Ordinary Language & Big Truths
Tibor R. Machan
My graduate training occurred during the last years of the reign of
ordinary language philosophy. This was a school in the discipline that
held that whatever philosophical truths could be learned, they were
contained in the ways people spoke about everyday things. The idea was
that such talk had to be pretty much on the mark, otherwise we would go
astray a lot and we do not, actually, not in everyday matters. So if we
just pay close attention to how people talk about such things, follow the
implications, we could learn a good deal about basic things too.
I wasn?t fully convinced of the promise of this way of doing philosophy
but it did have some merit. I ran across an example of it recently that is
actually quite revealing.
When someone asks, ?How will I manage this?? and gets the answer, ?You
will manage somehow,? we see something rather profound going on: One
person is expressing confidence in another?s ingenuity, without having a
clue just exactly how that ingenuity will show itself. There is also the
suggestion in this exchange that people do manage to figure out how to
handle problems without having to be told what exactly they need to do.
I actually think this says a lot about why a free society makes
sense?namely, because human beings are capable of figuring out how to
solve problems and do not need the Nanny State to take care of them. Such
a big idea is hidden right there in how people understand one another in
There is another pointed way of talking that packs a bit of philosophical
insight. When people mess up, often you will hear them say, ?Damn it, I
didn?t think.? Indeed. That seems to suggest that the source of much
mismanagement in life is the fact that people do not think about things,
they don?t pay attention enough. And they seem to know that it is their
fault when they don?t, otherwise you wouldn?t witness them slapping the
sides of the heads when they say this thing about not having thought about
Yes, ?I wasn?t thinking? is often said with an attitude of
self-recrimination because it is evident that here is something we are all
free to but often fail to do, namely, think. It is mostly what goes wrong
in my class rooms, for example?my students just do not put their minds to
full use. Instead they are drifting, day dreaming or simply lull about
mentally, in a daze. And they could snap out of it if they just made that
determination. All my classroom razzmatazz, all my shenanigans will not do
this for them.
There are many other things we can learn from paying attention to how
people reflect out loud. I focus on the above instances because I find it
important to lend full credence to the fact that people can do things of
their own, that they aren?t puppets being moved by some puppet master?or
the stars or their genes or DNA and such. It is the fashionable official
doctrine of our time, advanced by lots of intellectuals, scientists,
pundits and such that what people do is always something they had to do.
There is no free will, in other words. Crimes are not the result of
culpable misconduct but of forces that compel us to act badly. We are in
the grips of biological or cultural evolution, so that none of us is free
to think for ourselves and thus need take no responsibility for doing
either well or badly at the task of making sense of the world.
This is an especially odd thing for professional intellectuals to
believe. After all, if all that they think and say just had to be thought
and said by them, why should we care? What credibility does such
parrot-like behavior carry? If what you say you had to say, then when
someone who disagrees says the opposite, the same applies, and the same
thing goes for those who judge all this to be right or wrong, ad
infinitum. No one?s judgment can then be relied upon to be independent,
unimpeded, unprejudiced. Then why pay attention? The whole thing is absurd.
Anyway, sometimes it pays to listen to how folks talk in their most
natural mode, when they aren?t driving home some big agenda but deal with
the day to day issues they face. If their talk on such occasions carries
some implications, these may be worth taking into serious consideration as
we try to make sense of the big picture.