Linguistic Analysis

There is an element of grim irony in the emergence of Linguistic Analysis on the philosophical scene. The assault on man’s conceptual faculty has been accelerating since Kant, widening the breach between man’s mind and reality. The cognitive function of concepts was undercut by a series of grotesque devices—such, for instance, as the “analytic-synthetic” dichotomy which, by a route of tortuous circumlocutions and equivocations, leads to the dogma that a “necessarily” true proposition cannot be factual, and a factual proposition cannot be “necessarily” true. The crass skepticism and epistemological cynicism of Kant’s influence have been seeping from the universities to the arts, the sciences, the industries, the legislatures, saturating our culture, decomposing language and thought. If ever there was a need for a Herculean philosophical effort to clean up the Kantian stables—particularly, to redeem language by establishing objective criteria of meaning and definition, which average men could not attempt—the time was now. As if sensing that need, Linguistic Analysis came on the scene for the avowed purpose of “clarifying” language—and proceeded to declare that the meaning of concepts is determined in the minds of average men, and that the job of philosophers consists of observing and reporting on how people use words.

The reductio ad absurdum of a long line of mini-Kantians, such as pragmatists and positivists, Linguistic Analysis holds that words are an arbitrary social product immune from any principles or standards, an irreducible primary not subject to inquiry about its origin or purpose—and that we can “dissolve” all philosophical problems by “clarifying” the use of these arbitrary, causeless, meaningless sounds which hold ultimate power over reality. . . .

Proceeding from the premise that words (concepts) are created by whim, Linguistic Analysis offers us a choice of whims: individual or collective. It declares that there are two kinds of definitions: “stipulative,” which may be anything anyone chooses, and “reportive,” which are ascertained by polls of popular use.

As reporters, linguistic analysts were accurate: Wittgenstein’s theory that a concept refers to a conglomeration of things vaguely tied together by a “family resemblance” is a perfect description of the state of a mind out of focus.

Linguistic Analysis declares that the ultimate reality is not even percepts, but words, and that words have no specific referents, but mean whatever people want them to mean. . . . Linguistic Analysis is vehemently opposed to . . . any kinds of principles or broad generalizations—i.e., to consistency. It is opposed to basic axioms (as “analytic” and “redundant”)—i.e., to the necessity of any grounds for one’s assertions. It is opposed to the hierarchical structure of concepts (i.e., to the process of abstraction) and regards any word as an isolated primary (i.e., as a perceptually given concrete). It is opposed to “system-building”—i.e., to the integration of knowledge.

Through decades of promulgating such doctrines as Pragmatism, Logical Positivism, Linguistic Analysis, [philosophers] refused to consider the fact that these doctrines would disarm and paralyze the best among men, those who take philosophy seriously, and that they would unleash the worst, those who, scorning philosophy, reason, justice, morality, would have no trouble brushing the disarmed out of the way. . . . To what sort of problems had [today’s philosophers] been giving priority over the problems of politics? Among the papers to be read at that [1969 American Philosophical Association (Eastern Division)] convention were: “Pronouns and Proper Names”—“Can Grammar Be Thought?”—“Propositions as the Only Realities.”

It is the claim of Linguistic Analysis that its purpose is not the communication of any particular philosophic content, but the training of a student’s mind. This is true—in the terrible, butchering sense of a comprachico operation. The detailed discussions of inconsequential minutiae—the discourses on trivia picked at random and in midstream, without base, context or conclusion—the shocks of self-doubt at the professor’s sudden revelations of some such fact as the student’s inability to define the word “but,” which, he claims, proves that they do not understand their own statements—the countering of the question: “What is the meaning of philosophy?” with: “Which sense of ‘meaning’ do you mean?” followed by a discourse on twelve possible uses of the word “meaning,” by which time the question is lost—and, above all, the necessity to shrink one’s focus to the range of a flea’s, and to keep it there—will cripple the best of minds, if it attempts to comply.

“Mind-training” pertains to psycho-epistemology; it consists in making a mind automatize certain processes, turning them into permanent habits. What habits does Linguistic Analysis inculcate? Context-dropping, “concept-stealing,” disintegration, purposelessness, the inability to grasp, retain or deal with abstractions. Linguistic Analysis is not a philosophy, it is a method of eliminating the capacity for philosophical thought—it is a course in brain-destruction, a systematic attempt to turn a rational animal into an animal unable to reason.

Copyright © 1986 by Harry Binswanger. Introduction copyright © 1986 by Leonard Peikoff. All rights reserved. For information address New American Library.


Excerpts from The Ominous Parallels, by Leonard Peikoff. Copyright © 1982 by Leonard Peikoff. Reprinted with permission of Stein and Day Publishers. Excerpts from The Romantic Manifesto, by Ayn Rand. Copyright © 1971, by The Objectivist. Reprinted with permission of Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc. Excerpts from Atlas Shrugged, copyright © 1957 by Ayn Rand, The Fountainhead, copyright © 1943 by Ayn Rand, and For the New Intellectual, copyright © 1961 by Ayn Rand. Reprinted by permission of the Estate of Ayn Rand. Excerpts from Philosophy: Who Needs It, by Ayn Rand. Copyright © 1982 by Leonard Peikoff, Executor, Estate of Ayn Rand. Reprinted by permission of the Estate of Ayn Rand. Excerpts from “The Philosophy of Objectivism” lecture series. Copyright © 1976 by Leonard Peikoff. Reprinted by permission. Excerpts from Alvin Toffler’s interview with Ayn Rand, which first appeared in Playboy magazine. Copyright © 1964. Reprinted by permission of Alvin Toffler. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Plume, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc.