Marxism and the Linguistic Philosophy

Maurice Cornforth

Linguistic Philosophy


A Place in the Establishment


HAVING now examined in some detail what I take to be the principal teachings of the contemporary linguistic philosophy, I shall try to reach as balanced an estimate as my preconceptions allow of this philosophy as a whole. This means trying to decide what is acceptable and what is not in its teachings, on their face value, and also trying to see them in their historical setting as representative of opinions and trends in contemporary society.

Like every philosophy, this one took shape in a process of critically considering the views of predecessors and seeking a way out of their difficulties. (That much was true even of the first philosophies that ever existed, for philosophy as a distinctive kind of intellectual exercise did not come into being through the sudden discovery of philosophical problems but rather through a critical attitude directed at earlier pre‑philosophical myths and religious ideas.) The linguistic philosophy arose, as I tried to show in the first part of this book, through trying to dispose of problems and get out of difficulties posed by the earlier development of empiricism, and particularly by the application of the method of logical analysis. It is this, rather than any continuity of doctrine, that makes it the continuation of the great empiricist tradition in modern philosophy joined with the tradition begun by the founders of modern symbolic logic. That is how it arose, and that is what it is. For like a living body, a philosophy is what its genetical constitution makes it.

Linguistic philosophy is a particular way of trying to get out of the difficulties created by the past development of empiricism. And what is most characteristic of this way is its negativity. Problems are solved by showing that they are wrongly formulated, and that there are no such problems. Difficulties are got out of by showing that they arise simply from misunderstanding the uses of words, and that there are no such difficulties. Theories are put to rights by showing that philosophical theory itself is due to misunderstanding, and that there is no need for theories.

This means that characteristic of linguistic philosophy is, amongst other things, a totally unhistorical view of philosophy. It is only a succession of verbal muddles. And this succession is brought to a fortunate stop when linguistic philosophers investigate the actual uses of language. Then, as Wittgenstein said, the solution of the problems of philosophy is seen in the vanishing of the problems. But yet, this solution itself can only be made plausible because the unhistorical approach to past philosophy leads to misunderstanding what philosophers were doing. And it generates its own new myth that "what everyone admits", that is, ordinary factual statement, sets no problems. But when at length linguistic philosophers have decided that the common man is right in denying that a table is a collection of sense‑data, all the problems of philosophy are still not disposed of.

Perhaps the best achievement of linguistic philosophy, and its greatest boon to perplexed humanity, is to have at last freed empiricism from the bogey of subjective idealism. But it has done that only at the cost of imposing prohibitions on what we are allowed to say which free us not only of subjective idealism but of any coherent philosophical theory at all, and consequently leave a legacy of incoherence and ambiguity. What is a language game? What is an actual use of language? How demonstrate the logically permissible uses of language, and distinguish them from impermissible ones, if they may be given no foundation? These are among the new difficulties which linguistic philosophy generates in its turn.

Because of its negativity, the criticism of linguistic philosophy must take the form of arguing, not that the kind of theory it puts forward is wrong (for it puts forward no theory), but that the kind of theory it forbids is wrongly forbidden.

Consequently two quite opposite criticisms can be made of linguistic philosophy. These critical points of view face respectively to the past and to the future. On the one hand, it may be criticised for having rejected the whole of what has been called "metaphysics". But on the other hand it may be criticised because, having justifiably rejected metaphysics, it has no theory to put in its place and nowhere to go.

At the end of My Philosophical Development (1959) Russell says that "the new philosophy seems to me to have abandoned, without necessity, that grave and important task which philosophy through out the ages has hitherto pursued. Philosophers from Thales onwards have tried to understand the world . . . I cannot feel that the new philosophy is carrying on this tradition."

What remains far from clear in Russell's account is how this tradition, which the linguistic philosophy has abandoned, is to be carried on. Russell thinks philosophy must be “analytic", and with that no one need quarrel, for the word is vague enough to include almost whatever one wants. But is the analysis which he recommends as contributing to understanding the world still to consist of setting forth the elements of the world to which all true statements refer? In so far as his views at the latter end of his philosophical development remain continuous with those at the beginning, it would seem that he objects to linguistic philosophy because of its rejection of that kind of analysis. Hence he rebuts its criticism of the old logical‑analytic method, and considers that the world is eventually to be understood by continuing to apply it. This is to criticise linguistic philosophy on points where a very good case can be made for its being in the right.

