Linguistic botany is a metaphor, no doubt, but one that J. L. Austin
favoured, and Grice took SERIOUSLY.
The idea is that the philosopher, as he is engaged in conceptual analysis,
has to start with 'the many' and proceed to 'the wise', and 'the many'
speak 'ordinary language'.
Thus, J. L. Austin advised we start with
'linguistic botanising'. In Austin and Grice are following Epicurus in his letter to
The letter starts transparently enough:
'Ἐπίκουρος Ἡροδότῳ χαίρειν.
Πρῶτον μὲν οὖν
τὰ ὑποτεταγμένα τοῖς φθόγγοις, ὦ Ἡρόδοτε, δεῖ εἰληφέναι, ὅπως ἂν τὰ
δοξαζόμενα ἢ ζητούμενα ἢ ἀπορούμενα ἔχωμεν εἰς ταῦτα ἀναγαγόντες
ἐπικρίνειν, καὶ μὴ ἄκριτα πάντα ἡμῖν ᾖ εἰς ἄπειρον ἀποδεικνύουσιν ἢ
κενοὺς φθόγγους ἔχωμεν. ἀνάγκη γὰρ τὸ πρῶτον ἐννόημα καθ' ἕκαστον
φθόγγον βλέπεσθαι καὶ μηθὲν ἀποδείξεως προσδεῖσθαι, εἴπερ ἕξομεν τὸ
ἢ ἀπορούμενον καὶ δοξαζόμενον ἐφ' ὃ ἀνάξομεν.
A loose translation should go:
the first place, Herodotus,"
"you must understand WHAT IT IS that words
denote, in order that, by reference to this, we may be in a position to test
opinions, inquiries, or problems."
"So that our proofs may not run on untested
ad infinitum, nor the terms we use be EMPTY of meaning."
"For the PRIMARY SIGNIFICATION of EVERY term employed must be clearly seen, and ought
to need NO PROVING."
"This being necessary, if we are to have something to
which the point at issue or the problem or the opinion before us can be
Epicurus goes on:
"There is another thing, Herodotus, which we must consider carefully."
"We must not investigate, say, time in an odd way."
"We must take into account the plain fact itself, in virtue of which WE SPEAK OF TIME as long or short, linking to it in intimate connection this attribute of duration."
"We SHOULD NOT adopt any FRESH, rather than the simple terms of ordinary language as preferable."
"We should always employ the usual expressions about stuff." "And by 'usual' I mean "ordinary"".
"Nor need we predicate anything else of time, as if this something else contained the same essence as is contained in the proper meaning of the word “time” (for this also is done by some)."
"For we should not deviate from ordinary language as expressed in ordinary usage."
"We must chiefly reflect upon that to which we attach this peculiar character of time, and by which we measure it. No further proof is required: we have only to reflect that we attach the attribute of time to days and nights and their parts, and likewise to feelings of pleasure and pain and to neutral states, to states of movement and states of rest, conceiving a peculiar accident of these to be this very characteristic which we express by the word “time.”"
Epicurus's parents, Neocles and Chaerestrate, were both
Athenian-born, and his father a citizen, had emigrated to the Athenian
settlement on the Aegean island of Samos about ten years before Epicurus's
birth in February 341 BC.As a boy, he studied philosophy for four years
under the Platonist teacher Pamphilus.
So we can see Epicurus as a
member of the Athenian dialectic that Grice contrasted to the Oxonian
dialectic, and let us be reminded that when H. L. A. Hart felt like sending
a thank-you note to Morty White in Harvard, and referring to the
forthcoming William James lecturer at Harvard, Grice, Hart
as a 'marvellous dialectician, far better than anyone of us here' -- and he
was writing from Oxford!