Ludwig Wittgenstein and Jeff Rice

From Professor Barry Smith and others:

The Times (London). Saturday, May 9, 1992

Sir, The University of Cambridge is to ballot on May 16 on whether M. Jacques Derrida should be allowed to go forward to receive an honorary degree. As philosophers and others who have taken a scholarly and professional interest in M. Derrida’s remarkable career over the years, we believe the following might throw some needed light on the public debate that has arisen over this issue.

M. Derrida describes himself as a philosopher, and his writings do indeed bear some of the marks of writings in that discipline. Their influence, however, has been to a striking degree almost entirely in fields outside philosophy — in departments of film studies, for example, or of French and English literature.

In the eyes of philosophers, and certainly among those working in leading departments of philosophy throughout the world, M. Derrida’s work does not meet accepted standards of clarity and rigour.

We submit that, if the works of a physicist (say) were similarly taken to be of merit primarily by those working in other disciplines, this would in itself be sufficient grounds for casting doubt upon the idea that the physicist in question was a suitable candidate for an honorary degree.

M. Derrida’s career had its roots in the heady days of the 1960s and his writings continue to reveal their origins in that period. Many of them seem to consist in no small part of elaborate jokes and the puns “logical phallusies” and the like, and M. Derrida seems to us to have come close to making a career out of what we regard as translating into the academic sphere tricks and gimmicks similar to those of the Dadaists or of the concrete poets.

Certainly he has shown considerable originality in this respect. But again, we submit, such originality does not lend credence to the idea that he is a suitable candidate for an honorary degree.

Many French philosophers see in M. Derrida only cause for silent embarrassment, his antics having contributed significantly to the widespread impression that contemporary French philosophy is little more than an object of ridicule.

M. Derrida’s voluminous writings in our view stretch the normal forms of academic scholarship beyond recognition. Above all — as every reader can very easily establish for himself (and for this purpose any page will do) — his works employ a written style that defies comprehension.

Many have been willing to give M. Derrida the benefit of the doubt, insisting that language of such depth and difficulty of interpretation must hide deep and subtle thoughts indeed.

When the effort is made to penetrate it, however, it becomes clear, to us at least, that, where coherent assertions are being made at all, these are either false or trivial.

Academic status based on what seems to us to be little more than semi-intelligible attacks upon the values of reason, truth, and scholarship is not, we submit, sufficient grounds for the awarding of an honorary degree in a distinguished university.

Yours sincerely,

Barry Smith
(Editor, The Monist)

Hans Albert (University of Mannheim), David Armstrong (Sydney), Ruth Barcan Marcus (Yale), Keith Campbell (Sydney), Richard Glauser (Neuchâtel), Rudolf Haller (Graz), Massimo Mugnai (Florence), Kevin Mulligan (Geneva), Lorenzo Peña (Madrid), Willard van Orman Quine (Harvard), Wolfgang Röd (Innsbruck), Karl Schuhmann (Utrecht), Daniel Schulthess (Neuchâtel), Peter Simons (Salzburg), René Thom (Burs-sur-Yvette), Dallas Willard (Los Angeles), Jan Wolenski (Cracow)
Internationale Akademie für Philosophie, Obergass 75, 9494S Schaan, Liechtenstein.

May 6.

The Times (London). Saturday, May 9, 1992

The above is a real letter, written by analytic philosophers very upset over Cambridge’s decision to award Derrida an honorary scholarship. He is accused of obscurantism and of being an imposter. I haven’t read Derrida, and so cannot give my own opinion on the matter. I don’t know that I agree with their letter, but philosophers are only human, and have their gut reactions—so I really can understand it. I found this letter doing research for my other paper, in Dr. Harker’s class, on Jeff Rice’s The Rhetoric of Cool. Rice’s book led me to Wittgenstein to look for an objection but in so doing I found a unique perspective on a clichéd topic.

(The following is only a synopsis of my critique of The Rhetoric of Cool).

Jeff Rice (Fig.1) presents the thesis of his book in a number of places. Here are two:

Fig. 1; Jeff Rice on the right

To write a Weblog is not the same as to write a personal essay; to engage with a wiki is not the same as to write a thesis; to construct a hypertextual project is not the same as to create a print-based research essay. To even conduct research is no longer the same. Media dictate otherwise. Media change us, and media change the nature of our work.” (Rice, 147).