Such criticism is always in the end inconsistent and incoherent, for neither Russell. nor anyone else has ever been able to say how this kind of philosophical analysis can validate its conclusions. In so far therefore, as linguistic philosophy is criticised from this point of view, the criticisms fail to hit it.

Criticising the idea that philosophers need only describe the uses of language and not give them any foundation, Mr Ernest Gellner mid that "one cannot describe the use‑in‑the‑world of an expression without having a picture of that world first" (Words and Things, VII, 3). This remark is true enough, and yet it is incoherent because fundamentally ambiguous. What is this "picture of the world" and how is it to be got? If it is a "picture of the world" of the kind that traditional logical analysis, and before that traditional metaphysics, act out to furnish, then the linguistic philosophers are surely right in proposing to get along without it. Mr Gellner complained that they have contrived a built‑in immunity to criticism, because they have always got an answer to everything. But why should they not have an answer to critics whose basic criticism of them is that they refuse to get bogged down in unrewarding problems from the past?

 On the other hand, linguistic philosophy may be criticised because, having justifiably said that a critical and analytic approach to the problems of human thinking requires, not metaphysics, but an investigation of the uses of language, it still fails to see that any investigation of the uses of language raises the problem of finding the right approach to the investigation of the life and requirements of people who use language. Having rejected metaphysics, we still require a theory of man, according with and connecting up the different aspects of social life and experience, and demonstrating the foundations for extending and deepening our knowledge, and rationalising and humanising our purposes.


Linguistic philosophers claim to be the heirs of a great revolution in philosophy.

This is no new claim. Philosophy has been revolutionised many times since the Church lost its grip on it, but most of the revolutions made little material difference to anyone. There was, indeed, a genuine revolution, not only in ideas but in material life, when the mechanical and chemical sciences started to be a major force of production. And the processes then started must yet compel social changes and changes in ideas more revolutionary than anything seen so far. Associated with this, there was a genuine revolution in philosophy, the main herald of which was Francis Bacon; its completion depends on bringing it home to ideas on man and society. But what of the other revolutions? There was the revolution effected by Locke, which saddled the empirical approach with subjective idealism. There was the so‑called Copernican revolution effected by Kant, who awoke from his dogmatic slumbers to ask how a priori synthetic knowledge was possible. Then there was the revolution which proclaimed that philosophy was logical analysis. And then Wittgenstein in rapid succession led two revolutions, the first setting up the verification principle and the second knocking it down again. At last linguistic philosophers appear as the heirs to revolution, and discover that it all makes no difference at all, and that everything is as everyone except philosophers always thought it was.

Linguistic philosophers have made a thorough clean up of subjective idealism. But what is remarkable is how very little difference they claim this makes to what anyone should say or do. They have taken Berkeley at his word when he said that in philosophy "we are not deprived of any one thing in nature. Whatever we see, feel, hear, or any wise conceive or understand, remains as secure as ever, and is as real at ever . . . That the things I see with my eyes and touch with my hands do exist, really exist, I make not the least question" (Principles, 34‑5). Hence in the end their only difference from Berkeley is that whereas he said that Matter has no real existence, and only Ideas exist, they say that such statements are unnecessary and meaningless. All that philosophy has ever done, according to them, is to add something puzzling and unacceptable to what everyone admits. Just refrain from doing that, and stick, as Berkeley said he wanted to do, to what everyone admits, and all philosophical puzzles are ended, along with philosophy itself as traditionally practised. This is the final revolution in philosophy—the cleaning up of verbal muddles. The new revolutionary aim of philosophy is simply to cure philosophical confusion.

In the course of its recent development professional philosophy, with its special philosophical problems, has been getting extremely remote from life's problems. Having got so remote, the linguistic philosophers, the most professional of all, discover that all the problems are only muddle and are quite pointless. The outcome for them is to get more remote than ever—simply to devote their professional skill to removing muddles which no one but professional philosophers bothered about anyway. For them philosophical problems arise only from philosophical misuses of words, so that the only problem for philosophers is to clear up one by one the muddles of other philosophers. If that task were to be completed, there would be an end to philosophy as a profession. This is to reduce professional philosophers to the status of those islanders who lived by taking in each other's washing. But fortunately for them, such an activity is self‑perpetuating. Their jobs are not in danger. For when they have done with cleaning up their predecessors' confusions, they still find an occupation in cleaning up each other's.

