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Niels Helsloot, 'Linguists of all countries ...!, On Gramsci's premise of coherence', in: Journal of Pragmatics 13, 1989, pp. 547-549.
Chapter 1.
© 1989, 2003 (posted with permission from Elsevier)



"(...) great importance is assumed by the general question of language, that is, the question of collectively attaining a single cultural 'climate'."
(Gramsci (1971: 349))

During the last few years, increasing attention has been paid to problems concerning the relationship between language and knowledge. Broadly speaking, there are two traditional ideas of this relationship: rationalism and empiricism. According to the first, language mirrors things and facts ('reality'), so that its foundational principles (including the basic psychological structures, and criteria for grammaticality and meaningfulness) can only be seen as objectively given. According to the second, everything that is known is [p. 548:] always perceived through subjective glasses. In fact, both positions presuppose the knowledge of privileged and undeniable essences to be directly accessible, the only disagreement being about the way these essences are known.
   In the course of time, it has become gradually clearer that there are no criteria to determine which is the correct position. The recognition of this impossibility of a final solution has led to an anti-essentialist critique of a common presupposition of both points of view (for example by Derrida and by Rorty [1]). Why should there be anything knowable beyond the things we do when we actually know? This way of doing away with the debate between objectivism and subjectivism tends to shift the field of philosophy to practical 'knowledge' apparent in human action, such as speech acts, language games, and discursive practices. The main effect of this trend is a shift from problems of knowledge and meaning to more concrete questions of practical existence.
   Most forerunners of this development, such as Friedrich Nietzsche, Ferdinand de Saussure, and Ludwig Wittgenstein, concentrate on a critique of the epistemological tradition. They share few or no ideas on how to proceed, having accepted the impossibility to obtain essential knowledge and meaning. While Nietzsche willingly submerges himself in the abundance of the ever-recurring unknown, Wittgenstein tries to cure the philosophical disease undermining our ordinary life (which can do without basic knowledge), and Saussure tries to put aside his doubts by taking the negatively given language sign as a positive fact of linguistic inquiry. All three, however, share at least one thing. The solutions they are looking for ask primarily for individual adaptations to the impossibility of fundamental knowledge. Sociality, change, and conflict tend to be absorbed within a system of empty self-evidences, which the individual cannot escape, because no criteria remain to separate sameness (identification) from difference.
   This argument implies that the sharp distinction between 'the system' and 'the individual' (similar to that between objectivity and subjectivity) does not, strictly speaking, make much sense. Yet, in contemporary philosophy, the absence of anything beyond the horizon of praxis usually leads to some pragmatistic attitude, often explicitly based on a 'co-operative principle' (cf. Grice (1975); Habermas (1981: 367-452)). One expects individuals to conform to rational communication, to liberal conversation, or to Western metaphysics [p. 549:] – however unfounded the latter may be. But such a presupposed, final unification of individual practices methodologically eliminates social struggle. Of course, one can conform to a co-operative principle, but such a principle is not a matter of apolitical knowledge. What is reckoned as 'co-operation' is itself established through social struggle. It is important, therefore, to supplement this side of the epistemological critique with an account of social struggle as something fundamental and ineluctable.
   Such an effort requires the assistance of another founding father, one who also for other reasons deserves to be saved from oblivion: the Italian Marxist thinker Antonio Gramsci. Gramsci's political activity, including his work in the Italian Communist Party of the 1920s prior to his imprisonment by Mussolini, demonstrates a supreme awareness of the social implications of his theorizing. However, he did not, as so many other Marxists, fall into the trap of declaring 'reality' (e.g. the reality of class struggle, or of the dominating forms and contents imposed by the language of the ruling classes) to be essentially, objectively or subjectively, given. Thus, while allowing for the inclusion of social relationships into the core of language, he does not feel obliged to interpret this interconnection deterministically. As Laclau says (e.g. 1983), the social can never be a given; it is not a fixed unity, but an effort to construct an impossible unity. Unity is something we only can strive for. Gramsci's work can help to avoid certain unpleasant aspects of linguistic as well as of Marxist tradition, such as the undivided attention they pay to united language communities and classes, while ignoring the disruptions by various social movements. From this point of view, it is not too important to decide whether Gramsci gives preference to the power of superstructures (ideology) or to that of the material base (the proletariat and its Party), or if he is, for example, a Neo-Hegelian or a Leninist. [2] All of this may be true, yet miss the point that both objectivity ('matter') and subjectivity ('ideas') have the character of signs that historically organize social relationships.

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p. 548   1.   Such post-structuralist and post-analytic philosophies resemble more than superficially Gramsci's philosophy (cf. Hall (1980), Laclau and Mouffe (1985), and introductory Macdonell (1986), who all pay more attention to Michel Foucault than to Derrida). Althusser (1971) is also of interest (cf. Mercer (1980); Hall et al. (1977)), because he gave the starting shot for the introduction of post-Saussureanism into Marxist thought. For the thoughts developed in this article, Derrida (esp. (1982: 307-330) on Austin, and (1977) on Searle) has been of greater importance, however, as he shows certain consequences of Saussurean thought in a more explicit way (cf. 1981: 15-36), just as Rorty (1980) explicitly shows some consequences of Wittgensteinian thought.
p. 5492.For more explicitly political attempts to solve this kind of discussions, see Buci-Glucksmann (1980) and Mouffe (1979).

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