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Revolution of the Ordinary: Literary Studies After Wittgenstein, Austin, and Cavell


Ethics, Truth, and Reading

Consider the following scene of reading.

James Baldwin once hated Shakespeare. Shakespeare was a chauvinist, force fed to a young black boy in loveless education, a writer who he feared and later on regarded with sick envy. In an essay published in 1964, James Baldwin explains why he stopped hating Shakespeare.

The occasion was an encounter with the words of Cassius in Julius Caesar where he felt he heard the words for the first time and grasped what the poet was saying when he joined his co-conspirators in washing his hands in Caesar’s blood:

Stoop, then, and wash. How many ages hence
Shall this our lofty scene be acted over,
In states unborn and accents yet unknown.1

“What I suddenly heard, for the first time, was manifold”, he says. “It was the voice of lonely, dedicated, deluded Cassius, whose life had never been real for me before-I suddenly seemed to know what this moment meant to him.”2 Now he hears the voice of Cassius through the words of Shakespeare, grasps their moment, because he is seized by the urgency of the occasion which gives rise to them.

Baldwin reflects on his altered attitude to the English language. His problem, as he had put it to himself, had been that it had not reflected his experience. Now he felt the fault lay not with the language but with himself: “Perhaps the language was not my own because I had never attempted to use it, had only learned to imitate it.”3 Perhaps this language could, given courage and stamina, come to bear the burden of his own experience, if he was willing to test himself in relation to it.

It is as if he could not hear or bear Shakespeare’s words, with their bulky English patrimony, their pompous weight in the thin, quasi-compulsory admiration of others until he saw for himself what Shakespeare was saying. And he sees what Shakespeare is saying when he understands the language as alive in the use, so opening up the promise of his own use. Thus begins a sense of responsibility that answers his own responsiveness to Shakespeare’s address:

My relationship, then, to the language of Shakespeare revealed itself as nothing less than my relationship to myself and my past. Under this light, this revelation, both myself and my past began slowly to open, perhaps the way a flower opens at morning, but more probably the way an atrophied muscle begins to function, or frozen fingers to thaw.4

The first image of the flower opening at morning, ready for the sustenance of moisture and light, is natural and beautiful yet it does not quite capture the necessary and inevitable work, the sheer undertaking and endeavor, the pain and tenderness of feeling and response with which he now feels charged. He qualifies his image: it is still a natural image but no growth will happen without work and there will be rawness and tenderness along the way. He had, as he puts it, resented Shakespeare’s “assault on his simplicity.”5 Now he takes on the range and complexity of the burden and birthright of a language he has found is shared.

The English language becomes, magnificently and permanently Baldwin’s own when he begins to use it, rather than imitate it. He learns at once, about Shakespeare’s sense of responsibility and about his own.

This is a scene about the mutual illumination of reading and writing, about the words of a writer becoming intelligible when a reader can find a use for them, see their point. Baldwin’s reflection brings together understanding (he sees the point so Cassius now becomes intelligible, gets into view), responsiveness (this new understanding passes through his own responses), and responsibility (he decides it is up to him to use, rather than imitate language and simultaneously he grasps the writer’s responsibility to his readers). Baldwin says that Cassius became real to him as if he did not exist for Baldwin before he understood the point of Cassius saying exactly those words just then. Reality and intelligibility dawn and this would prove to be a lasting concern of Baldwin’s astonishing reflections on America’s central tragedy of race, and surely something we are all worried about right now. Baldwin’s scene is therefore a mini-recognition scene opening out to an ethics of reading.

“To read a text isn’t to discover new facts about it,” says Moi, “it is to figure out what it has to say to us.”6 Understanding, meaning as use, responsiveness, responsibility, acknowledgement, the precision and inheritance of language: these are Toril Moi’s concerns in her refreshing, vitally important, generative book, a book that has the capacity to liberate us from language as a prison-house, and challenges and invites us into our own responsibility in words, as writers, readers, theorists, and critics. Moi wants us to wake up to the complexities of our inheritance of and use of language as if to invite us to exercise some stiffened and inflexible muscles to find greater, more various strengths and capacities. This is what makes this book such an exhilarating challenge and invitation at a time when literary studies seems to veer between the false allure of scientism (neurohumanities, “digital” humanities) and a fierce, entrenched moralism (which I take to be a stance which by-passes one’s own responses) and the professionalized credentializing, which sometimes appears to measure rather than judge academic work, all of which might break a graduate student’s spirit before she gets the chance to find her intellectual companions, and stand in the way of why she might ever have loved reading, thinking, and writing in the first place.

Moi finds a revolution in our thinking about language in ordinary language philosophy, which she takes to be the lineage of Austin and especially Wittgenstein, and Stanley Cavell who has done so much to make these philosophers available; she also explains why and how the revolution of Wittgenstein’s thinking has not been received by literary studies. This might be because of the success of a previous generation of thinkers such as Marcuse and Gellner in attacking Wittgenstein’s putative conservatism (a hard to dislodge reading of Wittgenstein’s descriptive, non -prescriptive philosophy), or more latterly because literary studies has been gripped by a pervasive picture of language as representation, all the more tenacious because unrecognized. In this sense Moi’s work joins that of French philosopher (and translator of Cavell’s work) Sandra Laugier, who has recently said that Cavell’s work on Austin and Wittgenstein has been “the only work of contemporary philosophy to carry the project of ordinary language philosophy through to its end,”7 and Cora Diamond in tracing out a new realism not tied to empiricism or metaphysics, this time for the unwieldy and amorphous field of literary studies.8

Moi’s brilliant and bracing book is also about reading, writing, intelligibility, and the full, radical implications of Wittgenstein’s vision of language for literary studies, his transformative and easily misunderstood rendering of meaning as use (chap. 1). She also examines other central ideas deriving from the Philosophical Investigations such as “forms of life” (less conventionalized and deeper than contexts, customs or practices), “grammar” which tells us what kind of object anything is [PI 373] ) and is the key to arriving at a perspicuous overview of the use of words, and “family resemblance” which smashes through essentialism in that it refuses to look for features common to what is under analysis, but rather at the complex, revealing and overlapping ways they are related to each other in use (chap. 2). Moi rejects any idea that there is or should be any overall method in literary studies, other than reading, and so her last wonderful, highly original section explores the idea of reading as a practice of acknowledgment. Neither is literature any one thing for her, but rather a “loosely configured network of texts and practices” so there is no need at all to get hung up on any (spurious) distinctions between ordinary or literary language since ordinary language can be about anything, taking its point from any aspect of the world comes into focus through words about it, or where particular words become intelligible because we bring the world to them and see their point (occasion, circumstances, point of invoking).9

We meet Moi as a reader and a writer, one who ties the lovely precision of OLP with the inherited precision of the writers on whom nothing was lost, who looked and saw. She is refreshingly candid about her own struggles with writing (18-19), and because she sees language as expression, event and act, she is thoughtful about what she is doing in her words at every point. When language idles or goes on holiday, when it does not have a use, it will no longer work, no longer be responsive to the world, and so will be unable to bind us both to the world and to each other. She cares about her reader, and never loses sight of her. She is demanding though: she would like us to examine our craving for generality, to think through examples (chap. 4) to recover linguistic agency (which also means inhabiting the necessary implications of words, accepting the fatality of meaning), to take up our linguistic responsibility since we are as responsible for our words as our actions, and as actions. Again and again, in dry ways and witty she returns to use as a matter of “what we do” (145). In her discussion of the difference between signs, marks, and words (chap. 6), I enjoyed her response to Stanley Fish. He contemplates the problem of how to interpret a rock formation and wondering what to make of the word “help”, which could after all be random marks that happen to resemble an English word. “The question we have to decide”, she suggests, “is not whether to “interpret” the word “help” but whether to call the mountain rescue squad.” (135). Enough said! Her own exemplary thinking moves across a range of contemporary theory and has implications for the new materialism, intersectionality, surface reading, post-structuralism and its various offspring. It is because of the depth at which she sees a picture of language as shared by these very different theories that her diagnosis can be both so penetrating and wide-ranging. Along the way too we see her at work with Kierkegaard, Ibsen, Shakespeare, Knausgaard, Iris Murdoch, or such topics as bullfighting in Spanish, nursery rhymes, and Archie Bunker. She gives us superb exegeses of the opening remarks (and others) of Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations.

She also opens up the way to show that actually reading literature rather than producing theories about it might be illuminating and worthwhile. If there has been a general air of condescension around “mere” readings, regarded as some charmingly antiquated relic of belle lettristic, more amateurish days in literary studies, the hermeneutics of suspicion has also wildly underestimated the extent to which good writing can help us illuminate and extend our grammar of particular topics (love, forgiveness, insincerity, marriage, democracy, etc.), can light up un-named aspects of experience so as to render it intelligible, can do philosophical work of its own. Moi shows exactly how and why developing a reading is not easy but constitutes real intellectual work and she shows us what is involved in this.

Part 3 then involves reading, the judgment, adventure and attention of it, and reading as acknowledgment. Acknowledgement is the word that Cavell develops against the epistemological tradition that prioritizes other world skepticism over other mind skepticism, and thus mistakes the human encounter and difficulty of knowing another and knowing oneself. His elucidation of the concept begins in an early essay, “Knowing and Acknowledging” in Must We Mean What We Say?, is developed at length in the astonishing part 4 of The Claim of Reason (Between Acknowledgment and Avoidance), and it underlies much of the later work on film, as well as his work on romanticism and Rawls. Acknowledgement does not exclude knowledge, it necessarily involves it, and is a form of it, for the opposite of acknowledgement is not knowledge but avoidance, so it is a mode in which we know, but now not on the narrow terms of epistemology since certain evidence is not to be had in the sphere of knowing each other (skepticism was right about that). Moi’s development of the idea of reading as acknowledgement (chap. 9) is thus a rich deployment of this central idea in Cavell’s Ordinary Language Philosophy. There is no reason, for example, that a reading of a text should not and indeed often must deploy knowledge about a whole range of things in connection with it, from technical lay out to reception history, to aspects of social context and history, but if reading is to be a practice of acknowledgement it will want to move through the articulated responses of the critic at hand. Wittgenstein says that we learn language in apprenticing ourselves into the world of what the elders in our lives say and do (how they act) in relation to each other and us and with the things of the world. It is a major part of Wittgenstein’s teaching especially as understood by Cavell that reference must pass through expression. So a major part of Moi’s focus in this section lies in thinking of the text at hand, the text we might be reading, as action and expression. As critics we will need to think about what we stake ourselves on in our claims about any particular text under analysis, what we have seen, what noticed, and why it is significant for us, and perhaps for others. As Moi says this will involve trusting our own experience and our experience might at the same time need educating. Finding the right words (for which we love good writers) will sometimes mean finding the community who reads and understands them, something not known in advance. Moi’s book is written in the hope and risk that she will find that community of readers.

In the final section of her book, Moi movingly writes about the horrific Utoya massacre of July 22nd 2011, and the subsequent proceedings of the Oslo District Court in adjudicating the sanity of Anders Breivik. The psychiatrists’ comments in those proceeding showed a corruption of moral reflection by the scientism that framed their psychology. “A society that loses faith in language will also lose its sense of reality”, she says, claiming we need a vision of language up to the flagrant assaults on truth that were always central in totalitarianism but that have now become such a regular feature of US political life as to imperiling the entire project of democracy (242). Here I believe the stakes of Moi’s project and its importance become even more apparent.

The more radical implications of ordinary language philosophy in literary studies were obscured by the fact that Derrida’s essay on Austin was one major conduit of Austin’s ideas in the literary academy, and Derrida misunderstood Austin quite consequentially. Austin’s famous distinctions between the constative and the performative were influential in an entire field of “Performance Studies”, but often Austin’s strategic collapsing of the distinctions between the constative and the performative were not appreciated. For the point was precisely not to restrict the regime of truth to statements (this was precisely the view under attack) but to extend truth’s purview beyond the narrow range of statements and propositions. Now any speech act might be weighed up for its felicity or infelicity: this was not an alternative to truth but rather designed to show how our judgement might extend to whether a stretch of speech was apt for the occasion, irrelevant, inappropriate, vague, inapposite, fitting, right or proper.10 Such words as this should indicate that the relation of word and world is by no means confined to whether a statement about it is true or false, but is at the service of aligning word and world more broadly. What is at stake is the fit of word and world. The terminology of felicity, of the happiness or unhappiness of a speech act draws attention to all the manifold ways in which utterances go awry, being prone to failure, infelicity, misfiring, abuse, insincerity, and myriad other ways of not coming off (this too was misunderstood by Derrida). Austin never quite understood that failures could assume the magnitude of tragedy, that tragedy can line our lives, a theme sounded in the last part of Cavell’s great book, The Claim of Reason. Austin thought that philosophers in some sense did not know how to do things with words and wrote them a manual that sought to get away from the narrow and inflexible truth/falsity fetish that circulated around the proposition to the exclusion of all else. That his work would end up re-inforcing the very divisions it sought to break down was surely in itself a wonderful example of things going awry, of the accidents to which all speech is heir to. Though Moi focuses on Wittgenstein in this book, Austin’s legacy too is not yet fully received in literary studies.

Wittgenstein did not give us an ethical theory because he would not have recognized any particular part of language (ought, good, right etc.) as cordoned off in advance: if meaning was in use then any part of language is potentially open to ethics. Moi’s reflections on Utoya show how important the ethical as well as political reach of OLP is. Moral reflection is the topic of the third section of Cavell’s The Claim of Reason, and he there describes it as the region of language in which we stake out the positions we are prepared to hold in relation to each other, the task being not to agree but to figure out what you are prepared to stake yourself on, and for what you wish to be held accountable. For Wittgenstein’s vision of language offers a revolutionary understanding of criteria underlying our use of language, criteria we have to recover when they are lost or forgotten, criteria which are disappointing because we have to deploy them, and fragile because we so often have so very little to go on.

Moi thinks that the legacy of OLP for literary studies bears contemplation, that it is transformative. Properly understood it requires conversion because our own responses are at every point integral. Such a vision of language might be therefore at once demanding and esoteric; it is also vitally liberating and profoundly inspiring. She has given us a superb diagnosis of the vision of language at its heart, and with great patience and understanding laid open to view the pictures of language that still pervasively and detrimentally hold literary studies in a grip.

1.Julius Caesar Act 3, Sc. 1, in The New Oxford Shakespeare: The Complete Works, ed. Gary Taylor, John Jowett, Terri Bourus, and Gabriel Egan (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016), 113-15/.
2.James Baldwin, “Why I Stopped Hating Shakespeare,” in The Cross of Redemption: Uncollected Writings, ed. Randall Kenan (New York: Vintage International, 2010), 67; first published in The Observer (April 19, 1964).
3.Baldwin, “Why I Stopped,” 67.
4.Baldwin, “Why I Stopped,” 68.
5.Baldwin, “Why I Stopped,” 65.
6.Toril Moi, Revolution of the Ordinary: Literary Studies After Wittgenstein, Austin, and Cavell (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017), 194; hereafter cited in the text.
7.Sandra Laugier, “Introduction to the French Edition of Must We Mean What We Say?, Critical Inquiry 37 (Summer 2011): 628.
8.Cora Diamond, The Realistic Spirit: Wittgenstein, Philosophy, and the Mind (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1995).
9.Moi says ordinary language is “simply language that works, that helps us to draw distinctions, carry out tasks, engage fruitfully with others” (161).
10.Moi has thrown light on this in her previous book What is A Woman? (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001). Sandra Laugier and Nancy Bauer have also helped me to these understandings in How To Do Things With Pornography (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2015), and Laugier, Why We Need Ordinary Language Philosophy, trans. Daniela Ginsburg (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013). Cavell’s important essay “Counter-Philosophy and the Pawn of Voice,” was a detailed and important refutation of Derrida’s understanding of Austen; see A Pitch of Philosophy (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1994).


A Joyful Palace Revolution

The “revolution” in Toril Moi’s Revolution of the Ordinary comes from within the very fortress of literary theory. The author of the canonical reader on feminist theory, Sexual/Textual Politics, not to mention classic studies of Simone de Beauvoir and Henrik Ibsen, Moi is surely one of the greatest practitioners and explicators of literary theory of my generation. So when she turns on the “theory project,” taking aim at the founding fathers—Saussure, Derrida, de Man, Jameson, Culler, and others—we would do well to listen carefully. Very carefully. She knows what she is talking about; she helped build the very edifice she is now taking apart, brick by brick.

Her dissatisfaction with the “hermeneutics of suspicion” has been brewing for a while, and she is part of a growing group of critics who advocate for kinds of reading that have been suppressed—let’s face it, sometimes openly derided—by the regnant paradigm of “critique,” namely reading that includes moments of potential admiration, inspiration, recognition, and instruction. Along with Rita Felski (in, for example, The Limits of Critique), Moi has had it with theory’s arrogance, with its monopoly on hermeneutic prestige, and with its thorough-going negativity and skepticism when it comes to language and meaning itself. But whereas Felski seeks to expand the interpretive palette, ceding to theory a place within that bigger tent, Moi strikes at the very heart of literary theory as we have known and practiced it over the last several decades. Hers, in short, is an even more radical critique of critique. It is a daunting task and one that will no doubt make enemies of erstwhile friends. She is just the woman to do it.

The key dispute goes to the very nature of language. Moi demonstrates with painstaking fastidiousness how the legacy of Saussure has been deployed to undergird extremely skeptical views of language and meaning. But the central terms, “the empty signifier” and the “material mark,” she says, remain “radically incoherent concepts” (118). She does not object (and who would?) to the conclusion that language can fail, and perhaps frequently does. What she opposes—vigorously—is making this view of language absolute. But this is precisely what Saussure’s disciples and revisers have wrought: “For post-Saussureans like de Man and Culler,” she says in a highly entertaining and devasting critique of de Man’s use of an Archie Bunker episode, “puns provide an attractive model of language because they show that words aren’t names intrinsically connected to things, a point that is then taken to prove that reference itself is always unstable” (148). And again, though here for slightly different reasons: “Teachers and commentators have usually taken de Man’s message to be that ‘[since] you cannot reconcile rhetoric and grammar,’ the meaning of language, and literature, is ‘radically undecidable’” (138).