In short, the sequence of revolutions has eventually led to a position where philosophers have no purpose apart from debunking philosophy. They have deprived philosophy of any aim.

Philosophers for some time tried to function as hangers‑on of science, seeking to interpret it, to explain what its terms stand for and what its propositions mean. Whatever linguistic philosophy has positively to say is said in the field of logic, where a clarification has been made of the meaning of meaning in the light of investigating the uses of words. This knocked the bottom out of the interpretation schemes of the analytic philosophers and the linguistic philosophers mistook this for a revolution. In fact, philosophers had been hunting the snark—hunting for what we really mean when we make statements, and for what words really stand for. They had not heeded the warning given to the original snark‑hunters:

"But oh, beamish nephew, beware of the day,
   If your Snark be a Boojum! For then
You will softly and suddenly vanish away,      
And never be met with again!"         

And the end was, of course, that the Snark was a Boojum.

So what this revolution amounts to is that an entire line of philosophical speculation has come to nothing. All the real questions of life and of knowledge for life remain, while philosophy has vanished and has nothing to say about them.


The vanishing which occurred when Wittgenstein discovered the snark makes the linguistic philosophy a puzzle for critics. For what is it? As Mr Gellner complained, it is hard to catch; you may hunt it with thimbles and hunt it with care, but you never quite know what it is you are after. Or as Shakespeare said in a different context, "a man knows not where to have her". As I have tried to show, the linguistic philosophy is not a theory—not even a theory about the uses of language—but a cure or therapy for theories. What is revolutionary (or at least novel) about it is not that it puts forward any new and revolutionary theory about the world and its reflection in human thought, or about man, or about the foundations of human knowledge, or about the purpose of life, or about anything else that has been of interest to those interested in philosophy, but that it denies that any theory is needed on the grounds that none of the questions asked make sense. The end of the line of theorising begun when Locke's critique of "innate ideas" stimulated Berkeley to query "abstract ideas" in general, is the imposition of a general ban on all philosophical theory.

What is distinctive about linguistic philosophy is not what it asserts but what it denies. Its novel and distinctive feature is not that it says that philosophers should investigate the uses of words (which had been said by many philosophers before) but is the adoption of the principle announced by Wittgenstein (and not since argued about, but simply taken as gospel) that the different uses of words have no one thing in common.

From this follows the peculiar methodology of the investigation of the uses of language, which is confined to describing and exemplifying lots of different uses, distinguishing and comparing them, clarifying many particular confusions in the process, and summed up in the precept: only describe, don't try to explain or derive or give any foundation.

This principle and this methodology is what constitutes the therapy for theories and the general ban on theory. For a general theory in any field of inquiry depends on finding something in common. If there is nothing to be found in common, then there can be no theoretical generalisation, no theory but only the description of details and the comparison of cases.

As I have tried to show, there nevertheless is something in common to the uses of language. If this is denied, the investigation becomes theoryless, random and aimless, simply creating new problems and confusions of its own, which it cannot deal with, for every old problem or confusion that is removed. But when, in view of this, one seeks to derive the phenomena of language from their source, to explain them, to find their foundation—then one is immediately involved in general theory about man and his relation to nature, the foundations of human consciousness and knowledge, the foundations of human purposes and evaluations—in other words, in questions of philosophical theory involving much more than only describing the uses of words.

There are two opposite approaches to the making and formulation of theory about the human situation and its problems—materialist and idealist. As Engels put it, "The great basic question of all philosophy . . . is that concerning the relation of thinking and being" (Ludwig Feuerbach, 2). To explain men's conditions of life and mode of life from their ideas, is idealism; whereas to explain material conditions from material causes, and to regard ideas and aims as arising in response to material conditions, is materialism. Similarly, to consider the world as though created or modelled in conformity to forms and categories of thought, is idealism; whereas to consider the forms and categories of thought as consequential on our need to understand for human purposes the conditions of our existence, is materialism.

