The meanings of silence: Wittgensteinian contextualism and polyphony

Inquiry 47 (6):562 – 579 (2004)
Radical feminists have argued that there are normative exclusions that have silenced certain voices and have rendered certain meanings unintelligible. Some Wittgensteinians (including some Wittgensteinian feminists) have argued that these radical feminists fall into a philosophical illusion by appealing to the notions of 'intelligible nonsense' and 'inexpressible meanings', an illusion that calls for philosophical therapy. In this paper I diagnose and criticize the therapeutic dilemma that results from this interpretation of Wittgenstein's contextualism. According to this dilemma, if something is meaningful, it must be expressible from the perspective of the participant in language-games; and if it is not so expressible, it is not meaningful at all. I argue that this is a false dilemma that rests on the untenable internalist notion of a unified 'participant's perspective'. I propose an alternative contextualist view that underscores the polyphony of language-games, that is, the irreducible multiplicity of perspectives always present in discursive practices (if only implicitly and in embryo). Through a discussion of the different meanings of silence, my polyphonic contextualism tries to show that our linguistic practices always exhibit an irreducible diversity and heterogeneity of points of view that cannot be subsumed under a unified perspective.
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DOI 10.1080/00201740410004304
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