Unstable meaning and “undecidability” were the grand conclusions we were all expected to arrive at in graduate school when I was a student, at least in those courses where theory counted, and where a prestige publication was the goal. A well-known bumper sticker that mocks Christian fundamentalists reads: “Jesus is the answer. What was the question?” But with just a minor modification, we could make this slogan apposite of “the theory project” at its worst: a series of foregone conclusions awaiting confirmation via the next literary text to come along—another kind of dogma. As Moi puts it: “To read the text suspiciously is to see it as a symptom of something else. That ‘something else’ usually turns out to be a theoretical or political insight possessed by the critic in advance of the reading. Instead of responding to the text’s concerns, the critic forces it to submit to his or her own theoretical or political schemes. The result is often entirely predictable readings” (17).

Much of what Moi argues in Revolution of the Ordinary resonates deeply with my own experience of literary studies. And I suspect that will be the case with numerous other readers as well. Perhaps without even knowing it, we had been yearning for a magisterial study that would realign the entire discipline by embracing a broader, richer conception of language that acknowledges that meaning is in many contexts remarkably durable (sometimes frightfully so); that language can connect us to the real world, even while it can distort and mystify; and that communication is frequently successful, not ipso facto doomed to failure. These are not naïve claims, but comprise rather a more accurate description of how language actually works.

She grounds this more capacious view of language principally in the philosophy of Ludwig Wittgenstein, specifically within his posthumous Philosophical Investigations. But this is where all attempts at precis must break down (at least where my poor attempts do), and where her task grows exponentially more difficult for an array of reasons: Wittgenstein is frankly not well known in literary studies, so Moi must provide us a primer on his basic ideas. (This in itself is a formidable task.) Worse, when he is recognized, Wittgenstein is either affiliated with his famous Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (not terribly relevant to this study), and/or taken to be irredeemably conservative or quietistic, thanks to the prejudicial treatment he has received at the hands of Gellner and above all Herbert Marcuse.

This dismissive view of Wittgenstein (baseless though it may actually be) applies specifically to key terms that are crucial to Moi’s argument, namely to “ordinary language,” “forms of life,” and common sense meanings. These very terms are taken as “proof” of ordinary language philosophy’s inability to contest the status quo, mired as it is in the quotidian. We have been taught to assume that the soup of “ordinary” language lacks theory’s privileged “rigorous concepts” and thus fails to provide any semantic purchase for critiquing the ideology of which it inadvertently partakes. Suffice it to say that Moi takes all of this on point by point and concludes that “the need to free ourselves from illusions is as strong in Wittgenstein as it is in Marx and Freud” (60). And ordinary language, she endeavors to show, gives us the tools to do just that.

I have to confess that some of the issues Moi targets have been bugging me for over twenty years. How, for example, do theorists who deny agency to others (having transferred it to language itself) explain their own privilege? Why isn’t language “writing” them? Why are they (or “we” theorists) exempt? The inconsistency becomes particularly irksome when one puts this in the context of the “Bad Writing Contest” (163-66), where we read on the one hand that “many [theorists who endorse difficult prose] object to the very idea that subjects express themselves, which they see as kowtowing to liberal humanism,” while they reserve to themselves the right (and the ability) to deploy “difficult writing” as a “necessary [tool] to shake up uncritical consumers of dominant ideology” (164). I remember asking about this contradiction in graduate school, but I had to wait almost twenty-five years to get a richly satisfying answer from Moi.

Equally aggravating to me was the model of social change implicit in much theory. It seemed to me that there was an element of vanity, even self-congratulation at play in the degree to which we attributed efficacy to our theorizing: it was as if social change could only come about via the use of sufficiently rigorous theoretical concepts—what Moi calls a “theoreticist” (and elsewhere a “decisionist”) fallacy. A related move is to abstract social problems to “their conditions of possibility. When we have exposed them as socially constructed, and thus contingent, we feel that our work is done” (176). But is it really? Prior to graduate school, I had worked for five years in an inner-city high school in Jersey City, so I was fairly certain that this was not the way—or the only way—to effect social change. But I got no hearing. I was merely theoretically naive.

I’m sanguine about the impact of Revolution of the Ordinary, not only because of the book itself, but also because Moi’s case is strengthened by important allies she has not explicitly called upon here. First, if we want to identify an indisputably progressive critic of the status quo who believed firmly—and whose literary work clearly demonstrates—that “ordinary language” can be deployed to bring about consciousness-raising, then we need do little more than mention the name Bertolt Brecht. Without wishing to equate “ordinary language” with the language of “the chap on the street” (Marcuse’s reductive move), we can nevertheless see in Brecht an optimistic embrace of “Menschenverstand” (common sense) as a foundation for revolutionary activity. One need look no further than his signature revolutionary drama, Die Mutter (The Mother), to exemplify the point.

Second, Moi would appear to enjoy the support of Adorno himself in her analysis of “the craving for generality” as a nefarious and “often-unacknowledged intellectual attitude that governs our thinking. It is a picture that holds us captive” (93). Is this not essentially Adorno’s central argument against Heidegger in The Jargon of Authenticity? Is he not here, as well as in Minima Moralia at pains to identify the virtues of “non-identical thinking” as well as the evils of over-abstraction? Even if he does not always abide by his own admonishment, Adorno can credibly be cited as a powerful kindred spirit inveighing against the dangers of generality and abstraction in modern thought. Another ally from within the fortress of high theory.

Third, in her beautiful advocacy of “acknowledgment” as a potentially richer mode of response to works of art than thoroughgoing suspicion (chapter 9), Moi has an important intellectual forebear in the American pragmatist philosopher, William James, who argued in The Varieties of Religious Experience against William Clifford that in some fundamental areas of knowing (such as religion and personal relationships) radical skepticism (the “manly” virtue Clifford espouses) is fundamentally misplaced. On the contrary, some truths can only be apprehended via love, or what James calls our “passional nature.” Fully in concert with Moi’s admonition that literary scholars should declare themselves unabashed humanists, rather than mimic the methods of science, James warns against the encroachment of scientific skepticism upon all areas of human life.

One could continue to weave this web of intellectual genealogy and affinity, and other readers will no doubt do so. The critical reception of Revolution of the Ordinary should include efforts not only to challenge Moi, but to extend and deepen her analysis as well. For it rests, I contend, upon foundations even greater than those she has explicitly claimed in the study.

But let’s be honest: the news may not be all encouraging for this book. Moi will have her energetic detractors, of that we can be certain. I had the great pleasure of serving as a member of what one might call an academic focus group for the first draft of the manuscript that eventually became Revolution of the Ordinary. Organized by the Franklin Humanities Center at Duke University, we were a group of academics (from a variety of departments connected to literary and cultural studies) and publishers. During the discussion of the manuscript, as I recall it, most participants were notably supportive. But during the lunch break, with Moi out of earshot, they weren’t having it: none were willing to let go of “the theory project,” upon which many have built their careers and reputations. After lunch, and after a little prodding, some colleagues did come clean with their unwillingness to accept Saussure as the lynchpin to the argument against theory. Each participant had a reason why his or her theoretical investments should be exempt from the knife of Moi’s analysis. I mention this not to reintroduce the thorny issue of the degree to which core Saussurean ideas indwell even post-Saussurean thought (Moi addresses this head on in the book). My point rather—in the tradition of the sociology of knowledge—is to inquire into the ways in which our own biographies will affect our willingness and ability to accept the challenge at the core of Revolution of the Ordinary.

Allow me to reflect briefly on my own: As someone who has been dissatisfied with central aspects of the theory project—its utter predictability, its devolution into dogma, and its skeptical epistemological extremism—I was ripe for this book. I was all ears. But I have not made a career deploying Benjamin, Derrida, or de Man; quite the opposite. Whenever possible, I have hewed to the examples of my great teachers, who were literary historians (Alfred Doppler and Karl Guthke), or students of narrative (Dorrit Cohn). But I know what is expected as a member of the guild, so I have played along, and frankly learned a great deal in the process. I have no regrets on that score.

Like most of my colleagues, though, I am no specialist on Saussurre (any more than I am on Wittgenstein). I never read Saussurre’s lectures in the original French—nor do I have any intention to do so—and I’m fairly sure that most of my colleagues never have either. If we are honest, we accepted a lot on faith and authority—two things supposedly alien to theory! Furthermore, my enthusiasm for Moi’s book does not fully depend on Wittgenstein’s ordinary language philosophy (though I will be tracking the discussion on that point closely). It is, rather, my own experience of language and meaning-making as something much broader and more variegated than the Saussureans and post-Saussureans would admit that has been decisive for me. Wittgenstein’s formulations (as well as Cavell’s and Moi’s) help me understand these experiences and communicate them to others more effectively. But at bottom, one must ask how necessary the Wittgentstein foundation really is, or needs to be.

I mention all this simply to raise the question of expertise and authority: on what exactly did we and do we base our intellectual allegiances? It seems to me that when we are considering a paradigm shift as momentous as what Moi advocates in Revolution of the Ordinary we ought to take stock of our current investments and ask honestly what it would take for each of us to make the leap. There have of course been others who have mounted serious challenges to the theory project. I’m thinking, for example, of Michael Morton’s The Critical Turn: Studies in Kant, Herder, Wittgenstein, and Contemporary Theory (1993); of Mark Roche’s Why Literature Matters in the Twenty-first Century (2004), and (for somewhat different reasons) of Vittorio Hösle’s Objective Idealism, Ethics, and Politics (1998). Despite the cogency of their arguments—some of which overlap with Moi’s quite nicely—they remained uninfluential, largely ignored by the theory community, as far as I can tell. Moi’s book has already ruffled feathers and evoked rebuttals, and that is as it should be. And we’d expect no less from an insurgent from within the theory establishment. Because this is in a sense theory’s reckoning with itself, we will not be able to avoid the debate as we have in the past. Remaining on the sidelines, or pretending the challenge is not facing us squarely, is simply less of an option given Moi’s towering prominence.

At any rate, what we have in this pathbreaking book is not merely a revolution, as Moi suggests in her title, but a joyful one, as I contend in mine. That is because Moi has provided a roadmap for reconnecting literary studies to concern for the social world we all inhabit. Rather than making epistemology the be-all and end-all, and reducing any moral concern to questions of what we can and cannot know, Moi strongly advocates reading practices that acknowledge people as potential agents; as actors (authors, readers, social actors) who have social and personal responsibility; and as subjects who write and are not merely written by “language itself.” More than that, her book is infused with a deep concern for pedagogy and with a profound respect—as one potential response—for the work of art. She concludes with a poignant manifesto: “A society that loses faith in language will also lose its sense of reality. A society that rejects the very idea of a just and loving gaze as so much unscientific sentimentalism will try to replace judgment with measurements….In a world in which so many powerful persons and institutions have a vested interest in making us lose faith in language’s power to respond to and reveal reality, precise and attentive use of words is an act of resistance” (242).

I am not blind—I hope—to the book’s (and perhaps my own) shortcomings. In any particular disagreement, Moi is generous to her opponents to a fault, differing it seems only where absolutely necessary. Nevertheless, I find myself asking if there is not some better way to acknowledge the achievements of theory, despite its post-Saussurean extravagancies and distortions. And I have to confess that I’m still struggling with Wittgenstein—trying, for example, to figure out exactly how “exemplary” contrasts with “representative.” I assume that since language use is infinite we simply can never know for sure if anything is ever really representative. (One contemporary linguist views language as a moving parade in which we are all participants—a brilliant image, I think, to express its uncontainability, its refusal to be brought under the strictures of analysis.) But, still: how exemplary is exemplary? And while I love the book’s final chapter for its soaring ambition, it strikes me as a bit schematic, perhaps more an outline for a future book. I can sense Moi’s desire to exemplify the kind of reading she has thus far only adumbrated, but these sections dealing with primary literature are just far too brief, at least for my taste.

But pace to those who tell us that Moi has sold out aesthetics in favor of ethics, or that in her rush to embrace the real, she has lost touch with the imaginative possibilities of literature. Let us not forget that Moi is a gifted literary critic, not only a theorist. That is a real calling card, one that frankly distinguishes her from many others who play the theory game. Even if this single monograph does not provide her the berth to indulge that kind of work in greater detail, I am not willing to forget that she is elsewhere the author of the magisterial Ibsen and the Birth of Modernism, and a truly fine reader of literature in general.

I am not naïve about the revolution. Of those who engage with this book, many may seek to excuse themselves from Moi’s general indictment of theory, to find some clever way around her frontal attack on Saussure and his legacy. Let the conversations begin! She will have answers, and it will be fun to watch the debates unfold. But it will not be enough, from my point of view, to rescue this or that favorite shred or strand of the theory project. Opponents will owe us not merely a defense of the status quo, but an explanation as to how we get to those joyful aspects of aesthetic “acknowledgment” Moi adumbrates—that is, how we can embrace language in its full range of functionality, beauty, and social utility.




In her new book, Revolution of the Ordinary: Literary Studies after Wittgenstein, Austin, and Cavell, Toril Moi rails against the way literary critics and theorists use metaphors of “surface” and “depth” when they interpret texts. Regardless of which side of the surface-depth binary we privilege, she claims, these metaphors entangle us in a misconception of how language works, and distract us from our real task: looking at the human realities each text explores. Language itself has neither surface nor depth; to the degree that a text communicates something real, it does so as “ordinary language,” which has neither surface nor depth but is entirely open to view, “doing work,” drawing “useful distinctions” that answer to “our real need” as human beings (161). Metaphysicians, deconstructionists, Marxists, feminists, and identity theorists get carried away by the urge to create theoretical generalizations, whereas language that does work moves from the “particular case” towards larger insights. Our primary goal should be to accurately describe particular cases, allowing nothing theoretical to intrude, and to use the clearest language possible, remembering that the language we interpret has neither surface nor depth. If we don’t do that, then we produce what Wittgenstein calls “language on holiday,” “language idling” (Philosophical Investigations, 38, 132; Moi, 47-49).

Moi attributes her notions about ordinary language to “ordinary language philosophy,” the trend in philosophy associated primarily with J. L. Austin and the later Wittgenstein. She is particularly impressed with Wittgenstein’s dictum in Philosophical Investigations §435 that in language “nothing is hidden,”11 from which she concludes that the reason language—innocent in itself, completely open to view—sometimes misleads, is that we, the users of language, misuse it to “lie, cheat, and deceive (179-80).

Given her blanket rejection of the metaphors of surface and depth in language, one would think she would explain why Wittgenstein feels no compunction in using it. As he says in §664,

In the use of words, one might distinguish “surface grammar” from “depth grammar.” What immediately impresses itself upon us about the use of a word is the way it is used in the sentence structure, the part of its use—one might say—that can be taken in by the ear. —And now compare the depth grammar, say, of the verb ‘to mean’, with what its surface grammar would lead one to presume. No wonder one finds it difficult to know one’s way about.

The point Wittgenstein is making here with the help of the surface-depth metaphor is fundamental to his whole inquiry: that, as he says in §132, the distinctions we need to make are ones “that our ordinary forms of language make us overlook.” These remarks indicate that ordinary language isn’t merely the simple-souled, compliant friend as which Moi takes it, it’s a slippery little devil, one that it takes more than a refusal of the surface-depth metaphor to deal with—a phenomenon that, in fact, this metaphor can help us to understand.

It’s true that Wittgenstein doesn’t think the confusions engendered by our ordinary forms of speech can be cleared up by any general theory; what is needed, as Moi correctly notes, is careful attention to how “ordinary language” actually works in particular cases of its use. But no amount of attention to particular cases of language use is going to yield the necessary clarification unless we have been trained to look at these particular cases in the radical new way that Wittgenstein teaches, a way that involves conceptual generalizations of a type that function awfully like theoretical concepts, and which are anything but “ordinary.” Even his concept of ordinary language is un-ordinary; you don’t really know what it means until you’ve spent a lot of time with Wittgenstein. He isn’t just looking carefully at language and exhorting others to do the same, he’s teaching a highly specialized method, a method that he says can be taught only by examples; but we can’t understand what the examples are supposed to be teaching without the new concepts Wittgenstein invents, concepts one can call theoretical or not, as one pleases, but which are certainly not derived directly from ordinary usage, and which apply to vast swathes of language.12

In order to understand the notions of surface and depth grammar, for instance, we have to understand the extremely original way in which Wittgenstein defines “grammar.” To actually use Wittgenstein’s concept of grammar, it isn’t enough to have a loose conceptual grasp of his method, as Moi does; one has to develop an instinctive feel for grammar, a feel guided by a sense of the philosophical problematic that guides Wittgenstein’s investigations. One can’t “hear” grammaticality correctly unless one has a firm grasp of the method that corresponds to this problematic. Moi suggests that the person off the street should be able to understand such apparently ordinary language distinctions as that between “language that does work” (ordinary language) on one hand, and “language idling” or “language on holiday” (theory) on the other. But this distinction evidently constitutes just what Moi claims is impossible—a general theory of language, one that divides all of language into two types, one of which is valid and the other—theory in general—is not; one of which gives us access to the real, the other of which creates mere illusions. This distinction certainly isn’t mere description. Mere description is something that, if it’s accurate, most people will agree with without specialized training, which is far from the case here.

