Marxism and the Linguistic Philosophy

by
Maurice Cornforth

Foreword to Second Edition

This book sets out to criticise one branch of contemporary philosophy from the point of view of Marxism. At the same time its aim is to discuss what can be learned from this philosophy. The Marxist standpoint which I try to maintain against all comers is not a stationary one, since Marxist ideas must always be developing and be formulated for our own times and problems. That is why as much as a third of this book deals with Marxism itself, and discusses Socialist Humanism, Marxist views on Ethics, the significance of the present-day scientific and technological revolution, and Materialist Dialectics. I have been criticised for putting all this in about Marxism, as irrelevant to the critical purpose of the book. But it was essential to my purpose. For I do not think one should separate criticism of other views from development of one's own.

There was once an idea among Marxists, which I shared, that there is an impassible gulf between "us" and "them". This is only a part-truth. One would not propose to water down Marxism by adopting ideas opposed to it. But that is no reason to condemn everything that is not Marxist as wholly reactionary and false. If something is false one must prove that it is false; that it is not Marxist does not constitute such a proof. And honest criticism of ideas one does not accept often shows that they are neither so reactionary nor so false as might have been originally suggested. In reviewing contemporary ideas there are factors to take into account. One is the growing influence of a scientific approach not only in natural science but in social and philosophical studies. Another is that individual thinkers of any originality are intelligent, well-educated and sincere; they see much wrong with the status quo and are seeking how to change it, so that to impute reactionary motivations to their work is often to mistake them greatly. These are all reasons why I finished this book with some observations about "Co-existence and Controversy". One must not compromise in ideas, but one must discuss, understand and learn.

As for the contemporary philosophy which is discussed and critised in this book, Wittgenstein once said: "Philosophy is not a theory but an activity." I wanted to try to understand better the sort of activity now being done in the philosophy departments of British and some American universities—the so-called "Linguistic Philosophy". The name is in one respect misleading, for there exists no set doctrine or theory of "Linguistic Philosophy". As I have said in the course of this book, it is not so much a theory as a method of discussing and criticising theories. It is distinguished from other methods of discussion in philosophy by its concern with questions about uses of language.

For linguistic philosophy, every philosophical problem concerns the use of words, and is therefore to be solved by the method of inquiring into the uses of words. This is the "activity" Wittgenstein recommended to philosophers. Contrariwise, problems which cannot be reduced to questions about words are not philosophical problems at all, but some other sort of problem.

In this the linguistic philosophy emerges as the very antithesis of any philosophy, like Marxism, which seeks to find a perspective and purpose for human life by an inquiry into the foundations of human thought and action. It makes no such inquiry, but says it cannot be made. In this way it is representative of some very pervasive features of our day and age—namely, loss of perspective, lack of confidence in mankind and its future, scepticism as to the possibility of finding out any reasons why, disengagement from the big issues of human progress and, instead, narrow specialist concern with technical questions.

In order to try to understand this philosophy as a contemporary phenomenon—to criticise it and at the same time try to find what can be got out of it—I thought it best to study its background. Hence the long historical introduction to this book. In this I also wanted to correct some of what I had previously written about the same subject in my book Science versus Idealism. I have tried to show how the "empiricist" precursors of the contemporary philosophy created for themselves a series of problems and difficulties, and evolved by trying to find ways of getting round them. And I have tried to show, too, how these problems were not merely adventitious but came up out of the problems of the development of social life.

In this connection it was specially important to consider the development of Logic, and to try to disentangle the proper questions of Formal Logic, as a scientific discipline, from philosophical theories about them. Russell's Principia Mathematica was an immense contribution to science, but in it there was mixed up, to its detriment, some very dubious philosophical theory. This disentangling is important, not only because of the key role of discussion of logical problems in contemporary philosophy, but because Marxists need to rid ourselves once for all of the idea that materialist dialectics is in any way contradictory to, or supplants, formal logic.

Another important consideration is that modern philosophy has been concerned more and more with questions of the interpretation of the sciences. In this connection I have tried to point out the significance of Subjective Idealism, as a philosophical theory growing out of discussion about the sciences. But at the same time I have pointed out that, ever since George Berkeley, philosophers have been preoccupied with the criticism of Subjective Idealism. In contemporary philosophy it is more or less defunct. And so far from being a form of Subjective Idealism, the contemporary "Linguistic Philosophy" has contributed some of the most telling criticisms.

In the criticism of contemporary philosophy what seems to me of key importance is not so much criticism of Subjective Idealism as of the contrast and divergence which still holds between natural and social sciences. The former study processes and relations within them which lie hidden behind appearances. But the latter, as Marx said long ago when he criticised "bourgeois economics", deal "only with appearances". They deal with how capitalism looks to the trader, industrialist or businessman, but not with the processes of exploitation of labour on which it is based, nor with the social contradictions which presage its end. The thought I have tried to express in this book is that the most crucial thing in modern empiricist "bourgeois" philosophy has been the working out of a view of science, of scientific knowledge and the functions of science, which squares with and justifies the actual character of bourgeois social science and more especially economics. This question of what it is to study not only appearances but the underlying reality, in its real development, is the main question about which Marxists have to argue. The relation of appearance to reality is a very basic philosophy problem for Marxism.

In criticism of the "Linguistic Philosophy" I have entered into some discussion about the subject matter of philosophy, but without attempting to argue about any formal definition. It seems to me that to define "philosophy" is to define the problems of philosophy; and these change with the times. As to the problems of philosophy today, it seems to me that the "linguistic philosophers" go wrong by taking an extremely narrow and restricted view. But on one matter I agree with them, namely, that problems of philosophy must be distinguished from problems of empirical science and consist of problems remaining to be solved by other methods (if such methods can be found). I agree with them that philosophy, as compared with the sciences, does not deal with "what is the case", which we have to find out by empirical investigation, but with questions about "how to interpret what we find?", "how do we know what we know?", "what is the methodology?", and also with questions about "the meaning of life", "purpose", "values" and the like.

