Revolution of the Ordinary: New Book by Toril Moi

Congratulations to Toril Moi (Duke University) on the publication of her new book, Revolution of the Ordinary: Literary Studies after Wittgenstein, Austin, and Cavell.

From the publisher:

This radically original book argues for the power of ordinary language philosophy—a tradition inaugurated by Ludwig Wittgenstein and J. L. Austin, and extended by Stanley Cavell—to transform literary studies. In engaging and lucid prose, Toril Moi demonstrates this philosophy’s unique ability to lay bare the connections between words and the world, dispel the notion of literature as a monolithic concept, and teach readers how to learn from a literary text.

Moi first introduces Wittgenstein’s vision of language and theory, which refuses to reduce language to a matter of naming or representation, considers theory’s desire for generality doomed to failure, and brings out the philosophical power of the particular case. Contrasting ordinary language philosophy with dominant strands of Saussurean and post-Saussurean thought, she highlights the former’s originality, critical power, and potential for creative use. Finally, she challenges the belief that good critics always read below the surface, proposing instead an innovative view of texts as expression and action, and of reading as an act of acknowledgment. Intervening in cutting-edge debates while bringing Wittgenstein, Austin, and Cavell to new readers, Revolution of the Ordinary will appeal beyond literary studies to anyone looking for a philosophically serious account of why words matter.

Review Quotes:

Rita Felski, author of The Limits of Critique: Revolution of the Ordinary is a milestone in literary studies. In lucid and invigorating prose, Moi shows how a certain picture of ‘literary theory’ has held us captive and offers a brilliant and devastating analysis of its weaknesses. Drawing on the tradition of ordinary language philosophy, she offers a new vision of how we might think and read. This groundbreaking book will shape conversations among literary scholars for years to come.”


R. M. Berry, Florida State University: Revolution of the Ordinary takes on the formidable challenge of making Wittgenstein understandable and brilliantly shows his work’s relevance for critics educated in post-Structuralist, Lacanian, deconstructive, new historicist, culturalist, postcolonial, queer, feminist, and critical race theories. The growing interest in Wittgenstein among both literary critics and contemporary writers and poets absolutely demands this book.”

John Gibson, University of Louisville: “This is an agenda-setting work by a preeminent literary theorist. It is also tremendously fun to read. Revolution of the Ordinary is the kind of book that tells literary scholars and philosophers how to repair their relationship, and how to do so without losing what is distinctive about each discipline.”
Happy reading!

“What’s So Ordinary About Poetry?: An Argument in Seven Scenes”: New Essay by Larry Jackson

A new essay by Larry Jackson is out now in the latest issue of Diacritics. It begins:

Philosophy ought really to be written only as a poetic composition.

—Ludwig Wittgenstein, Culture and Value

But can philosophy become literature and still know itself?

—Stanley Cavell, The Claim of Reason

Scene One: This Is Simply What I Do in which a spade is turned and a mystery is unearthed

Poor Ludwig Wittgenstein. How many times as a schoolteacher had he turned a student’s chair so that it faced the wall as punishment for not understanding a lesson?1 And now, here he was, the greatest philosopher of the twentieth century, staring at the wall like a surly child. Only this punishment was self-imposed.

Misunderstood by his audience—the philosophers who would later be known as the Vienna Circle—Wittgenstein turned his back on them to read poetry aloud to the cobwebs and shadows that clung to the corners of the room, as though he were staging one of those enigmatic scenes found in his Philosophical Investigations.2 Like so many of the images in that work, this moment might also raise knotty questions about how we understand one another and why we often fail to do so. “Once I have exhausted the justifications, I have reached bedrock, and my spade is turned,” writes Wittgenstein, drawing on another of his short-lived professions, that of monastery gardener, to convey the exasperation of the educator.3 “Then I am inclined to say: ‘This is simply what I do.’” But when Wittgenstein turned his spade and his back on this group of prominent philosophers in the 1920s, he also raised a far more basic question. Just why was he acting this way?

No one among the group of intellectuals that comprised the Vienna Circle had treated Wittgenstein with contempt. On the contrary: they had invited him to speak in depth about the ideas that he had developed in the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, many of which their own school of thought, logical positivism, attempted to amplify and refine. However much they erred in their interpretations of Wittgenstein’s ideas, surely they deserved a thoughtful response, not a puzzling poetic protest. Why did Wittgenstein not try harder to persuade them? And if that could not be done, then why accept their invitations in the first place? Obviously, he was making a point. But was this a profound philosophical point or a petty, personal one? And if it was philosophical, then why not present it the usual way, in the form of an argument?

Go back to that passage quoted a moment ago about exhausting justifications and reaching bedrock. You will see that there is, in fact, a striking difference between Wittgenstein’s real-life café contretemps and his parabolic turned spade in the Investigations. When Wittgenstein could not make himself understood to the philosophers of the Vienna Circle, he read poetry, whereas his fictional teacher, the one who hits rock bottom, confesses only that he is inclined to say something.4 We can interpret that silent inclination as prologue to any number of words or actions on the part of the teacher. Wittgenstein himself offers one such possibility in an early study for the Investigations, when he writes, “If a child does not respond to the suggestive gesture [to go on counting correctly], it is separated from the others and treated as a lunatic.”5 But we can just as easily imagine the teacher instead repeating the lesson or offering new examples, berating the student or collapsing in agony.