Moi thinks all one needs to do to get to language that “does work” is pay close attention to the “particular case,” but even the notion of a particular case as mobilized by Wittgenstein is slippery in a way that eludes her argument in Revolution of the Ordinary. He doesn’t mean “particular” in the sense of “individual,” as she often takes it, but in the sense of “specific”: not “what Fred said yesterday to Sam,” but “the kind of thing one says in this kind of situation.” Even more important, Moi also misses the fact that the specificity and concreteness Wittgenstein is after are strictly linguistic—that is, typical cases of linguistic usage—not the specificity and concreteness of “real life.” It is true that Wittgenstein investigates usage, to a certain limited degree, as intertwined with the “forms of life” within which they acquire their sense. But he never fills in the details of forms of life beyond certain schematic descriptions, just enough to illuminate the conceptual point he wants to illuminate; it’s not as though he’s interested in these details—at least philosophically—for their own sake, or for humane reasons. Moi, by contrast, wants to talk about things like racism and the oppression of women, and to discuss them as they affect individual persons. The “real need” of which Wittgenstein speaks is an intellectual need, not the needs for acknowledgement or freedom from discrimination of individual human beings or groups of human beings about which Moi is concerned. No doubt such need is more important than the matters most philosophers or theorists address, but that is simply not the kind of real need in question in the Philosophical Investigations.

The truth is that Wittgenstein was a philosopher’s philosopher, who in the Philosophical Investigations was concerned (as the book’s title specifies) with philosophical problems. In life he was a generous man who gave away his fortune, and traveled to the Soviet Union in hopes of finding the kind of society that he could live in; but in his writings the only needs he’s concerned with are those ensuing from a philosophical tradition that had caused him, and was still causing others, real spiritual torment by its mistaken conceptions of mind, thought, and truth. At the center of this mistaken philosophical “picture” was the post-Cartesian conception of mind/consciousness as what in the Blue Book Wittgenstein called “a queer kind of medium” that dwells in the head somewhere. This medium can, purportedly, do things no natural medium, subject to naturalistic explanation, can do, such as make a mental image directly “refer” to an object in the world, or bestow meaning on the dead body of a physical sign token. In order to get us unstuck from this metaphysical picture, Wittgenstein asks us to consider thought as no different than, yes, writing—in a sense of “writing” that has important correspondences with the Derridean sense:

The word “signify” (bezeichnen) is perhaps used most straightforwardly when the name is actually a mark on the object signified….

When philosophizing, it will often prove useful to say to ourselves: naming something is rather like attaching a name tag to a thing.13

Thinking in terms of name tags on things is a way of reminding ourselves that a word, even an ostensibly learned one, functions in the same way whether it’s in one’s “mind” or written down on paper. Wittgenstein admits that certain words do call certain images into mind, but this is part of what creates the mistaken notion of the “queer medium” in which magical acts of meaning and reference can occur.

Moi has apparently picked up her Wittgenstein mainly from Stanley Cavell, who, although he is scarcely on the same level with the other two writers named in her subtitle, is by far the most important influence on her views. It’s a curious preference for a champion of pellucid language, since Austin (who only pops up here and there in this book) and Wittgenstein both write spectacularly terse, lucid, analytical prose, while Cavell’s style is portentous, long-winded, full of rhetorical flourishes, and to me, at least, far from a model of clarity. But it is he who introduces the kind of moralism that dominates Moi’s last two chapters. We finally learn here that what really enables accurate reading of the particular case is a good heart and “a just and loving gaze” that gives people and texts the acknowledgment they need and deserve. For examples of the just and loving gaze, Moi cites poets, fiction writers, and certain philosophers—Simone Weil, Iris Murdoch, Cora Diamond, Stanley Cavell, and Martha Nussbaum; not a single model of good reading can she find among literary critics or theorists. The implication is that our accursed tribe has become addicted to abstract theory because we lack just and loving hearts; and that Moi herself does not lack it. This may be so, but it isn’t evident in the cursory and contemptuous way she dismisses the writers she doesn’t like (full disclosure: I am one of these). Nor am I convinced her exemplary writers are as morally exemplary as she so readily assumes: Rilke, for example, whose writing Moi praises, abandoned his newborn child and his wife to run off to Paris to perfect his art (where he was later joined by his wife, also an artist, sans baby). One doesn’t have to be an ethically exemplary person to write just and loving prose, of course; but one has to wonder what role the heart plays in such writing. Is what makes “The Panther” a great poem really a just and loving heart, or something else—a total devotion to becoming a great poet, perhaps?

More important than the moralism, however—at least from a philosophical standpoint—is that in these final two chapters Moi reveals, almost accidentally, her commitment to the Romantic version of the Cartesian split that Wittgenstein so intensely wanted to dismantle. During her discussion of Rilke, she articulates—somewhat offhandedly, as though she doesn’t realize the momentousness of what she’s saying—a Romantic-expressivist view of art, one which she describes in terms of the subjective “unknown inner space” (237) and the worldly “outer.” This, of course, is the surface-depth metaphor to end all surface-depth metaphors, the main target of the Philosophical Investigations (and identified by Derrida as the matrix of all other metaphysical oppositions). Since she’s not applying the metaphor to language, Moi feels free to apply it to that which language expresses: “Writing is expression, in the most literal sense of the word, for it turns the inner into something outer” (236). By contrast, Wittgenstein in The Blue Book—the best place for a beginner to get oriented toward the project of the Philosophical Investigations—writes that “We are not concerned with the difference, inside, outside.” That’s the conceptual move that, in Wittgenstein’s method, opens the way to treating signs indifferently as in the head or written on paper.

One understands nothing about the Philosophical Investigations if one doesn’t realize that the conception of mind as a “queer” inner medium is the major target at which it takes aim. One especially doesn’t understand the force of Wittgenstein’s notion that in language nothing is hidden, which needs to be understood by contrast with the absolute hiddenness of the inner medium (not by contrast with something hidden by the forms of language themselves, a purely perspectival hiddenness). Because this is so, I had the temerity to suggest in a book Moi summarily dismisses (as she dismisses many other texts by “theorists”) that Wittgenstein was in a certain way, one that needs to be carefully articulated and delimited, on the same page with Derrida, who in Of Grammatology declared that “the deconstruction of presence proceeds through the deconstruction of consciousness.”

11.Ludvig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, ed. P.M.S. Hacker, and Joachim Schulte, trans. G.E.M. Anscombe, P.M.S. Hacker, and Joachim Schulte (New York: Wiley-Blackwell 2009).
12.Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, §133.
13.Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, §15.


Reading Toril Moi’s new book reminded me of when New Hampshire’s famous rock formation, The Old Man of the Mountain, finally just fell off the mountain in 2003. It is somewhat frightening to see Moi cast aside the grounds of the discipline as most of us have been trained in it, as so much in the humanities seems already precarious. But it is thrilling and freeing too.

I will focus here on what I take to be the crucial parts of this wide-ranging book: the discussions of Saussure and of concepts, and the use of the term human being. As to the first, Moi notes that “in the humanities today, the doxa concerning language and meaning remains Saussurean, or rather, post-Saussurean” (15). In particular, she highlights that “recent theory formations that seek to get past subjectivity and language” (17) are “still work[ing] with the Saussurean and post-Saussurean picture of language, even if only implicitly” (17). The stakes of inquiring into Saussure, then, include inquiring into whether or not language’s relation to the world really is a problem, and if subjectivity—or the human presence in relation to language—is itself a problem.

Moi makes two essential points concerning Saussure. First, she notes the scientific purpose of his view of language as a structure that can be studied as an object outside of individuals’ use of it. As she says, “Saussure want[ed] to found a science” (17), and to do so he needed a way to treat language as a stable object he could analyze from the outside. “Saussure’s major contribution to linguistics is his concept of ‘language’ (la langue), a completely new theoretical construct defined as a ‘self-contained whole and a principle of classification’” (114).

This is crafted by separating language from parole, “language uttered by an individual speaker” (115). As Moi observes, this “makes ‘language’ a theorizable entity, something one can grasp as a whole, something that can be the proper subject for a science” (114). But it is “an artificially produced object . . . carved out of the unwieldy chaos of ‘speech’” (114). Moreover, Moi contends, it does not make sense to take this artifact-language, created for scientific study, and turn it into a “general philosophy of language” (114). For Wittgenstein, she explains, language is not a structure or object that can be thought outside of our acts of using it; it has no objective existence, so to speak, at all. It does seem strange that Saussure’s work should have become the basis of literary theory. Why should we think that language as a general system is what is at stake in our interest in literature, since literature is if nothing else a specific use of language?

The second important point that Moi makes about Saussure concerns the structure of the sign: in essence, we did not grasp the point of the arrows on either side of the oval in Saussure’s classic diagram of it. “[N]othing is more characteristic of the post-Saussurean intellectual universe than the almost mystical belief in the ‘materiality of the signifier,’ and its sister concepts ‘the empty signifier’ and the ‘mark’” (116). These theoretical concepts are based on the idea that the linguistic sign is composed of two elements: a material signifier, be it a mark or a sound, and a concept, which then get sealed together into the sign. The problem with this is that, as Moi observes, “Saussure keeps reminding his readers that the signifier can never come apart from the signified” (117). Because they don’t exist apart from one another in the first place, the signifier and signified cannot be sealed together.

“In a posthumously discovered note [Saussure] writes: ‘It is not true, indeed it is extremely false to imagine there to be a distinction between the sound and the idea’” (117). And as Moi calls to our attention, a fascinating example in Course in General Linguistics compares language to “a sheet of paper: thought is the front and the sound the back; one cannot cut the front without cutting the back at the same time; likewise in language, one can neither divide sound from thought nor thought from sound” (quoted in Moi, 117). That’s why there are those arrows going up and down, to remind us that the two halves of the sign don’t exist except in relation to one another: the sign is one thing, not a compound of two things that, like chocolate and peanut butter, can be encountered both together and apart.

If you’ve ever found it odd that theory courses (perhaps even your own) tend to teach a tiny extract from Saussure, now you have a sense of why. The discipline adopted a small chunk of his terminology—which it misread—and then used that to define an entire philosophical sense of language, ignoring the scientific use for which Saussure intended it. Perhaps ignoring most of Saussure was necessary to keep ourselves from noticing how little his work fit with our account of it. At any rate, to be persuaded by Moi’s points about Saussure is to lose interest in a myriad of readings concerned with revealing language’s structural and/or material nature.

It is also to lose interest in readings seeking to get out of the imposed structure of language to reach a life prior to or beyond it. Most theories of language used in English, Moi notes, follow Saussure’s lead by defining language as a system that can be thought of outside of the use to which humans put it. In contrast, Moi argues through both Wittgenstein and Stanley Cavell that language exists only as it is part of human life and practices. A powerful moment in support of this view is her discussion of Paul de Man’s reading of a scene from All in the Family, in which “his lack of interest in the actual speakers in their concrete situation…makes him deaf to the nuances” at stake in a fight between Archie and Edith Bunker. De Man is unable to see “a clash…between a wife who wishes to explain something, and a husband who refuses to listen” (142).

At a later moment, Moi asks that we at long last “acknowledge the obvious, namely that texts are made by someone” (202). It’s time, in short, to stop fighting against expression, a concept that was central to literary criticism before the rise of formalism and structuralism but has been resisted ever since. Here, Moi is abandoning decades of interest in texts framed not as human expressions but as “object[s]” (202), be they made up of the materials of signifiers or the materials of print and beyond. It does seem odd, to say the least, that literary criticism should be so adamantly opposed to the expressive, and so consistently committed to not acknowledging authorship at all.

Using Wittgenstein’s argument that language is indissociable from use leads Moi to argue against “the denial of the human” (128) that is such a dreary feature of scholarship in an era of posthumanism. But this denial of the human is nothing new in literary studies; we can trace it back through de Man’s fascination with Rousseau’s fear that language, since it is a “machine” that does not express him, might as well “mutilat[e] or behead” him.14 Still farther, it goes to Saussure’s bracketing of speech and also to Vladímir Propp’s observation that “phenomena and objects around us can be studied from the aspect of their composition and structure” (4), and his essential structuralist idea that to understand folktales, one should treat them like objects, identifiable through their formal structure.15 An irony of Moi’s book is that even as it upends so much disciplinary common knowledge, it shows why inquiring into the history of one’s discipline matters: otherwise, we can be repeating the moves of critics now a century behind us without even knowing why and how that’s happening.

One of the revolutionary things about Revolution of the Ordinary is the frequency with which the word human appears in it. This comes from Moi’s rejection of the idea that language can be studied apart from its use, not from a commitment to the exalted value of the human. Many critics are, however, likely to balk at the word, because “the human” was used historically as a principle of exclusion, grounding distinctions between who and what counts as valuable and who and what does not. Here, I think the disagreement at stake is importantly about an approach to concepts in general.

In a fascinating passage, Moi finds Jacques Derrida up in arms because John Searle “accuses” him “of believing that ‘unless a distinction can be made rigorous and precise it isn’t really a distinction at all’” (67; Moi quotes Searle). Moi observes that “Derrida reacts with fury” (67) to this charge; he is “shocked because he can’t fathom how anyone could possibly take such a notion of concepts to be a problem” (68). In Derrida’s words: “What philosopher ever since there were philosophers…ever renounced this axiom: in the order of concepts . . . when a distinction cannot be rigorous or precise, it is not a distinction at all” (Derrida, quoted in Moi 68). Critics who have become accustomed to nodding their heads in sympathy every time a binary distinction has been questioned may start up in wonder to hear this from Derrida. But Moi drives home that, in fact, “[r]igorous concepts” with firm definitions “are the very hallmark of ‘theory’” (68).

Derrida’s project, Moi emphasizes, is to reveal that so many concepts fail—can be deconstructed—because they contain fissures and inconsistencies. And “[a]fter deconstruction comes construction” (69), the invention of new concepts which are meant not to be muddled like the old ones. Hence “the long series of Derridean concepts: diffèrance, mark, supplement, iterability, trace, pharmakon, hymen, parergon, and many others” (69) in the pantheon of theory’s terms.

Moi goes on to observe how widely the project of theory has been to object to concepts which fail its definite ideal. As an example, she notes that while Kimberlé Crenshaw’s essay introducing intersectionality did not use concepts that way, in the field of intersectional feminist theory, “Even when the theorists’ whole project is fueled by a desire to understand the infinite differences among women in all their particularity, they set out do so by producing a general theory (of difference, of identity, language, power, and so on) that they hope will generate the appropriate understanding of the particular case” (93). Her point is that Crenshaw was right to bring up the way that race and gender oppression intersect; the mistake was subsequent theoreticians’ focus on honing conceptual categories as a way to develop Crenshaw’s insight. Moi maintains that “[t]he very idea of ‘exclusionary’ concepts is based on a wrong-headed and counterproductive picture of concepts and theory, a picture that in fact presupposes the very ‘exclusionariness’ or boundedness that feminist readers are eager to undo” (88).

In contrast, Wittgenstein thinks we may sometimes want utter precision from concepts, but that at other times uncertainty will be preferable. Moi illustrates this by saying that if she “want[s] to take a picture of you in front of the Eiffel tower, surely ‘stand roughly there’ is all” that’s needed—latitude and longitude for an exact spot will not help (73). Moi’s contention, then, is against the entire sense that concepts are a problem because they have firm and clear boundaries which are at once too restrictive (too bounded) and too imperfect (as cases always arise which seem not to fall under their boundaries). If you follow her objection to the way theory understands concepts, a lot of work in the discipline at large looks a bit like Eeyore putting a deflated balloon in and out a jar, torn between a commitment to concepts as definitive containers and a desire to trouble or unsettle them.

Instead, Moi suggests that we can think of concepts (such as “women”) as “network[s] of criss-crossing similarities, constantly established and extended in concrete use” (100). Following Wittgenstein, that is, we can see that a concept is less like a jar with a lid and more like a knot of seaweed that one can pick up and manipulate, drawing out some strands while leaving others in the background. On this understanding of the concept, speaking of the human being is a less dramatic gesture.

Indeed, Moi’s point might be that we already use the idea of the human being, without necessarily invoking the West’s historical conjunction of enlightenment and imperialism. The question becomes, how is that term being used, rather than what convictions and connections that term seems—in itself and apart from its use—to necessarily bring with it. Moi’s point would also be, I believe, that our conscious resistance to the term “human” does not connect to our lived practice in which we employ a flexible sense of the human frequently. Among these might be an interest in where and how human beings treat each other well or badly, fairly or unfairly.

Ultimately, Moi’s use of the human, like her sense of how concepts function generally, actually ratchets down the reach of the claims-making involved rather than raising it to the universal. I take this to be one of the main effects of a move away from thinking about the objective, structural conditions of language and focusing instead on its use: authored texts don’t voice an entire system in the way that machine-texts do.

An instance of this is Moi’s use of the word ‘we.’ Moi notes that it “has a bad reputation, for it is often taken to be inherently ‘exclusionary.’ But ‘we’ can be used in a myriad of ways, and only a few of those ways are objectionable. Ordinary language philosophy often talks about ‘what we should say.’…[T]his ‘we’ is neither an order nor an empirical claim. It is, rather, an invitation to the reader to test something for herself, to see if she can see what I see” (18). The “we” is a way of speaking in the hope that “there can be a community that includes me. Maybe there isn’t, at least not right now. To write is to risk rebuff” (19). To speak of a we, as of the human being, is to open up the possibility that one’s sense of something is of interest to others, is shareable by others, and that others might have something to say in response. Thus the commonalities invited through terms such as “we” can be as usefully indefinite as the concept.

Another way to think about the use of the term human in this book is to see it as part of an extended argument for the return of a basic premise of second wave feminism—that our own experience is the place to begin political and philosophical inquiry. In this respect Moi argues against Joan Scott’s influential argument in “The Evidence of Experience” that “experience is at once always already an interpretation and something that needs to be interpreted” (91; Moi quotes Scott). If in Scott the point was that experience is not a natural condition existing prior to cultural forms, one could say Moi’s point is that cultural forms are not objectifiable abstractions that exist prior to experiential phenomena (in short, this is not a Marxist book).

