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Canfield, Cavell and Criteria

  • Roger A. Shiner (a1)


More nonsense, in my view, has been purveyed in print about Wittgenstein than about any other recent philosopher. Moreover, of this nonsense a great deal has been about Wittgenstein's notion of “criterion”. I have read, therefore, with an immense lightening of the spirit two recent studies of precisely this notion, each of which is both thorough and fundamentally sensitive to central elements of Wittgenstein's later thought which most philosophers, admirers as well as critics, have missed. Part One of Stanley Cavell's monumental The Claim of Reason deploys Wittgenstein's notion of “criterion” with telling effect in the initial exposition of Cavell's general view of human knowledge. John Canfield's Wittgenstein: Language and World is a very detailed and systematic presentation of Wittgenstein's notion of “criterion” itself, together with Canfield's reasons for judging it so important. The two books complement each other very well. There are differences between them as well as similarities, differences not merely of emphasis and nuance but of doctrine. As will emerge in subsequent pages, I believe Cavell's to be the deeper and subtler work. But Cavell's book is relatively inaccessible to those who do not have already some acquaintance with Wittgenstein's later thought and have not already made some attempt to think that thought for themselves (and parts of it are still inaccessible even to those who have!).



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1 Cavell, Stanley, The Claim of Reason (Don Mills, ON: Oxford University Press, 1979), xxii, 511. Henceforth CR.

2 Canfield, John V., Wittgenstein: Language and World (Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 1981), x, 230. Henceforth WLW. I shall however omit for identifying letters for both CR and WLW where the context renders the identification superfluous.

3 Wittgenstein, L., Philosophical Remarks (Oxford: Blackwells, 1953).

4 Wittgenstein, L., Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, trans. McGuinness, B. F. and Pears, D. F. (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1961).

5 Malcolm, Norman, “Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations” reprinted in Pitcher, George, ed., Wittgenstein: The Philosophical Investigations (New York: Doubleday, 1966) (henceforth WPI), 65103; see 83–89.

6 Albritton, Rogers, “On Wittgenstein's Use of the Term ‘Criterion’”, WPI 231250; postscript 247–250.

7 Wittgenstein, L., The Blue and Brown Books (Oxford: Blackwells, 1958), 25.

8 Cook, John W., “Human Beings”, in Winch, Peter, ed., Studies in the Philosophy of Wittgenstein (London: Routledge & Regan Paul, 1969), 117151; see 129–140.

9 Canfield points out (223, n. 3) that in commenting on an earlier draft of WLW 1 suggested his and Cook's views were quite close. Indeed I did so comment, but that was four years ago, before the publication of C R and before my becoming more sensitive to the significance of recognizing criteria to be embedded in very general facts of nature. See 260–262 below.

10 The importance of this conditional was brought home to me many years ago by Jonathan Bennett in a talk in which he vigorously defended the truth of it, its antecedent and its consequent. I do not know whether the talk was published.

11 See, for example, Baker, G. P., “Criteria: A New Foundation for Semantics”, Ratio 16 (1974), 156189; Hacker, P. M. S., Insight and Illusion (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1972), chap. 10.

12 Wittgenstein, L., Philosophical Investigations (Oxford: Blackwells, 1953). Henceforth PI.

13 The view is developed more extensively elsewhere—cf. Anthropological Science Fiction and Logical Necessity”, Canadian Journal of Philosophy 4 (19741975), 467479; “Critical Notice of Diamond, Cora, ed., Wittgenstein's Lectures on the Foundations of Mathematics”, Canadian Journal of Philosophy 11 (1981), 333356.

14 Dummett, Michael, “Wittgenstein's Philosophy of Mathematics”, in WPI 420447.

15 See his Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1980).

16 See, for example, Dialogue 12 (1973), 683699; Philosophy 49 (1974), 191197; Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 78 (19771978), 103124.

17 It was suggested by an anonymous referee for Dialogue that, given the number of sophisticated analyses of “convention” in recent philosophy of language, it is a regrettable omission that neither this paper nor any other published work deals analytically and comparatively with Wittgenstein's concept of “convention” to a similar degree of sophistication. This point is entirely well taken. Peter Winch has addressed the matter in his essay “Nature and Convention”, reprinted in his Ethics and Action (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1972), 5072; there are many allusions in CR, but no systematic presentation. I am conscious that, for example, in a recent paper which attempts to analyze artistic expression in Wittgensteinian terms (The Mental Life of a Work of Art”, Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 40 [1982], 253268) I myself contrast “nature” and “convention”, more sharply than I believe Wittgenstein would want to do, despite that being a “natural” contrast. I can only say here that I take the point under advisement, and hope to be able to meet the demand for a proper account of “convention” in Wittgensteinian terms at some later date.

18 Canfield also refers, on 160, to Wittgenstein's “later view of necessity as necessity de dictum.” This barbarism, together with “ex hypothesis”, “ad hominem”, and numerous typographical errors in spelling and inconsistent layout, is further depressing evidence for (symptom of? criterion of?) the degenerating standards of academic publishers, university presses included.

19 Miss Anscombe, in “The Question of Linguistic Idealism”, reprinted in vol. 1 of her Collected Papers (Oxford: Blackwells, 1981), says this is Wittgenstein's own example. Despite some characteristically dark passages, her paper is a valuable contribution to discussion of the present topic.

20 From Epistemology to Romance: Cavell on Skepticism”, Review of Metaphysics 33 (19801981), 759774.

21 Cavell, Stanley, Must We Mean What We Say? (New York: Scribners, 1969).

22 Wisdom, John, Other Minds (Oxford: Biackwells, 1952), 226.

23 Canfield, John V., “Wittgenstein and Zen”, Philosophy 50 (1975), 383428.

24 Originally published in 1938; reprinted in his Philosophy and Psychoanalysis (Oxford: Blackwells, 1957), 51101.

25 In an important paper, Peter Winch has recently argued that Miss Anscombe's translation of “Einstellung” as “attitude” misleads as to how fundamental and non-volitional a mental stance Wittgenstein is talking about—see his Eine Einstellung zur Seele”, Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 81 (19801981), 115.

26 Wittgenstein, L., On Certainty (Oxford: Blackwells, 1969).

Canfield, Cavell and Criteria

  • Roger A. Shiner (a1)


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