Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Robert Pippin reviews Revolution of the Ordinary

Toril Moi. Revolution of the Ordinary: Literary Studies after Wittgenstein, Austin, and Cavell. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017. 304 pp.

Review by Robert Pippin

This book argues that the resources of “ordinary language philosophy” offer a better way to understand what we are doing in studying, writing about, teaching, and reading literature than any of the wave of theories about language and literature that have dominated so much discussion in universities for the last fifty years or so. By “ordinary language philosophy” (hereafter OLP) Moi means the philosophy presented by Ludwig Wittgenstein in his Philosophical Investigations and later adumbrated by J.L. Austin and Stanley Cavell. She follows the approach she calls the “ordinary” reading of the later Wittgenstein, which she attributes to Richard Fleming and Cora Diamond.

The book is organized into three parts. The first part lays out the details of Wittgenstein’s approach, understood in this “ordinary” way; the second part stages a detailed contrast between the ordinary language approach and a selection of some of the major theoretical approaches to language, meaning, and literature that Moi feels have either blocked or impeded access to literature (or been of no use in our understanding of the experience of reading and thinking about literature); and the third part shows what the “ordinary language” approach means for the actual practice of reading and interpreting.

The most important aspect of Moi’s approach, and the most philosophically complicated, is that she is proposing OLP not as another (or a better) theory, but as a rejection of the idea of a theory for such matters, an alternative to reliance on theory. (It is also not, as she explains later in discussing Jonathan Culler, a “theory about the absence of theory,” “a theory of no theory,” p. 80.) Of course, even if we are to consider the OLP approach as Moi suggests—as more of an “attitude,” “tone,” “aura,” “atmosphere,” or a certain kind of “attentiveness to reality”—recognizable claims of some significant generality are still made by OLP. For example: Meaning is use, by which Moi intends not that use is the ground of meaning, but that meaning is use. There is no gap between word and meaning we must fill; words and world are tightly imbricated in each other (“to learn the language of bullfighting is to learn to see the bullfight,” p. 32). All this depends on agreement in a form of life, and such agreement is not rightly understood as a matter of commonly adopted social conventions.

And there are many other such claims. In fact, OLP trades sometimes in the standard modal currency of philosophy, necessity. A private language, for example, is impossible, even for the speaker (see also Moi’s different view, p. 120). And Moi is right that the spirit of OLP is antiessentialist, replacing the notion of essence with a “criss-crossing” “network of similarities constantly established and extended in concrete uses” (p. 100). But she also quotes Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations §371, “Essence is expressed by grammar.”[1] The relation between this sort of assertoric generality and what one might mean by “theory” remains one of the most difficult and complex aspects of the Wittgensteinian “revolution.”

But she means OLP is not a theory in the sense of a method we apply to particular cases, and this is an approach that works against the “rage for generality” at work in theory. And her claims against theories—the Augustinian, “naming”  theory of meaning attacked at the beginning of Philosophical Investigations; Ferdinand de Saussure and his extraordinary influence; Jacques Derrida; the neopragmatist attack on theory by Steven Knapp and Walter Benn Michaels (for Moi, still attached to what they deny); intersectional feminism and its notions of “exclusionary” concepts; Paul de Man’s claim that meaning in literature is “radically undecidable”; all the way to the truly bizarre new accounts of materiality as itself signifying that “nature is literate”—all raise very important points, whether the problem stems from overreliance on aspirations for theory, or from just truly bad theory. (Given her later resuscitation of the notion of intention as crucial for interpretation, understood pace G.E.M. Anscombe and Cavell in a nonpsychological and so not ex ante way but “in” the text, I could not see why Knapp and Michaels could not make some sort of appeal to it as well, or that there is any problem in their claiming that accidentally-produced marks that, as they say, “resemble” words and sentences and so are not unintelligible, nevertheless are not truly words and sentences because of the absence of intention in this nonpsychological sense. Stanley Fish’s accidentally produced “Help,” if indeed accidentally produced in a rock formation, does not prompt us to inquire further who or what might need help, but we know what the formation “spells out.”[2] Knowing that is not the same as understanding the sequence to be in any way uttered or written.)

Likewise, when Moi defends OLP from its most common and widespread criticism, we can freely admit that there is no doubt that Ernest Gellner and Herbert Marcuse, who accuse OLP of an inherent conservatism or positivism, did not have a particularly rich or deep understanding of the approach, but more would have to be said to address the worry that underlies their somewhat clumsily formulated attack. If a question arises like “What is it for someone to be treated with respect?” or “What is a just distribution of resources?” or “Are some wars just?” attention to the various particular uses of terms like “respect” or “just” might be very helpful in sorting out how we use those terms (and this must mean, how we use them now, at a particular historical time, in a particular sort of society), but would such an account settle an answer to any of these questions? Justification may be a distinct language game of its own, but any clarification of how the game is ordinarily played still seems distinct from the question of the right move. Would anyone who felt deeply the force of such questions be satisfied with such a clarificatory answer? One can at least say that we should not underestimate the massive difficulty of returning from the “metaphysical” to “the ordinary.”

The third part, especially in its critique of the “hermeneutics of suspicion” and its ardent defense of reading as a form of acknowledgment, was for me the most suggestive and helpful. Acknowledgment is an idea put to a great many valuable uses by Cavell. It trades on the difference between knowing and acting on such knowledge, and the inseparability of these two in any genuinely human encounter. Transposed to the domain of literature (or art or music, for that matter), the notion reminds us of what a responsible encounter with a text consists in, what it can be said to demand of us, what we accordingly owe it. This is much different from, in some putatively neutral way, understanding “how it works.” Such a response, appropriate acknowledgment, must of course be based on our experience of a text, and so on our willingness to reveal what we find important, moving, true about a text even given, as Moi reminds us—quoting Cavell again—that this engagement “needs constant admission,” “that one’s experience may be wrong, or misformed, or inattentive and inconstant.”[3] Nothing is more difficult in the current academic climate, organized around the enterprise of research, results, measurable impact, and so forth, than the fact that the distinction between the heartfeltness or honesty of an experiential response and its being also subject to some measure of assessment that arises from what the work requires of us, what we must acknowledge in it, is a vital, necessary distinction. And yet, a major implication of Moi’s approach is true:  the latter assessment is subject to no method of resolution, can appeal to no decision procedure for telling whether an experience bears any of the adjectives suggested by Cavell or not.  And such reflection is no exemplification of any theory. Nothing is more important than insisting on both the distinction and on this point, in as many ways and as forcefully as possible; and that is what Toril Moi has done in this lucid book.



[1] Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, trans. G.E.M. Anscombe (Malden, Mass., 1998), p. 116.

[2] See Stanley Fish, “Intentional Neglect,” New York Times, 19 July 2005,

[3] Stanley Cavell, “A Matter of Meaning It,” in Must We Mean What We Say? A Book of Essays (New York, 2002), p. 201.