For Moi, Wittgenstein’s sense of a form of life makes identifying a natural, real life apart from a formal structure nonsensical—which is to say both an appeal to reality outside of form, and an appeal to form as an object knowable unto itself, apart from experience, make little sense. This is another place where the magnitude of the argument emerges: the whole way most English scholars think about reality, as made up of structures that shape an existence that is betrayed and constrained by that very shaping, doesn’t make sense to Moi anymore. She’s inviting us to come through the looking glass with her and give up on the mistaken idea that the form of language or culture exists apart from our natural, material, or real being. What will we think about once we’ve stopped worrying about the split between language and reality?

On the one hand, we’ll have to think more about what’s going on with people, as Moi emphasizes in her attention to Archie and Edith’s relationship. This is the implicit point of her frequent reminder that Wittgenstein sees philosophy as a kind of “therapy” (158). In this sense, she’s pulling for the return of a basic premise of the humanities: that it is a means for people to transform their experience of themselves and of the world. As Moi bursts out, late in the book, “The education of one’s experience by paying attention to it: what a hopeful idea! Experience is not fixed; previous experience does not doom me forever to repeat the same mistakes” (219).

Yet because of her sense of the form of life, in which natural existence and cultural existence are as inextricably coextant as the signifier and signified, the interest in experience Moi calls for is also an interest in how language is used. Currently, an interest in how language is used is relatively minimal in literary criticism. The most profound revolution here may lie in asking scholars in English to see language not as a problematic external structure against which we struggle, but as an intimate part of our being. If we return our attention to the realm of language in use—as expression—perhaps what Saussure cast off as “the unwieldy chaos of speech” will reopen as a place in which we thrive, or at least move with greater ease.

14.Paul de Man, “Excuses (Confessions),” in Allegories of Reading: Figural Language in Rousseau, Nietzsche, Rilke, and Proust (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1979), 297.
15.Vladímir Propp, Morphology of the Folktale (1928), trans. Laurence Scott (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1968), 4.


Toril Moi’s Revolution of the Ordinary has two goals. Through her lucid and learned accounts of crucial terms in Wittgenstein’s thought—“use,” “language game,” and “form of life”—Moi invites us to embrace a set of intuitions about the consequences entailed by the idea that we are beings who lead “lives in language.” Like Stanley Cavell, one of the book’s tutelary spirits, Moi seeks to show that what may have seemed like intractable failures of knowledge are really a kind of stubborn refusal to embrace what we must already know. For Cavell, this was notably the case when it came to the acknowledgement of persons: however badly or often we might fail in our responsiveness to others, he claimed, we do not really encounter the radical question of the reality of other minds and the claims that they make on us. For Moi, it is importantly true in the case of language. On her account, we do not ever really encounter the problem of the arbitrariness of the sign that generates the agon of deconstruction; we cannot really propose an alternative to convention that could give the observation that our norms and meanings are “socially constructed” any critical force. And thus, the second argument of the book: that by bringing the insights of ordinary language philosophy on literary study, we will come to see that a whole set of debates about the theory of language and the normativity of social practice that Moi regards as central to the discipline are misguided from the start and should be left behind, clearing the way to a transformed practice of reading.

I want to focus on a relatively narrow piece of the book’s second argument: the claim that the most important transformations on literary study will emerge when we stop thinking about literary texts as objects and start thinking about them as actions. For Moi, the payoff in considering texts as actions is also twofold. First, in coming to recognize texts as intentional—“spoken or written by someone at a particular time in a particular place”—we transform reading into what she calls “a practice of acknowledgement,” a practice that lays a host of transferred ethical obligations on the reader. But thinking about literary texts as “actions” also has practical implications for what I want to call (somewhat malgre Moi) our interpretive method. Specifically, it is supposed to correct our account of artistic intentions by changing when we derive them. Citing Elizabeth’s Anscombe’s account of intentionality, Moi argues that the question of literary intention can be answered only “retrospectively,” projecting back from the text to the intention that would explain it. To make her case, Moi points us to the example of Flaubert: As Flaubert “struggled with every word and comma in Madame Bovary,” crossing out and rewriting, Moi suggests, he did not fashion his novel after some fully formed idea, or “a pre-existing mini-work in his head.” Flaubert may have set out “at some point” to write a novel about “provincial life in Normandy”; but this original intention was not decisive; which is to say it was not the intention that guided his day’s work: “[O]nly by looking at what he had done could Flaubert decide whether it was what he had wanted to do.” And what is true of Flaubert—as an author, along the way—is true of us, as readers, at the end. On Moi’s account, to treat a work as an action is to see the literary object as an “intentional object,” something that “is meant to be exactly as it is,” and to work backwards, deriving the reasons for why it is exactly that way.

But exactly what way is the work? Or, to put it another way: what is our reason for assuming that the final state of the poem’s language—this set of sentences, that array of commas—is the place from which we ought to begin to derive our retrospective account of the work’s intentions? Suppose I were to compose a poem with the intention of creating a sequence words that have a very particular sound to them:

O world! O life! O time!
On whose last steps I climb,
Trembling at that where I had stood before;
When will return the glory of your prime?
No more—Oh, never more!

Out of the day and night
A joy has taken flight;
Fresh spring, and summer, and winter hoar,
Move my faint heart with grief, but with delight
No more—Oh, never more!

Shelley’s “A Lament” has that quality that George Sainstbury called “inevitableness”—a high degree of finish that indeed makes it seem intended to be “exactly that way.”  But as it happens, we have a robust record of the contingent and fitful work by which this inevitableness was produced. In Shelley’s notebooks, we can observe the poet in action, crossing out and revising, unfolding draft after draft separated by pages of other work, doodles of trees and men, and addresses of friends:

[First Draft, Stage 1]

Ah time, oh night, o day
Ni nal ni na, na ni
Ni na ni na, ni na
Oh life, O death, O time
Time a di
Never Time
Ah time, a time O-time

At first blush, the drafts of “A Lament” would seem to fully affirm Moi’s account of writerly action. What could be more obvious from Shelley’s crossings out and rewritings than that the poet did not fully possess his intentions at the outset, or in the midst of his work? As Bennett Weaver described the manuscripts in his own account of the poem’s “magic of inevitability”:  “Obviously in them we have nothing crystallate. We have a tone, we have a strong iambic rhythm, we have great nouns to receive the beat of the rhythm. Among those nouns time is dominant….Whether the words came in response to the rhythm or whether the rhythm was determined by the words who can say?…Anything like a poem is far off.” Like Moi’s Flaubert, Weaver’s Shelley undertakes a focused effort to get the work “right”; and what he is getting right is not the willed execution of what a “nuclear idea” (something like Moi’s “mini work”). Shelley may have intuited that “time” would be important to his poem in retrospect, but it isn’t quite time for the poem, which remains “far off” with the nouns like “life” and world” that will show up later.

But I want to say that our record of Shelley’s poem in action poses some important questions to Moi’s idea of the poem as action. Consider these two versions of the work at an intermediate stage, lettered on two facing pages of the notebook:

[First Draft, stage 3]

Na na, na na na’ na
Na nă nă na na—nă nă
  Nă nă nă nă nā nā
Na na nā nā nâ ă na
Na na na—nă nă—na na
  Na na na na—na na na na na
Na na na na na.
    Na na
Na na na na na
Na na
Na na na na na ~ na!
Oh time, oh night, o day
O day serenest (alas), o day
O day alas the day
That thou shouldst sleep when we awake to say
O time time-o death-o day
O day, o death-for- life is far from thee
O thou wert never free
For death is now with thee
And life is far from
O death, o day for life is far from the

This draft of “A Lament” allow us to consider that the action achieved in the poem might not have been the discovery of its nouns, but the fulfillment of a metrical scheme. While some nouns do appear, they appear as the vehicle of a pattern of sounds (time, night, day; ah, oh, o?) and stresses (ni na, na ni) for which words are necessary but secondary. Indeed, we may be struck, not only by the intensity of Shelley’s work on rhythm, but by its relative indifference to nouns; by the strange fact, for example, that (as Weaver notes): “For the strange final line of symbols, concluding with a detached na followed by an emphatic exclamation mark, there are no words.”

Even this hypothetical wordless poem does not present an insurmountable problem for Moi’s argument just because it does not take place in what we would ordinarily call ordinary language. Doubtless we could, with recourse to a concept like “form of life,” produce the world in which this action in sound and stress should count as part of a language game. This would be take “na na na” as in some sense another word, like “bububu”: or, if not a word exactly, then something that we could, given world enough and time, come to understand. Our retrospective account of the meaning of the poem might depend on articulating the reasons Shelly puts a “na ni” here and a “na na” there; rather than than on reasons for choosing “life” or “world,” but it in either case it would depend on the articulation of a life and world, in which the making of patterned sounds counts as a meaningful action.

But what seems more compelling in the example of Shelley’s poem—and what the hypothesis of a poem defined by its form makes vivid—is the difference between the kinds of reasons that would justify a poem considered as the endpoint of an action and the kinds of reasons motivating the actions that brought the poem about. What is the relation between the intentions retrospectively animating the “crystallate” poem, the poem that is exactly some particular way, and the intentions motivating the making of the poem that way? What are actions from the perspective of the artist in process, working (apparently) from an intention he cannot not fully be said to have except in retrospect? These facing pages preserve the tension not between two different actions, one meaningful in one way, the other meaningful in another, but between two different temporalities of intentional action: one fully intentional but not (yet) “meaningful”; the other the province of meanings that were not quite what one intended to make when making them.

Indeed, meter focuses our attention on this problem in the temporality of action, not just in the drafts, where Shelley can be seen comparing values of sound, stress, and duration against other rejected possibilities, but in the finished poem. Reading a poem enjoins an ongoing moment-to-moment adjudication of compositional rightness that is not identical to, and therefore not fully displaced by the retrospective judgment of that there are meanings or patterns at work in the poem. In experiencing the aptness or inevitability of a sound or silence in the moment of reading, we affirm the justice of the poet’s choice without necessary reference to the poem’s final form. The phenomenology of form perpetuates into the present of retrospect the feeling of encountering action “in process”—action charged with intention prior to the moment of its crystallization into pattern or sense.  Such experiences of compositionality are registrations of intentionality in operation at every stage, and not just at (or after) the stage of completion.

If the intentions that we discover in retrospect—derived as they are from the final, crystallate whole—are not (as Moi stipulates they are not) the reasons motivating the making of the whole, then from perspective of retrospect, then the poem at any intermediate stage would seem to be unimaginably “far off.” Indeed, Moi’s insistence on retrospect makes it hard to see why we should think her interest in meanings is an interest in intentions at all. Retrospectively divined meanings of a poem would seem to exist, that is, despite the actions of its maker rather than because of them, making the emergence of the finished work seem profoundly uncaused, like a kind of miracle. (cf. Weaver: “No truth was elicited at a flash, no voluntary purpose sought to woo a spontaneous impulse into union. Then after long waiting a creative mood descended sudden from heaven. Passion rose and overcame the swiftness of thought, and beauty was born.”)

The vividness with which these problems of action are felt in the encounter with poems—their lack of fit between what seem like meanings and what seem like motives—might have something to do with the recurrent discovery in the history of poetry that most motives that you could give to account for the making of a poem are better motives to do something else. This is obviously, comically, tragically, true when the motive is political. But it is still plausibly true when the motive is communicative (the idea that a poem is “what oft was thought but ne’er so well expressed” is far more often true in the breach.) Meter, in particular, helps us to see is why there is almost no satisfactory account of action that would warrant the work Flaubert put in to writing Madame Bovary or Shelley put into his revisions, or why it should take place in commas or rhythms. One significant exception, of course, would be the action of producing exactly that thing. But this would put us back in what Moi regards as sterile terrain of art for art’s sake: treating the form of an object as its reason for existing.

Moi’s answer to the question of what action a poem is is to see the poem as a move in a game calibrated to some use in our world. This approach, generous as it is to the diversity of human motives, misses something of the seriousness of the challenge that poetry presents, which I might state as a definition: Poetry names those actions in which the relation between means and ends is a persistent problem. This definition does not identify some particular set of formal features as essential to poetry; rather it seems to explain some of the ways in which we use the word “poetry” as responses to the problems form picks out in action: We are inclined to call pictures “poetic” to the extent that they possess features in excess of the motive to depict. Novels are “poetic” when their interest in commas seems at least as motivating as an interest in marriages or trains. Poems are poetic when they call attention to the disrelation between our desired ends and our available means.

When Wittgenstein declares “If a lion could speak, we could not understand him,” he is suggesting that one can always in principle produce the rules of the game in which the poem will come seem to be “a great noun.” Thus an interest in literature is an interest in the world, life, and time that we do or could hold in common. But poetry suggests that we are all always lions: there is a present element of our utterances that cannot be articulated with relation to shared reasons without losing them to retrospect.  An interest in the class of actions that display a lack of fit between our efforts and our interests suggests that the ordinary is not fully and exclusively where we reside.



Reading as an Act of Acknowledgment: Literary Studies after Ordinary Language Philosophy

Toril Moi has set out to write a revolutionary book. Yet from the outset she is clear about the fact that the revolution she aims to describe and enact has a paradoxical quality. It may not be recognized as a revolution at all, and for some it may even seem reactionary. This observation about Revolution of the Ordinary: Literary Studies after Wittgenstein, Austin, and Cavell (2017) may seem obvious, but its implications bear further study. The reasons that cause the revolution of ordinary language philosophy to be missed are the very same ones that also threaten to make the fundamental premise of Moi’s argument go unnoticed. This premise lies at the heart of the transformation of literary studies that Revolution of the Ordinary seeks to describe. It has deeper implications for the manner in which the book addresses itself to its reader. Furthermore, understanding the importance of this basic premise allows us to avoid missing the point of later arguments in the book, particularly those concerning the nature of reading in Part III. I will begin by trying to say something about why the basic premise of Revolution of the Ordinary is at once radical and easy to miss, and why the difficulty of recognizing it highlights the stakes of the invitation that ordinary language philosophy poses to literary studies, before proceeding to consider Moi’s arguments on the nature of reading in more detail.

The challenge that Revolution of the Ordinary takes up can be summarized as follows: how is it possible to make a case for breaking with theory without introducing a new theory to take its place? This challenge necessarily inflects the form of the book (by which I simply mean the reasons why Moi writes as she does) as well as the arguments that it presents. In the first place, according to Moi, the picture of language that is conventionally held in literary theory is embedded so deeply within language itself that when the ordinary language philosopher tries to talk about words in a different way, she simply isn’t able to make herself understood. But the difficulty she faces extends beyond the nature of her subject to the manner in which she seeks to bring it to bear upon literary studies. For at the heart of the book lies a challenge to the very conventions that govern the genre of literary theory itself: namely, that its reader can expect generalized instruction on what it means to read, on how to read, and on how to apply this knowledge to a set of texts under examination. Ordinary language philosophy, Moi claims, can liberate us from this way of doing literary theory and from the pedagogical position of passivity that it implies. In so doing, it promises to open up new and more adventurous modes of reading.

So how do we begin? This is the same question that Moi asks of her subject in the Introduction: “How, then, can anyone begin this philosophy?” (11) In response, Moi invokes another famous series of questions on beginning from a formative text in the tradition of ordinary language philosophy that she takes herself to inherit: “The question of how to begin—in this case, how to begin reading Wittgenstein—makes up the beginning of The Claim of Reason” (11). The famously bewildering opening is as follows:

If not at the beginning of Wittgenstein’s later philosophy, since what starts philosophy is no more to be known at the outset than how to make an end of it; and if not at the opening of Philosophical Investigations, since its opening is not to be confused with the starting of the philosophy it expresses, and since the terms in which the opening might be understood can hardly be given along with the opening itself; and if we acknowledge from the commencement, anyway leave open at the opening, that the way this work is written is internal to what it teaches, which means that we cannot understand the manner (call it the method) before we understand its work; and if we do not look to our history, since placing this book historically can hardly happen earlier than placing it philosophically; nor look to Wittgenstein’s past, since then we are likely to suppose that the Investigations is written in criticism of the Tractatus, which is not so much wrong as empty, both because to know what constitutes its criticism would be to know what constitutes its philosophy, and because it is more to the present point to see how the Investigations is written in criticism of itself; then where and how are we to approach this text? How shall we let this book teach us, this or anything?16

The first thing we must learn from Wittgenstein’s philosophy is how to ask the question of what it means to learn from philosophy. Not since Hegel’s Vorrede has the introduction to a philosophical text announced, in such unequivocal terms, its intention to break with the habitual conventions underlying its intelligibility. But Moi goes on from Cavell’s claim in order to raise yet another question, the question of how we come to be called to philosophy in the first place: “To engage seriously with ordinary language philosophy is a little like undergoing psychoanalysis. Wittgenstein assumes that we don’t begin doing philosophy just for the sake of it, but because something is making us feel confused, as if we had lost our way. Who wants to undergo philosophical therapy if they feel that everything in their intellectual life is just fine as it is?” (12)

A philosophical text is the kind of text that we read because we are lost and confused, at an impasse. There is something we want from the text. Our reasons for reading it can’t be separated from our investigation of our own difficulty. Any effort to understand the meaning of the text thus becomes inseparable from the search for self-knowledge. Moi’s claim here recalls a passage from Wittgenstein’s notebooks, transcribed in Culture and Value (1980), in which he imagines an extraordinary scene of instruction:

Instruction in a religious faith, therefore would have to take the form of a portrayal, a description, of that system of reference, while at the same time being an appeal to conscience.  And this combination would have to result in the pupil himself, of his own accord, passionately taking hold of the system of reference.  It would be as though someone were first to let me see the hopelessness of my situation and then show me the means of rescue until, of my own accord, or not at any rate led to it by my instructor, I ran to it and grasped it.17

By indicating that the desire must be found in us, that it cannot be forced or inculcated, not even by the most rigorous logic, Revolution of the Ordinary leaves open from the outset the terms of the reader’s own engagement with its arguments. Only the reader herself can avow or acknowledge the blurs or blocks, confusions or desires, which bring her to try to make sense of this text. This opening gesture allows Moi to establish a mode of address to her reader that is unusual, and that signals a break with the norms of academic discourse. It also serves to introduce the stakes of her subject in a singular manner. Such a gesture—at once empowering and trusting—characterizes something essential about the spirit of Revolution of the Ordinary, which remains full of hope and generosity even at its most polemical moments: a true inheritor of the tradition of ordinary language philosophy (Wittgenstein, Cavell, Diamond) that it traces.