We can also interpret the silence not as mere prelude to some grand pedagogical strategy or personal meltdown, but as the action or lesson itself. Teaching is not just about talking. There are many scenarios in which silence might be the best, or even the only, way to educate (or be educated). Here is one of them:

If the child, little or big, asks me: Why do we eat animals? or Why are some people poor and others rich? or What is God? or Why do I have to go to school? or Do you love…

You can access the complete essay here



“Must We Measure What We Mean?”: New Paper by Nat Hansen

This paper excavates a debate concerning the claims of ordinary language philosophers that took place during the middle of the last century. The debate centers on the status of statements about ‘what we say’. On one side of the debate, critics of ordinary language philosophy argued that statements about ‘what we say’ should be evaluated as empirical observations about how people do in fact speak, on a par with claims made in the language sciences. By that standard, ordinary language philosophers were not entitled to the claims that they made about what we would say about various topics. On the other side of the debate, defenders of the methods of ordinary language philosophy sought to explain how philosophers can be entitled to statements about what we would say without engaging in extensive observations of how people do in fact use language. In this paper, I defend the idea that entitlement to claims about what we say can be had in a way that doesn’t require empirical observation, and I argue that ordinary language philosophers are (at least sometimes) engaged in a different project than linguists or empirically minded philosophers of language, which is subject to different conditions of success.

You can read Hansen’s paper, published in Inquiry here and here.

Johns Hopkins Humanities Center Under Threat of Closure

Dear Readers—

As many of you know, Johns Hopkins University has recently threatened to close its acclaimed Humanities Center.  A thorough account of the threat (including a play-by-play, possible rationales, and the resultant outcry) can be found [here].  (Kudos to Colleen Flaherty for her exhaustive reporting.)

Should you wish to join in protesting the closure, there is a petition circulating on which you can access [here].  Of course you may also contact JHU President, Ronald J. Daniels, or JHU Krieger School of Arts & Sciences Dean, Beverly Wendland, directly.  Their addresses, emails, and phone numbers are available at

All best—


New Volume of Interest: Commonplace Commitments

Thanks to Peter Fosl for passing along the following:

Richard Fleming has just published a new piece in this volume: Peter S. Fosl, Michael McGandy, and Mark Moorman, eds., Commonplace Commitments: Thinking Through the Legacy of Joseph P. Fell (Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press, 2016). Fleming’s contribution is called “Ordinary Studies: Conceptual Brackets—Textual Moments” (pp. 153-65 in the book). It “seeks to both disquiet and still the matters of the ordinary” by, among other practices, melding John Cage’s use of “time brackets” with more traditional etude aims and forms. The text’s conceptual brackets are selected from collected data descriptions of the ordinary first given in the afterword of part 1 of Fleming’s Threads of Philosophy. Click [here] for more information. And enjoy!


Thinking with Tolstoy and Wittgenstein: New Book by Henry W. Pickford

thinking-with-tolstoy-and-wittgensteinI’m afraid I’m a bit late to the party: Out last year from Northwestern UP, Thinking with Tolstoy and Wittgenstein: Expression, Emotion, and Art by Henry W. Pickford. From the publisher:


In this highly original interdisciplinary study incorporating close readings of literary texts and philosophical argumentation, Henry W. Pickford develops a theory of meaning and expression in art intended to counter the meaning skepticism most commonly associated with the theories of Jacques Derrida.

Pickford arrives at his theory by drawing on the writings of Wittgenstein to develop and modify the insights of Tolstoy’s philosophy of art. Pickford shows how Tolstoy’s encounter with Schopenhauer’s thought on the one hand provided support for his ethical views but on the other hand presented a problem, exemplified in the case of music, for his aesthetic theory, a problem that Tolstoy did not successfully resolve. Wittgenstein’s critical appreciation of Tolstoy’s thinking, however, not only recovers its viability but also constructs a formidable position within contemporary debates concerning theories of emotion, ethics, and aesthetic expression.


“This book is original, ambitious, and extremely well informed. Henry Pickford has managed to say an important new word in a vast intellectual field.” Boris Gasparov, author of Five Operas and a Symphony: Word and Music in Russian Culture
Thinking with Tolstoy and Wittgenstein is a beautifully written, philosophically sophisticated, and important work that should be of considerable interest to lterary theorists as well as to philosophers concerned with emotion.” Stanley Bates, Middlebury College

Images of History: New Book by Richard Eldridge

Richard Eldridge‘s most recent book, Images of History: Kant, Benjamin, Freedom, and the Human Subject, is sure to be of interest to those of us invested in questions of historicity, morality, and political community. See below for the publisher’s description. Click the image to be forwarded to the book’s Amazon page.



Developing work in the theories of action and explanation, Eldridge argues that moral and political philosophers require accounts of what is historically possible, while historians require rough philosophical understandings of ideals that merit reasonable endorsement.