Every general theory embodies one or other approach, or an inconsistent mixture of them or effort to reconcile them. And so, as Engels said, "the great basic question" is that of which approach to take. To follow up consistently the approach which is learned from the experience of developing the methods of empirical science, is to take the materialist approach. In the end, the objection to every sort of idealist approach in theory is that it proceeds by false abstraction to conclusions in principle unverifiable. But the objection to the materialist approach is of another kind. It is that it is potentially dangerous to vested interests entrenched behind organised systems of mythology. It is far from true that every anti‑establishment movement adopts a standpoint of materialism or that every school of thought which inclines to materialism is anti‑establishment; for real life is more complicated than over‑simplified definitions of what is "progressive" and "reactionary" would allow. Nevertheless it is true that every establishment has always scented danger in materialism, in case it is carried too far.

Since the modern development of the sciences, most philosophers have been engrossed with making philosophy scientific—but at the same time with avoiding dangerous applications of materialism. This is still true of linguistic philosophy.

Like logical positivism before it, the linguistic philosophy denies or bans the whole question of materialism versus idealism. It is said that such a question "concerning the relation of thinking and being" is a pseudo‑question and the product of mere verbal confusion. Like all the brands of recent analytic philosophy, the linguistic philosophy is, in its protestations at any rate, opposed to idealist‑type speculations. But it is opposed to materialism as well.

The traditional way of being at once scientific and anti‑materialist was established by Berkeley, and consists of saying that statements about material things and material processes really refer to sensations or ideas. But by saying this, empirical philosophers tied themselves up in a knot of solipsism. At length, after they had spent more than two centuries tying themselves up worse and worse in trying to untie themselves, Wittgenstein adopted the expedient of the great Alexander and cut the knot with a single stroke. The therapy for theories did it. The philosophers were now freed from solipsism, but they remained as free from materialism as ever. No wonder they became "engrossed in the exciting work of following up their fresh insights"! It is the distinctive bans against theory—there is no one thing in common between uses of language, don't try to explain anything, don't give anything a foundation—that enabled them to avoid all the traps of solipsism and at the same time to avoid materialism. But it is these bans, thought up to avoid the old solipsistic difficulties while still abjuring materialism, that cause all the difficulties for linguistic philosophy.

Thoroughly to investigate the uses of language is a good idea for philosophy. For thought cannot be separated from the uses of language, so that the most fundamental questions for philosophy are indeed questions concerning uses of language. It is not the injunction to investigate uses of language, but the injunction that in so doing one should "only describe” that is open to criticism as the cause of all the difficulties and inconsistencies and incoherences which we have already noted as afflicting the linguistic philosophy. How distinguish mere superstitions from the products of human acumen? How relate the ways we use words to the realities we are talking about? How understand and formulate the logical or formal necessities governing the uses of language, and distinguish them from the consequences of the grammatical and syntactical rules of particular languages? How understand and formulate the correct ways of employing categories, and distinguish category‑mistakes, which may be committed in any language, from the mere violation of idiomatic usages in particular languages? How criticise or find reasons for moral principles and desirable ends of human association? These and similar questions are all posed by linguistic analysis, but the bans on theory forbid their being answered, or suggest answers which are obviously mere equivocations.

But raise these quite arbitrary bans—and then you open the way to formulating a general materialist and revolutionary philosophy of man, totally different from the linguistic philosophy, but at the same time not contradicting but, on the contrary, incorporating the positive findings of its detailed investigations.


The bans against theory imposed by linguistic philosophy are quite groundless, and the therapy for theories is itself the cause of new forms of mental derangement.

But the negative ideas that inspire them—the ideas of not looking for any one thing in common, only describing, not giving any foundation—do correspond to what has long become the standard approach, not to the sciences in general, but to the investigation of human activities. Since to use language is a human activity, it is quite natural that philosophers who have uncritically imbibed such an approach to investigating human activities should apply it to investigating the uses of language.

As Marx observed, the approach developed in economic investigations has consisted of "only describing . . ." As he wrote to Engels (June 27, 1867), economists became interested in "only the immediate form in which relationships appear . . . and not their inner connections". And as he wrote in the Afterword to the second German edition of Capital (1873), this enabled some of them to function as "hired prize‑fighters; in place of genuine scientific research, the bad conscience and the evil intent of apologetic". Similarly in sociology and history, investigation consists of recording, describing and classifying. Of course, generalisations, even quite bold ones, are allowed in so far as they simply consist of extrapolating observed correlations of observable data. But as for fundamental theory such as directs and unifies the sciences of nature, which not only describes but gives a foundation, that is not allowed.

