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Philosophy of language
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Philosophy of language


Philosophy of language is the branch of philosophy that studies language. Its primary concerns include the nature of linguistic meaning, reference, language use, language learning, 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.

Table of contents
1 Overview
2 Major problems and sub-fields
3 Meaning
4 Natural language
5 Logic
6 History
7 Frege, Russell, and logic
8 The later Wittgenstein and ordinary language
9 The Vienna Circle and Quine
10 Davidson and Truth theories
11 Kripke and direct reference
12 Recent Work
13 Miscellaneous
14 Key issues
15 See also


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

Language, meaning, and truth are important not just because they are used daily with important effects; language has shaped our human development, from our earliest childhood and continuing to the present. Many contemporary philosophers hold that it is impossible to have any thoughts without having a language. Still more would agree that there are at least some thoughts that one cannot think without haveing a language. Since we often or always reason according to rules laid down by our language, then the language we speak has a great deal of influence on how we view and respond to the world. Accordingly it is 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 inseparable from how we think and live.

We each have a whole integrated set of concepts which we have associated with certain words lik e "object," "love," "good," "God," "masculine," "feminine," "art," "government," and so on. By learning the meanings of these words, each of us has shaped an entire view of the universe and our place in it. This is not to say that one's philosophy is only one's understanding of what important words mean; of course there's much more to it than that. But in arriving at 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 neginning in the late nineteenth century, especially in the English speaking world and parts of Europe, to the extent that for a time philosophy of language was virtually 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 codify certain common patterns of reasoning: For example, the argument "Socrates is a man. All men are mortal. Therefore Socrates is mortal" 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. All B are C. Therefore all A are C." Frege (simultaneously with Boole and and Charles Sanders Peirce) advanced logic significantly by showing how 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 the development of set theory. Frege used his new logic to further develop the foundations of arithmetic. He undertook to answer the question, "what is a number?" or "what objects do number-words ("one", "two", etc.) refer to?" In pursuing this he was led to analyse the idea of meaning, and saw that it could had to 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 collection of 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 an individual; the meaning of a proper name is a description that picks out that person (Russell thought something similar, although since the work of Saul Kripke almost no one holds this view now. Some, such as 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 formal language with which the truth of all mathematical statements could be demonstrated from first principles. Russell differed from Frege greatly on many points, however. He rejected Frege's sense-reference distinction (though this is perhaps an accident of how Russell viewed language, and many scholars think he misunderstood Frege more than he disagreed with him.) He disagreed that language was of fundamental significance to philosophy, and saw the project of developing formal logic as a way of eliminating all of the confusions caused by ordinary language, and hence at creating a perfectly transparent medium in which to conduct traditional 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 in response to what they perceived as the nonsense dominating British philosophy departments at the trun 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 Sense Philosophy")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". Moore's work would have significant if oblique influece (largely mediated by Wittgenstein) on Ordinary language philosophy (see below.)

The later Wittgenstein and ordinary language

In 1929 Wittgenstein returned to Cambridge from Vienna, having concluded (with some persuasion from Frank Ramsey) that the Tractatus was not the end of philosophy, and indeed that it had serious problems. For the next twenty years he 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 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.

The Vienna Circle and Quine

Davidson and Truth theories

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 translating natural languages into first-order predicate calculus in order to reduce meaning to a function of truth.

Recent Work


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

Key issues

See also

connotation and denotation (intension and extension) -- definite description -- epistemology -- logic -- meaning -- proper names -- sense and reference -- truth