Philosophy of language

The philosophy of language doesn't ask what particular words mean, or whether particular sentences are true. (Except of course for words and sentences about the language.) Rather, it asks what meaning in general is. What is the meanings of the word "meaning"? How do we to understand this concept?

Maybe, on first glance, the philosophy of language doesn't look so interesting. Talk about the meaning of words sounds like dry boring stuff -- grammar and dictionaries. But remember, grammar books and dictionaries only codify how we use language. Codification might indeed be boring. But language itself is extremely important and of daily interest to us all.

Language, meaning, and truth are important not just because they are used daily with important effects; language has shaped your development, from your earliest childhood and continuing to the present. You have a whole integrated set of concepts which you have associated with certain words -- words like "object," "love," "good," "God," "masculine," "feminine," "art," "government," and so on. Some philosophers have even thought that it is impossible to have thoughts without having learned a language. By learning the meanings of these words, you have shaped an entire view of the universe and your place in it. This is not to say that your philosophy is only or just your understanding of what important words mean; of course there's much more to it than that. But in arriving at your present philosophical outlook, questions about meaning play a central, extremely important role. Accordingly it's not by accident that philosophical discussions often begin by clarifying terminology, drawing distinctions between different senses of words, and so forth. The philosophy of language is important because language is important, and language is important because it is so useful in our relationships and in our development and education.

Language became so central to western, and especially English-speaking philosophical discussions during the 20th Century that philosophy of language became virtually synonymous with the main school, analytic philosophy. This trend began with a reaction against the idealism of Hegel and Nietzsche. In Principia Mathematica Bertrand Russell and Alfred North Whitehead attempted to produce a formal language with which the truth of all mathematical statements could be demonstrated from first principles. Russell desired to extend this to all possible true statements, a scheme he called "logical atomism". For a while it appeared that Wittgenstein had succeeded in this plan with his "Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus".

At the same time G. E. Moore was developing an approach which sought to examine philosophical difficulties by a close analyse of the language used in order to determine its meaning. In this way Moore sought to expunge philosophical absurdities such as "time is unreal".

This close examination of natural language is a powerful philosophical technique. Other practitioners have include J. L. Austin, P. F. Strawson, John Searle, R. M. Hare and R. S. Peters. Wittgenstein himself returned to philosophy after becoming aware that there was much more to natural languages than he has summarised in his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. The result, "Philosophical Investigations", confirmed the central place of natural languages in the philosophy of language.

However there is still much that can be done by using formal logic to show how natural languages might work. Saul Kripke's analysis of reference is a case in point. Donald Davidson proposed simply translating natural languages into first-order predicate calculus in order to reduce "meaning" to a function of "truth".

In 1950s, an artificial language loglan were invented that is based on first order predicate logic.


Parts of this article are derived from Larrys Text.

See also The meaning of meaning; proper names; meaning; naive relativism about truth; and truth.




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