I recently had occasion to review Wittgenstein and the Creativity of Language, a collection of essays edited by Sebastian Sunday Grève and Jakub Macha. (Philosophy 92 (2017), 647-650.) The collection contains a number of interesting contributions, beside a few that I thought needlessly inaccessible. However, the task started a question germinating, which did not seem to be addressed directly in the book.
What exactly is meant by the idea that language is creative? It might be natural to suppose that creativity is somehow central to the way we use language: in using language and in responding to its use we are being creative.
Being creative in one’s use of words - one is inclined to think - is using them in new ways. And responding creatively is responding to new uses. And so the idea is that in speaking we are constantly creating and responding to new uses of words. But here’s the catch: what is ”a new way of using a word”? When is the use the same as before and when is it different from before?
One of the central points to which Wittgenstein drew attention in Philosophical Investigations is that what will count as ”the same” something or other in any given case is dependent on the framework of comparison that is relevant to the context at hand. When it comes to comparing physical objects, for instance, two objects may be ”the same” or ”not the same” with respect to colour, size, shape, weight, material, country of origin, price, etc. (And where comparing colours is concerned, in turn, the accepted degree of variation is dependent on the purpose of the comparison. And so forth.)
The same goes for cases of speaking and responding.
When it is said that language allows for ”using words in a new way”, however, it is left open what the relevant framework of comparison might be. Any two situations of speaking can be considered ”the same” from some point of view and ”not the same” from another point of view. So saying that in speaking we may often or sometimes use words in new ways is really not saying anything at all.
This is not to deny that people may use language in creative ways. We may be struck by a deep or witty comparison, an illuminating metaphor, etc., as by Benjamin Franklin’s aphorism: ”A good conscience is a continual Christmas”, or by Churchill’s characterization of Clement Attlee as ”a sheep in sheep’s clothing”, or by someone who says that ”Trump appeals to the American Id”. To call such sayings creative is not to register an absolute difference between this and other uses of these words, but simply to express one’s reaction to the use. And people may be differently struck by different uses.