The Introduction frames the unfolding of the text as an invitation to go on a journey. The journey retraces the path of its author, in order to understand the genesis of her conviction that ordinary language philosophy has fundamentally changed her work as a literary scholar: orienting her to a different picture of language, leading her to ask different questions, and ultimately giving her a different way of understanding what we do when we read texts. What makes itself heard at the outset, in other words, is something that for various reasons is increasingly rare in literary studies today: a first-person voice speaking of belief in the possibility of personal transformation.

Why is this important? To miss the claim of the first-person would be to miss what is at stake in retracing the journey, namely the search for voice and community whose outcome can never be guaranteed at the outset. “I have sometimes felt,” writes Moi, “that it is simply impossible to convey a position inspired by ordinary language philosophy to an audience steeped in the post-Saussurean tradition. The experience makes me feel helpless, as if I suddenly were speaking a foreign language” (10). The vulnerability and sense of powerlessness that Moi describes so vividly here as the experience of speaking and yet not being able to make oneself understood is not merely a psychological phenomenon. It testifies to the philosophical stakes of the position she assumes. For within the tradition of ordinary language philosophy of Wittgenstein after Cavell, to appeal to what we say is to issue “an invitation to the reader to test something for herself, to see if she can see what I see” (18). The risk of such a claim lies in revealing oneself as both in need of agreement and at perpetual risk of finding oneself alone, unheard, unrecognized.

From the outset we are thus reminded that the adventure of this text, the adventure of discovering what literary studies might be after ordinary language philosophy, cannot be undertaken without vulnerability. To write—and to read, for that matter—is to open oneself to an exchange that may end in helplessness, bitterness, judgment, the inability to make oneself known. The very framing of Moi’s argument is at one with her attempt to disclose the political stakes of ordinary language philosophy. To risk opening oneself to response, in all the finitude of one’s understanding, is necessary to the search for community: “If I don’t speak up, I will never discover whether there can be a community that includes me” (19). (Here, we may be reminded of the degree to which Cavell’s interpretation of Wittgenstein in The Claim of Reason [1979] and elsewhere is influenced by his reading of Rousseau; any thinker who takes up the task of writing to a non-existent audience with as much seriousness as the author of Reveries of A Solitary Walker [1782] is necessarily aware of the risk of exile embedded within the need of community.)

Moi returns to the significance of this act at the end of Chapter 7, “Critique, Clarity, and Common Sense,” in which she evokes Investigations §217 in the context of a discussion of Wittgenstein and radical politics: “Once I have exhausted the justifications, I have reached bedrock, and my spade is turned. Then I am inclined to say: ‘This is simply what I do.’” Here, Moi does not elaborate on whether there is an ethical stance inherent in the act of acknowledging the limits of one’s power to elicit a certain response, but she implies that we might discern the salient features of such a stance in her claim that “Wittgenstein chooses the peaceful option: rather than hitting his interlocutor with his bent spade, he rests on it. . . . the passage is telling us that explanations will never solve all the issues that arise when we are forced to face our finitude and separation, face the fact that we are other to each other” (171). The other has a choice, a choice that I cannot make for him, no matter the force of my own beliefs. What does it say about me, for that matter, if the failure of the other to be convinced by the rightness of my beliefs is the thing that arouses my deepest fears, my most self-righteous violence?

In the concluding chapters, Moi unfolds the implications of this standpoint for an ethos of reading. The central concept at work here is that of reading as “a practice of acknowledgment” (216):

If texts are expressions and actions, then they call for our acknowledgment. But what is acknowledgment? Cavell developed the term in an attempt to free us from the skeptical picture of what it is to understand others. . . . I want now to suggest that ‘acknowledgment’ can also provide a different picture of what it is to read a text. The concept can serve as an antidote to the idea that to read a text is to impose our own pre-existing theories on it. (205)

Our English word for “theory” comes from the Greek root thea, meaning a view (literally, a seat in the theater). To be without a theory is hence in some important sense to be deprived of a view—specifically, of the point of view of a spectator. When we acknowledge a text, we don’t stand back from it at a speculative distance. We enact a response to what we take it to be saying. This act necessarily reveals something about ourselves: as Moi puts it, “who we take ourselves to be, how we picture our relationship to the other,” and crucially “our judgment of the situation, the other, and our own responsibilities” (207-8). “The very work of criticism can conjure up anxiety, fear of exposure, dread of being misunderstood,” she writes, expressing her conviction that when we read a literary text that we feel compelled to grapple with further, we are being spoken to in such a way that demands staking the value of our existence in response (190). Here, the markedly existentialist vocabulary of “situation,” “responsibility,” and “anxiety” reveals the extent to which Moi’s inheritance of ordinary language philosophy, like Cavell’s, is inflected by an existentialist tradition of thought; the stakes of this affinity for Moi are made clear in the conclusion of Chapter 10, in which allusions to Arendt’s critique of totalitarianism recall the Cold War context for the American reception of existentialism.18

Establishing the fundamental place of acknowledgment in criticism means that no general theory of how to read can take away a critic’s own responsibility for her reading. Hence Moi’s repeated insistence on the fact that “the politics of literary criticism does not lie in the method, or in the way we picture texts. It lies in the critic. We are responsible for our words, for our own practice… In literary criticism, both politics and aesthetics are matters of response, judgment, and responsibility” (191). If we bludgeon a text into submission with an irrelevant theory, then it is we who are responsible for our failure of acknowledgment—there’s no blaming the inadequacy of the theory. This, Moi argues, marks a radical distinction between the practices that are characteristic of the humanities and those of the sciences. It doesn’t make sense for literary theorists to speak of “methods,” as if what we do involves laying out in advance a set protocol to be followed in every case. (This is not to say, of course, that certain methods or theories might not be useful or illuminating in particular situations, but rather that the question of whether they are in fact appropriate or helpful cannot be settled in advance or an investigation into the particular case at hand.) The aim of reading a literary text is not to produce replicable results, but rather “to figure out what it has to say to us” (194).

This is where the danger of misunderstanding Moi’s position seems most acute. If reading without a theory is simply a matter of giving one’s subjective response, then how can we ever hope to establish criteria for a good reading? What kind of reading would depend on something as naïve as describing a personal response to a text? Moi develops several arguments in Chapters 8 and 9 that would disarm such a line of critique: crucially, she emphasizes that although it is impossible to determine in advance of any reading where it ought to start or what would justify it, “whether the investigation will be important depends on what we noticed in the first place” and that “training, experience, skill, knowledge are required if we are to be able to notice something of genuine interest” (181). But what training—and what experience? How do we know what is of genuine interest? Again, I think that Moi would respond here that it all depends on what is under investigation, and what we find to be of importance to us. To conclude, in response to this claim, that if the meaning of a text cannot be “objectively” ascertained, then it must lie entirely within the confines of one’s own mind, would be to abjure the responsibility of the ongoing task of justification and to surrender to skepticism (and, as with Cavell’s diagnosis of skepticism, although it is always possible that I will find myself alone in a way of reading a text, that possibility isn’t one that can be overcome by certain knowledge of the text’s meaning).

Moi’s anti-theory of literary criticism thus opens up a space for us to consider anew why the work of certain critics has never issued in a recognizable “theory” or “method,” but has nevertheless had a profound influence on literary studies. Erich Auerbach, Mikhail Bakhtin, Sharon Cameron, Allen Grossman, or Helen Vendler, to name but a few such critics: even if others may be inspired to use the concepts or vocabulary developed in their criticism, it nevertheless seems impossible to replicate the intricacy and nuance of their textual readings. If I understand Moi correctly, what she is suggesting is that the greatness of these critics lies not or not only in the fact that due to their training and experience, they are capable of illuminating the meaning of a text for others, and not or not only in the accuracy and truthfulness of the philosophical, ethical, or even political commitments that underlie their readings, but in the way in which their acts of criticism become exemplary of how it is imperative for each reader to become wholly responsible for their own acts of reading and of writing to the highest and most demanding degree. Here, then, is the quiet revolution that Moi’s book seeks to enact: in an age of restlessness and unabated craving for the Next Great Thing, the most transformative act might be the one that invites us to go back to ourselves, and to find in our ways of thinking and speaking not only the means for describing our delusions, our limits, our desires, our blindness, and our beliefs, but also a way of living with them—living them out. Without underestimating the difficulty of this task, Revolution of the Ordinary puts the spade into our hands.

16.Stanley Cavell, The Claim of Reason: Wittgenstein, Skepticism, Morality, and Tragedy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979), 3.
17.Ludwig Wittgenstein, Culture and Value, ed. G. H. Von Wright, trans. Peter Winch (Oxford:  Basil Blackwell, 1980), 64e.
18.Moi’s groundbreaking work on Beauvoir’s significance as a literary theorist is highly interesting in light of her attempt to intervene in debates on “surface” and “depth” reading. See Moi, “What Can Literature Do? Simone de Beauvoir as a Literary Theorist,” PMLA 124: 1 (2009), 189-98.


What’s the Use?


If no one has written or posted the word, then no one is addressed by the word.
—William H. Gass, “Death of the Author”

The most urgent question in Toril Moi’s Revolution of the Ordinary is what precisely is at stake in the difference between literary theory’s sixty-year commitment to the post-Saussurean theory of language—the arbitrariness of the relation between signifier and signified—and ordinary language philosophy’s “radical alternative” (1)—distilled most neatly in Wittgenstein’s famous phrase from The Philosophical Investigations, “Meaning is its use in language” (4). In detailing the differences between literary theory’s procedures and Wittgenstein’s approach, Moi points to the different ways theory has in its “craving for generality” (1) occluded the object of its discipline—literature and art. By this she means that as literary theory continues “pressing for something more” (36) than “use” to explain literary meaning, it has raised elaborate scaffoldings that while intended to suture a word to its meaning have instead obstructed our accounts (or interpretations). To return centrally to the question of what interpretation is and to do so by describing what it is at stake in insisting that “meaning is its use in language,” Moi has usefully put back on the table a number of questions that theory has more or less ignored for 30 years—questions of intention, meaning, and, to some extent, aesthetic judgment. Perhaps most significantly, then, Revolution of the Ordinary is a welcome intervention because as much as any recent work of literary criticism, it challenges the discipline of literary theory, offering instead an approach to the study of literature that really is new. If at times Revolution of the Ordinary comes up short, it is because it doesn’t pursue its project far enough, settling instead for reform.

The contemporary literary critical scene, Moi argues, is characterized above all by a desire to move beyond the post-Saussurean turn in literary studies: “A number of new theory formations—affect theory, new materialism, posthumanism, and so on—began their struggle to throw off the yoke of the ‘linguistic turn’” (17). We might call it, more broadly, theory. Despite their best efforts, however, Moi argues they end up ratifying the linguistic turn they decry, working “with the Saussurean and post-Saussurean picture of language, even if only implicitly and for lack of other alternatives” (17).   Where literary theory has labored under the belief that “language as such” can be “brought under a single concept or theory” (13), ordinary language philosophy takes up Wittgenstein’s “far more radical and liberating” theory of language. Of course, what, exactly, Wittgenstein means by “meaning is its use in language” (17) has been the subject of some disagreement. Where deconstructive critics like Jonathan Culler have understood “use” to be the ground or “stabilizing limit to meaning” (37) and thus something to be added after the fact, Moi argues instead that “meaning isn’t an ‘it’ separate from use” (38). She articulates the difference most strongly when she writes “‘use’ is not a common feature shared by all worlds and utterances. It is rather the condition of possibility of having words and utterances in the first place. It’s because there is use that there is meaning” (36). In other words, where Culler argues that “use” means “context” or “ground” (this seems to me the case for all of literary theory) for Moi, “use” is “meaning.”

Except when she finds herself dealing with examples that are precisely about the question of whether something can have meaning even if it isn’t being used. This is the question that’s raised by Moi in several thought experiments like the one in which Stanley Fish asks us to imagine the following:

Suppose you’re looking at a rock formation and see in it what seems to be the word “help.” You look more closely and decide that, no, what you are seeing is an effect of erosion, random marks that just happen to resemble an English word. The moment you decide that nature caused the effect, you will have lost all interest in interpreting the formation, because you no longer believe that it has been produced intentionally, and therefore you no longer believe that it’s a word, a bearer of meaning.19

The distinction Fish makes here—between someone writing and the effects of erosion—is nothing but the distinction between what is being used and what isn’t. His point (following Knapp and Michaels in “Against Theory”) is that “in the absence of the assumption” that what you are looking at is intended, you “will not regard it as language.” That is, to see something as a word (or a poem) is to see it being used as a word, to see it as intended by someone to mean something. If you don’t see it as intended in this way, you’re not seeing it as language.

Moi would seem to be making a similar argument when she writes what makes the rock formation “help” mean the word “help” is the fact that its meaning is “alive in its use.” Yet, Moi dedicates an entire chapter to arguing that Fish has a mistaken view of use when he describes it as intended. In her view, the appeal to intention “takes for granted that the meaning is something other than the word” (35). As she understands Wittgenstein’s concept of “use,” it “requires us to relinquish the ingrained idea that meaning is elsewhere, in some third realm, somewhere between the words and our understanding of them, as if there were a gap or a ‘relationship’ between words and their meaning” (35). For Moi, intended use as Fish lays it out is precisely that “third realm.” She thinks instead that what makes “help” meaningful within the language is the fact that “signifiers are only signifiers because they already have meaning in the language” (135). The difference, then, is between competing views about what “use” means—between on one hand, a notion of use in which it is understood to be separate from intention and, on the other, one in which it is inextricably identified with intention.

The difference is evident in her imagined encounter with the rock formation. As she imagines it, whether or not the rocks were actually used to call for help is irrelevant. Once she has seen that the “marks scratched into the rock spell ‘help’” (135) she cannot worry about whether they were intended to spell help. She cannot, she thinks, “suddenly forget what [she] clearly understood a split second earlier” to be language—“regardless of what [she] goes on to do with them, [she] can’t just will [herself] into finding them meaningless” (135). The question of use matters only after the fact. “The problem of the author,” she writes, “doesn’t matter for the meaning of the words” but it does matter “for how [she takes] that meaning, that is, for what [she does] once [she grasps] that these scratchings spell ‘Help!’” (135) Here she identifies the scratched markings as language prior to or independent of them being used, considering intention only after the fact. But Fish’s point is not that having seen them as language, she should then go on to wonder if they were intended. Rather, he means to say that to see them as language is already to see them as intended. To see them as used is already to see them as used to mean something.

The point, in other words, is that no appeal to intention is necessary because intention is not a “third realm” but simply means the intended use. So, when Moi sees the author’s intention as something outside of the word “Help” that has to be added after the fact when it comes to questions of “action and responsibility,” (135) she commits herself to what Stanley Cavell criticized as the “bad picture of intention” that locates intended use in some “internal prior mental event.”20 The correct picture of intention, Cavell thinks, is that any understanding of an utterance (or poem or painting) is an understanding of what someone has done (its use) and that “it is exactly to find out what someone has done… that one investigates his intentions.”21 So, when Moi says the salient point in Fish’s example is “not whether to ‘interpret’ the word ‘help,’ but whether to call out the mountain rescue squad” (135) she does little more than beg the question: Why would you call the mountain rescue squad unless you thought the scratched marks really were used to mean “help”? After all, if you were to discover that they were instead the effects of erosion, you would realize you had made a mistake. No one actually was calling for help (the scratched marks weren’t being used) and the rescue squad wasn’t needed.

In other words, the reason Moi thinks that it is possible to see something as language and inquire about intention after the fact is because despite her commitment to “use,” her picture of intention is “somewhere between the words and our understanding of them” or in Cavell’s terms, locatable in some “prior mental event,” and thus something that has to be searched for. Whether or not this is what Wittgenstein means when he said “meaning is its use in the language,” it is definitely not what Fish or Knapp and Michaels mean. Nor is it what Cavell means in “A Matter of Meaning it” when he writes “intention is no more an efficient cause of an object of art than it is of a human action; in both cases it is a way of understanding the thing done, of describing what happens.”22

It is, however, surprisingly like what Paul de Man means when he separates the identity of the signifier “Marion” from the intended use to which it’s put. In de Man’s infamous and influential essay “Excuses (Confessions)” the question of meaning is raised not as the difference between use and erosion as it is for Fish, but in equally random and equally material terms as the difference between use and noise. The upshot of de Man’s reading of Rousseau’s Confessions is his belief that all language has a “radically formal” existence independent from both its intended use—Rousseau simply offered “the first thing that came to mind”—and from its recipients—“properly interpreted” his accusers would have known he meant “nothing at all” and thus “any other sound or noise could have done just as well.”23 So, where Fish sees use as necessary not only for accounting for what a particular utterance means, but for seeing something as language at all, de Man sees use as irrelevant to the “radically formal” existence of the word, which “can posit whatever the grammar allows.”  While Moi is right to suggest that de Man’s is mistaken because his picture of language is grounded in a commitment to the materiality of language, she doesn’t see that her causal account of intention is a different way of making the same point. In both accounts the material (de Man’s sounds, Moi’s scratched marks) is equivalent to language. Just as in de Man’s view the noise Marion can be counted as calling out the name, in Moi’s view the scratched marks can be counted as a call for help, regardless of whether it is used to call for help.