Refusal to accept the ban on theory which has for some time been imposed in the social sciences, and has now been extended by the linguistic philosophers to philosophy, is supposed to open the door wide to every sort of unverifiable metaphysical speculation. And the ban is indeed considered highly expedient, because those who only describe human affairs keep an open mind about them, whereas theories close people's minds and turn them into dogmatists and fanatics. It is alleged that any one thing in common underlying all human activities must be something invented and unverifiable; that to explain must be to cook up a fantasy­ explanation; and that to give a foundation must be equivalent to imposing a dogma.

But why? What is the basis for these allegations?

Scientific method as successfully developed in the natural sciences always at a certain stage of investigation arrives at conclusions about something in common, and such conclusions then constitute the fundamental theories of the sciences. The sciences then leap from the level of mere description and classification to that of explanation; from the level of merely recording observations, and correlations of observations which enable certain predictions to be hazarded, to that of deeper understanding and control of the phenomena. Thus the work of such investigators as Galileo and Newton arrived at the fundamental conclusion that the condition of existence of any body at any instant is that it has a certain motion of its own and is acted on by external forces. The fundamental investigations of physics deal with what is common within all chemical and physical change. Since Darwin the biological sciences have proceeded from the fundamental idea that every organism lives by assimilating and adapting itself to an environment. And similarly Marx proposed as the foundation for the social sciences the proposition that men live by associating together to produce their means of subsistence—and for the specialised science of economics, that the one thing all commodities have in common is that they are products of human labour, and that therefore what people are doing when they exchange commodities is to exchange the products of definite quantities of socially‑necessary labour‑time. What is there unique about human activity which should forbid the same type of fundamental theory being worked out for the social sciences as has been worked out for the natural sciences? And what is there in the simple propositions of Marx which is invented, fantastic or dogmatic, as compared with the fundamental propositions at present found acceptable in other spheres of inquiry?

In The Logic of Scientific Discovery Dr K. R. Popper showed that every scientific theory, every scientific generalisation or hypothesis, takes the form of a "conjecture" which is suggested by reflection on experience and practice but has to be falsifiable. If it is so framed that nothing could conceivably falsify it, it is not susceptible to any kind of empirical test and so does not belong to the body of science.

For some reason or other, Dr Popper has since concluded that this condition precludes the possibility of any fundamental theory about men and human society. But why such theory should be any more unfalsifiable than similar theories about natural phenomena, he does not tell us. Very fundamental theories become, it is true, very obvious as their consequences get worked out, and no one expects them to be falsified, though conceivably they could be. In that respect, the "fundamental law of motion of human society", which Marx propounded, is in exactly similar case to, for example, the first and second laws of thermodynamics. Various secondary hypotheses about particular things may turn out to be mistaken and have to be corrected, but that does not necessitate the revision of the fundamental theory, nor does this in turn render the fundamental theory unfalsifiable and reduce it to the status of what Dr Popper has called "a reinforced dogmatism". It is not the view that the investigation of human activities should proceed on the basis of fundamental theory that is dogmatic, but the view that it should not.

In his diatribe The Poverty of Historicism Dr Popper recalls that in section 15 of Logik der Forschung he had shown that "every natural law can be expressed by asserting that such and such a thing cannot happen"—so that if it does happen, the law is falsified. "For example, the law of conservation of energy can be expressed by: 'You cannot build a perpetual motion machine'; and that of entropy by: 'You cannot build a machine which is a hundred per cent efficient'." He is certainly right about that. Thus the first and second laws of thermodynamics make it just too bad for people who would like to build perpetual motion machines or machines one hundred per cent efficient. And similarly, the fundamental laws governing the development of social relations make it just too bad for people who would like to combine full employment, continuous technological advance, a steadily rising standard of living, and a lasting peace, with maximum profits for employers of labour. If, however, someone did build a perpetual motion machine, which ran without fuel, or a machine one hundred per cent efficient, or if somewhere there did come into existence a society not based on producing the means of living, or a profit‑motivated society without capitalist contradictions, then the very fundamentals of both thermodynamics and sociology would have to be very thoroughly overhauled. Yet nothing of the sort has happened to date, nor is it likely to.

Evidently, then, there are no grounds for forbidding fundamental theory concerning human activities. With human affairs and human activities, as with nature, such theory leads from appearances to reality, from form to substance, from external relations to inner connections. These are words horrifying to many empiricist philosophers, and especially linguistic ones. In the past it was thought advisable to avoid certain words lest we conjure up the Devil. Today the words just used are abjured lest we conjure up the shade of a far worse personage, namely Hegel. And yet to do what these words describe one does not have to become a Hegelian. One does not have to make anything up, or engage in fantasy or speculation, or renounce the open mind, or produce unfalsifiable systems of reinforced dogmatism. One does not have to do anything that Newton, Darwin or Einstein have not taught us to do.

The fact is, that to oppose description to explanation is a totally false antithesis, just as it is to oppose detailed investigation to finding something in common.

Yet the whole basis of the linguistic philosophy lies in posing these false antitheses. Wittgenstein did not make them up, he only borrowed them from what has for long been the official practice of bourgeois social science in opposition to Marxism.


A feature of linguistic philosophy, and indeed one of its strong points, is that it has given up the old positivist aim of interpreting the sciences. The sensationism, neutral monism and so forth of the nineteenth century, which was smuggled into the twentieth by labelling it "logical analysis", has been dropped. But by what has it been replaced? By nothing. Linguistic philosophers have had much to say about "scientific language" in its distinction from and relation to "ordinary language", so as to show that there is no contradiction between "scientific" and "common sense" statements—language being used to perform a somewhat different job in the one case from the other. They have also criticised nineteenth‑century theories of inductive inference and scientific method, such as were developed out of J. S. Mill's Logic. These careful linguistic investigations do show that certain traditional views about the sciences could make their interpretations sound plausible only by misrepresenting actual uses of words. So far, so good. But in its discussion about the sciences linguistic philosophy sets aside any questions of explaining, or justifying or finding the foundation for scientific methods and scientific knowledge. It has no theory, no philosophy of science at all, in the sense of having anything to say about the foundations of the sciences, their interconnections and unity, or their purposes and uses.

Its lack of connection with the sciences is one of the principal indictments against linguistic philosophy made by Bertrand Russell in the last chapter of My Philosophical Development. He calls linguistic analysis "triviality" (but this is not the right word, in my opinion), and continues:

"The only reason that I can imagine for the restriction of philosophy to such triviality is the desire to separate it sharply from empirical science. I do not think such a separation can be usefully made. A philosophy which is to have any value should be built upon a wide and firm foundation of knowledge that is not specifically philosophical. Such knowledge is the soil from which the tree of philosophy derives its vigour . . . philosophy cannot be fruitful if divorced from empirical science. And by this I do not mean only that the philosopher should 'get up' some science as a holiday task. I mean something much more intimate: that his imagination should be impregnated with the scientific outlook and that he should feel that science has presented us with a new world, new concepts and new methods, not known in earlier times, but proved by experience fruitful where the older concepts and methods proved barren."

On the other hand, linguistic philosophers usually justify the sharp separation they make between philosophy, as linguistic analysis, and empirical science, on the grounds that professional philosophers are not professionally qualified to discuss scientific questions. Thus Professor Ryle, when delivering the Tarner Lectures, endowed for the discussion of "the Philosophy of the Sciences", excused himself from dealing with the sort of questions dealt with by former lecturers on the grounds that "I am disqualified . . . by the simple bar of technical ignorance . . . I have long since learned to doubt the native sagacity of philosophers when discussing technicalities which they have not learned to handle on the job, as in earlier days I learned to doubt the judgments of those towing‑path critics who had never done any rowing" (Dilemmas, I). Scientists know their own business, and should be left by philosophers to get on with it.

The old positivist philosophy of science, as I tried to show, got round to justifying the concepts and methods currently used in the social sciences by way of its misinterpretation of the natural sciences. The function of the sciences, it said, could only he to record observations and correlations of observations. Linguistic philosophy, on the other hand, will not thus legislate for the sciences, or misinterpret them—and very properly not. But the practical outcome remains much the same. Scientific experts know their own business; so the methods adopted in social studies are not to be questioned, and laymen, including philosophers, must accept what the experts tell them. The outcome is that the general practice of "only describe" adopted by experts in social studies is accepted by philosophers and then applied by them to their own speciality of investigating uses of language. Here the practice is turned into a principle, and once that is done it in effect continues to justify the approach to social studies, just as the older positivist philosophy of science did.

That all specialists know their own business is a veritable article of faith in linguistic philosophy. Who is the philosopher to lay down the law for them? And so it turns philosophy itself into another specialised inquiry, an inquiry into the actual uses of language—with its bounds set so as not to overlap with any of the empirical sciences, but within those bounds accepting the same limitations which experts say all studies of human activity should accept.