Finding “a” theory of new media to work with has proven difficult for composition studies… Each book continues the project of print culture to some extent, carrying over the very specific assumptions and ideological positions associated with print (writing topic sentences, paragraph-based structuring, interpretation over production, logical reasoning and ordering, referential-based argumentation, the questions of purpose, audience recognition)… [T]he field, as a whole, still lacks a substantive rhetoric of new media. The rhetoric of cool is meant as a first step toward inventing a new media rhetoric by recognizing that the terms that shape writing differ significantly within new media than they have within print.” xxviii

So, putting it in my own words. Digital media is everywhere. We compose and read digital media on a regular basis—although Rice doesn’t say it, he could assert that digital media will replace almost all paper based media in, say, ten years, and I would agree. Digital media demands its own literacies and practices that are fundamentally different from print based literacies and practices. Academic composition programs are still stuck doing the print based thing; he is submitting this as a first step toward theorizing a rhetoric for the ‘new’ composition.

I agree with the whole thing, except the part about print based logic no longer applying. It means that his project still gets off the ground, but with a scope that is narrower than he envisions. Before I get into why I disagree, I’ll show the only justification I could find in the whole book on the necessity of print based logic disappearing. I don’t mean to be rude, but this is an immensely important part of his argument; the grand scale of his project shrinks considerably without it, and I wish that he would have spent some effort detailing why print logic is on its way out. In the end, he gives nothing: it’s Greg Ulmer, in the foreword, who offers something of a reason.

Mr. Ulmer states, “Aristotle’s logic became possible and necessary in response to the power of alphabetic writing to record (store and retrieve) the flow of human speech.” (xiv). I take him to mean that Aristotle’s logic was a way to organize data (the communications of mankind) such that it would make sense to future generations reading it off a page. That we were compelled to do so by the new invention of print, in a theory we may call technological determinism. That makes sense; it sounds nice. We invented a new medium of communication, and so rules apply to it. A couple of centuries ago, it was print; we’re on to a new medium again, and the accompanying new rules that will apply to it. But I did wonder, why exactly did we need a logic in writing that did not apply already to speech? How was Aristotle’s logic impossible before print? The coherence, clarity, and structure that Rice repeatedly rejects seem to be an amplification of pre-existing norms that occur in the overwhelming majority of our dealings with other people (58, 86, 112, 155, 104, 23…). We might not have ‘topic sentences’ in our conversations, but we do manage to stick to topics. Nor do we have ‘thesis statements’ behind every interaction, but when the officer is writing me a ticket, he seems to have a particular purpose in mind.

Looking at the internet, and Web 2.0, I do see an interactive, multi-modal space. I see a need for new composition practices. I also see thesis statements, clarity and coherence, and linear thought through the hyperlinks. So I rejected Rice’s technological determinism, both in theory and in experience, as implausible.

Fig. 2, Ludwig Wittgenstein

I used Wittgenstein (Fig. 2) and the Philosophical Investigations, not really to disprove Rice’s argument, but to offer a theoretical framework that could provide some credibility to my own thoughts. Wittgenstein presents reductive philosophy as a mistake—it misses too many vital characteristics of our language looking for the essential and broad characteristics that hold categorically. Instead, we should look at each individual speech act or context of speaking (or writing, or composition in general). These contexts he called ‘language games’, and gives a long list of examples in the 23 paragraph of Philosophical Investigations.

-Giving orders, and obeying them–

-Describing the appearance of an object, or giving its measurement–

-Constructing an object from a description (a drawing)–

-Reporting an event–

-Speculating about an event–

-Forming and testing a hypothesis–

-Presenting the results of an experiment in tables and diagrams–

-Making up a story; and reading it–


-Singing catches–

-Guessing riddles–

-Making a joke; telling it–

-Solving a problem in practical arithmetic–

-Translating from one language into another–

-Asking, thanking, cursing, greeting, praying–

How simple and varied these are, and though they are all different, they bear resemblances to one another. Not all games will share every commonality with one another, some groups of games will be more closely linked than others—Wittgenstein called this aspect ‘family resemblances’, a relationship of kin and his way of sticking with the particular instantiations to explain language. We will get further into family resemblance, language games, and aesthetics in my next section, but let us dwell on one resemblance that is shared of necessity (Wittgenstein, 65).