Meaning thus appears to be a function not of intended use but of the reader’s response—that is, the scratched marks mean what the reader used them to mean. This is something de Man is certainly committed to and something Fish had at one time been differently committed to. It is not clear, however, whether or not Moi means to commit herself to this view. If one reason she might not want to commit herself to it is because, we have seen, when language is free from its intended use it means nothing at all, one reason she might be is because when language means nothing at all the reader can, but really must, supply its meaning. De Man describes this two-step procedure by arguing that although every text is essentially meaningless, it is also the case that at “the very moment at which it is posited” it is “at once misinterpreted into a determination which is, ipso facto, overdetermined.” If the imposition of meaning is a mistake, he means, it is a necessary one because without the reader to determine its meaning, there is no meaning at all. Moi frames her commitment to the reader differently when she says the intended use “doesn’t matter for the meaning of the words” but it does matter “for how [she takes] that meaning.” I have been arguing that the point is effectively the same: Imagining use as separate from intention commits what there is to be had from an utterance or a poem to the reader.

If de Man’s view of language and Moi’s overlap on this point, the biggest difference between the two accounts is that where de Man thinks all interpretation is a mistake but a necessary one, Moi’s account would make mistakes impossible. This is what it means for her to say of the scratched marks, “regardless of what [she] goes on to do with them, [she] can’t just will [herself] into finding them meaningless.” But no one is asking her to “will” herself to find them meaningless. The point is instead that you would find them meaningless only if you find evidence they were not being used by anyone—which is to say, you have found evidence that you made a mistake. And since what the mistakes are about is how (or whether) the marks are being used, to acknowledge that mistakes are possible is to acknowledge that a word, or poem, or painting if it is a word, or poem, or painting is being used to mean something.

No doubt, Moi would not cop to my identification of her argument with de Man’s—after all the de Manian view of language is precisely what she understands ordinary language philosophy to overturn and, no less importantly, she cites Cavell approvingly when he argues that “what an expression means is a function of what it is used to mean or to say on specific occasions by human beings” (42; Cavell, Claim of Reason, 206). But it remains unclear to me that she really is committed to Cavell’s vision of intention precisely because she would seem to agree with the entailment of de Man’s argument (if not its procedure), which transfers the idea of use from something intended by an utterance to something done with one—that is, transfers use from something internal to language to something outside of it. What Cavell calls the “bad picture of intention.” The reason Moi’s position on this is unclear is because at the precise moment she resuscitates a theory of intention compatible with Cavell’s (and, we have seen, Fish’s) she doubles down on her commitment to the importance of the “practice of acknowledgment,” which for her means that to “give an account of a reading is to give an account of an experience” (198). But if this is the case that we are trying to figure out what someone used the language to mean, it is hard to see why we would need to “discover our own position in relation to the work,” (209) as she suggests we should, or particularize our experience of “the work and its concerns here and now, as they appear to this particular reader in this particular moment in history” (210). It is difficult to see how intention matters here because, as we have seen, if you are trying to figure out what someone meant, the question of intention “directs you further into the work,” as Cavell puts it, and not further into our selves.24 If it were true that we should be invested in our relation to the language rather than the author’s intended use, plausibly there would be as many meanings of a text as there are readers of it throughout history. In her appeal to acknowledgement, then, Moi has given us the scratched markings all over again, as what should be a question about their intended use becomes instead a question of what we, as readers, do with them.

An account of meaning, in other words, has become an account of the practice of reading. If this really is what Moi is after, she has travelled a long way to end up where we already are and have been since the mid-sixties ushered in the linguistic (post-Saussurean) turn. So, in Moi’s interpretive practice, if not quite her own account of language, we end up with a different way of arriving at one of literary theory’s most deeply held convictions—imagining the reader rather than the text is the site of meaning.

Moi is right to suggest, as she does at the book’s outset, that ordinary language philosophy “has the power to transform the prevailing understanding of language, theory, and reading in literary studies today” (18) not least of all because it offers an approach that might loosen theory’s epistemological grip on the discipline. If ordinary language philosophy’s revolution goes unnoticed, as Moi suggests it probably will, because while it shares “many of the same concerns” (10) as theory and might even know what it knows, the “radically different frameworks” (11) in which these concerns are cast will make the task all the more difficult. It is unlikely that literary theory will abide a new concept of language that does not provide a new theory to replace the old one, which is precisely what ordinary language philosophy refuses to do. In this case, however, if the revolution goes unnoticed it will be because with Revolution of the Ordinary we get more of a revision than a revolution, albeit a welcome one for the reasons I suggested at the outset. As is often the case with revolutions though, it is hard to see how we get there from here.

19.Stanley Fish, “Intentional Neglect” New York Times (July 19, 2005),, quoted in Revolution of the Ordinary, 135.
20.Cavell, “A Matter of Meaning it,” in Must We Mean What We Say? (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1976), 209, 210.
21.Cavell, “A Matter of Meaning it,” 214.
22.Cavell, “A Matter of Meaning it,” 213.
23.De Man, “Excuses (Confessions),” Allegories of Reading: Figural Language in Rousseau, Nietzsche, Rilke, and Proust (New Haven: Yale UP 1982) 278-301.
24.Cavell, “A Matter of Meaning it,” 210.


Philosophers have often been institution-builders. Socrates rambled the city asking questions, but Plato founded the Academy, Aristotle the Lyceum, and Kant and Hegel gave lectures and did committee work in all the ways we still associate with professors. Concerned less with any specific knowledge than with knowledge as such, philosophers often aspire to a synoptic view of intellectual life, a grasp of how different fields or methods align or diverge. Moreover, philosophy has traditionally cultivated habits of mind that jive well with a university: a capacity for evaluating evidence, a facility with formal argument, a drive for orderly systems. Recent cuts to philosophy programs haven’t stopped administrators from promising parents that their kids will learn “critical thinking,” a skill that philosophers are often taken (and take themselves) to have mastered more scrupulously than anyone. Indeed, for the last century and a half, philosophers who’ve questioned philosophy—who’ve asked what’s lost in disinterested argument and fastidious procedures—have sometimes abandoned the university altogether, walking in the steps of Kierkegaard, Marx, or Nietzsche.

I mention these affinities between philosophy and academic life in order to reflect upon Toril Moi’s wonderfully illuminating Revolution of the Ordinary, the subtitle of which—Literary Studies After Wittgenstein, Austin, and Cavel —introduces questions about our scholarly disciplines and educational institutions. For Wittgenstein, too, was one of those who doubted the value of classroom teaching, publishing “research,” chairing departments, and so forth. He held Cambridge in contempt and eventually retired early, plagued by a sense that even his relatively spare professorial duties were interfering with his writing. And the writing he produced—layered, obliquely connected observations punctuated by questions, parables, and metaphors—is not what most college deans would immediately recognize as “critical thinking.” Austin led a more conventional academic life, but more than one person has asked whether ordinary language philosophy waned in the latter third of the twentieth century in part because Austin’s skills were too singular, too unteachably inventive, to survive his premature death in 1960.25 Cavell had long-lasting success, but after starting out as a musician, he came to philosophy as something of an outsider, and as he says in his memoir, he could never fully assent to the belief among his colleagues that good writing chiefly requires “the power of unfolding implication.” He instead sought the sort of “surprises” achieved in Part IV of The Claim of Reason, the almost two hundred pages of “inventions or improvisations” in which the “whole discussion” of earlier parts of the book becomes “reframed, in effect begins again.” This writing—what Anthony Kenny called a “misshapen, undisciplined amalgam of ill-assorted parts”—wasn’t designed for tenure committees to score. But it made the middle-aged Cavell “confident,” after years of doubt, “that [his] writing could go on.”26

What sort of example can such eccentrics provide for the discipline of literary studies? This question came to mind as I read chapter 8 of Revolution, when Moi discusses Fear and Trembling, another text in which a prior discussion is repeatedly “reframed, in effect begins again.” Moi’s point is that, even with Kierkegaard—a writer preoccupied with what’s hidden, in need of interpretation and “revelation”—we can affirm, with Wittgenstein, that “nothing is hidden” to us as readers. Rewriting the Abraham and Isaac story no less than four times, each with slightly different contexts and emphases, Kierkegaard refuses to speak as a certified expert or to treat the biblical text as a symptom in need of diagnosis. The “difficulty, obscurity, and mystery” of the biblical story are made palpable, and interpretation is presented as a strenuous “expedition of discovery” rather than a comforting display of conclusions the author has already reached. “Why,” asks Moi, “don’t we ask our students to do this sort of thing more frequently?” (218-19).

“This sort of thing” is of course one mark of Wittgenstein’s work. If, as Wittgenstein says, we fail to “command a clear view of the use of our words” (§122), and if philosophical problems take the form “I don’t know my way about” (§123), then we can only work piecemeal, working from “muddle” (§153) to temporary lucidity, refusing “theses” (§128), allowing “description alone” to take the place of “all explanation” (§109).27 As Moi notes, these and other remarks are not a demand to stop thinking outright: “When Wittgenstein insists that nothing is hidden, he does not mean that everything is self-evident” (180). Yet they do ask us to resist theorizing about how our words are, or always will be, used. Hence Cavell’s suggestion that readers of the Investigations must work “without an approach” to the book itself. “Approach,” as Cavell puts it, suggests that “we know some orderly direction to it not already taken within it.” Whereas, in truth, all we can do is “find a blur or block from which to start,” a piece of text that might prove fertile (quoted in Moi, 11, 194, 210).

That the same goes for our encounters with art explains why literary scholars often struggle to explain their work to colleagues in other fields. “Literary criticism,” as Moi penetratingly says, “doesn’t have anything we can plausibly call competing methods, at least not in the sense widely used in the sciences and social sciences: a set of explicit—and repeatable—strategies for how to generate new knowledge” (178). We come to texts with (in Rita Felski’s terms) “moods” and “mindsets,” and with specific thematic interests and political investments. But “a mood is still not a method” (179). With some exceptions—specialists in book history, philology, “big data”—literary scholars mostly just read, and almost never with a “clearly defined series of steps to be taken in a specific order to reach a replicable result” (191-92). Good readers, claims Moi (adapting Cavell), treat reading as “acknowledgement,” accounting both for the work’s own concepts and concerns as well as for their own positions relative to the text. Such acknowledgement includes recognizing the fallibility of one’s experience, since, as Cavell says, “one’s experience may be wrong, or misformed or inattentive and inconstant” (quoted in Moi 218).28 In reading (as in living), I speak always from my own experience, yet such experience is never fixed. Genuine seeing requires that I both consult my own experience and subject it to examination, seeking to educate it further, revising habits when needed.

As Moi rightly says, such tasks require “judgment, and courage” (218). But do they—and here I return to my opening remarks—constitute or produce knowledge? In other words, do acknowledgement, consulting and evaluating one’s experience, developing judgment, and so forth contribute to what is commonly held to be the goal of a university?29

One way to answer to these questions would be, in an Aristotelian spirit, to broaden “knowledge” beyond its connections to the natural sciences. The thought here would be that episteme—knowledge of things that are “universal and necessary,” as Aristotle says—must be understood relative to at least two other kinds of knowing. One is phronesis, “practical wisdom,” the capacity to perceive the particulars of a given situation, know when a certain rule may apply, and act appropriately. Because human situations are endlessly variable, navigating them requires “deliberation,” reasoning that will yield not demonstratively true or false conclusions but actions that might contribute to a person’s flourishing: the parent who “knows” when to scold, the hitter who “knows” when to lay off a high fastball. And another would be techne, usually translated as “art” or “making,” activity directed toward the production of something beyond the activity itself. Like phronesis, it is a practical (not theoretical) activity, and the fact that its deliberations don’t yield perfect certainty doesn’t mean it lacks rationality. What the flutist or carpenter “knows” may not replicate what the mathematician or chemist “knows,” but to withhold the term “knowledge” from them is to diminish the kind of training and intelligence these experts exhibit.

Obviously ordinary language philosophy isn’t merely rehashing Aristotle. Cavell claimed to have read him mostly out of “dutifulness,” and Wittgenstein reported never having read him at all.30 Nevertheless, these Aristotelian distinctions—these three uses of “know”—hover around Revolution of the Ordinary, and I wonder whether Moi would find them congenial. Certainly Aristotle is central to several of the figures who play supporting roles in her book: Elizabeth Anscombe, whose account of intention is explicated in chapter 9; Hannah Arendt, whose emphasis on “judgment” Moi admires; Martha Nussbaum, whose link between literature’s moral uplift Moi questions (262n.44), but whose claims about “empathy” Moi finds constructive (220). Perhaps the most well-known recuperation of Aristotle among literary scholars is Gadamer’s Truth and Method, the very title of which challenges science’s exclusive claim to truth. Moi doesn’t mention Gadamer by name, but a Heideggerian note is heard when she draws analogies between how we read and how we evaluate a craftsman’s skillful coping: “I don’t mean to say that [aesthetic experience] doesn’t require special insights, knowledge, skills, and judgment. But so do other experiences as well: truly to appreciate good cooking, a particularly excellent fishing spot, or growing a great soil also requires specific knowledge, judgment, and skills” (219).31 Perhaps it’s not an accident that one of Gadamer’s most cherished metaphors appears in Moi’s account of readerly engagement: “Understood as a practice of acknowledgment, reading becomes a conversation between the work and the reader” (219).

This neighboring strand of thought is worth mentioning for two reasons. First, modern Aristotelians have often been keen to highlight the social, institutional, and historical contexts of our contemporary intellectual life. Such reflection is hardly unavailable to Wittgenstein, Cavell, and Austin; but it’s less sustained and thorough than in the (quite varied) work of Nussbaum, Arendt, Alasdair MacIntyre, Charles Taylor, Michael Sandel, or Nel Noddings.32 And a consideration of such wider contexts would make Moi’s claims more audible. Revolution of the Ordinary shows a remarkable range of reading. For anyone who has only imperfectly followed the fast-moving wheels of literary scholarship, the book includes valuable accounts of how the last decade of literary theory has extended canonical “high theory.” But while it includes some useful remarks on the natural and social sciences, it remains—as its subtitle implies—narrowly focused on the field of literary studies. I wholly agree with Moi that Saussure’s misbegotten picture of language still holds literary studies captive. But it’s less apparent to me that, beyond our ever-tinier corner of the university, such a theory continues to hold much sway or interest, at least in comparison to the claims of, say, neuroscience, cognitive science, neo-Darwinism, and decision theory. Moi sometimes notes, rightly, that post-Saussurean theories can be reductive, most notably in their claims about the “materiality” of the “signifier.” But more could be said about how this reductive impulse matches those of these other, more widely accepted naturalistic models. For it is these models, not post-Saussurean theories, that are shaping our current intellectual conversations and institutional arrangements. Next to them, materiality-talk in literary studies can seem like a relatively negligible symptom of a much wider disease, and it’s in the face of this more deep-rooted malady that the study of literature most needs to be justified.

A second reason for mentioning the Aristotelian tradition is that it gives us some language for thinking about the various forms of “knowledge” that might be expressed and recognized in our educational institutions. It’s not news that modern universities were built on models from the natural sciences, and obviously the STEM fields have grown dominant. Nor is it news that universities have increasingly pushed instructors to design their courses to fulfill particular “learning outcomes”—a requirement that, to critics, means the classroom is now officially a tool of industrial scientific management. Against this backdrop, recall Moi’s question about the defiantly unconventional composition of Fear and Trembling: “Why don’t we ask our students to do this sort of thing more frequently?” Indeed, why don’t we? One reason may be that our schools are designed to issue grades, honors, and all the professional advantages they inarguably bestow; and that we—professionals who’ve succeeded within this system—lack agreed-upon criteria for evaluating students other than by asking how thoroughly they’ve mastered a subject, done their research, erected arguments, and offered clear claims. In such a climate, what may be most needed is a detailed account of how Kierkegaard’s idiosyncratic response to the Abraham and Isaac story offers an exemplary instance of techne or phronesis—how it yields a wholly legitimate kind of knowing, and how it genuinely discloses aspects of ourselves and our common world.

Unless, of course, it doesn’t. Perhaps, after all, it’s just too late in the day for us to agree on exemplary instances of techne or phronesis. That’s one way of construing not only Cavell’s merely “dutiful” reading of Aristotle, but also his account of modernism. In a modernist condition, as Cavell put it early on, works of art promise not the “re-assembly of community, but personal relationship unsponsored by that community; not the overcoming of our isolation, but the sharing of that isolation.” What counts as a genuine poem, or an insightful reading of a poem, or a laudable act, or a just society—all this is newly contestable, mostly a matter of offering what Cavell would come to call “passionate utterances.”33 But then, if this fraught situation is ours, if what we do is so intimate and untidy, it isn’t clear how far analogies between evaluating books and evaluating fishing spots can really go. Nor is it obvious that “literary studies” can in good faith understand itself as a discipline, a professional field that assumes the legal authority to distinguish “good” from “bad” work, certified “experts” from uncertified “non-experts.” At one point, Moi quotes Wittgenstein’s remark that what he most needed was a change not of his thoughts but of his Lebensweise, his entire way of life (qtd. 160). Arguments have their place, but explanations come to an end somewhere. Thus he wrote, as he said, “for only a few readers,” “for friends who are scattered throughout the corners of the globe,” and his work self-consciously sought to “separate those who understand it & those who don’t.”34 In a similar vein, Cavell once said that the Investigations asks for “more than belief,” seeks to penetrate “past assessment and [become] part of the sensibility from which assessment proceeds.”35 But are such changes, such writing, the responsibility of a university? Can they be produced in or by an academic field? If the answer is at least uncertain, is it any wonder that many teachers (I don’t exclude myself) sometimes approach their students’ work in comfortingly technocratic ways? Cavell’s and Wittgenstein’s remarks conjure in me images of a monastery or ashram, with holy guides, initiates, and spiritual exercises. Occasionally, I confess, I do imagine that my own engagements with favorite books, critics, and students are part of such a sanctified practice. But is such an idea anything but a fantasy today? Would we really even want such a practice? And could literary studies become such an activity and still know itself?