In this, linguistic philosophy has the feature of carrying the professionalisation of philosophy, which has long been a product of academic life, to an extreme.

This type of professionalism is entirely modern. For such ultra‑specialisation is a natural feature of bourgeois society, growing to extremes as technology advances and with it monopoly. The skilled intellectual, formerly a free‑lance citizen of the world with his interests flung wide and his fingers in all manner of pies, has more and more become a professional, an employee, a man with a specific job. This has long applied in the sciences, and has intruded into the so‑called arts subjects and the humanities, where experts worry each at his own little piece of culture, with as little qualification to scientific judgment as scientists have to artistic or literary or even moral and political judgment. And now the system of specialisation is completed when philosophy becomes strictly specialist.

It is of course true that the development of modern society creates and demands the development of a variety of special skills and special branches of knowledge. But must the specialisation of human skills lead to the specialisation of human individuals? The fate of the individual would become, if this tendency persisted, like that of the unfortunate selenites whom H. G. Wells portrayed as an awful warning to mankind in The First Men on the Moon. There some individuals had evolved enormous hands, suited to special types of manual work and to nothing else, and were almost brainless; while others, the intellectuals, had evolved huge heads of various shapes, each with some special part of the brain enlarged while other parts had atrophied. This was to portray how the individual who is trained and confined to one and only one special function is in reality helplessly subjugated to an impersonal social organisation, for all his individuality. Individuals thus become, as Engels once put it, the subjects and not the masters of their own forces of production and their own social organisation. But rather than accept such a fate it is pertinent to ask ourselves to what ends our social organisation is to be directed by us, and in what ways the special skills and branches of knowledge evolved in social life are to be used for purposes that will enrich the life of each separate individual and of all taken together.—We may ask such questions, but specialist philosophy will not allow them to be answered. The foundations, connections and purposes of human activities are no one's business in the society in which everyone is trained and employed for his own speciality.


In this context, the characteristic bans on theory of the linguistic philosophy may be studied as a truly classical case of class‑conditioned ideology.

In describing the relation of the ideologists of a class to the class they represent, Marx long ago explained that it consists of nothing so simple as that the ideologists are themselves members of the class, or even enthusiastic admirers of it. "According to their education and their individual position," he wrote, "they may be as far apart as heaven from earth." What ties the ideologists to the class they represent is "that in their minds they do not get beyond the limits which the latter do not get beyond in life, that they are consequently driven, theoretically, to the same problems and solutions to which material interests and social position drive the latter practically. This is, in general, the relationship between the political and literary representatives of a class and the class they represent" (The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, 3).

The owners and managers of monopoly‑capitalist economy are concerned in practice with nothing but the expansion and profitability of their own particular branches of industry and commerce, and to this end they hire hands and brains. The linguistic philosophers are certainly not monopoly capitalists and, so far as one can tell, they mostly neither like nor admire monopoly capitalists. Professional philosophers are not capitalists but professional workers employed at universities for specialised purposes of teaching and research, and as such they often show fight on a variety of issues ranging from university grants and salaries to the defence of peace and democratic liberties. Good for them! But what makes them ideologists of monopoly capital is that in their minds they do not transgress the limits which monopoly capital will not go beyond in life.

But of course, there is no irrevocable fate which imposes such limits on the mind of any individual student or teacher of philosophy. As Mr Hare has well said, it is open to everyone to think and to choose as he pleases. Or to use a phrase of William Blake, these limits are merely "mind‑forged manacles". It is possible for the mind to break them, if one chooses to try.

The specialism of the linguistic philosophy, and its corresponding idea that everyone knows his own business, accounts for what Russell and many others have felt to be the "triviality" of this philosophy, and also for what Mr Gellner called its "blandness" and "complacency". Blandly and complacently it fiddles away while Rome burns.

It is also because linguistic philosophy has no theory to defend that it is able to defend itself so effortlessly and to answer all comers. It is an extraordinarily self‑contained philosophy, as Mr Gellner noted; but it has few possibilities of development. For the same reason, it is simultaneously in a very weak position from which to counter rival philosophies, whether of the right or of the left. Linguistic philosophers are mostly progressively liberal in their practical outlook—the typical standpoint of the professional workers in Britain. Hence on at least some immediate practical questions some of them may tend to keep left, and to place themselves with a foot in the same camp with those whom theoretically they would regard as highly doctrinaire socialists. When it comes to Marxism and Communism, as a theory and as a social policy, they lack argument, and can appeal only to the alleged expertise of anti‑Communist specialists and entrench themselves behind rather absurd and crude, though doubtless very honest, misunderstandings of Communist theory and aims. As an example of the latter one might cite Professor Ayer's remarks to the newspapers about dialectical materialism on his return from a visit to the U.S.S.R. However, far more to the point is the feebleness of the linguistic philosophy, as a would‑be rationalist, humanist, liberal and empiricist outlook, to deal with all kinds of obscurantist doctrines of the right. All it can say is that these doctrines offend against the logic of language and don't mean anything. This is indeed a feeble barrier to raise against a flood of emotionally‑charged preachings and teachings which only too obviously do mean something and use language in a way capable of influencing and directing action.

As a philosophy, the linguistic philosophy is, on all social questions, in relation to all the problems of real life, remarkably quietist, non‑partisan and non‑militant. It expresses the outlook of would‑be enlightened commonsense, getting on with your own speciality to the best of your ability and leaving others to get on with theirs, in the belief that if everyone did so everyone would get on very well in a spirit of mutual good will and compromise. And it is this very outlook which was theoretically adumbrated by Mr Hare as the conclusion of his examination of the language of morals. This is an outlook that has pretty deep social roots in Britain. Over two hundred years ago it was expressed very persuasively by Hume. While Britain ruled the waves and was the workshop of the world it even seemed at times to work very well. It today expresses the very essence of a system of parliamentary democracy in which an elected government is courteously kept in order by a loyal opposition, and no one would dream of seriously challenging anyone's right to make profits out of other people's labour. But those who live by such an outlook have never, for all their professions, been able to stop others from getting away with murder. Indeed, they have been known to get away with it themselves.


In a capitalist society there are many philosophies which seemingly compete, because they contradict each other, but are socially supplementary. Thus there are religious philosophies and anti‑religious ones, rational ones and irrationalist, sceptical doctrines and systems of dogma. There is no such thing as "a bourgeois ideology" which is all of one piece. What is most characteristic of ideology is that it moves amid dilemmas and controversies in which some take one side and some the other. But behind the ever varying disputes of the ideologists there remains in permanence the tough outlook of the men with the power, for whom theories mean nothing except as means of getting their own way or of amusing intellectuals and keeping the masses in order. It is in this context that there has for long been practised what has been harshly called "the treason of the clerks". This is the treason of intellectuals who discuss questions in academic seclusion and put up no challenge to the powerful groups whose interests stand in the way of human progress. Is not this true of many professional philosophers in this age of scientific progress and of mass poverty and barbarous war? What possibilities there are for the advance of the whole of humanity—and how they write them off! This, I think, must be the final judgment on linguistic philosophy. Just now this philosophy is being patronised and encouraged, and is making a clean sweep in British universities. But it cannot possibly satisfy the aspirations and needs of the people, and especially the youth, for theoretical enlightenment and guidance. Nor is it very likely to enjoy its privileged access to university chairs and television screens for very long—any move either to the right or to the left in the balance of British politics would be likely to disturb it.

Yet despite its seclusion and its evasiveness, this philosophy is far from trivial or negligible. In its own very specialised sphere of linguistic investigation it has undoubtedly made discoveries, clarifications and criticisms of lasting value to any philosophy which sets out to comprehend human life and purposes.

The history of philosophy has always been a story of gain and loss. A philosophy earns a permanent place in the body of progressive thought, and achieves ideas not to be erased, by its discoveries, critical analyses and clarifications. The linguistic philosophy has done this, which is more than can be said for some of its contemporary rivals. But at the same time, a philosophy gains only a temporary prestige in so far as it earns for itself a place in the temporary establishment by its expression of the limitations, evasions and prejudices corresponding to the interests and practices of the ruling class.

SOURCE: Cornforth, Maurice. Marxism and the Linguistic Philosophy. 2nd ed. London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1967 (orig. 1965). Part II, chapter 7, pp. 245-263. See also the complete book offsite.

Marxism and the Linguistic Philosophy: Contents

Science and Evaluation by Maurice Cornforth

Logical Empiricism by Maurice Cornforth

Maurice Cornforth (1909-1980) Study Guide

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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