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Philosophy of language

(philosophylanguage,philosophy language)

Philosophy of language is the branch of philosophy thatstudies language . Its primary concerns include the nature of linguistic meaning , reference , language use, languagelearning, and language understanding, truth , thought (to the extent that it is linguistic), communication , interpretation , and translation . In its modern form it derives from the work of Gottlob Frege , and makes extensive use of modern logic and linguistics .


1 Major problems and sub-fields

2 History

3 Key issues
4 See also


We might ask, "what is a meaning?" Philosophers of language are in general less concerned with what individual words orsentences mean than with what it is for an expression to mean something, in virtue of what facts expressions have the meaningsthey do, which expressions have the same meanings as which others, and how these meanings can be known. (The exceptions, ofcourse, are expressions about language, or words otherwise of philosophical significance). So a better question might be, "whatdoes the word meaning mean?" In a similar vein, (and with similar caveats), philosophers are less concerned with whichsentences are true than with what kinds of things can be true or false ( sentences , presumably, but all sentences, or only meaningful ones?)

Language, meaning, and truth are important not just because they are used daily with important effects; language has shapedour human development, from our earliest childhood and continuing to the present. Many contemporary philosophers hold that it isimpossible to have any thoughts without having a language. Still more would agree that there are at least some thoughts that onecannot think without having a language. Since we often or always reason according to rules laid down by our language, then thelanguage we speak has a great deal of influence on how we view and respond to the world. Accordingly it is not by accident thatphilosophical discussions often begin by clarifying terminology, drawing distinctions between different senses of words, and soforth. The philosophy of language is important because language is important, and language is important because it is inseparablefrom how we think and live.

We each have a whole integrated set of concepts which we have associated with certain words like "object," " love ," "good," " God ," "masculine," "feminine," " art ," "government," and so on. By learning the meanings of these words, each of us has shaped anentire view of the universe and our place in it. This is not to say that one'sphilosophy is only one's understanding of what important words mean; of course there's much more to it than that. But in arrivingat a present philosophical outlook, questions about meaning play a central, extremely important role.

Major problems and sub-fields


Natural language



Though philosophers had always discussed language, it took on a central role in philosophy beginning in the late nineteenthcentury, especially in the English speaking world and parts of Europe, to the extent that for a time philosophy of language wasvirtually synonymous with analytic philosophy .

Frege, Russell, and logic

The turn to language is tied closely to the development of modern logic, which began with the work of the German logician Frege in the late nineteenth century. Logicians had known since Aristotle how to codifycertain common patterns of reasoning: For example, the argument "Socrates is a man. All men are mortal. Therefore Socrates ismortal" is called a syllogism in Barbara . This is a valid syllogism, meaning that if its premises are true its conclusion must also be true. It can be represented thus: "All A are B. AllB are C. Therefore all A are C." Frege (simultaneously with Boole and Charles Sanders Peirce ) advanced logic significantly by showinghow to codify inferences using Sentential connectives , like and , or and if-then , and quantifiers like all and some . Much of this work was made possible by thedevelopment of set theory . Frege used his new logic to further develop thefoundations of arithmetic . He undertook to answer the question, "what is anumber?" or "what objects do number-words ("one", "two", etc.) refer to?" In pursuing this he was led to analyse the idea ofmeaning, and saw that it could be explained as consisting of two elements.

Hence the sense (or intension) of a concept is what it attributes to an object; the reference (or extension) is the collectionof objects that fall under the concept. The sense of a sentence is a proposition, or state of affairs; the reference is(confusingly, and still disputedly, but for good reasons) a truth value: "true" or "false." The referent of a proper name is anindividual; the meaning of a proper name is a description that picks out that person (Russell thought something similar, althoughsince the work of Saul Kripke almost no one holds this view now. Some, suchas Gareth Evans , have argued that even Frege did not hold it).

