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Monday, September 11, 2017


How not to Wittgenstein.

In the first place, this is not LW's opinion about whether speech can be violence, as the title of the piece implies. I would be very surprised if he had had an opinion about that!  This is a purported application of Wittgenstein's notion of language games to the problem of whether speech can be redefined as violence.

Secondly, it doesn't really go to what is distinctive about LW's ideas of language games and family resemblance. The article simply says that we can redefine speech acts as acts of violence if we want to because words don't have fixed boundaries of reference. A rather trivial conclusion.

Acts of speech which are violent in nature are already not covered under the first amendment. For example, a threat of violence is often illegal. So the only reason for making this argument is to redefine non-violent speech acts to make them exempt from the first amendment.

Suppose we wanted to redefine any other term. We could use that method to expand any term in any direction we wanted.

--exercise improves physical health
--sleep improves health
--therefore sleep is a form of exercise

1 comment:

Thomas said...

You are completely right about this, Jonathan. It reminds me of what LW wrote in his Remarks on Frazer's Golden Bough:

"...festivals [like the Beltane Festival] are not so to speak haphazard inventions of one man but need an infinitely broader basis if they are to persist. If I tried to invent a festival it would very soon die out or else be so modified that it corresponded to a general inclination in people."

Those who use Wittgenstein to assert the contingency of meaning forget this point. He did not say that words can mean whatever we decide they mean. He said (still simplifying a great deal) that words mean whatever we *use* them to mean. We can't use the words "speech" and "violence" the way some people would have us do because it does not "correspond to a general inclination" in us.