Monday, August 28, 2006


My favourite book was written in 1852 by a medical doctor, influenced by Bentham but far surpassing him in philosophical genius. He was a founder of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, and is known principally for two books, Animal and Vegetable Physiology considered with reference to Natural Theology – and the one that I adore. The first was commissioned by the Earl of Bridgewater to propound "the power, wisdom and goodness of God, as manifested in the creation", which might serve as a motto for the second.

The book is Peter Mark Roget's Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases, the most prodigious work of systematic metaphysics that England has produced. We owe to his son, John Roget, the glorious expansion of the index. But it was Peter Mark who conceived the sublime arrangement of opposites – Mixture and Simplicity, Life and Death, Necessity and Will – displayed in parallel columns like Kant's "antinomies".

The comparison is apt. Like Kant and Wittgenstein, Roget turned metaphysics against itself. His work is not only a fearsome cannon in the war against cliché, but a fortress against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language. He must have been consulting his own book when he wrote this splendiferous passage from its introduction:
Truisms pass current, and wear the semblance of profound wisdom, when dressed up in the tinsel garb of antithetical phrases, or set off by an imposing pomp of paradox. By a confused jargon of involved and mystical sentences, the imagination is easily inveigled into a transcendental region of clouds, and the understanding beguiled into the belief that it is acquiring knowledge and approaching truth. A misapplied or misapprehended term is sufficient to give rise to fierce and interminable disputes; a misnomer has turned the tide of popular opinion; a verbal sophism has decided a party question; an artful watchword, thrown among combustible materials, has kindled the flame of deadly warfare, and changed the destiny of an empire.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

"the most prodigious work of systematic metaphysics that England has produced"

Greater than Locke's Essay? Or anything by David Icke?

6:49 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Where did Wittgenstein ever demonstrate that traditional metaphysical problems were the result of bewitchment by language?

There's a passing reference to problems about time in Zettel, but I can't remember anywhere he's goes in to any detail about showing any particular problem was purely a linguistic error.

He was certainly right that some philosophical positions rest on fallacious equivocations and loose language and lack of attention to distinctions ordinarily made. But there's a leap from that to claiming that all problems can be diagnosed that way, and I can't see he ever succeeded in the leap, rather than just assuming he had.

There is an irony here: Wittgenstein was guilty of trying to assimilate lots of issues and questions together under one explanation, instead of accepting their heterogeneity, which is exactly the charge against traditional philosophy. Berkeley's mistakes about matter are not the same as McTaggart's mistakes about time or Russell's about reference, if indeed they all were mistaken (itself open to question).

2:27 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home