Monday, May 28, 2012

Portraits From Memory, "Chapter" Twenty-Two

“The Cult of ‘Common Usage,’” pages 166-172

“The most influential school of philosophy in Britain at the present day maintains a certain linguistic doctrine to which I am unable to subscribe [p. 166].” That doctrine is that no special terminology is requisite for philosophical argumentation. Russell objects to the cult of common usage on numerous grounds, including that it inculcates self-righteousness in those who preach it.

Russell concocts a little story in which working class Brits employ words like “mental” and “chronic,” to indicate that philosophers do indeed attach different meanings to these terms: the attachment to common usage is only an attachment to just the right amount of pretentiousness, not too little or too much. Further, the attachment offers philosophers an excuse, though an untenable one, for failing to understand mathematics and science.

The superiority of common sense certainly has not been borne out by history – the once common disbelief in the rotation of the earth is one case in point. Did common sense cease being fallible at some point? Philosophers devote themselves to trivial issues when they worry about precisely what people mean when they utter silly phrases. We needn’t give up loose language for the purposes of everyday life, such as when we talk of the sun rising, but we shouldn’t expect scientists to indulge in the same liberality. Common sense cannot help us parse the legitimate and interesting question “What is meant by the word ‘word’ [p. 170]?” And the difficulties of what it means, precisely, when we see something – an issue explicated in the preceding chapter – indicates the need for philosophers to employ terms in a much more exacting style than common usage allows.

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