Presenter: Professor Lars Hertzberg (Åbo Akademi University), Atkins Visiting Professor in Philosophy 2016

Wittgenstein in his “Lecture on Ethics” makes the claim that judgments of absolute value cannot be meaningfully made. However, it is hard to see how he wants to be understood, since he also asserts that, in a specific conversational context, an absolute judgment is the only reasonable response to a remark (“I know I behave badly, but then I do not want to behave any better”). I put forward the idea that (though Wittgenstein is not explicit on this) what should really be taken to rule out the making of absolute judgments is not language as such but a “restricted” view of what speaking is, which is widely shared in analytic philosophy: according to this view meaningful speech may either consist in asserting empirical facts or in issuing commands. This is a view which Wittgenstein criticizes in his later work. I argue that the restricted view of what speaking is results from too narrow an understanding of what goes on in human conversation. I give some examples of ordinary conversations which cannot be accounted for on the restricted view. In conclusion, I discuss two pieces of conversation from literature (one from Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle, the other from Hemingway’s short story “Hills like white elephants”) as examples of moral concerns may be voiced and countered in human interaction. What the examples suggest is that for a conversation to be expressive of moral concerns is not a matter of its making use of a specific moral vocabulary, but rather of the spirit in which it is carried out.


Forgan Smith Building (1),
St Lucia campus