A basic thought of Wittgenstein, and in "Linguistic Philosophy", is that in such discussions a lot of nonsense is talked. And with this, too, one can hardly disagree. They want to clear away this nonsense, and for that purpose ask how it arises. Wittgenstein was responsible for the suggestion that it happens because people ask badly formulated questions, or "pseudo-questions"—and so we get "pseudo-theories" as the answers. This is what led to posing the investigation of uses of language as of basic importance in philosophy. We play various "language games", said Wittgenstein. Nonsense results from getting them mixed up. If then we are puzzled by some philosophical question we should ask: How is language being used here? If we can pin down and clarify the uses of language, philosophical puzzles vanish.

This book contains a lot of detailed criticism of the writings of several "linguistic philosophers", where it seems to me they have made false assumptions or reached unjustified conclusions in their general observations about language and its uses. I recommend these criticisms to anyone who is either puzzled by these writings or, on the other hand, inclined to accept them as contemporary gospel. But at the same time, I would like to emphasise, and have emphasised in the text, that whatever criticisms may be made of this or that book or article by this or that "linguistic philosopher", or of the overall point of view that results, the linguistic approach can be fruitful. Indeed, linguistic analysis is an indispensable tool for philosophical discussion even though not by itself the only thing needed.

In particular, I have tried to show that there is much to be learned from the work of Gilbert Ryle. His Concept of Mind has been attacked by some of his colleagues. But it is a materialist book and a useful book for Marxists; and possibly that is one reason why it has been criticised so much by people who are also opponents of materialism and Marxism.

Ryle introduced the conception of what he called "category mistakes'', as the typical errors made in philosophy. This idea is a profound and fruitful one. He used it to criticise traditional conceptions about body and mind. He showed that to say the mind exists independent of the body is the same sort of absurdity as we find in Alice in Wonderland when the Cheshire Cat's smile exists independently of the Cheshire Cat. It is a "category mistake" in as much as it puts "mind" in the same category as "body", as though a mind were a ghostly body attached to the physical one. But minds and smiles are not thus related to bodies and cats. I have taken up this idea of "category mistake", and of studying "the logic of categories", and tried to show its materialist and dialectical content—which Ryle himself does not at all realise. In this connection I have also discussed some problems of the methods and subject matter of logic.

I have also devoted some attention to the work of the late J. L. Austin, not only in the criticism of Subjective Idealism but in the study of ways in which words are used for purposes other than making statements of fact. Very suggestive, in my opinion, is Austin's book Doing Things with Words in which he deals with what he called the "performative" use of language. The basic point is quite simple. To say "I will" when getting married, for example, is not simply a statement recording one's mental condition at the time. It is an act, a pledge. With those words one does not merely state a fact, but one performs an action—namely, one gets married. And without this sort of verbal "performance" there would be no marriage as a human institution. We do things with words. And I think it important to try to follow up Austin's analysis by seeing how this use of language enters into more or less the whole of human social activity. Thus I have suggested that such a basic human institution as property could not be established without the use of language. And similarly with all, or nearly all, human relations.

Marx and Engels maintained that the use of language is a product of social production. This is the materialist account of it. And language as a product of social production is needed for carrying on not only production but every form of human activity, human institution and human relation of which social production forms the basis.

This leads finally to considering the special use of language in what are called "value judgments". Some "linguistic philosophers", and notably R. M. Hare, have contributed interesting studies on this—in which, in my opinion, they have got quite a few bourgeois prejudices mixed up with their analysis. It seems to me that the distinction which these studies make between value judgments, on the one hand, and factual judgments, on the other, is of importance in the discussion of problems of Ethics; and I have accordingly applied it in the last part of this book in the discussion of Marxist views about Ethics. My main point is that we can find as good reasons for value judgments as for factual judgments (for example, as good reasons for saying that socialism is a better form of society than capitalism as for saying that Everest is a higher mountain than Ben Nevis); but that to argue the case we must distinguish the objective criteria of moral argument from those of factual argument.

To conclude, I am well aware that some of the propositions I have advanced in this book may not be very readily acceptable to many of my fellow-Marxists. For one thing, some of them are new; and whatever is new raises queries and needs to be scrutinised carefully. For another, some go contrary to traditionally accepted interpretations of Marxism. I do not believe for a moment that all I have put forward on these questions is yet correctly formulated in this book. A lot more work needs to be done. I think, however, that this discussion can contribute to the creative development of Marxist theory in its application to contemporary problems.

The only changes made in the new edition of this book are that some misprints have been corrected and the original Foreword is replaced by this new one. It is based on some remarks I made at a discussion on the book organised last year by the Cultural Committee of the Communist Party of Great Britain.

M. C.

London, June 1967


SOURCE: Cornforth, Maurice. Marxism and the Linguistic Philosophy. 2nd ed. London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1967 (orig. 1965). Foreword to Second Edition, pp. 9-14.


Marxism and the Linguistic Philosophy: Contents

Science and Evaluation by Maurice Cornforth

Logical Empiricism by Maurice Cornforth

Vienna Circle, Karl Popper, Frankfurt School, Marxism, McCarthyism & American Philosophy: Selected Bibliography

Positivism vs Life Philosophy (Lebensphilosophie) Study Guide

Salvaging Soviet Philosophy (1)


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