Logic was further advanced by Bertrand Russell and Alfred North Whitehead in their groundbreaking Principia Mathematica , which attempted to produce a formallanguage with which the truth of all mathematical statements could be demonstrated from first principles. Russell differed fromFrege greatly on many points, however. He rejected Frege's sense-reference distinction (though this is perhaps an accident of howRussell viewed language, and many scholars think he misunderstood Frege more than he disagreed with him.) He disagreed thatlanguage was of fundamental significance to philosophy, and saw the project of developing formal logic as a way of eliminatingall of the confusions caused by ordinary language, and hence at creating a perfectly transparent medium in which to conducttraditional philosophical argument. He hoped, ultimately, to extend the proofs of the Principia to all possible true statements, a scheme he called logical atomism . For a while it appeared that his pupil Wittgenstein had succeeded in this plan with his " Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus ".

Russell's work, and that of his colleague G. E. Moore , developed inresponse to what they perceived as the nonsense dominating British philosophy departments at the turn of the century, a kind of British Idealism most of which was derived (albeit very distantly) from the work of Hegel . In response Moore developed an approach (" Common SensePhilosophy ") which sought to examine philosophical difficulties by a close analysis of the language used in order todetermine its meaning. In this way Moore sought to expunge philosophical absurdities such as "time is unreal". Moore's work wouldhave significant, if oblique, influence (largely mediated by Wittgenstein )on Ordinary language philosophy (seebelow.)

The later Wittgenstein and ordinary language

In 1929 Wittgenstein returned to Cambridge from Vienna , having concluded (with some persuasion from FrankRamsey ) that the Tractatus was not the end of philosophy, and indeed that it had serious problems. For the next twenty yearshe worked prodigiously, but as none of his work was published until his death much of his early influece was on his students.

This close examination of natural language is a powerfulphilosophical technique. Other practitioners have include J. L. Austin , P. F. Strawson , JohnSearle , R. M. Hare and R. S. Peters . Wittgenstein himselfreturned to philosophy after becoming aware that there was much more to natural languages than he had summarised in his TractatusLogico-Philosophicus. The result, " Philosophical Investigations ", confirmed the central place of natural languages in thephilosophy of language.

The Vienna Circle and Quine

Davidson and Truth theories

Perhaps the most influential current approach to the theory of meaning is that sketched by Donald Davidson in his introduction to thecollection of essays Truth and Meaning in 1967. There he argued for the following two theses:

  • Any learnable language must be statable in a finite form, even if it is capable of a theoretically infinite number ofexpressions--as we may assume that natural human languages are, at least in principle. If it could not be stated in a finite waythan it could not be learned through a finite, empirical method such as the way humans learn their languages. It follows that itmust be possible to give a theoretical semantics for any natural language which could give the meanings of an infinite number ofsentences on the basis of a finite system of axioms.
  • "Giving the meaning of a sentence", he further argued, was equivalent to stating its truth conditions. He proposed that itmust be possible to account for language as a set of distinct grammatical features together with a lexicon, and for each of themexplain its workings in such a way as to generate trivial (obviously correct) statements of the truth conditions of all the(infinitely many) sentences built up from these.

The result is a theory of meaning that rather resembles, by no accident, the account of the semantics of logic given by AlfredTarski 's semantic theory of truth : it consistsof a recursive set of rules yielding an infinite set of sentences "'p' is true if and only if p", covering the whole language.Davidson's account, though brief, constitutes the first systematic presentation of truth-conditional semantics .

Kripke and direct reference

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 translatingnatural languages into first-orderpredicate calculus in order to reduce meaning to a function of truth.

Dummett, logical harmony, and inferential role semantics

Michael Dummett argued against the kind of truth-conditional semantics presented by Davidson;instead he argued that basing semantics on assertion conditions avoids a number of difficulties with truth-conditional semantics,such as the transcendental nature of certain kinds of truth condition. He leverages work done in proof-theoretic semantics to provide a kind of inferential role semantics , where:

  • The meaning of sentences and grammatical constructs is given by their assertion conditions; and
  • Such a semantics is only guaranteed to be coherent if the inferences associated with the parts of language are in logical harmony .

A semantics based upon assertion conditions is called a verificationist semantics: cf. the verificationism of the Vienna Circle.

Recent Work


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

Key issues

  • Meaning and speech acts
  • Sense and reference
  • Meaning and intentionality
  • Meaning and truth

See also

connotation and denotation ( intension and extension ) -- definitedescription -- epistemology -- logic and semantics of logic -- meaning -- proper names -- sense and reference -- truth

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