Reflection by Daniel Wright

As a reader steeped in the questions of ordinary language philosophy in general, and used to thinking of the realist novel of the nineteenth century in particular as a kind of staging ground for such questions, I encountered Jonathan Farina’s brilliant Everyday Words animated by a feeling of the uncanny, as if familiar ideas had reappeared in altered form, leaving me without my usual points of orientation, excited and surprised—but also anxious, bereft, as those most subtly original arguments can give us a decided turn when they show us what we thought we understood from a new point of view. I longed to make J. L. Austin’s and Wittgenstein’s and Cavell’s questions fit Farina’s questions, and kept feeling as if that alignment were just out of my reach.

Attentive readers will find that I’ve populated my first paragraph with several of the ordinary linguistic tics that are Farina’s focus: the inductive movement between “in particular” and “in general”; the tentative and yet weirdly intense conditional “as if”; the judicious and liberal second-guessing of “but”; the “turn” that is everywhere in language as a mechanism of character. I must insist that I didn’t intend to be so clever. Having drafted a few opening sentences, I re-read them and became aware that these tics I’d been reading about had invaded my language, and decided at that point to fill out my selection. Some of these tics had found their way in more naturally than others, the draw of the “as if” particularly evident. And yet, hadn’t I always used these everyday words? Did I draw comparisons using “as if” quite so much as I now do before I ever read a word of Dickens, who as Farina points out is a particular master of this formulation?

If J. L. Austin famously described the central problem of ordinary language philosophy as that of “what we should say when, and so why and what we should mean by it” (7), Farina pursues something slightly different: what prose should say when; or, most specifically, what the novel should say when. What are those formal resources of language that become invisible because of their very everydayness? Farina’s interest in what I would call the connective tissue of language—its conjunctions and “turns” and movements from general to particular and back again—allows him to think of prose as having textures, right there on the surface, that can seem to exceed even Dickens’s or Eliot’s or Trollope’s masterful control. His striking claim is that prose itself has a character—is a character: “Distracted by the equation of character with characters—that is, with personages,” he argues, “we can miss the character of prose, the particular idiom with which it negotiates its half referential and half deviant relation to the familiar” (19).

Cavell has perhaps come closest to Farina’s insight in his suggestion that “Austin’s theory must re-begin again—going back to the fact of speaking itself, or … to the fact of the expressiveness and responsiveness of speech as such” (17). We can already see, however, that in the emphasis on speech Cavell retains one of Austin’s limitations. Ordinary language philosophy has never been much interested in distinguishing speech from prose, and we might link this capacious model of ordinary language to a philosophical ahistoricism. Wittgenstein imagines various “histories” of language acquisition and language use, for example, but they tend toward speculative thought experiments steeped in primitivism, as in his famous example of the community of builders only equipped with four nouns: “block,” “pillar,” “slab,” “beam” (§2).

Farina, on the other hand, performs in his method of reading a timely and suggestive tension between historicism and presentism: “everyday words are both utterly historical phenomena,” he insists, but simultaneously, “these same words remain altogether ordinary in the present” (212). We can only make sense of this paradox, and what Farina calls his “methodological ambivalence,” by taking prose as a “manner of being,” or a “form of knowledge,” inflected by history but also available to the present as a relatively unchanged set of “connotations and grammatical functions” (212-13). We might say that Farina’s everyday words help us to understand prose in general, and novelistic prose in particular, as what Wittgenstein would call a “form of life” (§19).

Austin, J. L. “A Plea for Excuses.” Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, vol. 57, 1956-57, pp. 1-30.

Cavell, Stanley. Philosophy the Day after Tomorrow. Harvard UP, 2005.

Farina, Jonathan. Everyday Words and the Character of Prose in Nineteenth-Century Britain. Cambridge UP, 2017.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Philosophical Investigations, rev. 4th. ed., edited by P. M. S. Hacker and Joachim Schulte, translated by G. E. M. Anscombe, P. M. S. Hacker, and Joachim Schulte. Wiley-Blackwell, 2009.

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