Peg O'Connor
Oppression and responsibility: A Wittgensteinian approach to social practices and moral theory.
Reviewed by Wendy Lynne Lee, 2004

Peg O’Connor’s aims in Oppression and Responsibility are Wittgensteinian both in spirit and in content. Applying key insights from Wittgenstein’s later work to thorny social and moral issues such as the relationship between racism and recent church burnings or the meaning of hate speech, she argues in the spirit of Wittgenstein’s own experimental approach to the contextuality of language use. O’Connor’s mission, as I understand it, is to show how a Wittgensteinian approach to the analysis of these and other issues can help us to articulate a more meaningful and realistic vision of social justice. As O’Connor points out in her preface, however, hers is not simply an endorsement of any specific interpretation of Wittgenstein, but rather a highly creative adaptation of some core ideas to race, sex, and class. Indeed, O’Connor parts company with Wittgenstein in at least one important way, namely, the goals of philosophy. Here, she is more Marxist than Wittgensteinian. “Whereas Wittgenstein,” O’Connor writes, “simply wants to describe the terrain of a background, I want to prescribe some of it” (18-19). In what, then, is more like an ensemble of independently evaluable essays than like a single developing argument divided into chapters, O’Connor draws our attention to the familiarities of racism, sexism, and classism but, in Wittgensteinian spirit, she also makes them strange.

Among O’Connor’s most significant Wittgensteinian adaptations is her use of the concept of the “background.” Perhaps more than any other, this concept connects and thematizes the volume as a whole. In her opening essay, “The Necessity of Practices and Backgrounds” O’Connor writes that for Wittgenstein “attending to the background is necessary because it enables us to understand the conditions for the intelligibility and the meaning of our actions” (6). She wants to go further, however, and argue that “attending to the background is necessary because many aspects of the background are anything but harmless and trivial; failing to challenge them means leaving the framework of oppressive systems intact” (6). Following Theodore Schatzki and Naomi Scheman, O’Connor argues that a central feature of any background are its social practices. As “sites of human sociality” and “the media in which human lives interrelate,” “practices create a web of understanding and intelligibility that establishes both meanings and possibilities” (11). Moreover, because social practices instantiate the conditions for both individual and collective identity (13), they provide the grounds for potentially revolutionary political action. That is, because the background is substantially a human construction, it is never beyond the hope of revision or even radical transformation.

An example of the kind of analysis O’Connor has in mind occurs in chapter two, but particularly in chapter three’s discussion of racially motivated church burnings. Here O’Connor adroitly demonstrates how paying attention to the backgrounds, including the social practices and language games, of the burning of a number of black Churches reveals a racism that cannot be contained by the simplistic logic of single actions like “I burned down the church because I hate black people” (45). Rather, argues O’Connor, we must “connect the dots,” that is, we must attend to a background that includes a wide battery of historical and cultural factors that form a pattern within which church burnings can be seen not merely as a series of isolable events motivated by the exceptional bigot, but as the outcome of invisible but nonetheless institutionalized practices whose social “grammar” is racist (51). As O’Connor rightly points out, racism is not an isolable social practice that can be expunged from the background without altering other practices, but rather forms a constitutive feature of the context within which identities and actions are made possible.

Similarly, in chapter four’s discussion of hate or assaultive speech (and despite defenses offered by some free speech activists), O’Connor argues that hatred in mischaracterized as the property of individuals; thus, like church burnings, hate speech is not adequately understood in terms of the actions of the sole bigot, but requires an analysis of the backgrounds which give rise, and to the consequences that follow from, this language use. A Wittgensteinian approach, argues O’Connor, “requires that we attend to what people are doing when they make utterances and to the point or role utterances play in the lives of people who are making them and listening to them” (73). We cannot hope to satisfactorily evaluate the meaning of assaultive speech outside of understanding the ways and purposes for which it is used.

At one level, the response that O’Connor’s argument solicits from me is “of course; this makes good common sense.” However, like much of common sense, it does raise some questions. One implication that follows, for example, is that, contrary to its defense from free speech activists, incidents of hate speech cannot be evaluated (and hence assigned blame, prosecuted under relevant statutes, and so on) solely in terms of the intent of their purported agents or even in terms of the specific content of the speech, but rather demand a fuller account of their contexts, including the culture and history relevant to that particular use of language. The difficulty with this approach is that it seems to imply that in some real sense we are all responsible for incidents of assaultive speech; but if we all are responsible, then no one is. O’Connor confronts this criticism directly arguing that whatever its deterministic or fatalistic appearance, the prospect that we do in fact share collective responsibility for racist and sexist attitudes does not necessarily mean that we ought to reconsider the value of free speech rights. However, it also does not mean that, in light of the relationship between speech and action, we ought to regard such rights as absolute.

Like much of Wittgenstein’s, O’Connor’s work left me unsatisfied. But this is not because it fails to accomplish its mission. To the contrary, it is because she opens a number of doors toward more acute analyses of the background of human actions, particularly as it connects to language use. Indeed, O’Connor’s take on the notion that the meaning of a word is its use gains new relevance toward making sense of oppressive practices and institutions precisely because it raises important questions about the meaning not only of free speech, but of censorship and a host of related issues. Much more can be said of her response to her critics than I have space for here, and I am not wholly convinced that O’Connor puts her critics to bed. But it is her willingness to tackle these criticisms directly, offering her reader the opportunity to grapple with her ideas, that I appreciate the most and regard as the best of Wittgenstein’s own legacy. Moreover, if O’Connor is right, and blame for church burnings and hate speech attaches not only to individuals but to societies, the implications for the ways we currently understand responsibility for the multifaceted language games we play are weighty.

Wendy Lynne Lee is a full professor of philosophy at Bloomsburg University. Her areas of specialization include feminist theory, philosophy of language, philosophy of mind, and philosophy of ecology.  She is especially concerned to articulate the fraught intersections among and between these very different discourses.  She teaches Feminist Philosophy (28.308), and is faculty advisor to Phi Sigma Tau, the national philosophy honor society.

In what, then, is more like an ensemble of independently evaluable essays than like a single developing argument divided into chapters, O’Connor draws our attention to the familiarities of racism, sexism, and classism but, in Wittgensteinian spirit, she also makes them strange.