realizations about language. This book has the merit of
giving the reader insight into a person's thoughts as he tries to work
through some issues about language and meaning. These are the thoughts of
someone fighting to break through to the other side of positivism and allow
something like sociolinguistics to take hold--only without any notion of
what sociolinguistics would be.

Rhees says in the first chapter that, just as art should shock, philosophy
should bring about perplexity. This book is full of perplexity. In this
book, nothing is known, and the very nature of language is questioned time
and time again. Reading this book for someone with a background in
linguistics is rather like the experience of reading Descartes' meditations
on whether the material world really exists. Certainly there is something
to be said for temporarily putting aside all of what one feels sure that
one knows, in order to see matters with a fresh new outlook.

The book, then, might serve someone who wanted this kind of
''defamiliarization'' experience and who was interested in contemplating some
of the same issues that are covered in Wittgenstein's later work without
having to struggle through the daunting density of Wittgenstein. However,
while many of the same topics are covered in this book as in Wittgenstein's
work, Rhees nowhere actually explains any of Wittgenstein's arguments,
since, after all, the notes were not necessarily written for anyone else to
read. Also, Rhees makes frequent reference to many other philosophers
(Plato, Parmenides, Russell, Austin, Frege) without explaining the references.


(Or so it says in the introduction; however one chapter is dated 1967.
Perhaps this is a misprint.)

Kara McBride has a bachelor's degree in philosophy, one MA in applied
linguistics and another in Spanish, and she is currently finishing a Ph.D.
in Second Language Acquisition and Teaching at the University of Arizona.
She is interested in how game theory can be applied to language because the
concept of "edutainment" interests her, especially in terms of computer
assisted language instruction.

Format: Paperback
ISBN: 1405132507
ISBN-13: N/A
Pages: 352
Prices: U.K. £ 19.99
U.S. $ 34.95