25.Cavell has even suggested that Austin deployed his status as an Oxbridge professor “as a mask,” a “pose” that allowed his “radical” criticisms to get voiced. See Cavell, “Austin at Criticism,” in Must We Mean What We Say? (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1976), 112-13.
26.Cavell, Little Did I Know (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2010), 95, 495-96, 521; Anthony Kenny, “Clouds of Not Knowing,” review of The Claim of Reason by Stanley Cavell, Times Literary Supplement (April 18, 1980): 449.
27.Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, trans. G.E.M. Anscombe, P.M.S. Hacker, and Joachim Schulte, ed. P.M.S. Hacker, and Joachim Schulte (New York: Wiley-Blackwell 2009).
28.Moi doesn’t make the point explicit, but I take Cavell’s remark here about the fallibility of one’s experience to encapsulate his distance from the simple-minded forms of subjectivism that have incensed, e.g., Walter Benn Michaels. To say that good readers try to account for their own positions relative to a text isn’t to imply that those positions are fixed or transparent, or that a reader’s experience of a text is what that text means.
29.One answer I won’t explore here is: No, and all the better for them. Here one thinks of Richard Rorty, for whom speaking of “knowledge” betrays a regrettable science-envy, and who praised the arts for triggering ideas, connections, and images that had never previously been produced. Metaphors, said Donald Davidson in a passage Rorty often quoted, are like jokes, dreams, pictures, “bumps on the head”: stimulants to thought, but without any special “cognitive” content themselves. The job of interpreting them is not to discover their special “meaning,” but to make (Davidson, again) the “lazy or ignorant reader have a vision like that of the critic.”
30.Wittgenstein’s indifference to Aristotle is recorded in Ray Monk, Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius (New York: Penguin, 1991), 496. On the “dutifulness” of reading Aristotle, see Cavell, City of Words: Pedagogical Letters on a Register of the Moral Life (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2005), 352-53. Wittgenstein and Cavell aside, Aristotle’s name appears frequently in Wittgenstein commentary, an affinity explained in part by the non- or anti-Cartesian picture of mind and action that they share. Austin, for instance, had a longstanding and overt interest in Aristotle (made explicit in, for instance, “A Plea for Excuses,” the essay that Cavell probably cites more than any other), and a similar interest in Aristotle can be found not only in some of the Wittgensteinians I mention presently, but also in John McDowell, Hilary Putnam, Hannah Pitkin, and Anthony Kenny.
31.See also Moi’s comments on Joshua Foer, who discusses chess players, chicken sexers, and skillful police officers (226); or her comments on the language of cooking and car repair (162).
32.Obviously the Aristotelianism of these contemporary figures is shaped by their relation to other thinkers. Taylor’s Aristotelianism is tied to his reading of Hegel; Arendt comes to hers via Heidegger and Kant; MacIntyre’s via Marx and Aquinas; etc. The fact that some of these figures also owe debts to Wittgenstein should make clear that I’m describing a supplement, not alternative, to Moi’s claims.
33.Cavell, Must We Mean What We Say?, 229; “Performative and Passionate Utterance,” in Philosophy the Day After Tomorrow (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2006), 155-91.

[ft num=34]Wittgenstein, Culture and Value, ed. G.H. von Wright and trans. Peter Winch (Oxford: Basil Blackwood, 1999), 9, 10.

35.Cavell, Must We Mean What We Say?, 71.


When I was working on Revolution of the Ordinary, I often gave papers drawing on ordinary language philosophy. I quickly got used to being misunderstood. At times I felt as if I no longer knew how to communicate with my colleagues. This taught me that unless I could find just the right form, style, tone and structure—the right voice—my book would only provoke more misunderstandings. In the end, I realized that I couldn’t just write about ordinary language philosophy and literary studies. I would also have to offer, simultaneously, a diagnosis of the mindset, convictions, and ideas that might prevent literary scholars from understanding this philosophy.

Reading these eight responses, I was by turns grateful and astonished. Grateful that so many serious critics have read Revolution of the Ordinary so thoroughly, and astonished that the book meets with so much understanding and good will. That it also generates some misunderstandings was only to be expected. I am grateful to Nonsite for organizing this forum on my book, and am delighted to have an opportunity to respond. I also want to thank Ralph Berry, Rita Felski, and John Gibson for their advice.


Sarah Beckwith elegantly catches the spirit of ordinary language philosophy when she chooses to write about the scene in which James Baldwin understands that Shakespeare’s language is his own language too, that he has as much of a right to it as anyone else. Once he realizes this, he can begin to understand himself and his past. For Baldwin, Shakespeare’s words were empty and cold, separated from his concerns and his world. But then, suddenly, he understood what Cassius was saying. Meaning has to come alive in each and every one of us. Which means that it can also be lost (again) in each and every one of us.

In Revolution of the Ordinary I am not saying that the question of the relationship between language and the world is settled, once and for all, as if I had finally worked out a thesis about the right relationship. Beckwith’s turn to Baldwin brings this out beautifully. I am, rather, saying that words have meaning when we, like Baldwin, find ways to make them our own, so that we can use them for our own purposes. The meaning of words depends on our ability to go on. To go on speaking, to go on using words. That ability cannot be assured once and for all. Above all, it can’t be secured by a theory.

But can we ever avoid theory? In the friendliest possible way Yi-Ping Ong—whose learned and wide-ranging account of my views on reading as a practice of acknowledgment reading strikes me as just right—wonders “how is it possible to make a case for breaking with theory without introducing a new theory to take its place?”

She is not the only responder to raise the question. But the wording of the question itself—can we “break with theory”?—is treacherous, for it may make it look as if we are situated outside the theory in question, as if we always have a clear choice between embracing a theory or escaping from it.

I take Wittgenstein to be saying that we won’t feel the need to free ourselves from the tentacles of theory until they start to choke us. (So we can’t trust ourselves to be “outside” theory.) Some theories may well work for some purposes. But at some point the theory may prevents us from seeing what is right before our eyes: “We want to understand something that is already in plain view” (Philosophical Investigations—hereafter PI, §89). The theory blinds us. But if the theory has become the unquestioned frame for our thinking, we will not necessarily realize that it—the theory—is the problem, that the solution will only come when we free ourselves from its framework. (There is a parallel here to certain Marxist ideas about ideology: ideology makes us take as natural and given things that are not. But we won’t know that we are in the grip of ideology until something strikes us as odd or off, makes us ask questions.)

If we can get clear on the (theoretical) picture that holds us captive, we can avoid projecting it on to problems it is not equipped to deal with. This will not solve all possible problems, only the one we began with. New problems will arise, more philosophical therapy will be required. On this line of thought, there is no way to avoid theory, at least not if we understand the term loosely as “set of ideas or pictures of how things must be.”

But there is, I take it, a way to avoid “Theory,” or what I call the “theory-project” in literary studies. We can reject the idea that the purpose of philosophy (thought) must be to create new concepts, new theories, new instances of the craving for generality. We can also resist the wish to provide metaphysical explanations—for example, for how words connect to the world. But even if we do all this, it doesn’t follow that we won’t be trapped by theory again. Then we will need another round of Wittgensteinian therapy.

Instead of creating new theories, Wittgenstein writes, we should try to recollect, or remember “something, which for some reason, it is difficult to call to mind” (PI, §89). This “calling to mind” of something we in some sense already know is the work of the philosopher. “The work of the philosopher consists in marshalling recollections for a particular purpose” (PI, §127). Note Wittgenstein’s “particular purpose”: philosophy begins when we feel confused, when we feel intellectually boxed in, unable to move—not in general, but because we are stuck trying to solve some specific problem.

To use one of Wittgenstein’s own examples: If we want to skate, slippery ice is exactly what we need. But if we want to walk, the same ice will make us slip and fall: “We want to walk: so we need friction. Back to the rough ground!” (PI, §107). Wittgenstein emphasizes the purpose of our thinking. To think with Wittgenstein is constantly to try to remember why we wanted to know something in the first place.

I began writing Henrik Ibsen and the Birth of Modernism when I noticed that most of my fellow critics failed to see—failed to remember—something obvious about Ibsen’s plays, namely that they inaugurate modernism in the theater. In my view, Ibsen is to theater what Baudelaire is to poetry and Flaubert to the novel. I also take this to be pretty much self-evident. This is why I was stunned to realize that critics had fallen into the habit of excluding Ibsen’s plays from the canon of modernism, on the grounds that they exemplified “realism,” a concept they took to be the polar opposite of “modernism.” My work on Ibsen began as an attempt to remind contemporary readers and theater-goers of Ibsen’s modernism.

But does the book escape theory? In Henrik Ibsen and the Birth of Modernism I propose new and different ideas about how modernism arose, and how it works. Those ideas challenge existing concepts (theories) of modernism. But I focus specifically on the emergence of modernism: a particular historical moment, a particular dramatist. Am I proposing a theory? To find out how far my account goes, the only solution is for me and others to try to use it, try to go on, try to map its uses and failures. I would say that my book on Ibsen begins to provide the grammar of a region of modernism that standard theories fail to account for.

In Revolution of the Ordinary my discussion of acknowledgment stands as an example of an alternative to laying out a theory about how to read a text. “Acknowledgment” is an attitude, an effort, a response to a claim made by another person, or by a text. But it is not a recipe for a certain kind of reading. We respond to what we notice: meter, themes, characters, ideology—the list is open-ended. Each critic will have to trust her own learning and judgment.

In so far as a theory is something that prevents me from acknowledging what I see, it will choke my capacity for responsiveness to ideas, art, and other people. But this means that “acknowledgment” also puts me—the reader, the responder—on the line. For now my judgments, my capacity to notice things will stand revealed. This is why Cavell notes that the best critic will ask the best questions, notice the best—most interesting, most telling—points.

Do We Need Wittgenstein?

I love Bill Donahue’s witty and perceptive essay. I like the way Donahue interweaves his personal experience as a student and intellectual with his response to Revolution of the Ordinary. As he describes himself in his response, Donahue is the ideal reader for the book: a literary critic who knows his literary theory, but who also has long felt uncomfortable with its strictures. I was truly delighted to see that he recognizes how much Revolution of the Ordinary owes to my own practice of literary criticism, not least in Henrik Ibsen and the Birth of Modernism. And I can’t help smiling at his recollection of the Franklin Humanities Center manuscript workshop on an early draft of what would become Revolution of the Ordinary. Just as I am thrilled when people see the humor in the book, I am glad that that Donahue sees the joy in it.

Donahue says that he remains confused about the difference between “representative” and “exemplary.” By “logic of representation”—which I gloss as “the logic of inclusion/exclusion” (RO, 91)—I mean the idea that a concept only does “proper” philosophical work if it represents—“stands for”—all possible individual cases that might fall under it.

Wittgenstein shows that in many cases this logic simply can’t succeed. We will never be able to find the “common feature” promised by the logic of representation (PI, §71). We are doomed to discover exceptions, exclusions and omissions. But Wittgenstein also shows that there is an alternative. Consider the word “game.” It turns out that we can’t find a common feature that unites all its instances. But then, how do I teach the word to anyone? “One gives examples and intends them to be taken in a particular way” (PI, §71). Eventually, the person will learn how to go on, how to use the examples on his own. And this method is not a second-best: “Here giving examples is not an indirect way of explaining—in default of a better one. For any general explanation may be misunderstood too.” (PI, §71).

In chapter 4 of Revolution of the Ordinary I pick feminist intersectionality theory as my example of the “theory-project.” I am not claiming that intersectionality theory represents (stands for) all other versions of the theory-project. I picked it because I think that at least some of its features are widespread and worth looking into. The purpose of analysing an example is to invite others to see if they can see what I see, and then go on to use the example and the insights it yields on their own, bringing it to bear on new cases, discovering overlaps and differences, similarities and divergences. (This is also how we learn the meaning of words.) The meaning of “exemplary,” then, is not “perfect” or “ideal,” but rather “a case that brings out something interesting,” or maybe: “a case that’s good to think with.”

But Donahue’s most important question is whether we need Wittgenstein. The answer is “it depends.” I think that literary scholars today really ought to have a workable understanding of Wittgenstein’s vision of language, for it provides a vital and distinctive alternative to other views on the same matters, views that are widely taught. For the same reason, I think literary scholars really ought to understand Wittgenstein’s critique of theory (or, if one prefers, of certain standard notions of what philosophy is). For a literary theorist it ought to be as unthinkable to know nothing about Wittgenstein as it has been to know nothing about Saussure, or Derrida, or Lacan, or Foucault, and so on through the pantheon of more recent theorists. I wrote Revolution of the Ordinary to make this possible.

But if the question is “Do we need Wittgenstein to do excellent literary criticism?” I hesitate. First, I feel tempted to answer “absolutely not.” I don’t see Wittgenstein as the kind of theorist we can or should “apply” to texts. (In any case, I don’t recommend “applying theory” to texts.) As I just explained, I see Wittgenstein as a philosopher who can help us to clear up the problems that arise when theory (or philosophy) trips us up.

But I can’t give in to that temptation. For literary criticism itself throws up a lot of philosophical problems. Literary critics get trapped in pictures that hold us captive. I have just written a paper on the idea that “we must never treat characters as if they were real people,” a dogma Wittgenstein certainly can help to undo. More broadly, it seems to me that it is difficult indeed to do literary criticism without sometimes finding onself trapped in standard pictures of representation, meaning, understanding, aesthetics, form, and so on. In such cases, we do need Wittgenstein. Literary works themselves also investigate language, practices, judgment, action, expression, response, acknowledgment, skepticism, the question of form and meaning—the list could go on and on. If we are to say anything interesting about such matters, Wittgenstein can be of great help.

After spending years working on Wittgenstein, I think differently about literature. Even in papers where I don’t mention him at all, his philosophy is at work. So in the end, I suppose my answer is: anyone who takes the time to truly understand Wittgenstein’s later philosophy is likely to discover that it has transformed them to the point that there is no way back. Must one read Wittgenstein? Well, that’s an existential question. Must intellectuals read Kant, or Marx, or Freud, or Nietzsche?

Wittgenstein was well aware that his way of doing philosophy often appeared to lead to nothing grand: “Where does this investigation get its importance from, given that it seems only to destroy everything interesting: that is, all that is great and important? (As it were, all the buildings, leaving behind only bits of stone and rubble.) But what we are destroying are only houses of cards [Luftgebäude] and we are clearing up the ground of language on which they stood” (PI, §118). Like Wittgenstein, I think there is genuine value in showing that what we take to be deep insights are in fact critical or philosophical illusions.

Misplaced Intentions: On Meaning and Use

Davis Smith-Brecheisen’s arguments confuse me. At times I feel that he has been reading a different book than the one I actually wrote. He writes, for example, that “Moi dedicates an entire chapter to arguing that [Stanley] Fish has a mistaken view of use when he describes it as intended.” But I spend only two paragraphs on Fish (see RO, 135-36). (I do, however, spend half a chapter discussing the view of meaning in Steven Knapp and Walter Benn Michaels’s “Against Theory.”) And nowhere do I put forward a view on whether “use” (as such) is “intended” or not.

The sense of non-communication arises because Smith-Brecheisen writes as if he is unaware of the vast gulf between Wittgenstein’s vision of language and his own. In particular, he seems not to have engaged with Wittgenstein’s understanding of “use” and “use in the language.” This is not a small oversight, for I devote two full chapters to bringing out what Wittgenstein means when he writes: “For a large class of cases of the employment of the word “meaning”—though not for all—this word can be explained in this way: the meaning of a word is its use in the language” (PI, §43).

Three times Smith-Brecheisen summarizes Wittgenstein’s view as: “meaning is its use in language.” But this wording makes no sense. He also clearly misunderstands me when he writes that “for Moi, ‘use’ is ‘meaning,’” and follows this by asking “whether something can have meaning even if it isn’t being used.” The formulation “use is meaning” strikes me as incompatible with Wittgenstein’s §43, and I certainly never use it in my book.

And Smith-Brecheisen’s question—whether “something can have meaning even if it isn’t being used” (my italics) presupposes the very picture of meaning Wittgenstein is at pains to challenge. Smith-Brecheisen posits a “something” (I assume he means a word or an utterance) in search of a meaning. Wittgenstein wants us to stop thinking of meaning as an “it” that somehow can be separated from the word. (To call the word a “something” separated from the meaning is no different: in both cases we split the word from the meaning, the meaning from the word.) Meaning isn’t an entity that resides apart from the word or the sentence.

Wittgenstein’s “use” does not connect words with meaning. It is rather an attempt to explain the conditions of possibility of meaning in language. Language arises because we share (and fail to share) practices and forms of life, because we do things with words, play language-games, speak according to the rules of our grammar, which are, as Rush Rhees puts it, “rules of the lives in which there is language.”

In my book I show how Wittgenstein’s concept of language-games, forms of life, and grammar build a picture of use. I say that a dictionary is a “snapshot of our speaking and writing practices—our use—at a given historical moment.” (33) I also say that dictionaries “struggle to keep up with use, not the other way around” (41). When we encounter words we think we know well in situations in which they are entwined with practices we don’t (yet) understand, dictionaries can become extremely frustrating, as I explain in my discussion of Cortázar’s short story about Lucas and the language of bullfighting (see RO, 30-34). In such cases we may discover that we no longer understand even the simplest words (my examples in Revolution of the Ordinary are basic Spanish words like manso, soso and flojo when used about fighting bulls). But any word—including “help”—can trip us up in similar ways.

“Use in the language” is the ongoing, open-ended, never finished weave of language and practices into which we are initiated when we learn to speak. But we don’t learn use in general, abstractly, we learn use in the encounter with individual examples. (When we talk to little children we make ourselves exemplary, Cavell notes.) To know the use of a word or an expression is to know how to go on with them, know how to project the old words in new situations and new practices.