All games have rules. In our language games, the majority of rules occur in particular cases; there is one that has a categorical nature to it, however, and it is, “for an utterance to be meaningful it must be possible in principle to subject it to public standards and criteria of correctness… The signs in language can only function when there is a possibility of judging the correctness of their use.” (Biletzki, web). I submit that we call this judgment clarity for atomic words and thoughts, and coherence when it is thoughts put together in the creation of propositions.  This is not to say that Rice’s proposal violates the private language argument to the point of unintelligibility, but his focus will radically alter the nature of most of a majority of our games.

This is only the first piece of the counterargument, however, because Rice could seemingly claim that ‘media change us’ in such a way as to obviate clarity and coherence. That is his argument, actually. I find Rice’s argument untenable because, “The common behavior of mankind is the system of reference by means of which we interpret an unknown language.” (Wittgenstein, p. 206). In this case, our unknown language is, according to Rice, composition of a digital format. Yet it is still going to have to accord with the common behavior of mankind, which is to say, our fundamental way of life is not going to change because we are entering the digital age. When I go to the doctor, I will expect him to do his best to give me a clear diagnosis, and technology to further that cause. In my discussions and conversations with my friends, co-workers, bosses, and professors, I will still try to make coherent statements and use words that illustrate my point. Language is useful because of the utility it introduces to my life. Life precedes language, hence the use of language is determined by life, and not the other way around. The internet changes things, but how much are laws and the legal system going to change? How about encyclopedias? Magazines and news articles and the rest might appear slightly different, but they are still going to need to be useful to our way of life.  The majority of our communications simply do not allow Rice’s project to work.

Did you read that letter at the start? Wondering how it fits? It’s a bit of a thought experiment, I guess, to see if you, my reader, actually agree with Rice. I would imagine you would expect me to fit it in here somehow, to make it clear why I decided to include it (and not require you to see five different narrations in it). My point is, those philosophers are critiquing Derrida for the same reasons I critique Rice, for failure to maintain an adherence to the principles that make for good academic writing, or even run-of-the-mill composition. But I break with the above critique, because I find that Rice does have something to say in a very particular branch of language games.

So, a last few notes before you go to the next page. First, Wittgenstein wanted to describe language as a vast assortment of games because the particulars, to him, are more important than trying to find the essential qualities of all of language. This is a metaphor taken from my paper for Dr. Harker, but I like it: suppose you wanted to know what pistachio ice cream tastes like. I could describe those things common to all ice cream, its coldness and sweetness, its liability to melt, etc., but you still would miss something unique to pistachio ice cream. We have ice cream flavors, not the Flavor of ice cream. We have language games, not the game of language.

Second, individual words, and from words sentences, and from sentences whole meaning systems derive their meaning for their particular games. This is very similar to social turn theory which has been formulated in numerous ways: James Paul Gee’s essay on the Social Turn is an excellent illustration on how social context has become a topic of great influence

Second, my continuum looks at certain particularities that seem to be fairly constant of certain broad aspects of language games—to continue with Wittgenstein’s metaphor, there are board games, sports games, bar games, and games that boys and girls play with each other. The continuum you will see features very loosely bound types of games that I picked somewhat arbitrarily, but I believe they cohere with certain intuitions we have as regard our compositions.

This led to me to my current project, which involves more Wittgenstein, and the nature of the aesthetic. Head here to get back to my introduction for this class’ project.

Works Cited:

Biletzki, Anat and Matar, Anat, “Ludwig Wittgenstein”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2011 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <;.

Rice, Jeff. The Rhetoric of Cool: Composition Studies and New Media. Southern Illinois University: Southern Illinois University Press. 2007. Print.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Philosophical Investigations.3rdEd. Trans. G. E. M. Anscombe. New York: MacMillan Publishing Co., Inc. 1958. Print.

It should be noted, I cited Wittgenstein with his paragraph numbers (P. *), and not page numbers.

Works Consulted:

Candlish, Stewart and Wrisley, George, “Private Language”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2011 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <;.


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