“Philosophical Quarterly” has recently published a review of Avner Baz’s When Words Are Called For: A Defense of Ordinary Language by Nat Hansen. The review begins:
In this fascinating and provocative book, Avner Baz argues that the much maligned methods of Ordinary Language Philosophy (OLP), when properly applied, reveal that central debates in contemporary philosophy are fundamentally misguided. Baz’s radical argument targets what he calls the ‘prevailing program’ in philosophy. The ‘prevailing program’ is an approach to gathering data in support of philosophical theories:
I will call the question of whether or not our concept of x, or ‘x’, applies to some real or imaginary case when it is raised as part of an attempt to develop or test a philosophical theory of x, ‘the theorist’s question’; and I will call the research program that takes answers to the theorist’s question as its primary data ‘the prevailing program’. (p. 87)
For example, philosophers have investigated the concept of knowledge, or the meaning of ‘know’, by asking whether or not the concept (or the expression ‘know’) applies in, or truly describes, certain imagined situations: Gettier scenarios, barns in barn façade county, Mr. Truetemp’s reliable beliefs about the temperature, contextualist ‘bank’ cases, and so on.
While it is controversial to describe this particular methodology as the ‘prevailing program’, there is little doubt that it is an influential aspect of contemporary philosophy. Baz’s criticism of the ‘prevailing program’ aims to show that there is a sense in which, contrary to appearances, we do not in fact understand the ‘theorist’s question’, or the data generated by attempts to answer the question (that is, judgements or intuitions about whether or not some situation should be described as involving someone knowing something). In that respect, Baz is following the lead of classical proponents of OLP, like J. L. Austin, who argues that by removing words from their ordinary contexts, we thereby deprive those words of meaning and end up speaking nonsense, even though, by using familiar expressions, there is an appearance of sense. For example, in Sense and Sensibilia, Austin says that use of the word ‘directly’ has been ‘stretched’ by philosophers to the point that it has become ‘meaningless’.1 According to Austin, if philosophers used the word in the way it is ordinarily used, they would be simply saying something false, and they fail to supply an alternative meaning for the word according to which their claims would be true.
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