When Wittgenstein writes “use in the language” he means to point to all this. Given his understanding of “use” it makes no sense to ask whether “use” is intentional or not. Clearly “use” involves all kinds of human reasons, motivations and intentions. It also involves all kinds of human mistakes, errors, and unintentional results. And use is always entangled with human practices in which intentions also have a place. Smith-Brecheisen’s question about intentions is misplaced: it does belong somewhere, but not here.

Fish, and Knapp and Michaels also fight the battle of intentions too close in. Knapp and Michaels refuse to agree that words have meaning “in the language.” Like Smith-Brecheisen, they place their meaning-bestowing “intentions” in the individual speaker, and in individual speech-acts. The result is a weird belief that words are meaningful only if we know for sure that these specific words were uttered by a human agent on that specific occasion. Such concerns might conceivably make sense if they were interested in meaning as (individual) expression—in the ways in which speakers reveal themselves in their words—but this seems not to be the case.

My argument against Fish, and against Knapp and Michaels, has little to do with intention (for “intention” just happen to be their candidate for what bridges the gap between a word and its meaning, between the signifier and the signified). I am arguing against their fundamental picture of meaning. These theorists rightly want to consider words as meaningful forms. The problem is that they think that the only way to get there is to propose a theory that bridges the gap between a word (understood as empty form) and its meaning. In early Fish that theory was “interpretation.” In Knapp and Michaels it is “intentions.” (In later Fish, it seems to be “intentions” and “interpretation.”) In my view, this is a version of the “Augustinian” picture of meaning that Wittgenstein describes in PI, §1.

Paul de Man also shares the Augustinian picture of meaning. In his case, the “mark” or “empty signifier” gets (tenuously) connected to meaning not by intention or interpretation but by différance. If Smith-Brecheisen wants to argue that I share de Man’s view, he has to show that I too share the Augustinian picture of meaning.

Fish considers the case of some scratchings on a rock formation which spell “help.” In so far as Fish’s “help” has a “use in the language,” for speakers of that language, it means “help” regardless of whether it is a result of erosion or the scratchings of a desperate and starving mountaineer. This is why I think that the question is what I do once I see the word “help.” Do I call the mountain rescue squad? Or do I exclaim: “How rare! Erosion created the word ‘help’!” I wouldn’t say: “Well, because there is no author apart from nature, “help” doesn’t mean “help.” The question is not whether “help” is a word or not (as Fish will have it), but how I am to take that word.

This is not an attempt to locate meaning “in the reader.” I am not creating the meaning of “help,” I am wondering what to do about a meaning that is plain for all to see. Language is public and shared. To talk of meaning as if it were in the sole possession of authors or readers makes no sense to me.

I am happy to discuss intentions (as I do in chapter 9). In that chapter, I deny the entrenched idea that “intentions” are mysterious psychological entities lurking inside writers’ heads. Intentions aren’t private acts of will. They can be found in what we do with words, in our public acts of writing and speaking. I am also happy to discuss interpretation. I just don’t think such discussions are relevant in the place where Smith-Brecheisen, Fish, and Knapp and Michaels think they are, namely as an explanation of why words have meaning.

The Cantankerous Critic, or the Personal and the Philosophical

Revolution of the Ordinary got on Henry Staten’s nerves, and I am sorry to see it. He claims that I don’t understand Wittgenstein at all. He is convinced that Stanley Cavell, whom I admire, is a bad and uninteresting philosopher. He also thinks that I’m a Romantic moralist, convinced of my own personal moral superiority to all other literary critics, presumably including Staten.

To prove his point, Staten accuses me of saying things I don’t say and refuses to notice things I do say. I write about Iris Murdoch’s “just and loving gaze.” Staten thinks that I write about a “just and loving heart.” I say, he claims, that we must reject “all metaphors of surface and depth in language.” But I wouldn’t dream of ruling out a metaphor in advance of its use. I bring up Kierkegaard’s reading of the story of Abraham and Isaac—which I explicitly call “deep”—precisely to show that there are ways of using the word “deep” that aren’t enmeshed with ideas of texts as surfaces (see RO 188-190). This isn’t incoherent. It’s a logical consequence of my concern not with “language as such,” but with use.

Staten claims that I don’t realize that Wittgenstein is “in a certain way…on the same page as Derrida.” But I write about the “simultaneous closeness and difference” between deconstruction and ordinary language philosophy (RO, 65), call the conflict between Derrida and Cavell (and between Derrida and Austin) an “intimate conflict,” and spend several pages explaining why it is so difficult to assess such conflicts (RO, 9-11). Staten also feels that I “summarily dismiss” his own pioneering book Wittgenstein and Derrida (1984). But my project in Revolution of the Ordinary is to spell out the consequences of the “ordinary” reading of Wittgenstein for literary studies. I don’t think it is unreasonable, or particularly dismissive, to acknowledge that there are other readings, including Staten’s “traditional” or “standard analytical” reading (see RO, 8; and RO, 65), but still leave them aside in order to show what the “ordinary” reading looks like and what it entails.

Staten claims that I am a “champion of pellucid language.” I am proud to be one. But he also says that I am unwilling to admit that my hero Stanley Cavell is hardly a paradigm of clarity. Yet I explicitly acknowledge the difficulties of Cavell’s style (see RO, 163). I don’t champion any particular writing style: “Ordinary language philosophy neither recommends nor forbids any particular writing style. How you write will depend on who you are, who you are writing for, and what you want to do with your writing” (RO, 163). Good writing can take so many different forms! Clarity, moreover, is not the opposite of difficulty. Many of Wittgenstein’s perfectly clear sentences come across as perfectly cryptic. My—clearly expressed—purpose in bringing up the question of style and writing is to oppose the essentialist belief, embraced by theorists such as Herbert Marcuse and Judith Butler, that a certain kind of intellectual obscurity automatically generates radical political effects. But this is a point Staten simply doesn’t address.

Staten writes that I fail to grasp that Wittgenstein’s philosophy is intended to clear up philosophical as opposed to political or personal confusions. His evidence for this appears to be that I “talk about things like racism and the oppression of women . . . as they affect individual persons.” To him, this proves that I don’t realize that Wittgenstein’s “real need” (PI, §108) is an “intellectual need, not the needs for acknowledgment or freedom from discrimination of individual human beings or groups of human beings.” This is pretty condescending both to me and to feminist theory. Why is Staten so convinced that Wittgenstein can be of no use at all to politically motivated thought? He never explains why he believes that an intellectual need must always be radically divided from a personal or a political need. Was Simone de Beauvoir wrong when she wrote that “there is no divorce between philosophy and life”? Can’t feminists be confused about freedom in their own lives? And if they are, is it clear that philosophical therapy would be of no help to them?

Our intellectual needs aren’t divorced from our ordinary needs, for intellectual life doesn’t take place in a separate realm. Intellectual life is just a region of ordinary life. Philosophical confusions often prevent us from understanding what we need in life. They can certainly prevent us from seeing what we mean by freedom. I discuss feminist intersectionality theory precisely in order to show that philosophical—conceptual—confusions can entangle us in webs of abstraction that make us forget why we were interested in freedom from oppression in the first place. I take Wittgenstein’s philosophy to be ideally suited to help us clear up such confusions. Staten gives no grounds for saying the opposite.

I certainly think it is possible to discuss whether I am a Romantic at heart, but that discussion will have to rest on more than the fact that I sometimes use the word “expression” in its full etymological sense of “outer-ance,” as if the mere invocation of the difference between the inner and the outer were incompatible with Wittgenstein’s philosophy, in spite of the fact that this opposition is a major theme in Philosophical Investigations.

Finally, and most crucially: Staten believes that I completely misunderstand what Wittgenstein means by the “particular case.” But he builds his case on the astonishing idea that Wittgenstein believes in a strict division between language and the world: “the specificity and concreteness Wittgenstein is after are strictly linguistic—that is, typical cases of linguistic usage—not the specificity and concreteness of ‘real life.’” Everything in Philosophical Investigations is intended to trouble at every step the conviction that there is a strict divide between language and the world. Even one of the more “analytic” examples in the book—the “game of measuring with a metre-rule,” or the case of the meter in Paris—is meant to make us realize how impossible it is to disentangle word from world, the thing or object from the language-games it enters into (PI, §50).

To Staten, Wittgenstein’s “look and see” is not an invitation to look at an actual, concrete case, but just to consider “the kind of thing one says in this kind of situation.” I think this is wrong. It is wrong because it is impossible to consider “the kind of thing” one says without first looking at what one actually says. (How else would I know what “kind of thing” one might say?) That’s how I learn to use words in the first place: by listening to what people say, and each time they say what they say on a specific occasion, in particular circumstances.—I don’t disagree that in some cases we draw on our knowledge of use to come up with examples of what one might or might not say. But those examples are still specific, concrete examples. In any case, Staten can’t be unaware that Wittgenstein himself constantly examines specific cases, exact phrases, specific turns of speech.

Staten’s commitment to an absolute divide between language and life misses what I take to be one of the most revolutionary insights in Wittgenstein’s philosophy: that word and world are intertwined, that the world of meanings is a world of users of language, who engage in countless practices interwoven with words. This is why there can never be an absolute divide between our ordinary and our philosophical needs. It makes perfect sense that Wittgenstein is the philosopher who wrote that what we need, above all, is a “change in the way we live.”

Intentions and poetic form

The more I look at Oren Izenberg’s paper, the more it feels as if he is drawing on some underlying ideas about intentions, actions and poetic form that he refuses to share with me. If he would spell out his presuppositions, we might find that we don’t as much disagree as speak past each other. But as it stands, I am not sure how to go about responding to him, for at times I simply don’t understand what he means. What “problem of action” does he have in mind? What is at stake in the distinction between “intentions discovered in retrospect” and “reasons motivating the making of the whole”?

Izenberg rightly takes me to be saying that reading—the work of literary criticism—begins with the text in front of us. A good critic begins, I argue, by noticing something in the text she wants to investigate. She asks “Why this?” But I never say, as Izenberg has it, that “the final state of the poem’s language” is the only one a critic is allowed to read. I do say that the question we ask will determine what materials we find relevant: “How we go about answering the question will depend on what we want to know” (RO, 210). What version or versions of the text we want to look at, depends on what we want to find out.

If Izenberg wants to investigate the form of Shelley’s “A Lament,” it’s up to him to show (as he convincingly does) that the various drafts tell a compelling story. Why would I object to that? In the same way Izenberg believes that I would forbid critics from taking an interest in poetic meter. But I don’t rule out anything in advance: “We can ask ‘Why this?’ about anything” (RO, 190). And nowhere do I lay down requirements for what a critic must or must not consider interesting.

I have no theory about “the place from which we ought to begin.” On the contrary, I insist that there is no guideline for where to start the work of criticism, that all we can do is begin with a “blur or a block” that strikes us as worth pursuing, and go from there (see RO, 194, 210, and 216). If that “blur” or “block” is an intuition about meter, then that’s fine with me.

I mention Flaubert crossing out his sentences and rewriting them. To me, this means that Flaubert needed to see his own sentences on paper before he could decide whether they were what he wanted. I didn’t mean to speculate about whether Flaubert was in “full possession of his intentions” (I don’t actually understand what this means). I certainly don’t imply that Flaubert would or should have been capable of explaining why he preferred this sentence to that sentence. Anyone who writes at all seriously will surely often just “fix” a sentence just because it doesn’t “look right,” without being able to articulate exactly what’s wrong with it.

Izenberg also thinks that I am dead set against “treating the form of an object as its reason for existing.” But where do I propose a theory of acceptable reasons for creating a poem or a work of art? I would seem absurd to deny that some objects or some poems are created for the sake of their form: meter, rhythm, texture, color, shape, and so on.

And where do I say that “a poem [is] a move in a game calibrated to some use in the world”? This seems to me utterly unmotivated by anything in my book. (What game would I be talking about? What use in the world? Why would I believe that all poems do the same thing?) Izenberg’s formulation seems to me to be a vague gesture towards Wittgenstein’s concepts of “use” and “language-games.” But it doesn’t look as if he has tried to master Wittgenstein’s thought on these matters. If he had, he would realize that they hide no theory about what we must do with poetry. I would say that in our culture, “writing or reading poetry” is a language-game (on a par with those Wittgenstein mentions in PI, §23). But that just means that “writing or reading poetry” is a specific human activity in which language and a whole array of different practices are intertwined. This cannot possibly be a contentious claim.

Human beings, and forms

Theo Davis is interested in what I have to say about Saussure, and in the way I use “human being.” She rightly sees that my inquiry into Saussure and his legacy in contemporary critical theory has two significant stakes, namely the question of “whether or not language’s relation to the world really is a problem,” and the question of whether “subjectivity—or the human presence in relation to language—is itself a problem.”

Davis also rightly notes that I refuse to lay down requirements for what words such as “human,” “woman,” and “we,” must mean in advance of their use. “The question,” she writes, “becomes how is that term being used, rather than what convictions and connections the term seems—in itself and apart from its use—to necessarily bring with it.”

Towards the end of her piece, Davis raises a fundamental question about form and formal structures. I don’t really write much about form in Revolution of the Ordinary. But I think Davis is right to say that my book fundamentally opposes the idea that language is pure form, as expressed in theories of the “materiality of the signifier,” or the “mark.” For me, her essay raises a crucial question: If forms don’t exist in isolation, if form always carry meanings that depend on the uses and practices in which they are embedded, then how do we analyze literary form? In so far as “formalism” today tends to mean theories of literature and language that think of forms as if they were entities divorced from our practices and forms of life, they buy into the vision of language I wrote Revolution of the Ordinary to challenge. The challenge now will be to find new ways to discuss form.

Institutions and Knowledge

Robert Chodat asks crucial questions about institutions and knowledge, questions to which I feel broadly attuned. Can the kind of philosophy I write about find a place within the university as an institution? And does the kind of literary criticism I favor—dependent as it is on “acknowledgment, consulting and evaluating one’s experience, developing judgment, and so forth”—really count as knowledge? Does it even “contribute to what is commonly held to be the goal of university?” And can my understanding of the humanities as the field in which learning (a term Chodat leaves out) and judgment come together, stand up against the institutional pressure to reduce our teaching to training in set of measurable skills that provide clear “learning outcomes”?

Chodat thinks that my book should have included “considerations of the social, institutional, and historical context of our contemporary intellectual life.” And he would have liked me to take on not just the Saussurean vision of language that still informs our discipline, but also the reductive naturalisms that more recently have invaded our fields, such as “neuroscience, cognitive science, neo-Darwinism, and decision theory.”

He thinks I should have written something about how the kind of criticism I recommend conveys knowledge. But, then, on the other hand, he thinks that maybe I shouldn’t. For am I not asking for a full-scale change in our way of life? I certainly see certain intellectual transformations as a kind of conversion, in Thomas Kuhn’s sense of the term (see RO, 151, 188, and 257). How can this amount to anything but an esoteric, even cult-like activity?

Chodat’s questions are important. But, to be honest, they read to me as requests for the kind of thing one might write after completing Revolution of the Ordinary. I am, as Chodat guesses, in favor of analyses of cultural and other kinds of institutional and symbolic capital (they figure largely in my book on Simone de Beauvoir), and of the aesthetic, cultural and historical conditions that block or enable the development of new aesthetic forms (see my book on Henrik Ibsen and modernism). Nevertheless, I didn’t include this kind of work in Revolution of the Ordinary. It seemed to me that my most urgent task was to make ordinary language philosophy available to colleagues and students, to do my utmost to make this philosophy a part of the general conversations in our field.

By the time I had completed that project, I neither had the energy nor the wish to begin analyzing the social and institutional factors that might prevent the uptake and reception of Revolution of the Ordinary. (The whole thing would have been awfully depressing. Imagine toiling away on the plausible reasons for your failure before you even publish your book!) As Chodat sees, I am not unhappy to hear that the book fails to conform to the institutional doxa. But for a little while longer I’d rather nurse the hope that it will after all find an audience than write an analysis of why it won’t.

I share Chodat’s worry about the naturalistic logic currently invading the humanities. I definitely could have written more about Cavell’s foundational work on judgment and criteria, which helps us to see why even the most scientific and naturalistic logic rests on the judgments, practices and uses embedded in ordinary language. (Even the most objective measurements require judgment.) In so far as the university as an institution today sets out to measure and count practices of judgment, it is on a collision course not just with my book, but with the foundations of the humanities as such.

The purpose of most disciplines in the humanities is to preserve and develop knowledge of millennia of human history, culture, art, and thought. This requires (historical) learning and trained judgment. Our relentlessly presentist and scientistic culture wants us to believe that these are useless practices producing no significant knowledge. Yet sometimes I think that the scientism and the presentism and the anti-humanities attitudes are more entrenched inside the academy than outside it.

Chodat is too pessimistic. Or rather: I hope he is. I don’t see why the kind of criticism I defend—and try to practice in my own critical work—would strike people as providing less knowledge than the usual run-of-the-mill articles in literary studies today, replete as they are with a vocabulary and syntax that often make even the most necessary analyses of institutions and knowledge unreadable to most, including colleagues in their own field. I worked really hard to avoid that kind of voice in Revolution of the Ordinary. My goal was to make its thought as available as possible, not by simplifying the ideas, but by paying attention to language and form.

In my experience, my own ordinary language philosophy-inspired critical work is not taken to be esoteric. Actors and theater directors who tell me they have never read a word of Wittgenstein continue to find resonances and affinities with my readings of Ibsen’s plays. If we humanists want to convince others—inside and outside the academy—that we offer them knowledge they may care about, we should begin by trying to write in ways that convey that knowledge as precisely and as well as possible.

But Chodat is right: the humanities are under threat. The university as an institution is not friendly to us. And too many of our own colleagues in the humanities buy into the encroaching naturalism and rage for measurements. I agree that we should analyze the institutional conditions we work in, and that we must defend our notions of knowledge. But, at the same time, if we care about what the humanities actually do, we should also try to find new, strong, convincing ways to do our work. That’s what I set out to do in Revolution of the Ordinary.