Both Immanuel Kant and Walter Benjamin recognize this fact. Each sees a special place for religious consciousness and critical practice in the articulation and revision of ideals that are to have cultural effect, but they differ sharply in the forms of religious-philosophical understanding, cultural criticism, and political practice that they favor.

Kant defends a liberal, reformist, Protestant stance, emphasizing the importance of liberty, individual rights, and democratic institutions. His fullest picture of movement toward a moral culture appears inReligion within the Bounds of Mere Reason, where he describes conjecturally the emergence of an ethical commonwealth.

Benjamin defends a politics of improvisatory alertness and consciousness-raising that is suspicious of progress and liberal reform. He practices a form of modernist, materialist criticism that is strongly rooted in his encounters with Kant, Hölderlin, and Goethe. His fullest, finished picture of this critical practice appears in One-Way Street, where he traces the continuing force of unsatisfied desires.

By drawing on both Kant and Benjamin, Eldridge hopes to avoid both moralism (standing on sharply specified normative commitments at all costs) and waywardness (rejecting all settled commitments). And in doing so, he seeks to make better sense of the commitment-forming, commitment-revising, anxious, reflective and sometimes grownup acculturated human subjects we are.

F. R. Leavis Symposium, April 2016 Issue of Philosophy and Literature

The April issue (Vol. 40, No. 1) of Philosophy of Literature features a symposium on F. R. Leavis: Teacher, Critic, Philosopher. See below for the complete Table of Contents + links.





Lines to Time: A Poem by V. Penelope Pelizzon pp. 1-33 | DOI: 10.1353/phl.2016.0008 by M. W. Rowe

Sculpting Ideas: Can Philosophy Be an Art Form? pp. 34-43 | DOI: 10.1353/phl.2016.0012 by St. Hope Earl McKenzie

The Crisis of Subjectivity: The Significance of Darstellung and Freedom in E. T. A. Hoffmann’s “The Sandman” pp. 44-58 | DOI: 10.1353/phl.2016.0016 by Elizabeth Purcell

Melville and Nietzsche: Living the Death of God pp. 59-75 | DOI: 10.1353/phl.2016.0020 by Mark Anderson

The Function of Kant’s Miltonic Citations on a Page of the Opus postumum pp. 76-97 | DOI: 10.1353/phl.2016.0000 by Sanford Budick

Joseph Conrad and the Epistemology of Space pp. 98-123 | DOI: 10.1353/phl.2016.0003 by John G. Peters

Symposium: F. R. Leavis: Critic, Teacher, Philosopher

Introduction pp. 124-126 | DOI: 10.1353/phl.2016.0006 by Danièle Moyal-Sharrock

Leavisian Thinking pp. 127-136 | DOI: 10.1353/phl.2016.0010 by Ian Robinson

Rethinking Leavis pp. 137-156 | DOI: 10.1353/phl.2016.0014 by Chris Joyce

Leavis, Tolstoy, Lawrence, and “Ultimate Questions” pp. 157-170 | DOI: 10.1353/phl.2016.0018 by Edward Greenwood

Creativity and Pedagogy in Leavis pp. 171-188 | DOI: 10.1353/phl.2016.0022 by Michael Bell

Leavis on Tragedy pp. 189-205 | DOI: 10.1353/phl.2016.0002 by Paul Dean

Leavis and Wittgenstein pp. 206-225 | DOI: 10.1353/phl.2016.0005 by Bernard Harrison

Absolute Pitch and Exquisite Rightness of Tone pp. 226-239 | DOI: 10.1353/phl.2016.0009 by Paul Standish

Wittgenstein and Leavis: Literature and the Enactment of the Ethical pp. 240-264 | DOI: 10.1353/phl.2016.0013 by Danièle Moyal-Sharrock

Notes and Fragments

Levinas and the Plot against Literature pp. 265-272 | DOI: 10.1353/phl.2016.0017 by Joseph G. Kronick

The Myth of Narcissus as a Surreptitious Allegory about Creativity pp. 273-284 | DOI: 10.1353/phl.2016.0021 by Greg Stone

The Idea of the “Good” pp. 285-296 | DOI: 10.1353/phl.2016.0001 by John C. Hampsey

Wittgenstein’s Remarks on William Shakespeare pp. 297-308 | DOI: 10.1353/phl.2016.0004 by Derek McDougall

On The Philosophy of Poetry, ed. John Gibson pp. 309-314 | DOI: 10.1353/phl.2016.0007 by A. J. Nickerson

La Guerra Dei Poveri: A Response to A. J. Nickerson pp. 315-316 | DOI: 10.1353/phl.2016.0011 by John Gibson


The Cognitive Value of Philosophical Fiction by Jukka Mikkonen (review) pp. 317-319 | DOI: 10.1353/phl.2016.0015 by László Kajtár

Deaths in Venice: The Cases of Gustav von Aschenbach by Philip Kitcher (review) pp. 320-324 | DOI: 10.1353/phl.2016.0019 by Iris Vidma