Tuesday, August 4, 2020

every simple shewsay is either a yeasay or a naysay - Jonathan Rée’s Witcraft, 1601 & 1651 - The jokes are not always funny

The first chapter of Jonathan Rée’s Witcraft: The Invention of Philosophy in English is titled “1601: Philosophy Learns English.”  It is much about translation as philosophy.  For there to be philosophy in English there first must be words for it, and the 16th century is when a large number of them are translated, stolen, or invented.

Rée is going to end the book with Ludwig Wittgenstein, so he is setting up a theme that will lead straight to the end of the book, that in his view philosophy is less about ideas than about words.  Or that there is little distinction.

The easy, clumsy path was simply to absorb the Latin and half-baked Greek.  To opponents, these were “inkhorn terms,” existing only in the inkwell, not in real English.  We in English missed a sure thing by not adopting the 1573 suggestions of clergyman Ralph Lever, who wanted to expel the Latin completely:

Conclusiones became ‘endsays’, and propositiones conditionales were ‘ifsayes’.  Instead of the hideous half-Latin maxim ‘every proposition is either an affirmation or a negation’, we could now say that every simple shewsay… is either a yeasay or a naysay. (20)

And that logique “should be known by the self-explanatory term Witcraft, which also served as the title of his book” (21).  Rée, by pinching the title, suggests that it would work just as well in place of philosophy.*

The attention to language is one of a number of ways that Rée’s approach is what I think of as literary.  Another is that the personality around whom he builds this first chapter is Hamlet, who is fictional, but who was a philosophy student at university in Wittenberg, allowing Rée to look at the trivium and the quadrivium and generally use Hamlet’s fancy college-boy talk for examples.

“A sizable section of Shakespeare’s audiences would have recognized his allusions to humanist philosophy, even if they had no Latin” (28).  This is because they were reading the new English translations of all sorts of books – Cicero, Thomas More, a mangled Diogenes Laertius that was “essentially a history of philosophy – the first in the English language” (30).  Plus the Italians – Giordano Bruno pops up – and the French – Michel de Montaigne – until finally Francis Bacon writes Of the Advancement of Learning (1605), “[m]ore or less absent-mindedly” the first original work of philosophy in English.

“1651: Puritans, philosophers, comedians.”  Thomas Hobbes is the star of the chapter, with the publication of Leviathan in 1651.  Other topics: the Puritan overhaul of university philosophy, the reception of Descartes, the beginnings of philosophy in America, including John Eliot’s 1672 publication of “a thousand copies of a miniature logic primer with a text in Algonquin and glosses in English,” the rise of chronology not just of the Bible but of philosophy (part of Thomas Stanley’s 1655 The History of Philosophy is below), magic and hermeticism, Sir Thomas Browne, Don Quixote, Thomas Urquhart’s Rabelais, Margaret Cavendish.  There is room for some of everything, whatever is interesting.

Hobbes is the first major English philosopher so far, so Rée spends more time working through the ideas in Leviathan, a little more like the usual history of philosophy.  This is a book about people who have ideas rather than ideas that have people (as labels, mostly).  Again, a more literary approach.  Hobbes disagrees:

Genuine philosophy, for Hobbes, ‘dependeth not on authors’, but on robust good sense, abetted by a lively sense of the ridiculous.  The jokes were not always funny, but philosophers were learning how to laugh.  (93)

* Full title: The Arte of Reason, rightly termed, Witcraft, teaching a perfect way to argue and dispute.


  1. pardon my ignorance, but how can words replace ideas? doesn't the thought have to be there before the words are used to express it? color me confused...

  2. If we are arguing about the statement "God exists" how much of the argument is really about what the words "God" and "exists" mean? Wittgenstein's insight was that something close to 100% of philosophy was an argument about what the words mean. Not the thought, but the words.

    Berkeley is coming up tomorrow. His great contribution to humanity is along the same lines. He just blows a huge hole in philosophy. It is amazing to witness. I should just repeat this metaphor in tomorrow's post.

    1. so, semantics, then? if the problem is general acceptance of concepts as reflected in language, it seems an unanswerable and insolvable dilemma, being that each person has their own idea about the meaning of any given word...

    2. Right, sorting semantics out, compared to real ideas. It is so hard to get past the semantics. Very possibly unanswerable at some level. Which is a serious problem.

    3. In my reading of the Tractatus, Wittgenstein builds an argument that it is impossible to actually make a true statement because language itself is so indeterminate, failing to accurately map onto reality, and so the only honest option is to say nothing. A shocking conclusion, which I think really threw Ludwig for a loop.

    4. Wittgenstein I take as a hero of the author - a joke to that effect may be hidden in the book's title. The long last chapter is practically a Wittgenstein biography, full of the history of his thinking. The chapter is titled "A Collection of Nonsense." That could have been the title of Rée's book.

      Philosophers delude themselves into thinking they have ideas when all they have is language. This appears to me to be, in some important sense, itself an idea.

    5. sooo, i see two options: after Wittgenstein and be silent, or revert to art and use it to trap meaning unawares...

    6. An idea that chases its own tail, but also one which can form a real trap. As a novelist, a writer of fiction, I've been trapped within the idea that all I have is language and no truth. My novelist friends tell me to just accept the artifice and work with language, not to get hung up on "truth". I remain unconvinced, and so mostly silent. I'm getting used to it, though.

    7. Wittgenstein himself had more interest in, love of, art, poetry, for example, than I usually associate with philosophers, but he was an Austrian, so what choice did he have? They pound the love of art into there.

      He had his own problems with silence, that is clear enough. After Tractatus, he really published nothing. But he kept working. He kept thinking. He is an exemplary figure for a certain conception of the philosopher, and a catastrophe for some other models.

  3. Love your review.

    I've just finished it and I came across your take on it as well.

    Rée deliberately includes the lesser-known thinkers along with the big names, but it's very noticeable when someone comes along who changes the way everyone else thinks.


  4. Manuel, I missed your comment somehow until now. Thanks very much for the link to your piece.

    It is quite clear when the big guys appear, isn't it? When the history of English philosophy becomes the history of philosophy.