Wittgenstein, Reality and the Novel

Professor Bernard Harrison

University of Sussex

18th October 2011

University of Herfordshire

About the Speaker
Speaker Bibliography
About the Reporter




the Speaker


Professor Harrison held joint Chairs at Sussex and the University of Utah (the latter being the E.E. Ericksen Chair, which he holds as an Emeritus Professor). He took early retirement from Sussex in 1992, becoming an Honorary Professor.
For many years he has divided his time between philosophy and literary studies. His work in the former category includes Meaning and Structure (1972) and Form and Content (1973); and, in the latter, 'Tom Jones': The Novelist as Moral Philosopher (Text & Context) (1975) and Inconvenient Fictions (1991).

His most recent book, in collaboration with Patricia Hanna, is Word & World: Practice and the Foundations of Language (2004), focused on Wittgenstein's philosophy of language.

SELECTED Bibliography

Fox, C., & Harrison, B. (Eds.). (2023). Philosophy of Film Without Theory (1st ed. 2023 edition). Palgrave Macmillan. https://www.amazon.com/Philosophy-Without-Theory-Palgrave-Studies/dp/3031136535 Cite
Hanna, P., & Harrison, B. (2004). Word for Word: Practice and the Foundations of Language. Cambridge University Press. http://www.amazon.com/Word-World-Practice-Foundations-Language/dp/B006G81QI0 Cite
Harrison, B. (2014). What Is Fiction For? Cap. http://www.combinedacademic.co.uk/what-is-fiction-for Cite


Throughout his distinguished career, Bernard Harrison has maintained that dominant accounts of the relation of language to the world make it impossible to understand a great number of things: mind and perceptual experience, ethics and religion. His theme was that such accounts also make it impossible to understand why, and how, great literature should matter.

Professor Harrison argued that on the view of language as, essentially, an instrument for describing the nature of empirical reality, it becomes mysterious that writers of literary art should do anything other than let the world shine through their prose. On this view, just how the writer achieves such a feat of invisibility may be a matter of technical interest but it is one to which we should be aesthetically and morally indifferent. The main task of the author is to get out of the way. But on another dominant view of language - as an autonomous realm of always displacing meanings - it will be equally mysterious that we should be, as it seems we are, centrally interested, morally engaged and emotionally moved both by what an author reveals about the world in which we live and how that revelation is achieved.

According to Harrison, the two views, which purport to be rivals, have much more in common than their advocates ever concede. The problem with thinking that language stands in some dyadic relation to the world, mediated by correspondence between truth functional statements and facts, is that it assumes that our enlanguaged souls could have become so removed from reality as to be in need of that mysterious relation to connect them back to it. But this assumption, that what we say and take ourselves to mean might never connect with the world itself, is the same view held to be true and indeed worthy of celebration by les incontournables of post-modernism. Both the hair shirt Anglo-Empiricist and his louche continental cousins think it conceivable that we could as it were, be detached from the real. The only difference is that the former rides reference to our rescue, whilst the latter revels in the heroic isolation.

Harrison, following Wittgenstein, and building on work published with Patricia Hanna, argued that we are in need neither of describing nor proscribing that referential relation. Instead we are, ‘always already’ in the world through our active involvement in those activities and practices that come with the human territory and it is in and through these practices that language engages with reality. To misquote Cavell, asking how we get from language to the world is like asking how to get from Paris to France. If that is your question, you really are lost.

The great strength of Professor Harrison’s interpretation of Wittgenstein was the immediate implication for the question of how literature engages with the imagination and so why great literature should matter to us. Demonstrated in detail and with some marvellously vivid readings from Dickens’ Our Mutual Friend, Harrison showed that what great writers do is deploy their mastery of language in making manifest the practices and attitudes, the affective and conceptual worlds in which language moves and has its life. The art of literature, neither describes nor pretermits the real. Rather, by letting particularities of world, deed and character, speak through particularities of word, phrase and linguistic colour, literature is capable of expressing, not that things are, but how things are for us and it is through this that it gains its unique importance.

In the lively discussion, questions and comments soon found the way to the heart of the paper. One interlocutor worried that the speaker's account of fiction as a kind of sociological science was on the wrong side of Wittgenstein criticism of Frazer's account of 'primitive' rituals as a kind of natural science. Others worried that Harrison’s interpretation of the concept of a practice involved a conflation of Wittgenstein’s concepts of language game and form of life. The questions evolved into a worry about whether the proffered account of the triadic relation between word, world and practice gave sufficient attention to the natural in human life and whether the Fregean insistence on truth-conditionality, in the background of the speaker’s account, was ill-suited to his more strategic aims. Professor Harrison gave spirited chase to all these points until all sides were able to reach agreement that the discussion might best continue over a glass of wine. One can only think that Dickens would have been pleased at that.

About the Reporter

Ian Ground is Secretary of the BWS

See more BWS Lecture Series videos