Ordinary language is all right.
One could divide humanity into two classes:
those who master a metaphor, and those who hold by a formula.
Those with a bent for both are too few, they do not comprise a class.
Coffee this week with L., who is now retired but still spends too much of his time in reading groups, or in commenting on students' work, or even discharging collegial responsibilities the colleagues he left behind can't be bothered to do. We talked about 'human guise', and just that, the first philosophical conversation I've had in months, did more to help me clarify my own thinking than I would have been able to in hours, weeks, of working alone. That's L.'s way: he helps you by listening to you. Most teachers do, but they are too often so self-absorbed—especially when they think of themselves as researchers—that they lack the genuine patience required to let you say something, to wait for you to have something to say. They would rather you come to them, to talk about something they know quite well. L. solicits conversations with you, to talk about what you know, what you're working on, what you're having trouble with, even when it's not what he knows well. Rather: what he does know well, like how to listen, how to respond, how not to impose, how to intervene for the benefit of others, how to guide and advise, how to be an example—is more worth knowing, for a philosopher, than anything else.
A difference between contriving to use a metaphor, and using them freely.
'[T]he concept of figurative meaning—Wittgenstein sometimes calls it secondary meaning—declares that investigation of this region cannot proceed always by employing language-games and the (a priori) agreement in judgment upon which they depend. Because with figurative meaning there is no such antecedent agreement. You could say that words used in such connections have no grammar—and that would itself be a grammatical remark.' —So, there is no antecedent agreement because, not only must we have learned the words used, but we must also have had certain experiences, noticed certain things, had certain impressions, felt greater pertinence in some things, heard emphases or discords where others may not have, and in general, must have found some sense in employing language on which there is elsewhere agreement, in such a way that there is not the same expectation that 'all' others can, as they stand, as those who share your language, understand you, will share your experience.
Without antecedent agreement, there's all the more pressure on the investigator to find words that express what he wants to, or has to. But if the figurative—a form of expression with its own life and own history in language which we can in certain ways recognize as such, even when it doesn't speak to us—does not a priori express our own experiences, it does provide a resource for doing so, on the condition that we experiment with speaking figuratively—which may sometimes require that we adapt non-figurative language, or established figures, to say what we have to say (with all the more risk, in that case, of not being understood); that we inflect our words.
Cavell's vision of Thoreau's 'father tongue' in The Senses of Walden seems to go beyond that, beyond the sense of possibly productive indeterminacy attaching to the figurative in The Claim of Reason. The speaker's relation to the language, its words independent of him, is more settled:
'Were it not for certain current fantasies according to which human beings in our time have such things to say to one another that they must invent something beyond the words we know in order to convey them, it would be unnecessary to emphasize that "father tongue" is not a new lexicon or syntax at our disposal, but precisely a rededication to the inescapable and utterly specific syllables upon which we are already disposed. Every word the writer uses will be written so as to acknowledge its own maturity, so as to let it speak for itself; and in a way that holds out its experience to us, allows us to experience it, and allows it to tell us all it knows. "There are probably words addressed to our condition exactly, which, if we could really hear and understand, would be more salutary than the morning…" There are words with our name on them—that is to say, every word in our nomenclature—but their existence is only probable to us, because we are not in a position to bring them home.'
(The way in which this goes beyond the vision for language's role in the investigations in Claim of Reason is tied up in the importance Cavell attaches to the author of Walden's achievement as a 'writer'.)
In Senses this is said, crucially, to call for our rebirth. In Claim, though the idea is linked to the conversion philosophy is said to call for (it 'symbolizes' conversion, a turning of our natural reactions, p. 125), the role it is assigned in Cavell's re-interpretation of skepticism about others is far more tentative:
'If we can say that outside the study the knowledge of skepticism is dead for us, then we might say that one can live skepticism so long as its knowledge is dead for one. A dolorous intellectual diet. Yet to admit the dying of knowledge, as to endure the dying of love, as to succumb to the death of God and of poetry, may be all that fits one for rebirth' (p. 449).
A philosopher's life is questions, not arguments. Or, questions before arguments, and arguments which only ever settle some questions, not all: better that they renew, focus, vitalize questioning.